Q&A: How Brawlhalla built a fighting game community from the ground up

"We just try to be active everywhere we can, we try to take every opportunity we can with our partners, & that's how we've driven it," Brawlhalla dev Zeke Sparkes says about the F2P brawler's success.

One of 2017's sleeper free-to-play hits was Blue Mammoth's Brawlhalla, a 2D brawler (inspired by Super Smash Bros.) that launched on Steam and PlayStation 4 earlier this year. While keeping an eye on the Steam charts, we noticed that the game's number of users was climbing higher and higher, and we were interested in learning about the game's success. 

As it turns out, Brawlhalla has proven to be a unique case study for games that have a free-to-play audience on PS4, and a chance to learn how developers manage their in-house competitive events. We were lucky enough to be joined by executive producer Zeke Sparkes, who shared a lot of insight on how Brawlhalla has built such a loyal following. 

We've transcribed some of the more relevant parts of our conversation below.  You can also watch the stream embedded above, or click here to see it on Twitch.

And for more developer insights, editor roundtables, and gameplay commentary, be sure to follow the Gamasutra Twitch channel!

Stream Participants

Bryant Francis, editor at Gamasutra

Alex Wawro, editor at Gamasutra

Zeke Sparkes, executive producer on Brawlhalla at Blue Mammoth

The difference between PS4 and Steam free-to-play communities

Wawro: On PS4, I want to get a dev's perspective on what the difference is in terms of community. You've been on Steam for awhile, so I know there's a lot more time there, but how has the reception been on console versus when you put this game out on PC?

Sparkes: It's been really good. One of the things that surprised us the most was, the community is immediately embracing of free-to-play games. And that kind of took us by surprise. The first time we were invited out to PSX for the last two years. And the first time we went there, we'd done plenty of conventions, we had our pitch and our patter down, we could explain the game, that it's a free-to-play game, it's all cosmetic-based, there's no paying for power or anything like that, you know it's like League of Legends, or Smite, and then people kind of get it.

We started that when we went to PSX, when we started talking about it like that. But that perception just doesn't exist on the PS4 platform, because there's not any other kind of free-to-play games. So as soon as you say it's free-to-play, people say, "Oh wow, really? That's great!" So you don't have to explain what your approach is, because that's just the assumed approach for that console. So it's been a really good, welcoming community.

We don't have as long of a history with that community, so we're still building it up, like our personal relationship with it. It's been great so far, we've had really good reception. People enjoy the game, they're having a lot of fun with it.

We're getting way more PlayStation users than we had originally projected, which is great for us but our server engineers are on high-alert. Mid-October is when we launched. We're still watching, each weekend is still kind of new. We take all of the data we got from the previous weekend, we analyze it and figure out how to optimize the server from what we're seeing, during the week, then we watch the next weekend and see how it goes. We're still in a very new and exciting period for that.

Wawro: Free-to-play games became a thing on PS4 a couple of years ago. I remember DCUO and a couple of other things being there I think. I didn't check in with it since then, and I didn't return to that part of the store until Epics' Fortnite put out its free-to-play Battle Royale game on console. And there's so many games in the market these days that it can be very hard as a player to make time to go look at the free-to-play section of the store, because there's already so much stuff being put in front of you right away.

But when I checked in on it to take a look at Brawlhalla, I saw all these free-to-play games that looked really compelling. And I remember being in school and not being able to afford games, and I was excited about games like Gunz, with a 'Z,' which was a free-to-play. Yeah, that game was "interesting," but I got really into it because I had a lot of time but I didn't have a lot of money. I'm curious to know how there are so many games in the free-to-play section of the PS Store, and presumably so many people looking for games, because there's over 40 million consoles sold at least.

You don't have to give me rates if you can't, but I just want to get a sense of how has the monetization rate of this game on console compared to it on Steam? As I mentioned before you don't have to buy currency, there's the option to buy currency to buy cosmetics.

Sparkes: There's the Founder's Pack of sorts.

Wawro: Yeah. Has that outpaced the Steam version already, is it below pace, is it matching up to what your expectations were?

Sparkes: It's hard to say, because platforms are so different in terms of userbase and installs and how people interact with it. But I would say in general it is outpacing what we had projected. I think it is fair to say it's a little bit stronger than what we're seeing on Steam? Steam is still great, we were good and happy on Steam.

You said there's a lot of free-to-play games on PS4, so now that it's sort of coming into its own, how does that compare? And I think that there's still a lot of space. I mean, if you look at it comparatively, how many there are on PS4 versus PC, it's just...a lot of free-to-play games that we have to be in the pack of on PS4 is a much smaller set, and there's not really another one like us. So, for us, it's been great. Like I've said, we're getting more players than had originally been projected, and they're seemingly loving the game as much as we hoped, so everything's really good.

Building a community from the ground up

Wawro: We talked a bit about how you started on the Steam forums and went from there. I want to expand upon that and ask, was it entirely grassroots, and all community management working in forums, or did you guys do marketing and promotion outside of that? I know you guys did events obviously, but did you go to any YouTubers, did you do any ads, that kind of thing?

Sparkes: Most of it was organic, most of it was our interactions with whoever, that doesn't necessarily mean just our interactions with community, we got to know the folks at Twitch, and any time we had an opportunity we'd jump on it. The game is meant to be played in short sessions, it's very easy to get into. Because we worked on making it so accessible, that increased the number of things we could do.

So if somebody was looking for something, like we were in a Loot Crate. That was a nice help for us to get viewership, users, and also a sense of legitimacy. You get a big brand like that that says "This is really cool, they did a cool thing for us! Everybody that's in Loot Crate can be a part of this." Being in Loot Crate is a fun, awesome thing. We built it in a flexible way so that we can do weapon skins, we can do K.O. effects, we can do color schemes. So any time there was any opportunity to work with somebody to do a collaboration, we were able to jump on it in a meaningful way. So a lot of the organic growth wasn't just us with the community, it was us working with partners as well.

We've done some paid stuff, it's been pretty small. We've found Twitch is a much better platform for us than YouTube, so we've stuck mostly with Twitch. We do our YouTube channel to put stuff out there, but we've had better success dealing with Twitch influencers than YouTube influencers, for instance, I think because it's easier to get into an immediate game when you're watching it in real-time when you're interacting with someone and talking about it, it's easy for you to participate in that as well, and that immediacy, because there's no barriers there, the game itself, we can tell a difference when there's a barrier in time. This is our best guess.

So we just try to be active everywhere we can, we try to take every opportunity we can with our partners, and that's how we've driven it. We've done a few traditional ad campaigns as well, to help out, but really that beginning growth was organic.

Some advice for devs who want to run their own competitive events

Wawro: If you're capable, can you share any lessons learned from running competitive events, that other devs maybe dipping a toe into this could learn from?

Sparkes: Yeah: it's really hard! (laughter) There is so much more than you will ever think of. I cannot recommend enough that you talk and learn with somebody, hire somebody, contract with somebody who has done it before. Because there's so many things going on, and if you've never put on one of these events there's things you've never thought about.

When we first started doing events, I was like, "What do you mean I have to tell you how much electricity I'm going to use?" I'm going to use whatever comes out of the plug, I don't know! And the difference between getting your power done right or wrong could be five thousand dollars! It's crazy! So get somebody who has done it before. We've been going to conventions since PAX East 2014. We do RTX and we do TwitchCon, PSX and all sorts of stuff, and we always learn something new at each one.

The costs can escalate very quickly as well, and the more you put into it the more you can stay on the downlow. We're a very, "Everybody, all hands on deck, and get in and do it ourselves" kind of studio. If you see our big Brawlhalla sign, whenever you go to a convention, especially PAXes, it's this big, huge, cool sign--we just built it. We didn't get anybody to build it. We built it. Out of a closed-cell foam board that we cut with a hot knife, and print a fifteen-foot-long sticker, and very nerve-wrackingly stick the whole thing on all the way across the sign.

So there's a lot of things you can do to make it a little bit easier and more achievable. But the they're hard work, so it's constantly this trade-off between how much can we pay attention to, how much we can handle on our own, and what is it going to cost to handle the rest of it. So you're always balancing that.

There are always options. There is always a different way to approach it or think about it. Even if all you can do is spend two hours talking to someone who has put on events or done conventions. Even that will make your experience much better when you do it.

For more developer interviews, editor roundtables, and gameplay commentary, be sure to follow the Gamasutra Twitch channel.

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