Why Are 1 Million People Playing Brotato?

An odd new group of games is challenging the conventions of its industry.

A still from the Brotato video-game
The Atlantic; Blobfish

Last week, recuperating from some dental work, I spent a lot of time as a potato. No, not a couch potato but a video-game potato. With a machine gun. Actually, six machine guns, to be precise. What I’m saying is that, like more than 1 million other people, I was playing Brotato, one of the year’s most unlikely video-game hits.

In terms of basic gameplay, Brotato is exactly what it sounds like: an action game starring a sentient starch. Players must guide their potagonist through wave after wave of combat with alien invaders, collecting currency that they can then spend to upgrade their character with even deadlier abilities, traps, and weapons. Because the upgrades on offer after each level are randomized, no two playthroughs are the same. In one run, you might outfit your spud like a ninja, chucking throwing stars that bounce from enemy to enemy while you dodge their attacks. In another attempt, you might create a pyro potato equipped with flamethrowers and explosives. Or you might just go full Rambo and bulk up your trigger-happy tuber with bigger and better guns. Deciding which direction to take your tater requires careful strategic thinking, because pursuing one approach forecloses others. The possibilities are far more complex than the game’s cartoon exterior suggests.

Players have noticed. Since it first became available for PC in September 2022, Brotato has sold more than 1 million copies, according to its publisher. Ninety-seven percent of its more than 27,000 reviews on the Steam online game store are positive, and the game has grossed nearly $5 million. This showing puts it comfortably in the top 5 percent of all PC games today, most of which are much prettier and have sizable development teams, with price tags to match. Brotato, by contrast, was the pet project of one man, Thomas Gervraud, and retails for $4.99. It’s not the first small-time production to accomplish this feat: Vampire Survivors, arguably last year’s biggest breakout game and also a solo endeavor, sold more than 5 million copies with a similar play style, and directly inspired a slew of successors, Brotato included. What accounts for the astonishing popularity of these games?

A still from the game Vampire Survivors
Vampire Survivors

These monster-mashing diversions may feel like a throwback to the Flash time-wasters that many used to play in their browsers. But the more I played the likes of Brotato, the more I realized that there was something larger at work, and a good reason these games have flourished: They are a calculated rebellion against the incredible intricacy of modern video games, and an olive branch to those intimidated by them.

Like some other art forms over time, prestige video games have evolved toward greater and greater complexity. These days, it seems like any major studio release must not only have gorgeous 3-D graphics but countless characters, a massive open world, detailed combat systems and combos, and at least five kinds of currency for purchasing food, weapons, armor, and other essentials. To succeed in today’s most popular virtual playgrounds, players must master these minutiae and train their fingers to execute ever more complicated maneuvers on complex controllers.

Brotato and its ilk challenge many of these contemporary conventions. While these games appear to prize hair-trigger reflexes, they actually reward smart decision making outside the action, rather than a player’s ability to hit all the right buttons at the right time. While they look like intensive action games, they are just as much methodical strategy games. In fact, all of these games automatically aim and fire the character’s weapons, which means that during the “action” component, players basically just walk around on-screen and the game takes care of the combat for them. For this reason, some observers have wryly dubbed this new genre “walk-’em-ups,” a parodic twist on the traditional “shoot-’em-up.”

Put another way, Brotato is a thinking game disguised as an action game. Players in this world don’t have to worry as much about firing, targeting, or reloading. But they do have to worry about which weapons to choose, which stats to boost, and which skill trade-offs to make during the breaks between the action. Spend your money poorly and choose inter-level upgrades that don’t mesh well with one another, and there’s no amount of dexterity or button smashing that can save you. Will you be strong at the expense of speed and defense? Hoard your currency for big buys later on at the risk of forgoing early improvements? The answers to these questions will matter more than your hand-eye coordination.

Indeed, precisely because Brotato isn’t quite the action game it appears to be, it has attracted the attention of gamers who typically seek out more cerebral content. Stephen Flavall, a former pro poker player and lapsed statistics grad student who now streams strategy games on Twitch, has spent the past weeks playing Brotato and tracking his progress through a spreadsheet. Beneath the game’s unpretentious veneer, he told me, “you start to realize that there’s an immensely complex strategic space.”

This, I would argue, is the secret to this new walk-’em-up genre’s success: Games like Brotato and Vampire Survivors don’t reject complexity; they just make it more accessible. They understand that although intricacy can enhance the entertainment experience, it can also be an impediment to new players. Their solution is to turn the intimidating mainstream model on its head and back-load the complexity instead of front-loading it, luring players in with an animated affect and automated action, making the game easy to pick up but hard to win. “The appeal is that someone can sit down and immediately understand the controls,” said Flavall, “but you can really just play forever and never get to a point where there’s nothing left to learn.”

This approach has enabled these strange concoctions to overcome their obvious deficiencies—from low-caliber graphics to an occasionally stuttering interface—and gain millions of users. Obviously, they’re not for everyone. Some players are instead drawn to the expansive worlds of tentpole productions like Elden Ring, or prefer the true challenge of fast-twitch action. Games like Brotato have their limits. But by lowering the barrier for entry, they have made themselves available to a more diverse and expansive fan base. After Vampire Survivors was released in December on mobile for Android and iOS—traditionally seen as the stronghold of more casual players—it sold more than 3 million additional copies.

The line between committed and casual gamers has long been fuzzier than is often acknowledged. “Plenty of ‘core’ gamers turn on their Xboxes once a week for Call of Duty while plenty of ‘casual’ gamers spend hours a day on Candy Crush,” Jason Schreier, who reports on the gaming industry for Bloomberg, told me. “There are a lot of people who use games to kill time and a lot of people who play games for more meaningful experiences. Most people do both!” The genius of games like Brotato is that they not only traverse the porous barrier between these worlds but combine the strengths of both into an improved package.

Like the best mobile games, they strip the action down to its absolute and most addictive essentials. But like the best desktop and console games, they offer players a sophisticated and serious challenge, without the ads and microtransactions endemic to phone fare. Far from a cartoon curiosity, then, these games have solved some of the pitfalls that have plagued their profession and opened it up to new audiences. That’s no small potatoes.