An Interview with Jackbox Games

When I was younger, I used to play a game called You Don’t Know Jack on the original PlayStation. You Don’t Know Jack, Jackbox Games’ flagship project, had seen many iterations over the years, but this was my first experience with the developer’s work. The trivia game was an absolute riot. For those who may not know, You Don’t Know Jack is structured as though you’re a contestant on a (very weird) television trivia gameshow. The team leaned into the structure to hilarious results, including transitional songs, comedic fake commercials, and a ‘snarky’ host named Cookie Masterson.

As the years passed, the team grew and branched out into developing other games under the Jackbox Games name. Though each game had its own features and gameplay mechanics, they were all united through their unique humor and party-focused gameplay. Games like Quiplash, Drawful, and Fibbage became fan-favorites, and soon they and many more were packaged into sets called the Jackbox Party Packs.

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See? Party Packs. (Jackbox Party Pack 2, Jackbox Games)

Now, Jackbox Games is hitting 2016 hard with a new standalone release (Drawful 2) and a third Jackbox Party Pack. I had the great fortune to sit down for an impromptu interview with one of the team’s game writers/directors, Arnie Niekamp, to discuss their big plans for 2016.

(NOTE: This interview is a transcript of a recorded spoken interview.)

Logan Schultz: Arnie! Nice to meet you. Thanks for chatting with me!

Arnie Niekamp: Nice to meet you!

LS: So, we’re here at Jackbox Games in Chicago, and you guys are currently working on your new Party Pack. Party Pack 3, correct?

AN: Yes, well, we’re just finishing up Drawful 2, which will be a stand-alone release. Late, late spring. We’re still edging up to that period. And, yeah, working on Party Pack 3 for this fall.

LS: Cool! You did announce a new game that’s going to be a part of that, right?

AN: Yes! Yes, I’m trying to remember what all we’ve announced and what we haven’t, but we announced, I believe, Guesspionage.

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(Guesspionage, Jackbox Games)

LS: Guesspionage, that’s right! And you can’t announce too much, can’t tell us anything just yet, but is there anything you have announced that you can talk about?

AN: Uh, I can pretty much talk about anything involving Drawful 2. I don’t know what I can say about Guesspionage, but I can say that Drawful 2 won’t be in the Party Pack. I believe we’re going to be announcing another game on Wednesday…

[Note: They did! It was Quiplash 2, and everyone at BagoGames lost their minds over it.]

LS: Alright, yeah, I think I saw a tweet about that. A little vague. Playing some Drawful 2 and maybe talking a bit.

AN: Yeah! I wish I could tell you more…

LS: No, part of what’s interesting is that you guys are at such a place in the process where you’re doing a couple different things, don’t want to announce too much just yet. But there are a lot of people who love your games because they integrate mobile and you can get a lot of people involved.

(Note: for those who may not know, most modern Jackbox games can be played with large numbers of people using phones and mobile devices as controllers.)

LS (con.): It seems like you guys had a big hit with Twitch and streaming. Are you guys taking that into account as you’re working on the next one?

AN: Oh, absolutely! Yeah, I mean, not every game we do is perfect to be played over Twitch, but we really, with each game, try to sit down and think “can you play this, you know, remotely through Twitch and what can we do to make it work better?” And so, with Drawful 2, we have done a lot of new features for playing over Twitch. Sort of this biggest is censoring, which you rarely need to do in your own home but, you know, it does happen periodically if you’re playing online and with strangers or whatever and someone will put in something you don’t want to see or you don’t want your viewers to see. And so, we have made it so that you can censor out people’s answers, you can skip over drawings, and things like that to just kind of protect your game.

LS: Yeah, absolutely. In that same mindset, you guys added a family mode in the last Party Pack, is that correct?

AN: Yeah! I think it’s called Family Friendly Mode, and yeah, we’ve added that to Drawful 2 and sort of any game in the pack that that makes sense for going forward.

LS: That’s a nice little thing to make it family friendly or you can kind of have the answers that you want…

AN: Yeah, absolutely! I mean, our games are…the truth is, the content for our games is, usually, 80% of it, if not higher, is family friendly so, it’s just a bummer when people are like “I love to play with my kids but, like, every once in a rare while something kind of embarrassing comes up that I don’t want to talk to them about,” and so yeah, we made it so you can sort of filter that stuff out, basically.

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(Drawful 2, Jackbox Games)

LS: That’s awesome. So, Drawful 2. Looking at end of spring…

AN: Yeah, so we’re hoping…the games that we make are “weird” for a console, right? They get it, but it’s also like, the submission process for us is just more complicated. We’re doing things that other companies aren’t necessarily doing with the technology and that, you know, when we go into submission, they review and they’re like “woah, we don’t know how to deal with this stuff,” so there’s usually a lot more back and forth. Like, they want it to work, we want it to work, but it usually takes them longer to understand exactly what’s going on. So sometimes it’s harder for us to really lock down when our release dates are. But it’s coming!

(Note: Jackbox Games HAS announced the release date since this interview occurred: June 21st for PS4, Xbox One, PC, and more.)

LS: Cool. Very cool. Drawful 2 is a stand-alone release, much like Fibbage XL, is that right?

AN: Yeah! Fibbage had its own release and Quiplash had its own release, and those both did eventually end up being in the Party Packs as well. And some people love that, and some people hate that, so we decided this time to announce that Drawful 2 would be stand-alone and would not be in the Party Pack, so that people wouldn’t feel, later on, that they had to buy it twice or anything.

LS: Right. That makes sense. So, since it’s stand-alone, do you have a price in mind?

AN: I think it’ll be comparable to whatever Quiplash was.

(Note: $9.99, for your reference.)

LS: Sure, in that same vein…

AN: Yeah, we like to keep it pretty affordable.

LS: Alright. So, looking from Party Pack 2 to Party Pack 3, what would you say you guys have learned/taken away from that process and, moving into the new one, what are the things you all are growing from the most?

AN: Um, that’s a good question (laughs). What are the things we’ve learned the most? I think we’re just really continuing to try to utilize on a good amount of variety. So, we’re trying to do two things with each pack, right? So we try to, like, really improve the things that we feel like are 100% in our wheelhouse–so these sort of Fibbage-Drawful-Quiplash-y type of games that are all a little more similar to each other–and try to make those better and more robust and try to come up with new features to make those kind of experiences better. I feel like that becomes our base of the pack–what we’ve become known for. But, at the same time, we really take advantage of the fact that a pack full of games can have a couple…really…weirder things in there as well, and to try and experiment with either taking those same mechanics and REALLY weirding them up, or just trying to do more weird social dynamic-type things that really encourage people just yelling at each other in the room. Stuff like that. [It] was something we were really experimenting with in Bomb-Corp, from the last Party Pack.

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(Bomb-Corp, Jackbox Games)

LS: Yeah, Bomb-Corp! That was the one I was picturing as you were saying that.

AN: Yeah! And that was like, if you take everything away, what we really wanted was people in the room to really–and this sounds negative–but to really be yelling at each other, and to really be talking to each other a lot. One of the games that I’m directing in the new pack is trying to do even more with that. More of, like, even though these people have their phones in their hands, are there weird and funny social interactions that people can have in the room with that? And that’s one of the more “outlier-y” type games in the pack.

LS: Cool. Alright, let’s rewind a little bit. You said that you’re directing a game. What’s your position here at Jackbox Games? What do you do, Arnie?

AN: I direct and I write. I write a lot of content and questions and stuff. I’ve been here for about ten years, so I wrote a lot of You Don’t Know Jack in the past, a lot of Fibbage and Quiplash. I directed Drawful and Drawful 2. I directed Bidiots. Um…I’m sure I’m forgetting some in there. Lieswatter, maybe. So yeah, I mostly write a lot, corral a lot, do a lot of editorial on the questions and stuff like that. I do a good amount of game design. We do A LOT of prototyping here.

LS: Sure.

AN: So, for every five or six games we release a year, we probably paper test or “really simple digital test”, like, a dozen? Two dozen? You know, just trying weird mechanics and seeing what stuff sticks. So I do a lot of that.

LS: I imagine you enjoy it, since you’ve stuck around for ten years.

AN: Oh, I do! I love that it’s very…I mean, first of all, I come to it as a huge fan. Like, growing up I was a very big fan of You Don’t Know Jack. I played it a lot when I was in High School, and it was one of the first jobs that I ever thought of as, like, “It’s weird that that’s someone’s job, to make these jokes.” And yeah, so I still feel sort of honored that I get to do that. And now that we’re doing such a variety of games, it’s very creatively satisfying to do a lot of different, weird projects, and kind of just try to make a lot of different, fun games every year.

LS: Yeah! Very cool! I know I loved You Don’t Know Jack on the PlayStation 1.

AN: Ah, yeah!

LS: I still have it lying around somewhere. I just loved it. One of my favorite things about it was the commercials.

AN: Oh yeah.

LS: I remember buying the audio CD of all of the commercials. It was one of the first things I ever ordered online.

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Seriously. Check out You Don’t Hear Jack. It’s absolutely amazing. (You Don’t Hear Jack, Jackbox Games)

AN: Yeah, I remember getting it free with, probably, You Don’t Know Jack: The Ride or something like that, and I would, you know, back in the day of mixtapes, I would sometimes, in between songs, put a couple of the little fake commercials in there. And that’s one of the joys of working here. It’s been a couple of years since we did a You Don’t Know Jack, but I always love doing the fake commercials, and it’s fun. I’m sort of a…I perform a bit in the Chicago scene, so I know a lot of improvisers and stand-ups in Chicago, so we like to bring them in and do those funny commercials and stuff.

LS: I was going to ask: Do you hire voice actors for that? Do you bring in people?

AN: It’s a mix, really. I mean, it’s funny. We do a lot of it internally. So, the vast majority of it is just ourselves and people in the office and, as a writer and director, I take it as a personal challenge to try and get everyone in the office in the game. You know, just try and find places for people to say something, because it’s fun for everybody to get to be in the game. And to try and find everyone’s unique skill and find a place for them to be in the game. One of our developers is French and so, a few years back, I wrote one and I was like “Well, I’m going to do something where he speaks French” and wrote a French character just to get him in. But then, also, I’ll bring in some of my friends from the improv community and stuff like that…but it’s friends and family. Friends and workers and family, for the most part. We don’t do a ton of big talent searches or anything.

LS: It seems like you guys have a cool dynamic here, as a team, and I imagine a lot of you have been working together for a while now. Do you guys develop your own sense of humor? What’s the day-to-day like here? Is that where a lot of the jokes come from?

AN: Yeah, I think it’s a combination. Some people have been here since, pretty much, the beginning. Andy, the guy who does the bulk of our music and sound effects, has been here since the very beginning. Like, the first You Don’t Know Jack.

LS: Wow.

AN: And our director has been here since the beginning, more or less. He designed that first Jack head, the bald head. He’s still with us. I think our sense of humor comes from…we all enjoy each other’s company and enjoy making each other laugh, and we still sit down and play test our games together and it can get really competitive, just trying to be the funniest person in the room.

LS: Cool. Very cool. Are you guys going to E3?

(Note: This interview took place just before E3, even though this interview is being published just after E3.)

AN: I don’t think so. It’s possible our CEO will, but I think we’re really in a “heads down” place right now, just trying to get as much stuff done as we possibly can.

LS: You guys were at a conference recently. Pax…?

AN: Yeah, Pax East, which was great.

LS: You had a big group and everyone was playing together.

AN: Yeah, we had a stage there and we played A LOT of the Party Pack games with everybody. It was awesome! We were by the food court, so we had a lot of people sitting down and just playing our games for a long time. It was funny, I saw a handful of kids that sat there for hours. Like, there were a couple kids who sat there all day, and I was like “You should…you paid a lot of money to be at this convention. Go experience other stuff as well.” But, it’s fun. People seem to really like it.

LS: That’s awesome, congratulations.

AN: Thank you!

LS: Okay…is Cookie Masterson a real person?

AN: Uh, is Cookie Masterson a real person? That’s a good question. (Laughs) The real answer is he’s a very talented performer. He’s actually the brother of the creator of You Don’t Know Jack.

LS: Oh!

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Fun fact: Through a partnership with Telltale games, Jackbox Games released a retail version of the first Jackbox Party Pack! (Jackbox Party Pack, Jackbox Games)

AN: Yeah. The first host of You Don’t Know Jack was Nate Shapiro, which was played by Harry Gottlieb, who founded the company. And Cookie was a character who sort of introduced Nate Shapiro. Then, I think Harry, after the first or second game, was like “I can’t run this company AND do all of this recording,” because it’s a lot of recording. So he didn’t want to be the host anymore, and so it segued into there being different hosts. And, over time, the best one was clearly Tom, who still–he’s in New York and he records from there, and he also sometimes writes for us–and he’s still very much a part of the company. It’s so second nature for him to just BE Cookie Masterson, but also, if you met him, he is so…NOT Cookie at all.

LS: Really? (laughs)

AN: He’s like the most, almost, zen, soft-spoken but also very kind person. He’s not like an “always on” type of character.

LS: Cool. Is there anything you want to say, or put out there for audiences?

AN: Wow, that’s a good question. Is there anything I would want people to know…I’m very excited about user-generated content in Drawful 2.

LS: Okay!

AN: Which we’ve announced! It works especially well with Drawful. Our games, more and more, have let people in the room be funny. You Don’t Know Jack is all about us being funny at the players, and so we’ve transitioned a bit more with Fibbage and Drawful and Quiplash, creating a space for the people playing. And so the next level of that is not just putting in fake answers, but putting in the right answers and creating their own game. And it’s SO fun. We’ve played so much Drawful over the years. You know, you kind of get tired with playing your own game sometimes, but introducing the user-generated content, where we come up with our own prompts in the room, where all of the correct answers are dumb jokes about each other, basically, it sort of reinvigorates it. It makes it get even closer to the basic idea behind Drawful. The basic idea of Drawful is to try and make it so any weird thing could be right. So, a lot of the prompts in Drawful are written intentionally strangely, or sometimes misspelled as in Drawful 1, which some people didn’t like (laughs), or try to mix it up in this weird way so you’re always thinking “Could this be the right answer? Could this NOT be the right answer?” So literally giving players control over the right answer makes it all the funnier and weirder. But yeah, I’m just super excited about that. People want to put themselves in the game, and this lets them do it even more.

LS: And you directed it.

AN: I directed it.

LS: That’s great! Well, I’m super excited for it, and I’m super exicted for the Party Pack. It’s a great way for us (at BagoGames)–since our staff is everywhere–to connect. Sometimes we just play that game online. Someone will stream it on Twitch and we’ll all play together. And it’s awesome! We love it, so we’re all very excited for it.

AN: That’s awesome. That’s fantastic. I’m directing two games in the Party Pack. We have finally just decided what all of them are, and some of them are getting close to being done, some of them are still very early, and they’re all very cool and weird, and one of them is called Guesspionage. (laughs)

LS: That’s what we know! (laughs)

AN: That’s what we know. (laughs)

LS: Alright, well, we’ll keep our eyes peeled for Wednesday then.

AN: Awesome.

LS: I think we covered a lot, so thank you so much for talking to me! I appreciate it!

AN: Of course!

After our formal interview ended, Arnie showed me around their office space a bit. I didn’t take any pictures (there were computer screens everywhere, and I wouldn’t want to accidentally spoil something!), but it’s a great space for the growing team. There’s a support beam near the entryway which is adorned with the Jackbox Games logo and the iconic bald head. To the left is a meeting room (where a large meeting was occurring as I was there. I kept trying to peek in and see if I could catch a glimpse of something special. No luck.) and to the right are rows of computers where the magic happens.

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The Beam. (Jackbox Games)

My interview with Arnie took place in the back of the office space, which was set up as an employee lounge. There, they had multiple arcade machines, a kitchen, couches with a TV and, of course, a copy of You Don’t Know Jack. He even mentioned that they used to have an old basketball-shooting arcade game, but it was a bit too loud in the office. All-in-all, it was exactly what you imagine a game development office to be.

During some casual discussion, Arnie mentioned that they currently have under 20 people on staff, so they’re still a pretty small company even though they kick out multiple games each year. He also mentioned that they’d only been in their current space for about 3 years, and used to be in a different space not too far away.

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I found the old basketball arcade game! Apparently someone was throwing it out… (Jackbox Games)

As I mentioned, Jackbox Games has announced a few noteworthy things since this interview took place. The second game of Jackbox Party Pack 3 was announced to be Quiplash 2, and was announced to be the only sequel in the pack. So everything else should be brand-spankin’-new! Also announced was the release date of Arnie’s own Drawful 2: June 21st. We’ll definitely have some coverage of the game here at BagoGames, so be sure to keep your eyes peeled for that!

For more developer interviews, coverage of Jackbox Games, and general zaniness, stick with BagoGames!

Special thanks to Arnie Niekamp and Jackbox Games for the interview

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