Don’t call it a comeback; they’ve been weird for years.
ToeJam & Earl is back. Well, assuming it meets its Kickstarter goal. Yes, series creator Greg Johnson has turned to crowdfunding to help him make a new sequel to his Genesis classic. This time, he’s fully independent with a small team, without any help (or hindrance) from Sega.
I had a chance to talk with Johnson about the new game, titled Back in the Groove. We also discussed the creation of the original and his frustrations with its previous sequels.
GamesBeat: What is the new ToeJam & Earl about? Why make a sequel now?
Greg Johnson: The new game is coming out of the desire to satisfy all the fans who’ve been asking for this for so many years. Decades, actually. In Toe Jam & Earl, we got three or four — maybe three months — down the road on a sequel to game one. It was going to look like game one, and then Sega asked us to hold up and do a side-scrolling platformer instead. Sales were slow on game one initially. The marketing department didn’t really get it. We were too different from the other stuff. We were young and naïve and wanted to please, so we said, sure, OK. We scratched our heads and tried to figure out how to stuff the spirit of Toe Jam & Earl into a side-scroller and did our best with Panic on Funkotron, but the fans were just kind of confused. A lot of fans were disappointed, in fact.
The game eventually did OK, though, and then in 2002, we took another shot, Mark (Voorsangerand, the other co-founder of ToeJam & Earl Productions) and I. We tried to build a sequel that was faithful to game one, with Sega’s support. Then, before we finished, seven or eight months before we were due to ship, they asked us to make a whole bunch of changes to the game. They were worried the game was too old-school. They had us change the stacked level structure to a hub structure. All kinds of changes. Adding bosses and minigames and gates and keys and all this stuff they thought the game needed to be more modern. Once again, our fans were like, “What? What is this? This isn’t Toe Jam & Earl.” That was frustrating and disappointing.
Now that I’ve finished with my last project, Doki-Doki Universe for Sony — I was trying to figure out what to do next. Everybody’s been suggesting for ages that I think about Kickstarter. I thought, OK, maybe it’s finally time.
The new game is very much in the spirit of game one. It’s going to have 2D sprites and a fixed camera view. We’re building the world in 3D, building it in Unity. We want to go to all platforms, although initially it’s going to be on PC. But I want to add some freshness to it, too. I don’t just want to re-create game one, because people can still go out and buy that. It’s available today as a digital download on PSN and Xbox Live and all that. I’m going to bring a bunch of new stuff to it. But it’ll still be in the spirit of the old game.
It’ll have a new look, too. We have a really talented young artist named Nathan Short, who’s a comic book artist. It has this really fun “1990s underground comic book” style to the characters and the world. It’s going to have all the old earthlings and presents and lots of funky music, but I have a whole list of new game features that I’m hoping to put in. I’m still in the process of prioritizing and scoping. I’m a little hesitant to list out all the features I have in mind, because I don’t know for sure which ones are going to make it into the game and which ones won’t. One of the things we’re definitely going to do is have up to four-player multiplayer online. We probably won’t do the split-screen on the PC, because it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense, two people sitting at a keyboard. But we will do that for consoles. We’ll have random mode and story mode. I want to put some more story into that, take an opportunity to build the characters up. But it has to have the random levels.
GamesBeat: Randomly generated levels is very much like an old rogue-like thing, right?
Johnson: Yep. One of the cool things, though, is that since it’s actually built in 3D, we can do some fun stuff. We were constrained in the old days with building in tiles on the Genesis. Now there’s actual geometry in the world that makes sense. If you fall down from the level above, you fall into the place where you fell from. You can be a little more strategic. You can go to a location and jump down if you want to land in a certain place. We can do some fun things like pull the camera way out sometimes. You can see all the stacked levels. It looks pretty cool, seeing the world that way.
GamesBeat: You said four-player co-op. I assume we have Toe Jam and Earl, bringing back Latisha from ToeJam and Earl III for the third character, and then a fourth new character?
Johnson: It’s funny you should ask that. On my Facebook page I solicited some input from the fans there. We have maybe 15,000 fans following there, who are giving me lots of good feedback. I think I probably will opt for Latisha, but I’m thinking she might be a stretch goal or something like that. It’ll probably be Toe Jam, Earl, Peabo, and Lawanda as the four main characters.
Then I’ll have, as a stretch goal, probably — It’s funny. I was just writing about this an hour ago, trying to make up my mind. But probably Latisha and Sharla as the two additional characters. That would round out the female side of it, too. That was why I added Latisha in the first place, because I realized that ToeJam and Earl are both guys. A lot of women liked the game and so I thought they should have a character.
GamesBeat: Is that one of the difficult things about building the Kickstarter model? Figuring out what would be part of the initial pitch and what would be a stretch goal?
Johnson: That’s right. I’m right in the thick of that right now. In fact, it’s one of the things on my to-do list for today, to try to take another pass at what those stretch goals are going to be. It’s tricky. Committing to stuff at this stage in the game, when you’re not really sure how much work or complexity there’s going to be in it — you want to make it appealing enough so that people will be excited and want to up their donations. That’s the whole Kickstarter thing. It’s a lot of head-scratching and trying to figure out how all that goes and hoping I’m making the right decisions.
GamesBeat: Is there any fear that Kickstarter is beginning to dry up for video game projects?
Johnson: A little bit. I’ve been reading about it, how the average donations and numbers of backed projects are dropping now, halving every six months or whatever it was. But I think, fingers crossed and knocking on wood and stuff, there are lots of ToeJam & Earl fans out there. I think we’re pretty well suited for Kickstarter. It’s the sort of thing that tends to do pretty well. There’s still enough life in this.
I was reading an interesting article this morning, I’m not sure where it was from, about how somebody’s predicting that, in the future, all games — including triple-A titles from big publishers — are going to be crowdfunded. That’s going to become the main model for funding, which isn’t necessarily good news for little indie developers. It could still mean the well dries up for the little people as more and more developers move into the space, big players, and it gets saturated. But we’ll see. It’s all a grand experiment. I don’t quite know what to expect.
GamesBeat: Is Kickstarter the end-all, be-all for getting this project made? Is that where the hope begins and ends for this sequel?
Johnson: Oh, no. Let me back up a little big. There are two factors as far as making this happen. One is money, and one is just general interest level. If I don’t meet my minimum bar — I’m probably going out with an ask of around $400,000. That would leave me with about $300,000, or a little bit less — I have a lot of physical merchandise to ship out as rewards — for the actual development. If I can’t even raise that much, I have to question how much people want a new Toe Jam & Earl game and consider whether I should turn to something else.
There are certainly other ways I can get funded. I have enough connections in the industry and the investment community that I think I could dig up the money for it. But I’m just not sure I would do that. I’d have to really sit down and put my head together with some people — my friend, who I’m building this with, who is not Mark by the way. He’s off in some other career and has been for the last decade. I stayed in the games business, but he’s not, so I’m doing this with another engineer friend. We have to figure out what we’re going to do next. His name’s Jeff Kreis. He was my lead engineer for a DS title I did that never got released. It was in some ways a sort of precursor to Doki-Doki Universe. I’ve worked with Jeff before. He’s a great guy, a super-goodhearted guy.
GamesBeat: Was there ever any thought about reaching out to Sega? It sounds like you kind of had your fill of them.
Johnson: In a way — I don’t blame them for any of the choices they made. It’s an awful lot of money on the line. Publishers always have to do what they think is best to mitigate their risk. Even then, I never felt victimized by their choices. I just didn’t agree with them. But I went along in as good a spirit as I could muster. I don’t have anything against Sega at all. In fact, just the opposite. I feel thankful. They’ve been almost like a second parent to these characters. They’re still selling. I’m not really totally up on the business side of things, but I have the impression that Sega is not super-flush these days.
GamesBeat: Yeah, there’s been talk of downsizing and moving toward digital releases.
Johnson: They’re moving more into mobile. They’re not so much into console. If I was going to work with a publisher, I think I would go to them first, probably, just because of the Toe Jam & Earl history, but part of what I want out of this is the old indie dream of being my own master and making the games I want to make the way I want to make them. I see this as an opportunity to do that. I’m going to take a shot at it without any big money behind it. But it also comes with all the other stresses of bootstrapping and — I’m spending my own retirement account right now, paying salaries for other people. I’m out on a bit of a financial limb, having faith that it’s all going to work out. That’s the indie life. We’ll see.
Honestly, I don’t know if we’re going to just barely make our bar or if we’re going to make a lot more and have a chance to build it out. We’re going to do all kinds of things. I’m going to have the Hyper Funk Zone. I want to have rhythm matching like we had in game three. I want to do customizable skills for the players, customizable clothes that have persistent abilities. An A.I. character as a helper for you. All this cool stuff. I want to blow it out and make the awesome game I really want to play. We’ll see what resources I have to work with and I’ll make the best game I can given what I get.
GamesBeat: I’m definitely all for the Hyper Funk Zone.
Johnson: I gotta put in some of that old-school stuff. That’s important. I wonder if I could even — maybe I’ll try to copy the placement of the levels. I tried playing it again recently, just to see. I used to be able to get all the way to the end when I was making the game. I played it every day for about a year. But I couldn’t do it anymore. It wasn’t there in my brain.
GamesBeat: I’m always a big defender of Panic on Funkotron. I loved that game as a kid.
Johnson: Isn’t that funny? It’s almost a controversy, where people divide up into two sides. That’s always kind of amusing.
GamesBeat: You could say that you had an idea for the original that was a bit more unique, and then it went to something simpler as a 2D platformer, but to me it was a very different 2D platformer. It was still special.
Johnson: Yeah, I like that observation. That was certainly the goal. I wanted to make it feel both very cooperative and also very exploratory. Platformers are generally so reflexive. They’re all about timing. I find that for me that gets a little too fast. But it was a real challenge to try to figure out how to do that when we didn’t want to slow the gameplay down with the inventory and having all these different presents like in game one, making it more action-y.
GamesBeat: I feel like it would be great if you could just kind of troll people and tell them the next Toe Jam & Earl is going to be a shooter or something. Just keep changing the genre every game.
Johnson: Toe Jam beefs up, Earl slims down, and they get some automatic weapons and kick butt. [Laughs] That would be pretty fun, to play that up and see what kind of reaction we get.
GamesBeat :I wrote about this game a bit when I was talking about the anniversary of the Genesis. One of the big takeaways for me was that it was so wonderfully weird. I had to wonder how this idea of combining hip-hop culture and sci-fi aesthetics came about in the first place.
Johnson: It’s funny. My most creative moments are in the shower. So forgive me for saying this, but I was in the shower this morning, oddly enough, thinking about creativity and boring my wife with this stream of thoughts about what creativity is and how you get off the rails into association-land, off the rails of causality and logic. It’s sort of this practice you do, where you get in the habit of looking for associations that aren’t causal. One thing makes you think of another thing and you just let it flow. I don’t know. In that particular instance, it just sort of stuck my funny bone with these characters. By the way, I’m half black. My dad’s black and my mom’s white. That comes out in some of the stuff I’ve built. I made Orly’s Draw-a-Story some years ago with a black girl as a main character.
Toe Jam & Earl, in my mind, comes from the black culture of the time, the way they talk, and the music I grew up with in the ’80s. That was a big part of me, what I’ve always loved. I guess it just kind of popped out, these two funny aliens, these two black dudes who were like, “Yo, whassup Big Earl?” “Whatchoo think about those Earthlings?” “They’re craaaaazy.”
I had this whole dialogue in my head between these two characters that appealed to me. And then I thought of their ship, with these huge speakers thumping bass flying through outer space. I didn’t think too hard about it. But with Earth I thought about, well, what would Earth be like to these aliens? It wouldn’t make a lot of sense. It’d just be all this crazy stuff they didn’t understand. I just started spewing out all the crazy earthling stuff I could think of. That’s where the boogeyman, the ice cream truck, the shopper, the lady, the lawnmower man, the hula dancer, all that stuff came from. It’s funny. I get nostalgic about it too. It was a big part of my life. Your life has different chapters, you know? That was one that really stands out in my memory.
GamesBeat: It seems like a lot of people very specifically have that Genesis nostalgia. What do you think it is about that era that still sticks with people today?
Johnson: That’s a good question. You know Chris Waters, from GameSpot? I had lunch with him about a week ago. It’s the first time I got to know him. He’s interviewed me a couple of times, but we just sort of hung out, and we got into a discussion about that very topic. Why is it that nostalgia seems to be such a powerful force right now? What we came up with was a couple of things. One, it seems like we’re just at that age now. It happens that the games were just breaking back then. Around your 40s is when you really start to get nostalgic, really start looking back on your life. It’s when you have kids who are reaching an age where you want to share your childhood with them. That plus the social media phenomenon, where it’s so easy to tweet out, hey, remember this? Or post something on Facebook that’s meaningful. Then it just spreads. It’s like yawning in front of somebody. People catch it and then they spread it. That was kind of what we came up with as far as why. I don’t know. It’s just a cultural thing, too, one of our cultural memes right now. At least in the game industry. It’s like in the movies, where there’s a sort of retro trend, a revival of all these old properties. That’s about the extent of my insight on that. I don’t know for sure why.