a screenshot from the trailer for You Don't Know Jack in several variations, each with a bald person looking in some direction with a number and a description of the type of trivia included, like sports, movies, and TV

Getting To Know Jack: How a Jackbox Pack Is Born

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Do you… know Jack? It’s a question many have asked themselves now for nearly two decades, as of this writing. Born from an edutainment title, That’s a Fact, Jack!, a humble aspiration for snarky, biting trivia has grown into a multiplatform empire of party games the likes of which few could ever dream of. Despite bucking almost every trend we expect most games to play, developer Jackbox Games has rode forth with a confident, creative breadth of hits few studios can boast. From rapping robots to the best-worst T-shirt designs, Jackbox has come to encapsulate so much more than just trivia. That’s why I sat down with the team behind Jackbox Party Pack 10, their latest line-up, to look behind the curtain and truly know Jack. And definitely not just so I could make that pun. 

Granted, if there’s any team that appreciates a good pun, it’s the group assembled under Spencer Ham, Senior Creative Director at Jackbox Games. “I began working at Jackbox (then Jellyvision Games) back in 2010, as a contract writer,” Ham explains. “As someone who grew up playing YDKJ, I cherished the opportunity – so I fooled enough people over the years to obtain my current role.” Ham’s team was faced with a task unenviable in the eyes of many a developer: producing an entire new slate of games from scratch. Even with a sequel to fan-favorite Tee-K.O. to round things out, every title had to prove its worth alongside all those that came before, and deliver on the magnitude of being the first double-digit pack.

Fortunately, the leads behind the latest Jackbox are all veterans of the IP. Some are from as far as the beginning, while others, like Alina Constantin, came fresh from the studio’s more recent forays. “I came on as game designer on The Jackbox Party Pack 9 after a decade of crafting oddball playthings for indie, art and research spaces,” Constantin says, continuing, “Needless to say, I was thrilled to join the crew making games that’d connected me with friends and strangers for years. We’re always learning from our past games and how players respond to them.”

“There are several different routes [for Jackbox games to be made],” explains Warren Arnold, lead on the pack’s Among Us-esque secret identity game Hyponotorious. “However, usually someone has a kernel of an idea and will gather people to flesh it out and paper test it. If it feels like it has something to work with, that person or team will keep iterating it until they feel it’s ready to pitch. Some ideas are ready immediately to go to a pitch and some get workshopped over different cycles – sometimes even a few years. We rarely do a design jam without an idea first, but if an idea really needs a deep dive, a group can be assembled to really find out what’s exciting about it.”

Meanwhile, Constantin served as lead on the box’s most ambitiously chaotic title, FixyText, a game of typing where no one can backspace and the timer is counting down. Yet for such an original project, its roots harken back to its predecessors, as Constantin explains, “individual moments of inspiration from earlier packs were, in no particular order: players on the edge of their seat watching live Roomerang farewell messages play out, the goofiness of subverting other player words to make some meaningful nonsense in JobJob, and the associative thinking of live improving duo presentations in Talking Points. It was so exciting to make a texting game that essentially builds on elements of earlier game successes with entirely new twists!”

A screenshot from the JAckbox game fixy text, featuring a score round up for all the players with bold geometric patterns describing the rank of each player

Not all twists came about as expected, though. As Ham recalls with his time traveling trivia game Timejinx, “The future questions came in late to production.” Originally, the game would’ve come to a conclusion at a time in history between the highest and lowest scores, “It was a cool idea, but it wasn’t testing well so we had to pivot – as is often the case!” he says with a laugh. “With the desire of having some future-based content in the game, I quickly paper-tested some ways to ask questions set in the future. At first, it was sci-fi related prompts like, ‘Travel to the year Dune is set in’ but that content was way too narrow/difficult. Instead, we landed on an approach that just reframed a standard timeline event as a future anniversary. Not only did this add a little wrinkle (doing basic math in your head) to the formula, but they also tended to be funnier in nature.”

Balancing that challenge is just as important as keeping it fun, something Brooke Beit’s branch of the pack, Dodo Re Mi, had to approach carefully as a rhythm game with carnivorous consequences. “[Since Pack 5] I’ve had the great fortune to write, pitch, design and direct some ridiculous things that I’m so glad people like to play!” Beit says. Among those titles, her latest pits players as birds attempting to croon – with all manner of instruments including artisanal gargling, constant screaming, burps, the sound of dev team members’ pets, and kitchenware slammed together – to coax a giant killer plant into not eating them. 

(When asked if the plant has a name, Breit answers swiftly, “Yes, Avery II.”)

 “We wanted to make sure that it felt challenging (but not impossible) to survive in the game,” Beit explains. “It’s based on a percent of accuracy of the entire group playing the song, so everyone could play an easier instrument if they really wanted to avoid being eaten. Moreover, all players get an individual score which is weighted based on the difficulty of the instrument you chose. So there’s a little bit of a game within a game.” And while a competitive affair overall, “The survival moment is a group effort.” Yet for those musically tuned in, “you could be absolutely nailing it individually, and that’s tracked as well. It’s relatively quick to play through a song, so if you fail, you can easily bop over to another song or really dig in and try to beat the plant. We wanted the game to feel quick, snappy and fun, so players are quickly shifting to play the way they want to play!”

Broadening the playing field was also a priority with the latest pack. “On a broader goal we certainly keep aiming for new ways to play with phones as controllers,” Constantin explains, “as well as considering content for players in different countries and languages early in our development cycle. We’ve built our process and designs on lessons from past packs, which is a great environment to work in.”

“We often will focus on the smallest device,” explains Tim Sniffen, lead of Tee-K.O. 2, “and make sure the experience is enjoyable there. If people want to play on something snazzier like a PC or tablet, all the better! Sometimes a tablet will be able to produce a better drawing… but that doesn’t guarantee victory. I’ve seen some rough, doodly, hilarious phone drawings dominate.” It’s a surreal road to success Sniffen can appreciate, “I’ve had a long and tempestuous love affair with Jackbox: first I was an animator with Berkeley Systems, the other half of the original You Don’t Know Jack team, animating things like question number segues. I moved to Chicago to get more involved in comedy and was hired by Jellyvision (proto-Jackbox)… since then I’ve been thrilled to work here!”

A screenshot from Tee K O 2 with two shirt designs side by side for everyone to choose. Both feature a hastily drawn tall guy and a round little guy on the left and two chaotic phrases underneath

“We also knew Timejinx would be more fun with questions pertaining to pop-culture,” Ham adds,”With that in mind, we tried to select as many globally-friendly prompts as possible. For all of the pop-culture questions that were American-centric, we had a loc team write transcreated content. So, for example, if we have a prompt about American football, that question can be rewritten in French, Italian, German or Spanish as a European football question. And in the instances where there wasn’t a 1:1 equivalent, they would come up with their own country-specific question.”

As for FixyText, Constantin explains, “When it’s your turn, you can type whatever you like into a text box. So yes, your friends can write out a message in several languages simultaneously if they want to. You’ll still need to select from one of our six available languages when you start the game though for prompt language, host and voices that will read your texts out loud, though.”

Ham elaborates further, “We know our audience age is a fairly wide spectrum so instead of trying to write questions that appease everyone, our approach was to “alienate” everyone equally. A core to our editorial design was to make sure we have an even spread of questions throughout the decades so whether you’re Gen X or Gen Z, there are going to be some questions that are inherently easier or harder to answer.”

Yet even before their more recent innovations, Jackbox has held an immensely wide appeal, with fans across the globe, even among those who don’t play more “traditional” games. When asked what makes their cast of wacky oddball characters so endearing, Sniffen replies, “I think part of the appeal is the different styles Jackbox artists have brought to the characters over the years, along with the shared creative process of the studio.”

Constantin agrees, adding, “It’s a joy to have excuses to get serious about silly things, create more giddy experiences for all kinds of folks, and explore new game ideas to elevate the incredible personalities and skill sets in our team.”

Sniffen nods, elaborating, “It’s not like ONE person draws the Drawful Owl and controls their story… many different people have added their own tweaks… including the fans! We love how much fanart is out there of Jackbox characters, because in the end, we want them to be out there in the world, enjoyed by everyone.” Adding in a hushed voice, glancing over his shoulder, “Except for Cookie’s Billy O’Brien ventriloquist doll, which is terrifying and should be destroyed.”

A few hearty laughs later, Sniffen concludes, “As with many Jackbox games – the players are the stars [of Tee-K.O. 2]. All the drawings & slogans are created by all of you, and it can be a thrill to see your own work repurposed, made into a shirt, then duking it out on screen.”

It’s a sentiment they all echo, with Arnold concluding, “They scratch a lot of itches. You get a chance to solve a puzzle, potentially role play and if the game is doing its job, have a spirited conversation. We have so many inside jokes at Jackbox from playtests of Fakin’ It and Push the Button that still make us laugh years later.”

Jackbox Party Pack 10 is available on virtually every device under the sun, and can be played with others over public and private livestreams as well as at home.

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With over ten of writing years in the industry, Elijah’s your guy for all things strange, obscure, and spooky in gaming. When not writing articles here or elsewhere, he’s tinkering away at indie games and fiction of his own.

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