Q&A: Jellyvision Insists You Don't Know Jack, Again

Inimitable puntastic game developers Jellyvision tell Gamasutra about the return of the popular quiz series You Don't Know Jack in new PC and console incarnations, after a notable absence.
Jellyvision's You Don't Know Jack was a staple of the '90s PC -- a colossal casual hit, well before casual hits were something publishers were targeting with today's intensity. The games have always taken the form of a sarcastic, fast-paced quiz show, with pop-culture laced questions and answers -- even spawning a Paul Reubens-hosted TV series for a while -- and the latest game title is no exception. And the series is now in the process of re-emerging -- having just debuted on PC, Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, and Wii via publisher THQ. Therefore, Gamasutra took the opportunity to talk to Phil Ridarelli, writer and editor of the game at Chicago developer Jellyvision, which has handled the series since its debut, and oversaw the new, critically acclaimed console version: Why bring back You Don't Know Jack now? Phil Ridarelli: 'Cuz it's 10am on a Friday which is a perfect time for some smart-ass trivia. Oh... wait. You mean in the larger sense of... sure. Okay. Sorry. It seemed to us that audiences were dying for funny, intelligent gaming opportunities that weren't being provided; despite the multitude of delivery methods. We've been laying low for a while -- a lot of Jellyvision's focus has been on corporate applications of our technological and writing skills (the Jellyvision Lab kicks some major booty in that regard). We suddenly looked around and thought, "Hey, nobody out there is filling this gaping hole of entertainment." We knew Jack could fill that gaping hole. Has Jellyvision persisted in the same form since the '90s? Has it changed? What's going on? UPDATE! PR: Our computers are faster, that's one thing. That and we use a lot less hair gel. Well, in general, we're a smaller, leaner gaming company than we were in the '90s. Which is saying a lot, because most of the gaming companies we went to high school with are fat and bald now. We've kept up with current trends and technologies, but our heart will never change. We like to make each other laugh and we like to add a twist to the expected. Hopefully, no matter what challenge we take on, audiences will recognize our very unique voice and attitude. Seems that YDKJ fits very well with the current era –- casual console gaming. How has the reaction been? PR: Hate to let you down, but I can't come up with a funny response to this one. The overwhelmingly positive response to Jack's return, from both critics and fans, has been... overwhelming. And humbling. It's really great to have your design instincts and comic sensibilities affirmed by the audience. Except for that one dude on Facebook. He didn't like the game. Screw him. We have no desire to contribute to the cult of personality or the white noise that entertainment can become. Quite frankly, we spend a good amount of time mocking just that in our game. It's been very rewarding to know that if your priorities are in the right place and you hold yourself to a high set of standards, the work will be appreciated. But more importantly, it's nice to know that a good fart joke still gets a laugh. Was there any need to update the approach or stick to what worked? PR: Oh, this is an easy one: Stick to what works. Obviously, this kind of game is made for online play and we succeeded in taking advantage of that, which is a new feature that really helped us fulfill our desire to allow people to embarrass themselves in front of complete strangers. And we've added some new question types and hidden goodies. But as far as the basic experience of each game, each episode, we stuck to what worked... what works. The genius of the experience is in its simplicity. Yeah. That's right. I said "genius." I honestly wouldn't be surprised if we were awarded a Nobel prize for this game. It's that important. What's the development process –- what's the team, what's it comprised of? PR: In general, the entire development process was insanely quick. While we expected to be creating art and music and programming and writing and recording the game concurrently, we were also making some design decisions on the fly. But we'd always ask ourselves "what's simpler?" or "what's funnier?" If you commit to that formula, the answers present themselves. We had a handful of brilliant contract employees join us... some freakin' awesome artists, writers, programmers... not to mention giving a nod to the tons of talented folks who worked on the game back in the day. (Players can hear a few of their favorite fake commercials from the original series tucked away in there if you listen very closely.) Funny, talented people who are respectful of each other's work. We work hard. Play hard. (It's true. Our office is like a Vitamin Water commercial.) Are there a lot of writers? How is that handled? Can you talk about this process in some depth? PR: Many folks who work on the game creatively started out as writers. It's the most efficient way to understand the style, the formula and get inside Cookie's head (our host). For this game, we had a small group of core writers, a few contract writers (from the improv/stand-up community here in Chicago) and we also approached some writers from the previous Jack games to contribute. We have a very structured training process to get folks up to speed and there is a lot of feedback and support provided among the entire writing team. We build that time into our weekly schedule so it's not short-changed. We're constantly punching up each other's dialogue. Again, all that goes toward creating a real atmosphere of respect and trust. Our host (Tom Gottlieb) has been doing this for years now and has created a very specific personality which is based on our writing... which, in turn, is based on his performance. So it helps that we're all writing with the same "reality" in mind. And our Editor (Steve Heinrich) had some sort of computer chip implanted in his brain that allows him to organize massive volumes of material and avoid repeating jokes. I challenge you to find more than one joke about explosive diarrhea. (Well, wait. Maybe that's not the best example.) That's all I can tell you about our writing process now. There are people out there who would kill for this information. There are some who have. But that's a story for another day.

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