Undertale, a 2015 indie RPG, or Role Playing Game, developed by a single person, Toby Fox, who somehow created a multi-million dollar grossing video game that had virtually no marketing budget behind it.
Can it be considered Miraculous? Definitely, but if we examine the development of the game, I believe there are lessons every game developer can take away. In this article we will discuss what we thing can be the top lessons learned from the game.
Undertale Disrupting RPG Combat Mechanics
Undertale disrupted player expectations by subverting common RPG combat mechanics. Instead of grinding and killing enemies for experience like in most RPGs, the videogame encourages and rewards pacifist playthroughs. Even when the player does kill enemies, the game remembers these choices and alters the story and endings accordingly. This created a morality system unseen in most RPGs.
1. Permanent Consequences of Clever Save Mechanics
The game also disrupts traditional save mechanics in clever ways. In most RPGs, players can freely load old saves or delete save files to reverse their choices without consequence. But in the game, even if the player loads an earlier save or completely deletes their save file, the game still remembers their previous actions.
For example, if the player kills an important NPC, they can’t simply reload a save or reset the game to bring them back to life. The decision is permanent. This creates a feeling of accountability for player choices not seen in most RPGs.
This permanence of consequence immerses players more deeply in the game’s story and morality system. Choices carry real weight because players can’t just reload and erase their missteps. It also makes each playthrough more unique and impactful.
By subverting the “save-scumming” techniques players rely on in most RPGs, the game makes choices feel more meaningful. Players have to live with the consequences of their actions on each playthrough. This reinforces the game’s themes of morality and lends weight to its multiple endings.
In short, Undertale’s clever subversion of save mechanics creates a strong sense of permanence and accountability for player choices. This immerses players deeply in the story, makes each playthrough more impactful, and ultimately disrupts a common crutch of the RPG genre.
2. Excellent Execution Across All Aspects
On top of its innovative mechanics, Undertale delivers excellence across all aspects of the game including art, music, writing, humor, and polish. This complete package combines to create a memorable game worth replaying multiple times.
Pixel Art Sets the Tone
The game pixelated retro art style is full of charm and complements the game’s emotional story. The simple but expressive sprites for each character allow players to imprint their own feelings onto them. This makes the story more immersive and enhances the emotional impact as you get to know each character.
Music Evokes Emotion
The soundtrack by composer Toby Fox is a masterclass in video game music. Each track perfectly matches the tone and pacing of gameplay while evoking strong emotion. Songs like “Hopes and Dreams” and “His Theme” have become iconic, showing how impactful Undertale’s music is.
Humor Mixed With Moments of Poignancy
Undertale’s writing balances quirky humor with poignant drama. Goofy skeletons, annoyed fish warriors, and anthropomorphic robots exist alongside melancholic story arcs exploring morality and consequence. This tonal range keeps players on their toes while becoming invested in the world and characters.
Meticulous Polish Brings It All Together
With so many games today releasing in an unfinished or buggy state, Undertale stands out for its meticulous polish. Every aspect feels carefully crafted to create a cohesive experience greater than the sum of its parts. This polish makes the game feel like a complete passion project.
Undertale succeeds as a compelling and immersive experience, showcasing remarkable art, music, writing, humor, and polish. Its excellence extends beyond its mechanical innovations, making it a complete package. But combined with the disruptive gameplay, these complementary elements cement Undertale as a true indie masterpiece.
3. Kickstarter Campaign Built a Core Community
Critical to Undertale’s success was Toby Fox’s Kickstarter crowdfunding campaign. Seeking only $5,000 to fund development, the campaign raised over $50,000 from nearly 2,500 backers. This accomplished two crucial things:
Provided Funding to Complete the Game
First, it provided the funding needed to allow Toby to complete development of the game. Without the influx of crowdfunded capital, Undertale may have never been finished or reached its full potential.
Created a Core Community of Passionate Fans
Second, it built a core community of passionate fans who were invested in the game’s development early on. This group of 2,500 backers got regular updates from Toby during development and were the first to play the game.
By involving this community throughout the process, Toby created a group of vocal advocates who understood Undertale’s mission. This core fanbase was critical for word-of-mouth marketing.
Organic Word-of-Mouth Marketing
After launch, this Kickstarter community spread awareness of Undertale through organic word-of-mouth marketing. Their sheer passion for the game that they helped back catapulted its viral popularity.
Undertale lacked a marketing budget, but through exceeding the expectations of his most passionate fans, Toby Fox created evangelists who voluntarily marketed the game. Backers told friends, posted enthusiastically on social media, and spread Undertale through grassroots channels.
This community-driven promotion was instrumental to the game’s breakout success. Without a traditional marketing campaign, Undertale relied on its core fans to organically share why they loved it. Thanks to a deliberate community-building strategy, Toby ensured this critical advocacy was in place leading up to and beyond launch.
What was Undertale Budget and how much money did Undertale make?
Undertale had an tiny budget, which is part of what makes its success so impressive.
The total budget for developing Undertale was around $50,000 USD. This funded everything including the art, programming, music, marketing, etc.
The breakdown is:
- $5,000 from Toby Fox’s original Kickstarter campaign
- An additional $45,000 was raised from a crowdfunding campaign on Kickstarter after the initial funding goal was surpassed.
So the entire budget came from crowdfunded sources. Toby Fox did not put any of his own money into financing the game’s development.
Given how high quality and popular Undertale ended up being, $50,000 is an incredibly small amount of money to create and launch a hit game. It really speaks to Toby’s efficient use of resources and his ability to do most of the work himself.
For comparison, most indie games have budgets in the hundreds of thousands or even millions. Big studio AAA games often have budgets upwards of $50 million or more.
So Undertale achieved massive success and critical acclaim on a shoestring budget smaller than most indie games. This was only possible because of Toby’s unique talents and vision. The game went on to generate over $10 million in revenue, an incredible return on that initial $50k investment.
when did undertale get popular?
Here’s a timeline of when Undertale gained popularity:
- May 2013 – Toby Fox launches a Kickstarter campaign to fund Undertale’s development. It quickly exceeds the $5,000 goal and raises over $50,000 total. This builds initial hype and a core fanbase.
- September 15, 2015 – After over 2 years of development, Undertale officially launches on PC. Positive reception spreads among the Kickstarter backers and indie game fans.
- September – October 2015 – Word-of-mouth praise for Undertale starts growing rapidly, especially on sites like Reddit, Tumblr and YouTube. Fan art and memes based on the game explode in popularity.
- October 2015 – Several highly influential YouTube and Twitch streamers play Undertale on channels with millions of subscribers. This exposes the game to huge new audiences.
- November 2015 – Undertale tops Steam charts and stays highly ranked for months. It becomes the #1 rated PC game of 2015 on Metacritic. The game sells over 100,000 copies in its first month.
- December 2015 – Undertale wins GameFAQs “Best. Game. Ever.” contest, surpassing classics like Ocarina of Time. This cements its status as a hugely popular cult classic.
- 2016-2017 – Undertale’s popularity remains high with countless fan works and discussions happening online. It continues selling extremely well, especially once ported to consoles.
So in summary, Undertale quickly gained traction among indie game fans when it launched in September 2015, then exploded in popularity over the next 2-3 months thanks to YouTube, Twitch and word-of-mouth. By the end of 2015 it was already considered a hugely successful indie hit.
How was Undertale made?
Let’s see now some of the key details on how Undertale was developed:
- Engine: GameMaker Studio
- Developer: Toby Fox (sole programmer, designer, artist, musician)
- Development Time: 32 months (about 2.5 years)
- Release Date: September 15, 2015
Toby Fox made Undertale almost entirely by himself using the GameMaker Studio game engine. GameMaker Studio is known for being accessible for solo developers and small teams to make 2D games.
Remarkably, Toby handled every major aspect of development alone over 2-3 years including:
- Programming the game mechanics and systems
- Writing the story, dialogue, and text
- Composing all of the music
- Creating the pixel art and sprite animations
- Designing gameplay, puzzles, bosses
- Implementing unique features like the combat system
No other programmers or artists contributed significantly to the game. Toby had complete creative control and implemented his singular vision.
A few others helped with minor tasks like promotional art, trailers and ports to other platforms after initial PC release. But Undertale was almost wholly a solo effort by Toby Fox over about 32 months of development. This makes its success even more impressive considering it matched or exceeded games made by large teams.
So in summary, Undertale was made in GameMaker Studio by designer/programmer Toby Fox working alone over about 2.5 years. It’s a remarkable achievement in solo game development.
Where was Undertale made?
Undertale was developed primarily in the home of creator Toby Fox with support from a few external locations:
- Toby Fox’s Home – The majority of Undertale was programmed and created by Toby Fox in his home office during the 2.5 year development cycle. Toby worked on the game design, code, writing, music, and pixel art from home.
- Temmie Chang’s Home – Artist Temmie Chang created some of the promotional art and animated sprites for characters like the Temmies. She likely worked on the game from her own home as well.
- Kickstarter Backers’ Homes – Many Kickstarter backers who received early access to the game also did testing and provided feedback from their own homes.
- Video Game Conventions – Toby Fox demoed early builds and got feedback at conventions like Anime Boston and PAX.
- Online – Collaboration tools like Dropbox and GitHub allowed remote work between Toby and others assisting with ports, localization, etc.
So while Toby Fox’s home office was the main development hub for Undertale, external support came from the homes of collaborators, conventions, and online services. This distributed model enabled its creation with only a single full-time developer in Toby working from his house. The game came together through hard work in Toby’s home office alongside remote assistance from volunteers and contractors around the world.
Key Takeaways for Game Developers
By subverting genre tropes, exceeding expectations across all aspects of game design, and leveraging a core fanbase, Undertale disrupted the RPG landscape and became an indie success story. Its innovations provide inspirational patterns for developers seeking to make their own disruptive games.
Undertale stands as a testament to the power of disrupting genre conventions when done right. By subverting established RPG systems in clever ways, permanently connecting player choices to outcomes, delivering an incredible overall package, and leveraging a passionate community, solo developer Toby Fox created a unique gaming experience that captured lightning in a bottle.
This rare alignment of innovative design, quality execution, and word-of-mouth marketing made Undertale a disruptive indie success story still discussed today. Aspiring game developers should study Undertale’s design patterns and community-building techniques to find inspiration for their own creations.
If they can distill even a fraction of the magic that makes Undertale so special, they may just have the next indie breakout hit on their hands. Ultimately, Undertale shows that with enough creativity and care, one determined developer can disrupt and entire genre.