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Q&A: How Jackbox CEO Mike Bilder is grappling with quarantine-driven success

Q&A: How Jackbox CEO Mike Bilder is grappling with quarantine-driven success

May 7, 2020 | By Bryant Francis




As stay-at-home orders spread across the world in February to March, Chicago-based game developer Jackbox Games found itself in an unusual position.

While it chose to send its developers home to work remotely, players were tuning in from all over the world to play their party games. A lot of players. According to CEO Mike Bilder, the company's traffic has been at holiday levels every day since about March 13th. 

Through Zoom, Discord, and every other platform you can think of, all kinds of people are playing the Jackbox Party Packs at unprecedented levels. For a company that built its success on fart jokes and digital trivia, unexpected success during a global crisis came as a massive surprise. 

Since we at Gamasutra have ALSO been playing an excessive amount of Jackbox, we reached out to Bilder for a conversation about how this unexpected traffic has impacted its operations, and how it's grappling with players remotely accessing a game meant to be played around the TV in a living room. 

Just to get started, can you explain how stay-at-home orders have impacted Jackbox's traffic and sales? 

We've definitely seen quite a large uptick in traffic, meaning people just playing the games, but also we've had new customers buying games and playing them. It probably happened around the same timeframe that everybody really started the whole shelter in place...in mid-to-late March. I think the 13th of March is when we as a company decided it's time to go virtual. And so really around that same timeframe is when all that traffic and awareness of our game started to really grow. 

How did the Jackbox team deal with all the new traffic? 

Well, it was because it happened very quickly. It was certainly a little more reactive than proactive. We did have that issue of stability. And I'll give you just a kind of a comparison--typically the times of year that are really big for us are around the holidays. So, Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year's. People are home, people are playing with friends and family.

First and foremost, our games are designed to play together in the same room, playing on a big screen, everybody takes their phones out and plays. What we've seen since we've been under this quarantine is every single day is about the [level of] traffic of Thanksgiving--it's actually higher than Thanksgiving now--and every weekend is as big or bigger than New Year's Eve, which is typically the biggest night of the year for us.

That's kind of crazy. So we've had to be reactive, we had some stability problems, we basically had to scale overnight to a huge volume of traffic. And we're used to doing that when we can predict it. But in this case, we had to react to it. So we've hired a number of contractors to help us both on the customer support side [and] we had already been planning to hire some server and infrastructure engineers and kind of accelerated the timing of that. We've largely triaged that. And things have been stable and working and operating very, very well since then. But yeah, it was a bit of a reaction for us.

We as a company are obviously thrilled that there are so many people playing our games and we are very happy and glad that in this super anxious time that people can laugh and still socialize by playing our game. So we're proud of that. We're happy about it, but we also recognize that a ton of new people have been introduced to our products just because of this quarantine. 

So we want to do some good around this. And we actually just announced today that we're hosting a 10-episode charity event with celebrities and we're going to be donating $100,000 each event to a COVID-19 charity or some charity that's either directly helping those that are affected by it or helping first responders. So we're trying to do some goodwill here too, and give back because we've had the fortune of some success recently. But we want to make sure that we're also taking care of people that are affected by the ongoing crisis.

You mentioned these games were intended to be played in-person, around a TV. How have you adapted to people playing over video calling software like Zoom, or through streaming?

So here's a little anecdote when we first started this whole game, this phones-as-controllers kind of paradigm. It was back in 2014 when we launched Fibbage and then we quickly launched the first Jackbox Party Pack right after that, and people started playing it over Twitch and Mixer and they were streaming our games, and anyone that was watching would join the game and play.

I guess we anticipated that was something that would happen, but we didn't anticipate the volume and interest in that happening. And so we quickly embraced that. As more Party Packs released, and on Quiplash's standalone release, we added a bunch of features. To embrace streamers, we added extended timers for the stream delay, we added some VIP methodology to start the game, and we have [added] a bunch of other features over the years to embrace [remote play].

We're certainly taking a look at the way people are playing our games now over video conferencing software. And we're also trying to identify what works best. I mean, there are pros and cons to each of them out there--Teams and Hangouts and Zoom, etc. Some of them work better than others. Some of them share the audio better than others. But some of you have to pay for, and some are free. So we're trying to compile information and recognize what the best solution is in the near term.

We've done an extensive blog post on that to give people some tips and tricks on how to set it up for success. But I do think from a design perspective, we're paying attention and should this become a new norm, unfortunately, you know, we'll definitely take some design steps to embrace it and make it a better experience for people. 

Has working remotely impacted your team's performance at all?

I think it's like everybody else we can be effective. I mean, we make software so people can be remote and still be effective at doing it. The challenge for us more than anything is we're a games company and we make five games a year that go under the banner of a single packaged product and there's just a ton of iteration that happens throughout that.

There's a lot of impromptu design points, like "hey grab these five people and play the game over lunch. Let's do some critiques. Let's hone in on it make some tweaks to it do it again tomorrow." And we have to do that kind of thing now over scheduled Zoom calls or something, and it's a little more cumbersome than it is to just pull people all in the same physical space and kind of kick the tires on something. 

But things are on track. We don't anticipate any real big slippage. We plan to still ship in the fall with our party back. But you know, the same challenges people have being remote, we have similar ones. 

Jackbox isn't the only company seeing success in this pandemic--but other companies who are doing well, like Netflix, are anticipating a potential drop in customers later in the year, either from a recession or just because success in Q1 eats into the people who can buy your product in Q2. Has that impacted your plans for the company?

I completely anticipate that will happen. I mean, I think from a business perspective there will be some stabilization of the marketplace and there will be just a correction back to a norm. 

What that norm is a little TBD. For us. I personally anticipate the normal to settle at something higher than that. It typically has been for us just because we've introduced a whole bunch of new people to our ecosystem. And, you know, we have more than anecdotal data to show that if you play a party pack and you're a consumer of it, there's a high likelihood at some point, you're going to buy another party pack in our catalog. 

So I hope and expect that we're not going to crash below where we were. But that will level out at least to where we were before and what we were projecting for the year and maybe slightly higher going forward, which would be amazing.

Like, as long as it doesn't turn into Facebook where it's not cool anymore because you know, parents and grandparents are playing it, as long as that doesn't happen, I'm great. 

While Jackbox is doing well with new customers, your website still lists the game on traditional platforms that may only be accessible to people familiar with video games. Have you thought about how that may impact non-traditional game players and how they can buy your games? 

We have had the philosophy for a long time to try and get on as many platforms as we can that's reasonable or feasible. And at this point, I think we're on 12 different platforms. So from a consumer's perspective, if you're not a console person, but you have a PC, then you know, we're on PC, Mac, and Linux. If you're not even a PC gamer, but you've got a set-top box like fire TV or Apple TV or even the Comcast XFINITY X1, you can find our games on all those platforms as well. 

And I think we kind of straddle this--we're not a hardcore game, and we're not a mobile game. But we fall in this casual realm where those devices in those boxes actually become a meaningful place to find our games for people to actually consume them and play. I think what's interesting is right now...is we're seeing a lot of activity in the PC in the Mac space right now for, as you would assume, obvious reasons. That's where you can do video conferencing and screen sharing the easiest, right? 

You could certainly fire up Zoom on your iPad or your laptop and point the camera at your television, but it's much easier to just do it as we're doing this video call right now with screenshare, and have the game natively running on the machine. 

So we've seen a lot of purchases geared towards PC and Mac because that is where people's videoconferencing is. How we change that going forward--there's no immediate plan for us to make our own platform or have our own service online where you go to it to play the game or something. We're still embracing these other marketplaces. But are there ways to do better integrations with videoconferencing? Are there better executions to be had? Those are all things that we're thinking about right now and trying to work on.

Yeah, just for comparison, I've been playing on my Switch, running it through our Teams streaming software. But I'd bought the games on my Switch so I could cart them around the country during the holidays! 

You're technologically savvy, right? The easiest platform right now has been Zoom. Zoom has a way to when you share the screen, there's a checkbox to say share [the computer's] audio as well. And that actually works pretty well. So if you're running a Zoom client on Mac or PC and you're running a native game on Mac or PC, that seems to be the best [tool]. The challenge with that is Zoom becomes a paid service, right? Then it's just dealing with the 40-minute limit for the free service and then you have to pay.

We'd love to find one platform we can advise everyone to use, that's both free and solves the audio problem and allows video transfer. 

What would you say to developers who think now is the best time to jump into making digital party games? (Besides, "stay out, this is our turf?")

(laughs) ...If you're looking to get into space, the party game genre is kind of an odd genre. I've been in the game space for over 20 years now. At one point, you probably would associate [digital "party games" with] things like Rock Band and Guitar Hero and these giant party games that swept the nation at one point--even some of the karaoke games [like] SingStar. There's not a ton happening, at least in the console space, in the marketplace in the party game space. 

There's a lot of indie stuff that happens, and there's a lot of mobile stuff. There's a lot of Steam indie games, there's a lot of things along those lines. So, check out what's out there and see [if] you've got a cool game idea that's not identical to one that's out there, and see what you can do, but do it better. 



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