Two of the Jackbox Games company, Vice President of International Games Andy Kniaz and International and Partnership Lead Belia Portillo, kindly let me question them about upcoming plans, the creative process, and their favourite games. They stopped briefly at WASD in London to hold The Jackbox: Party Panel Live! during the event.
Harry Gottlieb created Jackbox in 1989, as a tool to teach trivia to school children and help them learn. From there, it morphed into You Don’t Know Jack in 1995, which is essentially Jackbox’s first incarnation. There was a rebrand to Jellyvision, then to Jellyvision Games in 2008, and to Jackbox Games as we know it in 2013.
But what was it that led to the creation of Jackbox? Andy tells me the following – “it started with You Don’t Know Jack, lots of different flavours of it. What do you do when you have success, you milk that success!”. Very rightly so. From there, they tried a “bunch of different things” – Jackbox is a resilient company it seems and has invented itself over and over again for future wins.
Their success led to the creation of the first Party Pack; a collection of five games for multiple players to enjoy together. Jackbox has hit new highs ever since and is now working on Party Pack 10.
So, this leads me to ask how Jackbox decides which games to bring back or update – is it a popularity thing or do they have a technical way of looking at it? “Really what we do is rely on user data”, Andy says. “We rely on our users and play data to select what we call the ‘tent pole games’”. Those tent-pole games go on to become the new instances of the Party Packs, like Tee K.O 2 in this year’s selection.
Jackbox creates five games in a year, within a nine-month cycle, which means they need a constant stream of ideas. Jackbox has a suitably interesting greenlight process for making new games. Anyone involved with Jackbox is encouraged to pitch content – Andy remarks – no matter who they are. Write an idea in a Word document, create a PowerPoint, or even make a demo, and it will go through to the committee for review. Each year there are new faces on the team to keep it fresh and to bring in new ideas.
The games are judged and either greenlit, yellowlit, or redlit. Redlit means to stop the idea and try again at a later time, whereas yellowlit indicates a good idea that needs further work. Greenlit games, of course, go on to the further stages, though they may not be in the next Party Pack to keep a variety going. For instance, a whole pack of drawing games may not be everyone’s cup of tea!
In terms of how Jackbox sources its content – the jokes, the trivia, and snappy quips – Andy tells us about their process. “We don’t really source, what we do is we hire very talented writers. Those same writers come from an improv background.” Jackbox hails from Chicago, where Second City is based – one feeder of talent for Saturday Night Live. This is where Jackbox swoops in to grab the freshest talent who come up with witty ways of writing content.
Jackbox’s use of mobile devices to interact with its games is a fun and accessible way to share with friends, so I asked if more cross-platform functionality or different games were on the horizon. Belia brings up Zeeple Dome here, one of the company’s biggest experiments. “It’s not the most popular game in our roster, but it was an attempt”. Zeeple Dome is recommended for touch-screen devices, especially in a local area, as some latency may impact the game across longer distances.
She also notes that they can’t say too much, but they’re working on ways to use controllers to further accessibility and innovation – “we’re getting better and better people working for us to drive that home”.
I’ve played Jackbox online via Discord with my friends, using our phones and in person – and it never ceases to amaze me that Jackbox has done this functionality so well. No matter where we are, there’s always jokes a plenty and someone in tears of laughter by the end. “That’s what we aim for,” Belia says, it’s one of the signs our game is ready to be greenlit if they’re playing it during that process and can’t stop laughing. It’s a criterion for success.”
When playtesting games and talking about future titles, ease of use comes up a lot – i’is always key that Jackbox games are fun and simple to use. “Our games are made to be enjoyed on someone’s couch, but can also be played on Discord, Zoom, Google Meet, or whatever”, Andy agrees.
The Jackbox games all launch on the Nintendo Switch, which is nice, along with mobile-adjacent platforms like tablets and Apple TV. Jackbox works a lot with Amazon’s Luna cloud gaming service, having embraced the platform early on. About the service, Andy says they were “very quick about cultivating a relationship with them.”
My curiosity got the better of me after having a random thought, so I enquired if they’d thought of a Jackbox app, along the lines of a Quizup-type deal. “When someone comes to us with an idea like that, which is a very good idea, there is no way it hasn’t been looked into or pitched,” Andy tells me. It seems like any and all ideas one could have for Jackbox have been floated at one time or another, and the team have tried to figure out a way to do it.
Jackbox tends to work in the long term, especially with their five games in nine months schedule, so bringing something brand new into the mix isn’t always easy. Essentially, if you ask ‘has Jackbox thought of [insert wacky idea here]?’, assume that yes, they have thought about it.
Belia reiterates here that it’s “five games, not mini games – five full games every year.” From January to October the team’s workload is stuffed in order to get the games through submission and onto creation, each using a team of developers, musicians, artists – you name it. “We do everything in-house including publishing – so it’s kind of a unique situation compared to some other studios. Nothing is quite like Jackbox!”.
I asked if this makes a difference compared to life at other brands, and Belia says “yes, absolutely”. She’s on the marketing team and Jackbox doesn’t outsource any of it. “I can tap a director [on the shoulder] and ask hey, what’s your opinion on this, and get an immediate response”. No waiting multiple business days for a response does sound nice.
Moving on to the fun part of the interview, I asked what the duo’s favourite games are, “This is a question we get asked all the time and it’s actually a question we ask in interviews”, replies Belia. “The answer changes all the time. It used to be Tee K.O [for me] and now we’re making a sequel… I wanna say Tee K.O 2 is the one that gets the most laughs out of me consistently”. A very good choice, I think.
Andy, on the other hand, likes Trivia Murder Party 2. “I love that game. I also really like the Quiplash series. The Fibbage series is fun for people because it’s trivia you’re not meant to know. You’re meant to bluff your way through and people are often shocked more by the true answers than the fibs!”
The Jackbox team is well aware that their player base has a habit of going for the grossest, most shocking answer, or something to get perhaps cheaper laughs. “I like to challenge myself personally to completely avoid that and come up with funnier answers. If you try and make it very kid friendly you have to be more creative than just ‘fart’ as the answer for everything” Belia says. Personally, I think ‘fart’ is a great answer, but I agree – it cannot be used for every answer.
One of Andy’s favourite things about Jackbox’s titles is that the game can completely change depending on who you play with. “I’ll sit down with my 8-year-old daughter – totally different experience than me and my buddies drinking together and busting each other out”, he says. “That’s the best part about Jackbox is we allow people to put themselves into the game. That, I think, is the key”. I quite agree.
Personally, Tee K.O is a favourite of mine, and I feel that the worst drawings often win because well-done artistic pieces aren’t as interesting. “It gets depressing because you’ll be up against artists with a tablet and they can whip something up, and my guy will be a weird disfigured stickman!” – me too, Andy, I also draw the stickmen.
Last but certainly not least, I asked if the pair have anything fun to share – “Tee K.O 2 was the last announcement we had and we’re gonna be announcing before the end of the month the second game of five in Party Pack 10, so stay tuned for that. By the end of the summer, we’ll have them all out there”, Belia notes.
Andy then mentions something that plays on his mind: “Sometimes I wonder if people look at Jackbox Party Pack 10 and think gosh, I’m unfamiliar”. He reassures potential players that it’s not like Final Fantasy, and that “you don’t have to be familiar with some big lore”. Every single Jackbox game is a fun time you can play without any prior knowledge.
He also tells me that this year, Jackbox is shipping titles in French, Italian, and two types of Spanish. “It’s really important to me that people experience our games and we can spread the humour around the world”. As for the larger Jackbox team, they’re hard at work on Jackbox Party Pack 10, “bringing more laughs to people around the world”. Belia follows this up with “and more farts”, which is the most important thing.
It was delightful to sit down with the Jackbox team, and we hope you enjoyed our chat. If you’re not sure what game to reach for now, why not check out the best party games and Switch games for kids?