An Unreleased Indie Game Took Over Twitch, But It Didn't Come Out Of Nowhere

Illustration for article titled An Unreleased Indie Game Took Over Twitch, But It Didnt Come Out Of Nowhere
Image: Chance “Sodapoppin” Morris / Twitch

You might have had a good weekend—maybe played a video game and then moved to a different part of your home and played another game, because that’s quarantine, baby—but you probably didn’t have as good of a weekend as the developers of Fall Guys. The battle royale party game, which isn’t even out yet, shot to the top of the charts on Twitch and Steam. This didn’t come completely out of nowhere, however. Like so many other Twitch success stories these days, it staged its takeover of the platform through marketing that took advantage of Twitch’s specific structure.

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Fall Guys is a 60-player, physics-based minigame collection coming to PC and PS4 on August 4. On Friday evening it briefly became the most-watched game on Twitch with over 200,000 concurrent viewers, and it came close to repeating that feat on Saturday. On Steam, it became the sixth best-selling game despite not actually being out yet. In isolation, you might have figured that the game was the next big thing, that its intrinsic merits—as both a game and a viewing experience—were so undeniable that everybody jumped aboard the bandwagon the second they could. But these days, publishers have become particularly savvy at using Twitch to create this impression, even when it’s far too early to tell if a game is going to be more than a flash in the pan.

The basis of Fall Guys’ marketing strategy is one that an increasing number of video game publishers have caught onto: Give beta keys to top streamers not just for the purpose of playing, but also to give away. This, in effect, turns Twitch into a giveaway hub, which means viewers who want keys—or even people who don’t normally watch Twitch—flood streamers’ channels hoping to swipe sweet, sweet drops. Fall Guys, which doesn’t have the money of, say, Valorant, behind it, wasn’t hooked directly into Twitch’s drops system, with streamers instead giving out keys as they pleased. Nevertheless, it played into that expectation, with some viewers even spamming non-existent chat commands like “!key” in hopes of getting one. It managed to game the system much like triple-A games have, but with less of a budget.

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Not long after a weekend-long playtest kicked off on Friday, top streamers like Saqib “Lirik” Zahid, Félix “xQc” Lengyel, Matthew “Mizkif” Rinaudo, and Chance “Sodapoppin” Morris fired up their streams, and viewers showed up in droves. Developer Mediatonic and publisher Devolver took every opportunity to encourage streamers to request keys, so heaps of smaller streamers also got in on the action. On top of that, the messaging surrounding all of this was clear: The beta was time-limited, so aspiring players needed to snag keys from streamers asap. Over the course of the next handful of hours, the game became a Twitch phenomenon.

These sorts of tactics work on Twitch because the platform, unlike many of its competitors, remains nakedly numbers-driven. While YouTube and Facebook rely heavily on algorithms to surface content, Twitch uses a series of game directories organized by either a simple recommendation system or concurrent viewers, depending on which option users choose. Until recently, however, Twitch was almost entirely driven by the latter system, and streamers are still, as a rule, much, much more likely to be seen if they’re near the top of a directory. This means that success begets success. If somebody clicks on a game out of curiosity, they’re going to see the top few streamers in it first and, in all likelihood, click on one of their channels instead of some rando with only a small handful of viewers whose channel is functionally buried.

The same goes for game directories. The top handful of games, based on viewer count, are extremely visible on Twitch’s “Browse” page. The fewer viewers a game has overall, the more it’s buried. All of this makes for a system with little room for upward mobility—not a great thing for smaller streamers or games—unless you’re willing to game the system, strike up sponsorship deals with popular streamers, or some combination of the two. This does not always work for developers and publishers, but on Twitch, it is possible for the stars to align in a way that they simply cannot on more algorithm-driven platforms. Game makers can’t bet everything on algorithms; they’re too unreliable. By comparison, a central browse page that a huge chunk of users on a gargantuan platform regularly visit is a godsend. If you can propel a game to the top, even briefly, it gets an enormous visibility boost—one that can, for example, turn a game’s preorder page into a Steam top seller.

This wasn’t Fall Guys’ first beta. Mediatonic and Devolver had spent previous weeks building buzz through a series of closed beta playtests. This, though, was a significant widening of the floodgates, one that capitalized on everything that had come before.

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That’s not to say that Fall Guys’ meteoric rise was solely the result of brute marketing force. It definitely has a serious case of “right game at the right time” syndrome going for it. Battle royale fatigue is real, and streamers and viewers alike are looking for a game that does something legitimately—but still watchably—different with the last-person-standing format. Fall Guys makes it literal with a collection of minigames that center around not falling down. It takes influence not from standard battle royale touchstones or other action games, but instead draws on Mario Party and cult-classic game shows like Takeshi’s Castle, giving it nostalgic appeal even as it tries something new.

Basically, there’s a reason Mediatonic and Devolver seem to like its chances so much. It’s a clever, fun-looking game, and it’s encouraging to see a smaller game occupy the same Twitch real estate as heavy hitters like League of Legends, Fortnite, and Call of Duty, if only briefly. That said, as with any partially-manufactured Twitch phenomenon, the question now is whether Fall Guys will actually have staying power once this period of relative scarcity is over. Will it be a game everybody tunes into even when there aren’t beta keys on the line? Or will it suffer a precipitous dropoff akin to Valorant, which was heralded as Twitch’s next big thing during its key-dropping beta phase, only to pull in significantly less impressive numbers after launch? With Twitch’s top-20 as calcified as it is—most days, the same handful of top games dominate, while others fall to the wayside or fail to rise at all—it will be interesting to see if anything as mold-breaking as Fall Guys can make a long-term dent.

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Kotaku senior reporter. Beats: Twitch, streaming, PC gaming. Writing a book about streamers tentatively titled "STREAMERS" to be published by Atria/Simon & Schuster in the future.

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DISCUSSION

This stuff happens daily, and has been happening for years.  I’m not totally sure why this is news...?  Not being critical, I am literally just not sure