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Playing Catch Up:  ToeJam & Earl 's Greg Johnson
Playing Catch Up: ToeJam & Earl's Greg Johnson
November 16, 2006 | By Alistair Wallis

November 16, 2006 | By Alistair Wallis
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Today's Playing Catch-Up, a weekly column that dares to speak to notable video game industry figures about their celebrated pasts and promising futures, speaks to Greg Johnson, co-creator of the ToeJam & Earl series.

First Lessons

Johnson’s first experiences with computers came in the form of a FORTRAN programming course at a community college in the late ‘70s. “It was a couple months after the first Dungeons & Dragons game was released,” he says. “We had to put in punch cards and I programmed a game that simulated a sword fight. It had all of these involved calculations in it, and then final output was just ‘you hit’ or ‘you miss’.”

“It was boring as hell,” he adds. “My first lesson in game design.”

Later, Johnson began studying at the University of California in San Diego, where he obtained a degree in bio-linguistics. “I was fascinated with how language and thinking works,” he notes. “I still am. My goal was to talk to the dolphins and the whales, and maybe a gorilla or two... anything not human. I was sure the dolphins and whales had an advanced underwater civilization and I was going to be the bridge between our worlds. I also really wanted to be the one the Pentagon called in when the aliens landed and they needed someone to figure out their language.”

Rogue Thinking

It was during the course that Johnson encountered the game that would inspire ToeJam & Earl more than anything else - Michael Toy, Glenn Wichman, and Ken Arnold’s 1980 randomised dungeon crawler Rogue. “I ran across it during a programming course at UCSD,” he recalls. “I stayed up many a night until 3 or 4am in the morning trying to get deeper into the dungeon. That was a great game. There were certain things about the mechanics that I just loved.”

Despite this, Johnson notes that his interest in games doesn’t so much stem from an interest in computers, as in interest in “how the interactive nature of software can fool us into believing something is real and reacting to it”.

“I think that's just too cool for words,” he enthuses. “We just happen to need computers to run the software.”

Taking Flight

As such, his entry into the games field, with open-ended space role playing game Starflight, came from what he describes as an unwillingness to “want to get a real job”. His passion for the industry and its product has been clear from the very start, though – Johnson notes that he worked on the game for developer Binary Systems “almost for free”, living off money loaned to him by a friend.

“I promised my friend a cut of my royalties,” he adds.

Johnson worked on the title as designer, noting that he does “hate to hog all the credit” when there were “some pretty bright guys on that team and they contributed a lot to the design”. However, he comments that he feels his job was “was coming up with all of the ‘what’ and their jobs were figuring out the ‘how’”.

“No small task when none of us had ever built a game before,” he muses. “I had never really designed a game before, and hadn't really played any role playing games - since they largely didn't exist yet. I can't say that I had goals; I just sort of winged it. It's funny looking back on it now - just by happenstance I ended up creating a very open ended system where players could go anywhere and do whatever and a story sort of unfolded. It also had a pretty advanced emotional state conversational system in it.”

Fortunately, the game ended up in the hands of publisher Electronic Arts, under the guidance of producer Joe Ybarra, who Johnson credits with keeping the game in development.

Starflight was almost cancelled many times,” he recalls. “We were about a year late in delivering the game.”

The game was eventually released in 1986 to rave reviews, though Johnson adds that the game took “a year or so” before sales started hitting notable levels. “At the time it didn't really feel like a huge hit - it wasn't until later looking back that we realized how many units it had sold. It was a pretty neat feeling.”

The feeling must have been equally amazing for Johnson’s friend, who “eventually got the wonderful surprise of getting quadruple his money back”.

Electronic Arts

Johnson continued working with EA, contributing graphics to titles like Adventure Construction Set, F/A 18 Interceptor and Free Fall Associates’ Swords of Twilight. He notes that the move to solely working graphics wasn’t one that he considered a step downwards, commenting that he didn’t actually think of himself as a designer at the time.

“I quite enjoyed making pretty pictures on the Amiga,” Johnson says. “It still amazes me that I got paid for doing art.”

“EA was pretty darn tiny,” he says of working with the company in the ‘80s. “I can't say I was the first artist there - that's what they called developers in those days - Paul Reiche, Danny Bunten, Ray Toby, Jon and Anne Freeman, Bill Budge and Will Harvey were there before me, but still it was pretty early. EA had maybe 30 or 40 employees I think. It was exciting; they had lots of big ideas. The developers were a very tight knight group too. The early Game Developers Conferences (an EA-only affair in those days) were lots of fun and everyone knew everyone else. Very different from today.”

In 1988, Johnson worked on EA’s Caveman Ugh-Lympics, which he describes as “lots of crazy head bonking and running from sabre-toothed tigers and stuff”.

“That game was actually EA's idea,” he says. “I think it came from [long-term EA staffer] Bing Gordon. He came to me and said, ‘Hey Greg, how would you feel about doing an Olympics game set in caveman times?’, and I said, ‘Cool!’”

“It was really meant to be a party game - it was a blast with four people who wanted to get silly.”

The title was designed by Johnson “from down in the Bay Area”, and then programmed by Eugene, Oregon based developers Dynamix. “They could not possibly have been better,” notes Johnson. “Jeff Tunnell was running Dynamix and he was awesome. Long distance designing can work when you have very motivated teams who are pretty self-sufficient.”

Forming Funkotron

The next year began to put events in motion towards ToeJam & Earl, when Johnson was introduced to programmer Mark Voorsanger. “A mutual friend introduced us on a walk on Mount Tam,” recalls Johnson. “We were literally at the top of the mountain, and we started talking about our dreams of building games for regular people. We pretty much decided to work together on the spot. I had already thought up ToeJam and Earl and was telling Mark about it on that first walk. He thought it sounded hecka fun, and that's part of what got us off the ground together.”

The duo formed Johnson Voorsanger Productions shortly after, though Johnson continued working with EA long enough to complete Starflight II. Following that, work began in earnest on ToeJam & Earl. Johnson comments that a good deal of the inspiration for the characters had simply come from “where one's best ideas always come from - the subconscious”.

“Sometimes you just need to sort of let go a little bit and see what surfaces in your mind. It's really not that surprising in retrospect. I had aliens on the brain after Starflight, and I wanted something light and silly and not too hard to build.”

“And,” he adds, “I was a total Rogue fanatic.”

Like Rogue

The similarities between ToeJam & Earl and Rogue aren’t exactly glaring at first, but the randomized maps and emphasis on survival soon make it obvious where the game’s inspiration comes from – though, there are plenty of other examples as well.

“To me, it seems like there's not really that much to say about the design,” Johnson says. “First, one simply finds a few sound game mechanics that one likes - you need to get into the habit of separating the mechanics from the content in your thinking. Then, you lift the mechanics that you like, and slap some new content of your choice on it. The new content always suggests a few new mechanics too, and voila, you have a new game. This isn't the only way to design a game of course, one can be much more innovative and original or one can be much more copycat-ish, but it's a fine middle road to design that offers enough freshness with the security of knowing your building on a solid foundation. It pretty simple and I can't think of much more to say about it than that. That's exactly what I did with ToeJam & Earl and Rogue.”

Soon after the design stage, the game was pitched to Sega – a process Johnson describes as “easy peasy”.

“We got a meeting right away since Mark and I had both made commercial games before,” he recalls. “Mark and I had made up some 3x5 cards that had the terrain tiles drawn on them so we could show Sega how the random map generation would work, and we had made mock screen shots. [Sega marketing manager] Hugh Bowen loved the concept from the beginning. Sega of America was only about 20 people – they didn't even have any lawyers on staff yet. That was awesome!”

Johnson notes that Sega did show some concern that the game’s two player mode – in which the screen would divide as soon as the players moved too far away from each other – would not be implementable.

“Mark and I knew we wanted that from the beginning,” he says. “The dynamic split screen was one of those inspirations that come upon you when you're thinking, ‘if only I could play a game like…’”

“Sega said, ‘give it up – you can't do it with the hardware’, but Mark did it anyway. He showed them.”

The Sophomore Scroller

The game was released in 1991 to positive reviews, but, like Starflight before it, proved initially slow to sell.

ToeJam & Earl was a very slow burn title,” Johnson says. “Believe it or not, after it was released Sega considered it a flop. Its numbers really came much later as it grew slowly by word of mouth and eventually became something of a cult title.”

Nonetheless, the duo quickly started work on a follow up, though their initial plans were scrapped, after confusion on Sega’s part as to where the series fit in the games market of the early ‘90s.

“We started in on the sequel right away,” recalls Johnson. “We got about 3 or 4 months into it and then pulled up short. The message we got from Sega marketing was, ‘We don't get this game and aren't sure how to sell it’, so we switched gears, tossed out what we had built so far, and started over on a side-scrolling version of the game.”

ToeJam & Earl in Panic on Funkotron was released in 1993 to similarly encouraging reviews, but alienated fans with a sharp departure in gameplay from the first title.

“I think ToeJam & Earl 2 was a very original side-scrolling game,” comments Johnson, “but it confused the heck out of the fans.”

“Generally a bad idea,” he muses.

Johnson reveals that there was later something of an admittance of error on their publisher’s part, though suggests it “might be stretching things to say that Sega as a whole apologized”.

“I had lunch with Toyoda Shinobu, who was Sega's VP of Development and he admitted that it was probably a mistake on Sega's part to jump to a side-scroller,” he recalls. “I told Shinobu-san that I guessed that was the closest thing I'd ever get as an apology from Sega. He smiled, and I must say was very gracious about it.”

In The Interim

Renaming their company ToeJam & Earl Productions, Johnson and Voorsanger began work on an educational project for Brøderbund Software named Orly's Draw-A-Story, before Johnson became Creative Director of San Francisco based start-up UBUBU in 1998. “We were designing a new type of URL browser that allowed you to create 3D solar system and place your favorite URLs down as buildings, then navigate the space,” he notes.

1999 saw Johnson move on once more, this time to Electric Planet, where he “oversaw all of their projects” as the company’s creative director. “It was fun,” he says, “but tough trying to be creative director and run the lead development team at the same time.”

The company’s “flagship product” was Freeblenux, which saw Johnson and Voorsanger working together once more. Johnson describes the product as “a virtual alien character who could see you by virtue of a video camera that sat on top of the PC monitor”.

“E-Planets' charter was to take their vision technology and turn it into entertainment products for children,” he explains. “We spent a year and a half building the prototype and it was really amazing... very life-like and even kind of freaky at times. Freebs would stand there on the screen talking to you and if you walked out of the room he would lean over and try to peer around the screen and shout ‘Hey!! Where are you going!’”

The Third Coming

After leaving the company in 2000, Johnson and Voorsanger started work on a third ToeJam & Earl title, this time for the Sega Dreamcast. “I can't remember how we started talking to [2K sports developer] Visual Concepts, but Greg Thomas and Scott Patterson, the two guys who run that company were very interested in ToeJam & Earl,” says Johnson. “At that time, Greg at Visual Concepts was in charge of all of Sega's third party development. It was great dealing with them because they were also developers and understood what our concerns were.”

Johnson notes that the game was originally intended to be “a very pure re-make of game one” with “all the same stuff but just better graphics”, but the idea was vetoed by Visual Concepts who “felt that it was too old school and that there weren't enough ToeJam & Earl fans out there to justify it”.

The duo’s plans were interrupted once more by Sega’s announcement in early 2001 that they would be dropping support for the Dreamcast, forcing a re-think of platform choice. “It was tough when we needed to switch over from the Dreamcast to the Xbox,” recalls Johnson. “It was a big decision - I wanted to go to PS2 or GameCube first, but there were lots of technical reasons to do Xbox first. It's a much easier platform to develop for, and always easier to go down then up when porting. Also Microsoft wanted to expand their demographic so they offered Sega marketing lots of free TV advertising. Tough to pass up.”

Unfortunately, upon its release in October 2002, the game was met with mixed reviews, and poor sales, which Johnson describes as “disappointing”.

"In retrospect it's clear that Xbox first was a very poor choice.," he says. "We did get lots of great response and great reviews, but we also got slammed as well by people who felt like we had once again strayed too far from their expectations.”

“I'll always feel like ToeJam & Earl 3 didn't really get a fair shake,” he continues. “If I could do things differently I would stick to my guns and refuse to budge, but in the moment, that can sure make you look like a stubborn primadonna to everyone else. VC did what they thought was right and I'll never know if it would have sold better if we had done things my way. When you're a developer, you can't always do what you want. Best not to live with regret though, eh?”

Post ToeJam

Soon after, Johnson found himself back with EA for a brief time, firstly as a character consultant for The Sims 2, followed by three months working on Will Wright’s Spore. He admits a passion for character development in game, noting that the bringing up the topic is like “a question for a 20 page essay”, though he laments the fact that there is not more focus on character within the industry.

“The main thing that keeps the industry from creating more interesting characters in games is simply deciding that it's a priority,” he says. “I'm not talking about when everyone is standing around and talking big at the GDC. I'm talking about when publishers are sitting with their marketing departments and allocating money for projects. For the most part the perception is that it's not what sells games. If it's a priority it means that it's one of the places that you start in your design priorities - not something you try to tack on after the fact.”

More recently, Johnson has begun working on something he describes as the project of his dreams. “It’s kind of the culmination of my life's work so far,” he says, before noting, with some regret, that he is unable to give specifics.

“I can probably say it's a game for the Nintendo DS and it involves very emotionally expressive AI stuff. It's really targeted at non-gamers, and like ToeJam & Earl it's quirky and kind of off-the-wall. I have a little development studio - just eight of us - in Point Richmond called HumaNature Studios and I work with a great bunch. It's been worth the wait to do this.”

The future is a little less certain for ToeJam and Earl, though Johnson remains hopeful that the Xbox title won’t mark the end for the alien duo. “The rights to the property just freed up and there is some renewed interest by some Hollywood studios, so if they decide to move forward with a series or movie, then there may yet be more ToeJam & Earl games,” he comments. “Mark and I would love to see a new multi-player ToeJam & Earl game on handheld systems.”

“In the meantime,” he adds, “the original games will be available as downloads on the Nintendo Wii. At least our funky alien boys will still be out there.”


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