Home » Interview with Greg Johnson.

Interview with Greg Johnson.

Toe Jam and Earl is a game made in the moment of the early 1990’s. Full of funk, full of co-operation, and full of fun throughout. I first came across the series in its sequel, ‘Panic on Funkotron’, and have played it repeatedly whenever i could.

Greg Johnson is a veteran of the games industry, alongside Toe Jam and Earl, there’s also been the Starflight series and Star Control. In 2006, he formed his own studio HumaNature Studios, working with Konami and Dreamworks Animation in the subsequent years.

In 2015, he decided to launch a Kickstarter to revive Toe Jam & Earl, in their fourth outing called ‘Back in the Groove’.

Since it’s been over a year since the Kickstarter ended, I have been fortunate to ask Greg a few questions about the series and the game industry as a whole. He was also kind enough to send me over some screens of the new hyperfunk zone, which for me, completely nails the look of how it looked to me back in ‘Funkotron’.

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What ideas did you have that came to form the first Toe Jam & Earl?

The original TJ&E game came from a couple things that sort of converged.  One was a love I had for an old game called Rogue… the original rogue that I played with ASCII characterts on the mainframe computer on a terminal in a little room, until 3:00am many nights when I should have been sleeping or studying.  The second thing it came from was my desire to make a really fun coop game that would make people laugh together.  Next was a love/obsession I had with aliens.  I had just finished making a few really big games about aliens, Starflight1, Starflight 2 and Star Control (with Paul Reiche and Fred Ford) and I still had aliens on the brain.  The last thing was my love for funky music.  I wanted to create a game that was filled with it. Toss all of that into a pot and stir and out popped ToeJam and Earl.  Many people have asked if I was using drugs or smoking pot when I came up with it.  Simple answer … “nope”.  I never have actually, and don’t think I ever will.

With 2 becoming a platformer due to pressure from Sega, what was the original concept for the sequel, if you even wanted to create a successor in the first place?

The original idea for the sequel was to make it just like the original game but add to it.  Mark and I had a number of plans to add more new Earthlings and new presents and new types of terrains and environments.  Going inside houses was a big one we were thinking we would tackle.  Neither of us were bitter or felt like victims though.  There are lots of different roads to successful and satisfying games.  When Sega said they didn’t think a sequel would sell and that we should change direction and build it like a side-scroller with bigger characters and more fast paced action our thought was “OK, you guys probably know best” so we did our best to keep the spirit of TJ&E alive in a new type of game.  It was actually a fun challenge.  Oh well, it was probably not a good strategic move for the franchise, but hindsight is always easy.

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Do you think 3, even because of pressure from the publisher, could have been more successful if it had been available on other consoles than just the Xbox at the time?

Absolutely. I think both the Nintendo Gamecube or the PS1 would have been a better match for us audience wise.  Xbox had an even more hardcore shooter audience in its early-adopter days than it does today, and Microsoft was looking for a product to broaden its demographic, so they offered a sweet deal for exclusivity.  Pushing into a non-existent market isn’t always a great place to be for a product.  Furthermore, one doesn’t just put whatever one has onto a platform.  You build with your audience in mind.  Going for the Xbox audience is partly what caused the Sega folks to push us so much to change the game by adding boss battles, and gates and keys and such.  They were afraid if we didn’t do all that we would lose that hard core gamer audience.  They also wanted us to make the game a bit more… um…  PG13.

Toejam & Earl in Panic on Funkotron 2015-08-04 11.07.19

The first game was all about collaboration between two players whereas the sequel drifted away from this. How will this be carried over with Back in the Groove?

I wouldn’t say the second game drifted away from cooperation between two players.  We found that the split screen didn’t work so well with two big characters and faster paced action, so we kept them on the same screen, but two player coop was definitely at the core of that game as well. In back to the groove we’re expanding the coop to up to 4 players and making it online as well as couch co-op.  We’re also allowing players to go into the Hyperfunk Zone together, building in player to player conversations that get triggered by what’s going on in the game, creating a number of special coop presents, and doing a lot of things to try and enhance the cooperative nature of the game. It would be tough to list it all here.  Co-op play is now and will always be what TJ&E is all about.  Having fun together.

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With Back in the Groove now in production, what’s the aim for the franchise going forward? Comics? Exclusive Spotify albums from each game perhaps?

Well “one step at a time” is the word of the day. OK so that’s 5 words, but still, one thing I’ve learned is that you can’t make assumptions about what will take off and sell in big numbers and what will crash and burn.  You just stay heads down and work hard and do your best with where you’re at.  That said, I am enjoying working on the music and we plan to release a CD and record album which is totally going to rock the funky house like nobodies business.  We also have a TJ&E board game that I made up years ago and we’ve been playing that here at the office on our game nights.  I’m thinking about maybe running a Kickstarter for that, but that would probably be mainly for publicity for Back in the Groove. I don’t really expect the board game to generate much money.

You’ve been in the industry for over 20 years, and only recently changes are becoming more abrupt and disruptive. Where do you think its headed, especially for the games that you want to make? 

I’ve been making games as an independent developer since 1982.  That’s 35 years – probably fair to say since the game industry began.  I’m not sure I’d say that only recently changes have been abrupt or disruptive though.  There have always been ups and downs, and big shifts in priorities and availability of resources.  Making it as a small independent developer  has never been easy.  Right now the biggest challenge is getting funding for mid-level budget games without having a prototype.  Publishers right now are spending either very small amounts (e.g. $100K)  or very large amounts ($20 million), but not much in the middle range of say 1 to 3 million, which is what small developers need to make a game.  Also they all expect to see prototypes before they will spend anything, which is tough for small shops who do only one game at a time.

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We’re also in an age where everything can play the same, sound the same, and even be marketed the same. How will Back in the Groove be different?

I’m actually seeing a lot more variety in games than I did say 10 years ago, so I’m not sure about that assessment of our current age.  Nevertheless, I agree with your implied point which is that there isn’t enough diversity in the game industry in general.  As to Back In the Groove, it’s difficult to describe in a line or two.  Toejam and Earl has always stood out from the crowd a bit.  That’s mainly because of it’s crazy musical-aliens theme, and its focus on cooperative play.  There aren’t many games out there that really offer a great coop experience, especially that are light-hearted and fun for all ages and genders.  We’re taking this idea further with a lot of fun elements that make people smile and laugh and enjoy their time together.  It’s tough to describe them all here though.

Can you see the series being played more on an AppleTV than a games console in the future? If so, could we be seeing a port of Back in the Groove coming to tvOS?

I hadn’t given that any thought.  Sure, I don’t see why not.  There are currently no plans for this though.

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Are there any plans for a re-release of the original three Toe Jam’s for mobile devices? Seeing the first game on an iPad while on the train would be a personal wish of mine.

None currently, though that is in part determined by Sega.  They own the original games and we own the IP so we both need to agree in order to do anything new with the old games.  I think it’s worth looking into with them.

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It’s now been over a year since the Kickstarter was funded, has there been any developments in the game coming to consoles, even though those stretch goals weren’t met at the time?

Yes, but I’m afraid I can’t say what just yet.  Our funding partner who is helping us bring the game to consoles doesn’t want us to make any announcements just yet, as it is an opportunity for some PR and they want to really help launch the franchise, which is exciting.

How is progress coming along in the year since? The last Kickstarter update was 28th January, is it on track for a release by this fall for PC, Mac and Linux?

Since you wrote this question we did an update on April 14th, and we’ll be doing another one hopefully this week.  Updates are super important, but so is staying focused and hitting out internal deadlines. We’ve been working hard to get to an important milestone, which we just met, so an update is coming very soon!  In terms of the release date, we are still on track with our schedule, but the release date might change depending on what our funding partner wants to do.  They will also be doing some marketing for us, and we’re counting on them to help us make smart decisions.

Many thanks to Greg who took the time to answer these for me, along with the screenshots.

Back in the Groove is scheduled to be released later this year.