GDC 2019: Interview with Toejam & Earl creator Greg Johnson

Greg with his fiancé, Sirena.

Greg Johnson and Mark Voorsanger founded their own game company, Johnson Voorsanger Productions, in 1989 and released ToeJam & Earl on the Sega Genesis in 1991. Their creation, a roguelike adventure game featuring a pair of aliens inspired by the 90s funk music culture, became an iconic hit on the Genesis. A sequel, Toejam & Earl in Panic on Funkotron, was released in 1994 and was also well received despite it being a traditional 2D platformer.  Johnson and Voorsanger parted ways after the release of ToeJam & Earl III: Mission to Earth on the Xbox in 2003, but Johnson continued as an independent game designer. He would eventually form HumaNature Studios in 2006 and designed titles such as Kung Fu Panda World and Doki Doki Universe, a unique title that bears similarities to his previous games.

In 2015 Johnson announced he was creating a new entry in the ToeJam & Earl franchise, ToeJam and Earl: Back in the Groove. Instead of relying on support from Sega or other publishers, the game was successfully crowdfunded by fans on Kickstarter. Unlike the previous two games, Back in the Groove revisits the roguelike template established in the original ToeJam & Earl and modernizes it with HD graphics, quality of life changes, and online multiplayer. CFG had the pleasure of interviewing Mr. Johnson following the successful launch of ToeJam & Earl: Back in the Groove last month.

Interviewed by Vincent Lai and William Hong


Have you listened to funk music to get into a groove while making ToeJam and Earl games?

You bet.  When making TJ&E I like to keep it going in my office as I work.  When I’m writing dialogue or design docs, it always has to be funk music that is purely instrumental as I can’t write and have lyrics going.  I have a big collection of funk instrumental beats. I actually listened to our Back in the Groove soundtrack a lot as I worked on the new game.  When I do listen to old school funk with lyrics, some of my favs are:  Herbie Hancock, The Brothers Johnson, Sister Sledge, En Vogue, The Gap Band, The Daz Band, Stevie Wonder, Earth Wind and Fire, Parliament, Wild Cherry, War, etc.  Way back when we made ToeJam and Earl 1 and 2, I remember we also listed to a lot of rap from those days in the office. Young MC, Heavy D, Kriss Kross, and Salt N Peppa were a few I remember being on our playlist from back then.


How challenging was it to balance the different characters’ attributes and presents in Back in the Groove?

Not too hard, really.  This isn’t a competitive game, so people aren’t quite as particular about the different skills being exactly equivalent.  Also, because the game is so ridiculously random in every way, it’s never the same twice, which means sometimes one skill turns out to be more relevant or valuable and sometimes another one does.  Since it is really built mainly as a co-op game, it’s nice when two skills complement each other.  That said, we did do a fair bit of tweaking and got feedback from our beta test fans when they felt it was unbalanced. There isn’t really a scientific way to do that – we just had to keep adjusting until it felt right.

If given the opportunity, where would you take the ToeJam and Earl series in the future?

That’s hard to say.  It will depend partly on what we hear from the fans about what they would like to see from us and the property.  Some people have asked us about VR and AR and those are exciting new areas.  We haven’t done anything on mobile with this property and that could be interesting.  Many fans have asked for a reboot of Panic on Funkotron, and that could be another direction. Or we might do something totally new.  Really, the jury is still out on whether we will have opportunities like this.  I certainly hope we get to do more with them. Personally, I am most interested in seeing how we can develop the characters and their stories.  That’s what I love the most.


Any favorite presents throughout the ToeJam series?

Well it’s hard not to love Icarus Wings.  Nothing like taking to the air right as you’re about to be attacked.  We do have a lot of new presents in this new game though.  My favorite new present is probably the “Special Delivery” present.  That only appears in multi-player games and it makes it so that the next present you open will happen to another player that you select.  It really lets you help or totally mess with them, and makes multi-player interaction a lot of fun.  Another new present that I really enjoy is the “Expel Presents” present.  This shoots your presents out all over the ground around you. It’s funny when one player opens this near another player and then runs around picking up all of their presents. Oh, and I LOVE the Earthling Disguise present.  It gives you a goofy fake head like an Earthling’s and they don’t attack you.  The really fun thing about it though, is that the other Earthlings talk to you as if you are an Earthling in really stupid ways. “I see you are a typical Earthling such as myself!”  Stuff like that. I really like the Black Friday present too. That makes all of the Earthlings attack and pop each other. That one isn’t in the manual – we added that as a secret present. Oh, and Protection Bubble is fun too – you can bump other Earthlings off the level with that.  Lots of fun presents!


What factors did you consider when determining which Earthlings to include in Back in the Groove?

Two main things. One, is it weird and funny enough? And two, does it mix up gameplay in some new and interesting way that isn’t just damaging you?  Some of the most interesting Earthlings have non-damage effects.  Some examples of bad Earthlings like this are: UFO character that messes up your stats, the Inquisitor that drops you through the ground to the level below, the Clipboard Person that steals your money and knocks presents off of you, the Medusa Baby or Man in Black who randomize your presents in different ways.  Some good Earthlings who do interesting things might be:  Ghandi-ji who is like a walking safe zone and makes other Earthlings feel love, the Shady Character who trades one present for another one, King Tut who follows you and makes hidden presents pop out, or the CosPlay Nerds who roll the dice for you to gamble a buck. By creating a lot of characters who have different roles, it really mixes up the game play a lot as you run into different characters each game.  Also, you decide whose services to spend your money on, so each game is different.

Back in the Groove has new bells and whistles that help the game feel more accessible. Are there any new features you are most proud of?

That’s a tough one to answer.  I am proud of the whole game as a whole because all of the pieces add up to a different game each time you play.  I know that’s a really lame answer though, so ok let’s see. I really like the addition of amped and broken presents.  Especially amped.  I think that made the game a lot more interesting and exciting. Having some presents amped only on the level you are on as a function of your present skill is also pretty cool.  It was a solution to an age-old problem in ToeJam and Earl, and roguelikes in general: the problem of hoarding your presents or magic spells.  Many players would tend to hang onto these not wanting to use them and then end up dying with full inventories.  I can hear lots of players nodding right now going “yup, that’s me!”. We tried limiting your inventory size to force players to use presents but that was just frustrating. Then I got the idea of basically putting presents “on sale” and making them more powerful if you used them sooner.  Problem solved?  Mmmm, not really. Hoarders will be hoarders – but it did make it a lot better. In terms of accessibility, I love that we have an Easy-Farty mode which is kind of a “mom mode” and Toddler mode which is for, well, toddlers. We also let players change these modes on the fly as they play, and let people join and leave games on the fly.  Things like these are often missed by reviewers because they don’t look flashy and aren’t immediately apparent, but for families and friends who all want to play together, these things are critical.


How many designs for Earthlings did you have to sort through before settling on the final roster?

Hmmm.  Well, I don’t know but I’m going to pretend like I do.  How’s that?  We ended up with about 60 Earthlings in the game and, if I had to guess, I’d say we had about 300 or so ideas for different Earthlings.  You might think I’m exaggerating, but I think that is actually a conservative estimate.  That’s because we solicited ideas and inputs from the fans on our forum and we got a total flood of responses.  Many of these ideas were not very well developed, and many were interesting (or weird) thematically but not very interesting, functionally speaking.  My job all of a sudden became very easy, pulling ideas I thought would be fun, and having lots of back and forth with the fans on the forum.  They seemed to really enjoy that, and many were thrilled when some of their ideas made it into the game. I highly recommend having a forum like this for designers.  It’s a blast for everyone.


Did you have any present ideas that were actually too crazy to implement into Back in the Groove?

Many, many of those.  One of the inevitable side effects of opening up ideas to your fans is that they often have little or no idea what it takes to implement something.  Some of the ideas were totally impractical, or simply not possible.  If I remember correctly, someone suggested a present that would reconfigure the level you were on, creating new hills and lakes and completely changing the terrain under everyone’s feet.  Another similar idea would have created a hole in the ground that would make Earthlings and players fall through.  Both of these seem doable at first glance, but they actually create a whole large set of issues that become tough to implement.  Other impractical suggestions had to do with a present that would make you super tiny or super big. We almost went for these two ideas, but on examination it just caused too many problems with collisions with other objects in the world, or navigating paths and edges etc.  Another crazy idea was one where you could hop into each other’s backs and have one player character riding around on another one, say firing tomatoes while the other character ran with high tops or something.  We also had fans asking for presents that might transform you into a whole new character, like Lamont for example, or Sharla, but that would have meant an entire new animation set.  So… yeah… lots of impractical but fun ideas. By the way, we had also planned to put cars on the roads and let players ride in them and let them hit Earthlings. That was one we could have done – and we designed some cars, but we cut it so we could hit our deadlines.

Do you have any insights for other developers interested in reviving older game properties?

Of course!  I am always filled with advice. I’m just not sure if anyone wants to listen to it.  OK, so here are a few gems:

  1. Listen well to your fans, follow your heart and instincts, and don’t worry about what all of the negative naysayers say. You simply can’t please everyone, and when you do a remake especially, everyone seems to have ideas about what it should and shouldn’t be.  You end up going in circles trying to please everyone.  

  2. Don’t think in terms of mechanics so much.  These don’t define the experience for your players.  Your job is to take people back in their minds to a set of feelings they remember and cherish.  Your job is to capture the spirit of the old game.  With that in mind, you will need to understand what your game really meant to others.

  3. Add features but don’t change fundamental tenets, and if you are going to start adding in new features, then add features consistent with the roots of the game.  TJ&E is a roguelike, therefore adding in player stats and RPG conversational elements makes sense.  It’s an extension of what is foundational.


How do you feel about the game industry since the original ToeJam & Earl came out?

Haha!!!  That was in ‘91.  So how do I contrast my feelings about the industry now with how I felt then?  Well, keep in mind my perspective is that of a developer, so my feelings about the industry are mainly about being a dev in this biz.  OK, so the short answer is that in those days, and before then (remember I had already been making games for 9 years when TJ&E came out), it was more exciting.  The general attitudes of everyone, fans, publisher, press, other devs, was one of enthusiasm and potential.  In those days it wasn’t a big money business driven by profits, with huge investments, high expectations of returns, and intense competition with so many people wanting to get “above the noise”.  It was a much smaller community of people, and most people in the development community knew each other.  Relationships within the industry were more valued, as opposed to today where it’s really all about the game demos and not the people behind them. So, what’s better today? Well, there are much cooler techs available, if you can get into a position to have solid funding.  VR, AR, AI, cloud tech, haptics, portable/mobile gaming, network play and massively multiplayer games. Obviously incredible fidelity and even things like robotics or hologram tech, and games are played on giant flat screen TVs. Serious and educational games are really cool and worthwhile – I love how gaming is moving into new areas that help people – but funding is always the issue for development.  Game systems have more power, no question, and dev tools are better  like Unity and Unreal. Still, I do miss the garage shop days. They were less stressful and lighter and more fun somehow. Also, today there is an awful lot of negativity and cynicism on the internet and in social media. There seems to be a strong sense of entitlement today, and people forget that games are supposed to be for fun. Yeah…where is that time machine with the 1991 button?


It’s been reported that were inspired by a game called Rogue. Are there any modern roguelike games that you currently enjoy?

Hmmm.  Not currently. Making games is really demanding, and I find I have little time to actually play.  When I do, I find I want to spend time with my wife or my son, so I play games that we can play together and that they like.  Lately we have been playing Just Dance 2019 and Lovers in a Dangerous Space-Time.  We also play Overcooked, and not long ago we played a lot of Beat Saber.  Before that I, oddly enough, liked to relax and unwind by playing World of Tanks. I’m pretty good at that one. 17k games under my belt.


In regard to the original Toejam & Earl, what were some of the challenges of creating a co-op game where each player can freely wander away from each other?


Well, the implicit question there is:  how do you make sure that the two people still feel like they are playing a game together, and don’t simply stay apart the whole time?  Am I right?  Good question by the way, I don’t think anyone has asked me that before. Well, even in the original TJ&E this was a potential problem and we did some things to mitigate this.  One, of course, you had to get together to go up in the elevator to the next level, so at a minimum you had to come back together and start each level together.  Another thing we did was make it so using presents in proximity of the other player made both players get that present.  This essentially was a HUGE bonus for coming together a lot and working together. Another carrot we offered for coming together was the high five, which allowed players to share lives when they came together and bumped or moving faster in the sand when they bumped.  One thing that wasn’t planned but just worked out organically was the more limited visibility on split screen.  This gives players an incentive to come together. We do pull the camera out more for split screen, but not that much. There are other things in the new game, like coming to a rhythm matching station together, for example, and then seeding the game with teleport presents that bring the two players together.  In the end, you never want to make a player feel like you are forcing them to do something, but rather, giving them reasons for why they might want to do it.

If Back in the Groove! does well sales wise, do you envision creating more sequels/spinoffs or would you rather focus on creating more original IPs like Doki-Doki Universe?

I will go where the wind blows us, and where the rest of the team wants to go. There are so many factors in determining what it makes sense to do.  And my feeling is that all paths ahead are just different flavors of awesome.  So, I am open and just waiting to see what opportunities the Universe presents.  


My final word by the way, are: Stay positive.  Games are for fun. Laugh. Enjoy. Don’t be so serious about video games.  Don’t forget to find things to appreciate!  And a big shout out to all those other indie devs out there.  I know how tough it is to make it to the end of the road and have your vision realized. Keep the faith!


Special thanks to Veronica Stodolnik of Stride PR and Matt Conn of HumaNature Studios.


Check out our ToeJam & Earl: Back in the Groove review here.


ToeJam & Earl: Back in the Groove is available for purchase on the PlayStation Store, Nintendo eShop, Microsoft Store, and Steam.