Welcome back to the Disruptive Video Game Podcast. This week, we’re talking about:
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. Miraculous? Definitely, but if we examine the development of Undertale, I believe there are lessons every game developer can take away. I’ll talk about that and sum up the top 5 lessons I learned from Undertale, today on the Disruptive Video Game Podcast.
Now this is a show where I explore what makes particular video games stand out from the crowd. I’m no expert, but I am extremely curious as to why and how these games managed to capture so much attention.
With hundreds of video games being released every day, the modern indie game developer absolutely has to rise above the noise of the crowd if they want to maximize the return on investment and reach a larger audience with their art.
Whether it’s a unique game mechanic, trope twist or a controversial marketing campaign, each week I take a peek behind the development of some of the most disruptive video games in history. I do this with the hopes of learning the secrets of these disruptive titles, so that I can apply these lessons to my own game development and marketing. I also hope to provide you with an entertaining look at some fascinating games, as well as interview other developers and have an occasional deep dive episode here and there.
My name is Jay and I’m the owner of BLACK LODGE GAMES, LLC. Follow along on Twitter @BlackLodgeGames for podcast updates and other free gamedev tools, assets and game releases. Stick around until the end of the episode to learn more about this week’s freebie. If you want to read a transcript of this episode, browse the show notes or download any of our free gamedev tools or assets, just head on over to BlackLodgeGames.com or DisruptiveVideoGame.com
Turning back to Undertale. Today I am going to try to answer 5 questions in 5 segments.
- DISRUPTORS, Where I ask: What was so disruptive about this game that made it stand out from the crowd?
- CRITICAL ROLE, Where I ask: What other factors played a critical role in the game’s success, apart from the disruption?
- SIMILAR DISRUPTIVE TECHNIQUES, Where I ask: What other games used similar disruptive techniques to stand apart?
- INSPIRITATIONAL PATTERNS, Where I ask: What patterns can we take away and try to apply to our own game projects as developers?
- GAME OVER, Where I ask: What does this game look like if we take away it’s disruptive qualities?
- OUR FREEBIE OF THE WEEK! Where I give away a free asset, tool, or resource for your indie games and other projects.
SEGMENT 1: DISRUPTORS:
What was so disruptive about UNDERTALE that made it stand out from the crowd?
To the untrained eye, seeing or playing Undertale for the first time may not seem very disruptive at all. It has a pleasing but simple art style, and relies on the established game mechanics of a classic top down RPG. Or so you think at first.
On the surface, the game doesn’t immediately reveal its bag of tricks. In fact, in a lot of ways this familiarity of classic gameplay lures the player into a false sense of security. For instance, in the original Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest games, you find yourself in similar turn-based combat and you never have to think about the morality of killing every creature you encounter. In fact, in those games you are encouraged to go and grind experience by killing endless legions of animals and creatures.
Undertale subverts that expectation… but it does so in a clever way. Toby Fox, the sole programmer, artist, marketer and musician for the game, knew that anyone with experience playing classic RPGs, would fall into the standard practice of killing or grinding enemies for experience to level up.
So, in Undertale, when the player enters in this classic turn-based combat, their natural reaction is to kill everyone, without second guessing it. I mean, that’s what they’re supposed to do, that’s what you always do in these types of games, right?
But no. As the game progresses you learn that there are consequences for the deaths you caused. This game is different! This is a disruptive game mechanic that was set up almost like a trap, to surprise the player, to give them a twist and not just a narrative twist but a mechanics twist and a trope breaker. It’s quite the clever trap. And what do you do when you get caught in a trap, well, you try to escape right?
Luckily in a video game with Save states, like Undertale, you can just load an older save before you killed the wrong character… but in Undertale, the developer anticipated players would try to exploit this to revive characters they had killed… so even if you do load an old save or even delete your current save file… Undertale remembers what you did and to who… which is another disruptive game mechanic!
So, to answer our question of “What was so disruptive about UNDERTALE that made it stand out from the crowd?” well the answer is that:
Undertale disrupts by subverting player expectations of the RPG turn-based combat system, and further disrupts by remembering NPC deaths even after loading old save files or even deleting save files completely.
Segment 2: CRITICAL ROLE:
What other factors played a critical role in UNDERTALE’s success, apart from the disruption?
Undertale started out with a Kickstarter campaign, asking for $5,000. The Kickstarter campaign went so well, that Toby Fox ended up with $50,000 from almost 2,500 backers.
Running a successful Kickstarter campaign is not easy, but Toby Fox demonstrated to his backers a game that they wanted to play. Not only did he end up with money to develop the game, but he also now had a community of 2,500 backers who would get an email every time he released an update.
So, the first critical role is that he raised development money and acquired a community and an email list that he could use to market the game as development progressed.
The second critical role is that he used the development time to make a polished and complete game. From the art, to the music and everything in between, he spent the needed time to polish it all.
This is critical because it meant when he finally fully distributed the game to his 2,500 backers, they played a game that scratched an ich they didn’t even know they had. Their expectations were subverted, but the game itself felt complete and deep. These two critical roles combined with the disruptive game play mechanics, become the perfect storm of indie success.
Undertale had 2,500 people who had given money at just the idea and pitch of the game. The fact that Toby Fox delivered such an amazing experience, with such a disruptive set of game mechanics, meant that those 2,500 couldn’t stop raving and talking about Undertale to their friends and online. Without a marketing budget, Undertale managed to gross millions of dollars in sales based off the word of mouth marketing that was done by his base Kickstarter mailing list.
The big take away for me is the power of an early community to spread the message of a great game after it’s released. If you can build a small following of 100, or 1000 or 5000 people who are interested in your game, and then you deliver a great game to those people… well, if you can pull that off then your community has the potential to spread your game like wild fire. Truly an inspirational story!
Segment 3: SIMILAR DISRUPTIVE TECHNIQUES:
What other games used similar disruptive techniques to stand apart?
This may seem a little crazy, but I see a similarity between how Undertale twisted turn based RPG combat mechanics and how DOOM (2016) subverted First Person Shooter mechanics.
Don’t get me wrong, Undertale and DOOM 2016 don’t have much in common. Undertale was a new game franchise and the work of 1 person under a very limited budget while DOOM 2016 is a game in one of the biggest video franchises of all time, developed by a giant corporation.
In DOOM (2016) you need to run towards enemies and engage them offensively. This is in stark contrast to the normalized game mechanics in modern first person shooters, which have gravitated towards a defensive, duck and cover style combat.
DOOM (2016) present enemy deaths as Health and Ammo drops, so you want to offensively engage the enemy to heal, instead of defensively duck and cover to heal in most modern FPS games.
I find this to be similar to how Undertale reverses the challenge of turn based RPG combat, by incentivizing pacifist encounters, which presents new game play challenges, risks and rewards. Both games take the established combat norms, and reverse them, allowing us to explore the same mechanics from the opposite vantage point.
Segment 4: INSPIRITATIONAL PATTERNS:
What patterns can we take away and try to apply to our own game projects as developers?
So, in Undertale and DOOM (2016) we have developers who are aware of the common play styles and mechanical tropes of their game’s genre, and who actively seek to subvert player expectations. In both games, the standard combat motivations and techniques are flipped around and inverted, which creates a new perspective on old familiar genres.
I believe we can apply this pattern to any established game genre. For instance, platformers generally scroll from left to right, allow the player to jump and have enemies that you can attack or that can attack you. So how could we turn an established game mechanic in the action platformer genre around to make it a disruptive mechanic? Well, you could turn the level upside down! But that’s been done before…
Which brings us to our first problem: the more established a genre is, the greater likelihood that disruptive game mechanics have already been experimented with. So back to our example of turning a platformer level upside down… well… that’s actually been done in a lot of action platformers.
In fact, it’s been done in multiple Mario games, one of the most popular platformer franchises around. I bring Mario up for a reason though, and that’s because the Mario franchise specifically aims to subvert one or two old platformer tropes in each new sequel. Nintendo wants each new Mario game to bring something new to the table, which means the developers are forced to innovate, introduce new mechanics, and occasionally subvert expectations. However, this makes it much more difficult for a new platformer to introduce a new disruptive take on the genre. Can you think of a twist for a platforming game that hasn’t been done? Let me know in the comments!
Okay, so maybe it’s easier to subvert expectations in an established genre that doesn’t have Nintendo constantly iterating on it, so let’s try another example. This time, we’ll use the technique of combining two genres to make a new one. Let’s combine the Rhythm game genre with the Skateboarding game genre. In this example, the game is a standard Tony Hawk style clone, with the key difference being that you perform all your tricks by inputting the correct buttons synchronized to the rhythm of the music. Is that a fun variation, and is it even inspired by the pattern of Undertale or DOOM 2016? Kind of, but not good enough!
Alright, third times a charm! How about a side-scrolling shoot-em-up in the style of Galaga, except instead of avoiding enemy fire you try and collect it for ammo to shoot back at them? Or instead of avoiding collision with the enemy, you needed to ram your ship into theirs to destroy it?
Well, that’s probably my best attempt at replicating the pattern… but my guess is that someone has already done both of those as well. So, while it’s easy to spot the pattern, it’s harder to implement this pattern in a unique way, especially since video games have been around forever at this point.
I don’t think this pattern should be limited to combat mechanics, but instead can be applied to any mechanic that the player takes for granted or that they do on “autopilot” without question. Take a key component of a genre, and turn it upside down! That’s the take away.
Segment 5: GAME OVER:
What does UNDERTALE look like if we take away it’s disruptive qualities?
Undertale, without the mechanical subversion, becomes just a standard RPG. It loses some of its unique charm, but still would be a good game even without its disruptive mechanics. The game would be shorter, there would be no real reason to replay through the game, and the story and moral philosophy explored in the game would never really shine through.
Undertale is a solid game on all fronts, including it’s art, sound, and story. If you take away the disruptive mechanics, you still have a very solid game, just with a lot less depth, intrigue and replay value. You also take away one of the main reasons why the game went viral, so I doubt it would have sold as well.
Unlike a lot of games, Undertale would still be a decent game without its disruptive mechanics, but it also wouldn’t be the cult classic multi-million dollar indie darling that it became. It’s precisely because the game is so good even without the disruptive mechanics, that helps to drive home how great the game is in its complete retail form.
We’ve reached the end of our discussion on the disruptive video game: Undertale.
Before I wrap up this episode of the Disruptive Video Game Podcast, I want to talk a little bit about why I created this podcast and what you can expect from the next episode.
But first, we have our FREEBIE of the week.
Segment 6: FREEBIE of the week.
The FREEBIE of the week this week is:
a collection of metallic sound effect samples that I created. These audio clips range from dents and dings, to clangs and wobbles, and are presented in high quality lossless audio formats. I actually collected these pieces of metal for the weird sounds they made specifically to sample them. Here is a sample of some these sound effects:
To download this FREEBIE for use in your next project, video or video game, just head over to BlackLodgeGames.com and click on the Podcast menu, or you can head over to DisruptiveVideoGame.com – Either way, scroll down until you see the Freebies tab, click it and you’ll find all our latest free gamedev resources which you can download and use for free, royalty free, in all your projects.
I created the Disruptive Video Game Podcast so I could learn from the most successful and disruptive video games, so that I can hopefully use the lessons I learn to make better games myself. I’m not an expert, just a pretentious game developer seeking to refine the art and craft of game creation and marketing.
Speaking of game projects, if you like classic RPGs and sci-fi space operas, then you should check out my massive RPG called DAATH ORIGINS on Steam Early Access. DAATH ORIGINS is a complete game with 11 different endings. It features classic turn-based RPG gameplay combined with a dark interdimensional space opera… Come, join the temporal war and save or destroy the multiverse. Dᴀᴀᴛʜ Oʀɪɢɪɴѕ is giant game featuring all original art, gameplay, story and a 31 song original soundtrack… created by me, one single person. If you want to support this show then pick up my game on Steam by visiting bit.ly/daathorigins or buy the game directly from at BlackLodgeGames.com which includes a Steam key.
Just as I write the music for my games, I also did the music featured in this show.
Once again, my name is Jay from BLACK LODGE GAMES, LLC. Please follow along on Twitter @BlackLodgeGames for podcast updates and other gamedev tools, assets and resources.
Feel free to reach out to me with any comments, questions, or concerns.
Next week, we’ll be talking about Eternal Darkness, a classic GameCube game with disruptive mechanics.
So, I hope you’ll join me on Episode 3 of the Disruptive Video Game Podcast, now I’m going to play the outro, so hey, there’s that. Thanks again, see you in the next one.