Thursday, September 27

Interview with Zachary Johnson and Robert Frost of Space Mace Games on Joggernauts

We’ve certainly entered into what seems to be a co-op renaissance and the Switch is a major player looking to capitalize on that energy. It’s not just that we’re seeing a return of traditional genres that work well with others, with games like Joggernauts (from Space Mace Games) new takes on the formula are cropping up as well. Imagine an endless runner of sorts, and the challenges that they can pose. Now imagine that you and up to 3 friends are trying to complete courses you’d find in those titles, but trying desperately to coordinate your efforts. Having played it at PAX I can tell you that it stepped up in challenge quickly, but no doubt all of the noise was hardly helping either.

With the release of this title just around the corner on Switch (October 11th, mark your calendars), I was able to get some time from the co-founders of Space Mace Games, Zachary Johnson and Robert Frost. Succeeding in not embarrassing myself with any questions phrased to include mention of roads less traveled I picked their brains on the game, being indie developers, and more.

We'll start with the classic question that always gets things rolling, what would be your "elevator pitch" for Joggernauts?

SMG: “Joggernauts is four people on an elevator ride, and we’re all going to die if we don’t work together. But without the elevator. And with jogging instead. And aliens. And switching positions to match colors.”

There's no doubt that the approach, even among other co-op games, in Joggernauts is pretty different. What was the initial idea that started you on this journey?

SMG: This is a great story! I was playing the first Bit.Trip Runner with my best friend Jesse Mullan. We were passing the controller back and forth taking turns at single player. One of us would play and the other would be yelling like “jump! kick! slide!”

The question came up of, “Could this be multiplayer?” We wanted to keep that feel of working together rather than against each other. We realized that in an auto-runner game the lead person would have all the fun and all the jobs to do, and the rear person would be bored. That is when the invention of the switch-to-front mechanic happened!

Basically I stole Jesse’s idea, and it was the greatest video game idea heist of all time.

What games did you pull inspirations from, whether in terms of the gameplay, theming, or even just overall "feel"?

Zach: From a game design standpoint, the initial ideas were heavily leaning on Bit.Trip Runner and 1-2 button arcade style games like One Button Bob or Colecovision’s Cabbage Patch Kids.

There's also a heavy helping of 2D Mario in there. Nintendo has done so much with those games, they’ve already solved a lot of design problems that we could do our own spin on.

Rob: Some of the more happy music in the game were inspired by Mario Galaxy, Donkey Kong Country, Toejam and Earl, and Mario Kart 8. Since I also have a background in contemporary pop music, a lot of other influences included, Stevie Wonder, The Temptations, Michael Jackson, Radiohead, Gorillaz, and Coldplay.

Sound design was highly inspired by the 90s cartoon “Doug” for it’s wacky use of voices as SFX, Spongebob Squarepants and his squishy toy shoe sounds, and Led Zeppelin’s song “Heartbreaker” (more specificity Robert Plant's last line, “Heart!”). I tried to make the game sound as derpy as possible.

What would you say has been the biggest change that you've made over the course of development from what you had in mind at the beginning?

SMG: We made two big changes. First, Joggernauts used to be one hit team death, with no checkpoints, even with four players. When Tommy joined the team, luckily he insisted we fix that. (But you can still play in ZACHMODE if you want.)

The second big change was inspired by feedback about tension between cooperative and competitive features. We used to have a competitive meta-game about who could collect the most coins. Marty, one of the people who helped us on Joggernauts, would play the game very competitively around the coins and sacrifice the whole team to get his coin count up. We got a final push to change this from Evan Greenwood of Free Lives when he played Joggernauts with us at GDC. We ended up weeding out every competitive element from the game and made everything about shared goals.

What's the most crucial objective you've had directing your design that you've refused to compromise on?

SMG: To make an actually cooperative multiplayer game that would even be fun for an experienced player to play with a brand new or casual player.

We wanted the game to look and feel approachable to anyone, and we wanted the gameplay to always require each player to participate in order for the whole team to succeed. You literally cannot beat levels in Joggernauts unless everybody does their job, and no player can ever be left behind.

We also want people to play in person. Joggernauts online play with friends could maybe be fun, but with strangers we don’t think it would work. There’s a game that’s happening out in meatspace on the sofa between the people playing Joggernauts, even if they have just met each other. But if your teammates are anonymous, and you can’t hear them, and you can’t yell “BLUE!” at them, the failure in Joggernauts would become more frustrating than fun.

The game is listed as for 1 - 4 players. In what ways does the gameplay change as you add or remove players, and what was the piece of the experience you'd say you focused on the most to ensure would remain no matter how many players you have?

SMG: When you play with friends on a team of 2-4 people, each person has their own color-coded job to do. It was important that everybody stayed engaged in the teamwork regardless of the number of players.

When any one person dies, they respawn again as long as at least one teammate is currently alive and the team has some of their shared hearts left. So, in two player games there’s a much higher risk that both players might die at the same time, and they both have more tasks to do. Four player games are significantly more chaotic and disorienting, but there’s generally at least one person that survives the team’s mistakes who can carry everyone forward.

Single player Joggernauts has one human player controlling two colors of characters. You can switch their positions, and you jump for both characters separately. You use your left hand to jump the rear/left character and your right hand to jump the front/right character. It leads to some quick patterns and fun rhythms that feel good in your hands… “Left right! Left right! Left left right right!”

We weren’t sold on single player at first since we want people to play with their friends. We ended up spending some time on finding a comfortable single player control scheme, and we were really surprised how much it clicked. It ended up being a really cool new take on the single player auto-runner genre.

It says that a crucial part of your process has been frequent public playtesting. First, I'm sure some element of that has to be a bit nerve-wracking, but what would you say is the most crucial feedback you've tended to get from this and how do you filter the feedback to inform your design without necessarily compromising your own internal objectives?

SMG: It honestly wasn’t that nerve wracking! If you know what your game is, you can really easily filter feedback that would create a totally different game. We focused on feedback that would make *this* game more fun and more fair.

Perhaps the most crucial feedback came from quietly observing where and how players struggled, and adjusting levels accordingly. It is really hard to design four player levels without watching four people play.

As outright tricky as some of the levels can get, though at least they're not procedurally generated so you can "learn" them, who would you say your target audience is? Or with the relatively easy-to-understand core mechanics do you see it more as a matter of careful coordination?

SMG: We say that Joggernauts is communication and concentration hard… not “video game” hard. Joggernauts is perhaps more directly relatable to games like Bop-It or Simon than a platformer. You know how to win, it doesn’t seem very complicated, and you kind of delight in tripping over yourself trying to do something so simple.

Joggernauts is targeting both families or casual gamers AND the fans of tough platformers and rhythm games. It was a conscious design goal to make a game that a hardcore gamer could have fun playing with their friends or family who “don’t play games” and vice-versa.

People who love challenging platformers or the auto-runner genre will have a lot of fun in 1-2 player mode, particularly trying to perfectly complete levels and beat the bonuses.

At the same time, being that it is a two button platformer, anybody can learn the basics. It is a lot of fun to fail at Joggernauts with friends and family.

What would you say your journey as an indie developer has been like to this point?

SMG: Hard. Work.

We spent two years very part-time on Joggernauts with busy day jobs, while also taking the game on the road to lots of events. We then spent about a year on the business, publishing, and platforms side of things so that we could try to make the game we truly envisioned. We barely did any work on the game itself that year. Luckily it worked out, and we were able to partner with a publisher and bring Joggernauts to great platforms.

Is there a budding or active indie scene in or around Minneapolis or that just happens to be where you set up shop?

SMG: Minneapolis has had an amazing indie scene for years! There’s an IGDA chapter here that meets monthly and regularly has 50+ attendees. We’ve also got a non-profit GLITCH ( supporting games here. There’s even a group of us that works together every Friday at Glam Doll Donuts.

We’ve seen an increasing number of Steam releases from indie teams in town, and after Joggernauts comes out on Nintendo Switch and Steam we’ve got local teams releasing Newt One on XBox and Treasure Stack on Switch and more later this year.

With the emphasis in the game being so clearly on cooperation this seems like a natural match for the Switch. How did the pitch to Nintendo go, or was it a matter of them seeing it at a show and expressing interest from their side?

SMG: We brought an early demo of Joggernauts to IndieXChange at IndieCade in LA about four years ago. The organizers of IndieXChange do this awesome thing where they get you meetings to pitch your game. We got to play Joggernauts with Nintendo, which was terrifying and amazing, but this was before the Switch was announced or the public knew anything about it. It wasn’t the right time for Joggernauts or for Nintendo, but we’d made a key introduction.

Fast forward to 2017 when the Switch was announced, and we just about DIED during the announcement realizing we’d made a cooperative game where people literally scream the verb “switch” at each other. We reconnected with Nintendo ahead of GDC, and we spent many, many very long nights working on a pitch deck. At GDC we happened to bump into somebody from Nintendo who had played with us back at that IndieCade. I guess our pitch deck and meeting went well!

Do you have any insider scoops on Joggernauts pro-level tricks or techniques for people to get a jump on things?

SMG: So the first pro level thing you need to understand about Joggernauts is that when you switch to the front, you are pulling the front player back to where you were! You can move that front person to a variety of different spots! Sometimes your color has nothing to do with solving the puzzle, and instead it is about your position in line.

The second super duper secret trick I can tell you about, is the double jump. You can chain jumps in Joggernauts. You’ve only got two buttons… … ... I’ve said too much.

Once Joggernauts is out in the world do you have any tentative ideas for where you'll go next? More co-op or perhaps veering off into a different space?

SMG: We have some co-op ideas we definitely want to explore. If cooperation is what resonates most with our fans, I can see that being what we stick to.

Many thank to the co-founders of Space Mace games, Zachary Johnson and Robert Frost, for taking the time to field my questions and answer them so thoroughly, as well as Elizabeth George for helping to make the arrangements. The very different co-op platforming experience of Joggernauts is just around the corner, and will be debuting on the Nintendo Switch (as well as Steam) on October 11th!