Getting To Know The Man Behind ToeJam & Earl

by Jeff Cork on Mar 16, 2015 at 09:30 PM

I didn’t know exactly what to expect before my meeting with HumaNature Studios' Greg Johnson. I’ve played most of the games he’s worked on over the years, including Star Control, Starflight, and Doki Doki Universe. And, of course, ToeJam & Earl. Playing armchair psychiatrist, I assumed that he was a funny, empathetic guy with an interest in aliens. His Kickstarter videos for a ToeJam & Earl revival confirmed my hunch, while adding another element: This dude is kind of weird. In one video, he speaks in a Scottish monotone, and in another, he and well-known developers, including Will Wright and Tim Schafer, communicate via voiceovers and bizarre alien pantomimes. It probably wasn’t going to be a conversation with a guy in a suit sticking to a script.

It was a nice, sunny day in San Francisco, so we decide to head outside and find a quiet place to chat. We head toward a nearby park, and I ask how work on the new ToeJam & Earl game was coming along. His answer is surprising, and it sets the tone for the rest of the afternoon. Rather than talk about the prototype, milestones, or how close they were to the Kickstarter goal, he says that this new experience has brought him closer to people. When they learn that he created ToeJam & Earl, the stories start gushing out. They tell him about playing the Sega Genesis game with their families and friends. For some, it was the go-to game when connecting with their mom or dad. Or it was a way to get closer to a sibling. Others have told him it was a game that they played with a dying relative.

“It’s the people side that’s ultimately almost the only thing that really matters,” he says. “Often, the people who say those things to me, it’s not immediately apparent to them how much I’m appreciating them, because they think they’re sort of telling me, ‘Thank you’ and all that. The truth is, it’s really going both ways. This is why I do it.”

I ask Greg if there was any connective tissue between his games, and how they are filled with generosity and aliens. As it turns outs, there is. “I got my degree in biolinguistics,” he says. “I’m fascinated by thinking and how we think – and other ways to perceive and think. [There’s] the whole notion of aliens and how they might think, how they might be different from us or in some ways maybe more enlightened or perceptive. All that just fascinates the heck out of me.”

Alien communication has a presence in his games, from the space sim Starflight to Doki Doki Universe, in which a robotic space traveler embarks on a voyage to learn about emotions and help solve problems. “I wanted to be the guy they called if aliens ever landed. I’d be an expert and I’d be ready, and I’d be the one who would go talk to them and figure out how they think,” he says. Through games, he’s been able to share that yearning with other people.

ToeJam & Earl is a slightly different beast. The game centers on the titular characters – the spindly, three-legged ToeJam, and his larger spotted-shorts sporting pal, Earl. They crash-land on Earth, and they have to get their ship repaired while fending off the native inhabitants. These Earthlings aren’t the rocket-firing maniacs that typically respond to alien threats in movies and other games. Instead, ToeJam and Earl wander through the game’s floating islands and connecting strips of land while avoiding denizens including crazed dentists, giant hamsters (in balls), and the boogie man, an invisible creep who mutters “Boogieboogieboogie,” before attacking.

The heroes make their ascension easier by collecting presents. These are wrapped in colorful paper, which concealed their contents. Unwrapping the gift consumes it, for better or worse, and identifies it, should you find another of the same type. You might get a slingshot that hurls tomatoes at the bad guys, an inflatable decoy to distract them, or spring shoes to help you make super jumps. On the flipside, you can inadvertently find yourself on the business end of a school book (puts you to sleep), the total bummer (instantly kills you), or the randomizer (shuffles all the presents, including those that you’ve identified). 

If that basic structure sounds familiar, you’re right. “A lot of people say, ‘Wow, how did you ever think of that?’ and I’m like, ‘I can’t really take credit for that in all honesty. I was just copying Rogue and putting a new face on it.’”

He’s being a little too modest. There were certainly games that were inspired by Rogue at the time, including Sega’s Fatal Labyrinth, but they were largely generic fantasy romps. That “new face” is what endeared players to ToeJam & Earl, and it’s why we’re still talking about it more than two decades later. It also inspired one of the best ideas in co-op gaming: A screen that would split when the two players wandered away from one another, and snap back together when they got close again. “That dynamic split screen was something that just popped into my head one day, and I asked Mark [Voorsanger, programmer and co-creator] if he could do that, and he was like, ‘I have no idea, but I’ll try.’”

The sequel, ToeJam & Earl: Panic on Funkotron, took the action to a side-scrolling, 2D format. Audience response to the follow-up was mixed, though Greg says it’s not as cut-and-dried as you might think. “It’s funny, but I see it all. There are a lot of people who maintain that [the sequel] is a much better game, and they get very adamant about that, and there’s some firing back and forth on boards. It mostly comes down to what game they played first. I think if it wasn’t a ToeJam and Earl game, if it was a different property, if it wasn’t perceived at all as a sequel, I think it would have been received much better.”

If you enjoy Panic on Funkotron’s levels, you might take comfort in knowing that Evan Wells, who designed about half of them, has enjoyed some measure of success at Naughty Dog since moving on.

A few months ago, Greg was pondering his next move. He’d been kicking around an idea of his that centered around an A.I. personality that players would get to know. Meanwhile, ToeJam & Earl fans had seemingly come out of hibernation, and were asking him when they’d see a new game. Greg and Mark Voorsanger, who co-created the games, own the ToeJam & Earl IP, so there wasn’t anything stopping Greg from revisiting the beloved characters. Mark left the gaming industry several years ago, but he and Greg remain close friends and control the IP together. “If we ever manage to make a game and sell it for some profit, he’ll benefit from that,” Greg says. “Even if we don’t, he’s excited to see the property get out there again.”

Ultimately, the positive ToeJam & Earl feelings won Greg over. “The fan thing tipped me into this direction, and then I have been overrun by this wave of – it sounds weird – but this wave of affection and connection.”

Greg didn’t want to do something along the lines of the third ToeJam & Earl game, which featured a clumsy attempt at translating the original game into 3D. A few months ago, he and his team of four put their heads down and came up with a rough prototype of what they’d like to do with a new ToeJam & Earl game, which they dubbed ToeJam & Earl: Back in the Groove. They made a video showing the prototype in action, featuring stylized, sketchy drawings of the characters in 2D as they roam around a 2.5D world. Then they put it on Kickstarter, asking for $400,000.

“If we just get over our bar, I can make the game. I think we’ll be able to make a really good game,” Greg says. “But I want to do more than that. I want to make the best game ever, and I want to have more to work with. More means more time, and I’ll be able to get more features in it – and it really means being able to try stuff. If it doesn’t work, you throw it away, you try something else or you modify it. On a tighter budget, you don’t have time to do that.”

Image from the ToeJam & Earl: Back in Action protoype

That early glimpse at the prototype seems to have stirred up a little controversy. “We still plan on addressing the look some more. We will be sticking with the retro-comics style for the character designs, but that whole, ‘It looks flat like paper when the camera moves’ was really just a byproduct of us jamming out that prototype as fast as we could. It was never intended to look like that in the game. Also, as far as brighter color palettes, textures, lighting, outline thicknesses, and sky/space backgrounds, etc. – all of that will be getting tuned and tweaked as we go. One lesson learned: Presenting early prototype visuals on Kickstarter is probably not such a good idea.”

Getting funding directly from the people who want to play it is a significant change for Greg, who’s worked with traditional publishers in the past. “You have to make promises when you’re in this position, when you need to get your funding. Normally, when you’re talking to a publisher for funding, they want descriptions of what you’re doing and promises, too, but they’re a little more forgiving when it comes to, ‘Oh, that didn’t work,’ ‘OK, what else are you going to do instead?’ In this case, it’ll be harder if I can’t come through.”

That leads me to ask Greg why he turned to Kickstarter. ToeJam and Earl obviously still hold plenty of name recognition, and there has to be a publisher out there that would jump at the chance of bringing the series back. Greg says he wanted to pursue his own vision for Back in the Groove, with little outside influence.

“Every developer I know dreams of being a successful indie developer,” Greg responds. “We all want the same things: to have creative freedom to realize our visions, and to make the best games we possibly can. This takes having time to build and having talented partners to build with, [which] requires a fair bit of cash. Games are much more expensive and time consuming to make than the general public realizes. Every path has its upsides and downsides. Kickstarter, like everything, has its challenges, but it represents a shot for developers to bootstrap themselves into making the game they want, the way they want to make it, and thereby ultimately earning enough to be truly independent. It’s the dream. I thought it seemed like time to go for it. I’m still not sure how it will pan out – but I’m very hopeful.”

One tricky gameplay challenge is how four-player co-op will be handled. Greg and his small team aren’t using the old-school map screen, which fills the entire screen and brings everything screeching to a halt. But what happens when a player goes into a present menu or does something that affects the entire world around you? Greg says there was a moment where he was thinking about a stop-sign mechanic, where players could freeze time by standing near one of the signs. It sounds like a great idea, and it allows for more strategizing and planning, like in the old Rogue days. However, it also created a problem. What happens when one player freezes everything? Would it make the game too easy? Would it open the door for griefing? 

Then there’s the matter of some of those older presents. “I guess total bummer is part of the fun, but you have to find that balance where it doesn’t feel too unfair,” Greg says. “The total bummer, I think I’m not going to do that in this new game, because it’s harsh. You can identify your presents first, so it’s not completely unfair. As long as the player can feel like, ‘Oh, I could have done something better,’ you’re kind of on safe ground, but the ice can still get pretty thin sometimes. You want to be careful to not piss people off.”

Even if total bummers get the axe, a big component of the series will be present. Greg co-owns the IP, but not the original assets. That means that he can’t rip the soundtrack from the Genesis games and call it a day. He can rerecord some of those tracks, which he plans on doing. That makes me incredibly happy, since it’s remained one of my favorites since I first played the game. For decades, the game’s title-screen music has been playing on a loop in my head, and I hum it all the time. As Greg tells me, that’s how it was composed, too. 

Click the image to check out a new live-action ToeJam & Earl music video starring Tonez the Prince and Greg Brown

“I came up with many of the rhythms and basslines for ToeJam & Earl, and when I say, ‘wrote,’ I mean I came up with the songs by singing the different parts,” he says. “Like with that song. I sang that bassline. I’ll usually sing other parts, too, like ‘Here’s the rhythm part, here’s the chorus part, and, if there’s lyrics, here’s the lyrics.’ In those days, it was on a little tape cassette. I remember where I was in Nevada. I used to go for walks in the hillside where I wouldn’t be around anybody that could hear me, and just sing into my tape recorder. And then I would hand this stuff to a real musician. These days, it’s on my smartphone digitally. In the case of games one and two, that was John Baker and sometimes Mark Miller.  Since then, for maybe the last 25 years, I’ve been working with Burke Trieschmann. He’s great. He does his best to listen to it and then translate it into something, then I bug the heck out of him by asking him to change this and that. That’s how the music happens.”

In addition to game music, he helped create the songs for the Choo Choo Soul shorts that aired on the Disney Channel. “It’s just straight-up ToeJam & Earl-style music, but for kids, with sometimes overtly and sometimes sort of quasi-educational lyrics that they can remember.”

He won’t be working on the music alone with the new game. “There’s a lot of great musicians, too, that have been approaching me and saying, ‘Hey man, I love ToeJam & Earl, I’d love to do stuff even if it’s for free.’ I think I’ll probably have a little bit of eclectic mix from different people in this one. And John Baker, he was the original composer, he’s a friend of Burke’s, too, and Burke did the music for ToeJam & Earl 3.” If the game hits its $550,000 stretch goal, artists including Kawehi, Tonez P., and Baker will add to Back in the Groove’s soundtrack. 

Games on Kickstarter have a spotty record. For every success, there are dozens more that never manage to earn any attention or are filled with broken promises. Greg says he's aware of the things that can go wrong. Even though he makes videos where he gets chewed out by an alien Will Wright, he takes his relationship to the fanbase quite seriously. This isn’t a lark for him. “I’m not a conservative guy by nature, I’m a total risk taker,” he says. “I’m always more of a risk taker than anyone I ever work with, but in this case I feel like I don’t want to let people down, I don’t want to make a promise and then not keep it.” For example, he paid for the production of the vinyl figurines that are part of a reward level out of his own pocket, so people could see what they’re actually getting.

Before we got up off the grass, I asked if he had anything he wanted me to know about the game or the Kickstarter. Again, where he could have jumped on the opportunity to give out the URL or talk about the amazing stretch goals, he instead spoke about how much he’s appreciated this process.

“I want to let people know how much I appreciate all of the ToeJam & Earl love that’s out there, because it’s taken me by surprise a bit, certainly in terms of its volume and magnitude. That’s pretty amazing. This has been sort of a transformative experience for me in ways that no other game project has. I don’t have any other game properties that have so much of a following that get that kind of a reaction out of people.… And ToeJam & Earl isn’t all that innovative. It’s got some cute, cool ideas in it and some funky music, but that’s been a big eye opener to me to think, ‘Wow, this is really worthwhile.’ That’s all just to say thank you. It’s not just a, ‘Hey, thanks for liking my game,’ It’s more like, ‘No, my life is changing significantly as a result of all of this in ways that I really didn’t expect. Really, thank you.’”

He added that he’s available to talk, too, if you’d like to learn more about Back in the Groove or ToeJam & Earl. “I’m busy, but if people have questions and stuff, if my inbox gets full it might take me a little while to get to it, but I never mind that.” The address is whatever@humannaturestudios.com. And, true to what I now knew about Greg, he clarified that the “whatever” is as in “Ask whatever you want, for any reason whatsoever,” not a jaded throwaway joke.

The ToeJam & Earl Kickstarter ends March 27. As of this writing, it’s earned $294,000 toward its $400,000 goal.