Chris Tremmel made his name as one of the creators of the classic 16-bit platformer Boogerman, a game that thrived during the gross-out humor craze of the ’90s. Now Tremmel has joined mobile game studio Jam City as a studio creative director.
Tremmel has had a long career. After Boogerman, he went on to work at companies like Electronic Arts and Activision, working on licensed games based on huge media properties like The Lord of the Rings and Transformers. Jam City itself has a reputation for working on licensed games, notably with Harry Potter: Hogwarts Mystery.
We had a chance to talk with Tremmel about his move to the mobile industry, why Jam City is a good fit for him, and if Boogerman will make a comeback.
GamesBeat: After such a long career in more traditional console gaming, why make this transition to mobile?
Chris Tremmel: Since mobile first started, it’s been a market that’s been really interesting to me. Most of my peers, a lot of former bosses and colleagues, went on from EA to start Zynga, or to work at Zynga and start their own companies. All these other mobile companies. Over those years I had discussed potentially moving into mobile. It was always very scary, because it was such a different market. When mobile was first launched, it was almost unrecognizable compared to what it is today.
That wasn’t very many years ago. It was a process of changing my mind from working on something for a year or two at a time and shipping it off in a box, transitioning to the concept of making a product and then supporting it for a number of years as a service. That took me several years, coming to grips with that concept alone. When I first heard of that, it seemed very foreign to me. That was probably in 2012, maybe? Around that time. It’s all been building, really. The technology is getting so good. The mobile market has been pushed so far now that it really feels like it’s converging, finally, with console.
I’ve been spending a bit of time on the PC in the last few years. I’ve felt that sense of a particular development style. It was console-type development. After getting here to Jam City, it’s clear that these two worlds are colliding now. The thing that makes me feel good about being here now is that I’ve spent all this time learning about game design, building and shipping games, trying to get better at the craft. People working on mobile have defined and laid the groundwork for so many things. Honestly I’m just standing on the shoulders of giants here, trying to take my console sensibilities and merge them with the thinking around what makes a successful game as a service, how the economies work, the whole free-to-play thing. It’s a new world, for sure.
GamesBeat: Are you working on specific titles on Jam City?
Tremmel: I’m working across everything that’s in development here at the LA studio. Right now that would be Wild Things, which is still in soft launch, and a game that we have live right now that’s been live for a couple of years, Genies and Gems.
GamesBeat: Jam City has a lot of licensed games, and you’ve had a lot of experience from things like Lord of the Rings and Transformers. Did that make the company seem like a good fit for you, or is that just a coincidence?
Tremmel: No, that was a huge thing for me. I’ve always been involved with licenses, on and off, throughout my whole career. One thing I’ve seen in the industry, you watch these cycles come and go. A new console cycle will start. You might have some licenses in the beginning, and then a lot of new IP, newer ideas happening. Then, by the end of the life cycle, you see a ton more licenses, because publishers are relying on brand equity and that sort of thing. In the past I would see companies go either all the way one way or all the way the other. It was either reacting to do all IP, own all your own stuff, or reacting to focus all on licensed products. Usually, because this industry is so cyclical, that sort of focus in the long term doesn’t work out that well.
One thing I love about Jam City is they complement — I have to see “we” now. We complement our portfolio with some great original IP, but then we strengthen it with some well-loved licenses. I love working on a good license. It can be a lot of fun if you’re into it, and if it’s a license that has a lot of depth. In my time working with Lord of the Rings I was exposed to so many amazing people, artists and developers. I still keep those relationships going today. But yeah, the licensing part is definitely important for me. If you’ve ever watched Josh talk about how Jam City approaches licenses, it’s basically — it’s the way that I would hope that they would approach it and handle it. We’re not relying on it, but it’s something that’s good for us to have.
You can see, with the latest success we’ve had with Potter, that’s an awesome franchise. People love it so much. I’ve been on the development side working with licensors. I don’t work on that title, but I know that’s a solid franchise to work on.
GamesBeat: Licensed games seem like they’ve had a big change recently. It used to be that every major blockbuster would also have a console game coincide with it, and now they have mobile tie-ins. What do you think a licensed mobile game needs to succeed, compared to back when you were making things like Lord of the Rings?
Tremmel: The biggest difference, when you’re going onto mobile here, is really going to be the business model. How it ends up being profitable for the company. No longer is it just the type of thing where you can release pretty much anything on mobile and have it do well. The market is so saturated now that — the consumer is pretty smart. I think a successful license — it depends on how you define successful as well, right? A successful licensed game is going to be something that — it’s going to need to be a good fit with whatever the type of game it is. Because these games are built on fan loyalty, the licenses have to be treated with respect and represented correctly to the general public. I’ve worked on licenses that have been handled as best as they possibly could, and I’ve worked on licenses that have been handled really poorly.
The difference is clear to the consumer. If there’s a group of fans who love a particular show, they will see right through it if it’s an opportunistic take, trying to make a quick buck. It has to do with the design, matching the design with the property. It has to do with having a good relationship with the license-holder. The mobile stuff nowadays is all about executing on the free-to-play economy part. Can you build something that feels fair to the player, and it’s also beneficial to the company? That’s one of the newest exciting parts for me coming into the mobile space as a whole.
GamesBeat: You’ve mentioned puzzle games. How do you make this kind of game stand out in a market that’s pretty saturated, especially with match-three titles.
Tremmel: That was definitely one of my big focuses coming into Jam City. Because of the progression of the industry as a whole on mobile, and because these game companies now are beginning to push stuff and try out new things and bringing in more mid-core features, it’s really difficult now. Because there are so many games in the market, and because there are so many companies making them, what’s ending up — the games that stand out are the games that appear to have had some extra love and care put into them, some extra craftsmanship. Going into the market now, the regular casual — there’s always going to be a market for super casual games. Hyper casual, regular casual. We’re finding that our users are pretty intelligent users. That sounds really horrible? But bringing in these metagames and this progression and these concepts that build up retention is really important nowadays.
There are so many games. It’s so easy to download them and delete them. Because of the complexity of the audience we’re approaching, we’re bringing in new concepts, and a lot of those concepts are coming directly from traditional console game development. If you look back at a lot of Nintendo stuff, a lot of Rare stuff, it’s built around concepts like progression and collection. They have multiple systems supporting each other that provide a more interesting experience. We have to think a lot now about, why are you going to come back in an hour to play again? Why are you coming back tonight and tomorrow and next week and next month and next year? In the past that wasn’t necessarily part of the main focus. It was, make as good a game as we can, get it in the box, get it to the customer. Now it’s all about customer feedback, changing and adapting, and trying to make a good experience for folks.
GamesBeat: Is that something that’s hard to adjust to, that sense of community and the constant feedback loop?
Tremmel: It’s definitely more challenging. There are lots more moving pieces now, a lot more big picture that has to be looked at down the road. Before, we’d think about maybe doing some DLC for a game if it was successful. Now, as we’re going into these designs, we’re looking at one year, three years, five years down the road to make sure we have a plan to support this stuff. In the past we would use focus tests, and then that would be pretty much it. We still use focus tests, but we also have a group inside Jam City, the Jam City Insiders. You can look into that group for a little more detail, but it’s a kind of elite type focus group we have made up of regular players of our games. We’re always doing something with those guys. It’s been a tougher concept to get my head around, but I think that — as a gamer myself, it’s the kind of stuff that I want from titles, that I want from games. As I’ve grown as a gamer and become more of a mobile player, I’m also recognizing these things myself.
GamesBeat: You’ve been involved with a lot of different companies. How does the work culture at Jam City compare to your past experiences?
Tremmel: I’ve been a lot of different studios. Inside the studio here, we’re at the LA headquarters, which is awesome. We have all the execs and all the main departments of the company here. And then within the company we have our development studios. The culture really is — it’s changed. Over the years, the teams and these different cultures have changed. This culture at Jam City is one where we encourage people to be expressive with the work they’re doing. We’re fostering a place where people can come and have a good time doing the work they’re doing and feel like they’re able to contribute and make a difference. I’m working with a lot of kids now. I’m working with several folks who weren’t even born yet when Boogerman came out. [laughs] It’s a whole different world for me.
To be honest with you, I’m a kinder, gentler developer. I’m a much different developer than I was back in 2001 at EA. I’ve tried to take what I’ve been through, take those learnings and apply them to try to make a good working environment where people are. So the culture here — it’s kind of what you would expect? We work hard. We hit our deadlines. We hold ourselves to high standards. But also, our families are important. Our friends are important. We try to find a balance between that stuff.
GamesBeat: A few years ago there was an attempt to revive Boogerman on Kickstarter and Steam Greenlight. Is the idea of doing anything else like that still on the table?
Tremmel: I really wish I could do it. I really want to. I know Michael Stragey, my partner from back then, also really wishes we could have an opportunity to do it again. There’s some issues with the license. That’s owned by Interplay, and Interplay has — at one point they were selling everything, and they weren’t willing to separate that license out. We had a deal with them during the Kickstarter time, but that was just for the Kickstarter that happened. I haven’t spoken with them in quite a while. It’s one of those things.
Sometimes I think, do I want to do it just for selfish reasons? Would people really enjoy it? We still have some really funny stuff that I think people would like. That kind of humor, as childish as it is, is pretty timeless, you know? It’s still valid and relevant in today’s culture. You still see all the toys and cartoons and movies doing gross-out stuff. That property is really near and dear to Mike and myself. So yeah, definitely, it would be something I’d love to do again. I just don’t know if it would ever happen.
GamesBeat: Boogerman seems so emblematic of that time, with the irreverence, being gross and being funny. A lot of games in general were in that direction, or at least that’s what was popular. Do you think it’s as easy to find a trend like that in games today? Or has the market gotten too broad to draw any kinds of easy definitions like that?
Tremmel: Nowadays it’s really difficult to do that. It’s so challenging now, with how quickly things change. With the saturation of games in general and media in general, it’s harder and harder to find little niche things that aren’t being done by a lot of folks. Most of the time, by the time you catch up with the trend you’re chasing, the next trend is probably going to be lined up. It’s super hard now. Nowadays we have to rely on data and what the temperature of the general public is. It’s really tough. A lot of times now you think you might be betting on something right, and it just doesn’t hit. It’s a lot harder now.
There’s a lot more money involved now, too. There’s a lot more scrutiny as far as being able to spend money with different publishers on different things.