In the popular imagination, first-person shooters are typically rendered as dour love affairs between very grizzled men and their very shiny guns; gloomy tales of artificial Love and Loss painted in muted shades of blood and viscera, constructed almost entirely out of secondhand cliches stripped of meaning and worn down to the bare threads by years of service to the Hollywood art machine.
Every now and then, however, a shooter comes along that casts aside the ever-successful “milsim” milieu of smash hits like PUBG to hearken back, intentionally or not, to a bygone and entirely more goofy era of multiplayer shooters first inaugurated by beloved couch competitors like Goldeneye 007 and Timesplitters 2.
But while Landfall’s Totally Accurate Battlegrounds (or the delightfully-stupid acronym TABG) represents the latest evolution of this fun-over-functionality approach, and despite garnering millions of players over its short month-long lifespan, the developers behind the game say they never intended for their experiment to attract that sort of smash reception.
After all, who could expect that much from a simple April Fool’s joke?
As aficionados of the studio well-know, Landfall has always taken a more lighthearted approach to the somewhat-grim realities of indie development, producing offbeat titles like the first-person platformer Clustertruck, where you leap from truck to truck in a never-ending cavalcade, or the more successful Totally Accurate Battle Simulator, which lets you pit elite samurai against viking berserkers in clumsy, cartoonish slapfights that play perfectly to a YouTube audience hungry for hijinx.
Game jamming your way through April Fool's Day
As co-owner and COO Petter Henriksson puts it, since Landfall’s projects almost always come from the crazed hysteria of game jams, the dozen-or-so person team uses April Fool’s Day as an excuse to prototype genres that they’re unfamiliar with.
In 2016, they spoofed Clustertruck by adding in time-manipulation-as-movement mechanic from the hit shooter Superhot, christening the result “Supertruck”; in 2017, with the gaming community still fully-lifted from inhaling the fumes from survival games like Rust, they threw together a peer-to-peer physics-based parody of DayZ in just 9 days, TABZ.
“It had a lot of bugs,” recalls Henriksson, laughing. “If you pick up the MP5 in that game, the physics will kill you, it’ll scramble your head around, and you’ll punch yourself in the face until you die. But it was a really nice game for the time we spent on it.
"It’s just really fun to give people back something because they will give us back something. It’s not an ad, it’s not a review, it’s just a cool game, and if they enjoy that, they’ll enjoy our other games."
“It seemed obvious when we were approaching this year’s April Fool’s that we needed to parody something, and the most obvious thing to parody at the moment is the battle royale genre,” continues Henriksson.
“I have 600 hours in PUBG, Wilhelm [Nylund, CEO and game designer] has 800 more, so we were in a good position to parody that game.”
He gestures to the seemingly-useless “reload menu” option lurking on the wonderfully-absurd TABG title screen, a direct reference to the early days of PUBG, where a similar button as an antidote to many of the game’s endless barrage of bugs.
They also dropped in a melee weapon with a more than superficial similarity to the trailblazer’s signature frying pan, though the game labels it a “shallow pot with long-handle,” an apparently-oblique shot at PUBG Corp’s tendency to claim any and all aspects of the burgeoning subgenre as their own intellectual property.
(When I asked Henriksson about this, he just laughs. “It’s not a pan, we didn’t steal it. We wanted to make that clear.”)
While Landfall clearly intended TABG to exist somewhere north of a joke and somewhere south of what Henriksson calls a “proper game,” for my money, after dozens of hours spent trapped in the milsim morass, it’s a welcome palate-cleanser, largely thanks to its overwhelmingly silly environs.
To its credit, its physics-based gunplay sublimates the hyper-competitive crust that can subsume more serious shooters like a shroud, especially since a moving target’s wonky, unpredictable saunter makes it difficult to line up a shot even a few yards away.
And though an infestation of dirty, rotten cheaters has overwhelmed it in recent weeks, the game’s nearly-hundred-strong arsenal of bizarre weapons - including blunderbusses, battle-axes, and grenades that call down a fusillade of arrows from low-earth orbit - keeps me coming back for just one more round, even after an undignified end at the hands of an aimbotting scoundrel carpet-bombing me with an infinite-ammo rocket launcher.
But as Henriksson points out, despite TABG’s stated purpose as a “joke game,” the tiny studio put in a Herculean amount of effort simply putting it out the door, crunching for months at a time - even after they had missed their self-imposed deadline.
“The plan was to spend a month on it, March. But then we went to GDC, and we lost a week,” Henriksson says. “When we got back, the game that we had was so cool, but it wasn’t quite what it could be. We wanted to make a game that didn’t break quite as easily as TABZ did."
"But our core community was expecting something, and we didn’t want to disappoint them...so we kept on and spent a total of 3 months on the project, because it’s from scratch. We’ve never done a server-based game before, or a game this large in terms of map-size, with level-streaming, or cheating prevention.
"This is the first physics-based first-person shooter that I’m aware of, at least," he continues. "We didn’t know how exactly to do these things. There was a time when we would just wake up, and the only thing that we were doing was working on TABG, then go to bed, and then do the whole same thing again, ordering food to the office every day for every meal. It wasn’t very healthy. We told ourselves that we couldn’t crunch that month. It was supposed to be a joke.”
Of course, when TABG finally washed up on the crowded shores of Steam as one of the service’s only free battle royale games, Landfall faced a far-more-pleasant headache: the sting of sudden success. Before launch, Henriksson and company had calculated the maximum load that their existing server setup could support without the company going belly-up; needless to say, the 3 million players who downloaded the game in the first 100 hours far exceeded that number.
But, for Henriksson, though it was “amazingly-expensive” to keep the servers in any kind of working state for that initial spike - especially considering how little direct revenue it generated - he justifies the investment as a sort of guerilla marketing campaign for their next game.
“We don’t really do direct marketing,” he says. “Look at our previous April projects. We made games promoting our other games, basically, in the same IP, for free. I look at it as a way to spread the word about Landfall and what we’re doing. Plus, it’s just really fun to give people back something because they will give us back something."
"It’s not an ad, it’s not a review, it’s just a cool game, and if they enjoy that, they’ll enjoy our other games. There might be massive server costs to have 3 million players play the game in a week, but still, 3 million players also played the game. That’s huge for Landfall.”
For his part, despite TABG’s surprising staying power - it still boasts around a thousand simultaneous players six weeks after launch, no mean feat in the cutthroat crucible of indie multiplayer games - in Henriksson’s telling, Landfall has no interest in staffing up to compete with heavyweights like Epic.
“We enjoy our space,” says Henriksson. “We like doing tiny things that people don’t take as seriously. We might do a physics-based RTS or something next, I don’t know. I think humor right now is kind of unexplored in games, and it’s fun to make games in a part of gaming that isn’t super-explored.
"So, for now, we’re going to finish Totally Accurate Battle Simulator, because that’s our passion project, and TABG will continue to be maintained in some form, especially since its $5 price [it was free for the first 100 hours of release] can keep the servers running and all. But once we’re done with TABS, we’re going to be working on something cooler. And I’m sure you’ll hear about it.”