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Had the pleasure in speaking with HumaNature’s director and designer, Greg Johnson. Let’s learn more about HumaNature and their game, ToeJam & Earl: Back in the Groove for the Nintendo Switch, PlayStation 4, Xbox One, and PC (Steam). You can also visit the official ToeJame & Earl online store for gear.

Thank you, Greg Johnson, for taking the time to speak with me today. Can you tell us a little bit about yourself?

ToeJam and Earl: Back in the Groove

Sure. I’ve been an indie game developer since 1982. I guess one of the original indies in a way. My first game, called Starflight, was published by EA and released in 1986. Since then I have created and contributed to many titles, including Doki Doki Universe, Kung Fu Panda World, Sims 2, Spore, Orly’s Draw-A-Story, Caveman Ugh-lympics and, of course, all of the ToeJam and Earl Games. I’ve built games for a wide variety of platforms.

I have also spent time working as creative director for a few game-related startups as well and done consulting within larger companies like EA/Maxis, Wargaming, Leapfrog, Dreamworks, and Electric Planet. I’ve also done a bit of lecturing to grad students and such on game design. I think I’ve pretty much seen all sides of this industry since it first began.

Can you tell us a little bit about the history of HumaNature Studios? How was it formed?

HumaNature Studios was formed in 2006 when I was setting out to make a DS game for Konami. That game was going to be called “What’s Your Type?” and it never got released. It was the precursor to what eventually became Doki Doki Universe, a first party title published by Sony of America.

What was the inspiration to revive the ToeJam & Earl franchise after so many years of hibernation?

ToeJam and Earl: Back in the Groove

I have wanted to revive ToeJam and Earl for many years. It wasn’t a new idea. It was simply that the opportunity finally presented itself. This opportunity was the advent of crowdfunding. All of a sudden it became up to the fans, and no longer up to the opinions of publishers.

Can you explain to our audience what the game ToeJam & Earl: Back In the Groove is to those that are not familiar with it.

Sure. TJ&E is perhaps the original Rogue-Like game… well, aside from Rogue of course, but I’m not sure you can call Rogue a “Roguelike”. I’m going to have to think about that one some more. In any event, it takes the basic Rogue formula of exploring a randomly generated dungeon, where players descend and search for potions, scrolls, treasure, and hidden pathways, while battling monsters and avoiding traps, and it turns it upside down.

ToeJam and Earl: Back in the Groove

In TJ&E players go up instead of down and they can fall off levels. It also turns it into a fun multiplayer co-op experience, with an original dynamically split screen. ToeJam and Earl adds a ton of its own original style, character, and satirical humor and craziness. Players take on the role of aliens from the planet Funkotron, who are trying to get away from the insane Earthlings, and there is a heavy dose of very funky bass-heavy, 80’s and 90’s style music (ala Herbie Hancock and The Brothers Johnson). Back in the Groove is a remake of the original game with elements of games 2 and 3 thrown into the mix, along with a ton of new features. At its heart it is a multiplayer co-op game that is all about fun. It doesn’t take itself (or anything) very seriously.

Can you recall how you came up with the design aesthetics of ToeJam & Earl, Why parody 90s urban culture?

ToeJam and Earl: Back in the Groove

ToeJam and Earl is not a parody of 90’s Urban Culture. It is a parody of humanity (as seen from the eyes of aliens, outside of humanity), and perhaps a parody of modern American Culture. If you take a step back and take a look at the characters in the game, you will quickly see that TJ&E and their cohorts from Funkotron are the most sane ones in this Universe.

They all have laid back attitudes and sort of flow with funky spirit while the Earthlings all around them are wrapped up in one sort of insanity or another. I am a child of central LA in the 70’s (graduated High School in 1977) and come from mixed ethnic heritage. I wanted to create characters that were cool and funky, and so TJ&E were born out of who I am, I guess.

Do you believe that ToeJam & Earl still has a big following with old-school gamers especially those that love Rogue-like games?

It’s hard to say how big the following is. I can say that the followers that we have have been very vocal and super supportive and involved with this entire project. You really can’t make a game that pleases everybody. Especially when you step pretty far outside of the “what’s typical” box. There will always be things other people would have done differently.

This game was really designed with the original fans in mind, and we tried really hard to listen to what they wanted every step of the way. Especially in our open beta and on our forum. We got tons of feedback and did many rounds of revision until it was something they all felt excited about. I think we really gave that group in particular what they wanted.

ToeJam and Earl: Back in the Groove

What are you fondest memories working on the ToeJam & Earl franchise. Any crazy stories you can tell?

I have a ton of very fond memories working on this franchise. If you take the 1.5 years for each of the first 2 games, plus 3 months for Ready Aim Tomatoes, plus 3 years for game number 3, plus 5 years for this last one… that is… maybe like a dozen years of my life… and that doesn’t take into account all of the many days put into writing game pitches and movie pitches that never got off the ground. TJ&E are a big part of my life for sure. As far as crazy stories…

Well, you may have heard that Left-Eye from TLC was all set to do the voice for Latisha in game three but then she got in a tragic crash and died. That was very sad and disappointing. Genevieve, who did the voice for all of the female characters in game three, and the Gospel Singers singing, and who also did the voice for Lewanda in this new game, is the star of a show on the Disney Channel, which I created called Choo Choo Soul with Genevieve. Also, this isn’t really crazy but many of our fans played the original game with loved ones who have passed away, and we put tributes for many of these people on our graffiti wall on level 0. I got many really lovely tearful emails from fans who this meant a lot to. I never expected something like that from making a crazy video game.

What are the major differences between ToeJam & Earl: Back In the Groove & The original ToeJam series for the Sega Genesis?

ToeJam and Earl

The answer to this question is really long. I have been asked this a few times and each time I give a complete answer, it turns into a long, long page.

I will just list a few of the main things here: 4-player local play (on PC), up to 4 player network play (on all), player stats, 9 playable characters, amped presents, broken presents, double the number of presents and double the number of Earthlings, rhythm matching mode with making up your own rhythms, multiplayer rhythm matching, multi-player Hyperfunk Zone, randomly generated Hyperfunk Zone, character-specific conversations, free-typing chat, chat-wheel chat, RPG conversations with friendly Earthlings, 3-D terrain that affects movement, new types of multi-player specific presents, ability to turn off any UI element, Hard Mode, Easy Farty-Mode and Toddler Mode, our Tutorial System of signs, lots and lots of new music!!!, lots of different languages, the manual that explains all presents and Earthlings, a much more involved ending, a much better level 0 with more secrets scattered in the game, coin meters, buttons and flying presents that unlock for all future games, power hats that unlock for all future games, player characters you unlock, Earthlings talk to each other now, players can drop in and out of games anytime, Evil Elevators, Player Characters have unique special abilities and presents they start out with,The (secret) North Pole, Hidden back Story that unlocks after several playthroughs, the Achievement system …

I can keep going but maybe this is enough. I’m not even getting into all of the new types of presents and Earthlings. There is an absolute TON!! that is new. If you hear anyone say “This game wasn’t very ambitious”, just laugh and show them this short list and say “Ummm… really?”

Were there any lessons learned from crowdfunding / self-publishing ToeJam & Earl: Back In the Groove that you believe you can apply for future HumaNature Studios games?

Lessons? Of course. A ton. One lesson: Don’t underestimate the amount of work it will take.   You are now quite literally running two businesses at once, one building a game and two manufacturing goods, storing and shipping them, and doing customer support. You will almost certainly be understaffed. (Be sure to use a company like Backerkit!!) Secondly you will find that you suddenly have thousands of people all at once who are your investors and need to be listened to, kept informed and happy.

Lastly, don’t underestimate your costs. Cost for running a campaign, for rewards and managing all of the peripheral stuff, not to mention the game itself, will ALWAYS be higher than you think, and you can’t go back for more money and you can’t let these people down (the internet is a very unforgiving place!). So be very conservative when it comes to costs. Can I apply these lessons to the future? You bet. Crowd Funding is awesome, but one has to have one’s eyes wide open before leaping in.

ToeJam and Earl: Back in the Groove

Were there any challenges or difficulties when making this game for the PC(Steam), Nintendo Switch, Xbox one or PlayStation 4?

The PC was what we built it on. This is almost always how game devs work. Build on the PC first and then port. The only time you don’t do that is when you are pretty sure you are only releasing on one console and nothing else. We had no shortage of technical challenges with this game. The biggest challenges we faced from a technical perspective were: 1) Network play, 2) Optimizing for all of the consoles and 3) Debugging this crazy random game with a million modes and combinations.

Building a video game is a marathon. You really have to have the stamina and the resources to keep going and going. Often you get to a difficult place where you need to start cutting large sections of the game out. We had to do some of that, but for better or worse, I wasn’t willing to give up on most of the game features and I had a great team supporting those difficult decisions when we couldn’t see how we would get it all in and make it all work.

Congratulations on teaming up with LimitedRunGames for a physical release on both the Sony Playstation & Nintendo Switch. How did that come about?

ToeJam and Earl: Back in the Groove

It turned out that Doug, who runs Limited Run, is a big ToeJam and Earl fan. We decided to take a leap and go with Limited Run despite having some really wonderful other options for more traditional approaches as well. We are really glad we took this path. They have been great to work with and have been supporting us in a variety of ways.

What does the future hold for ToeJam & Earl, maybe a new series of games, cartoon series, possible merchandise? (Totaku Figures, Toys , 90s retro urban style clothing)

ToeJam and Earl: Back in the Groove

Well, the immediate future isn’t that hard to see. We have a number of things in the works for new merchandise, like various T-shirts and TJ & E stuffies. We are also working with some folks in Hollywood with the hopes of getting a series launched, but that sort of thing is always a long shot, with lots of hoops to jump through. We also have a number of things that we would love to do for additional features by way of patches and DLC.

As for farther down the road and the future of the IP, this completely depends on how well this game does. This could be the start of a long run of ToeJam and Earl projects, or it could be the last game ever for our alien duo. So far indications are good, but we will just have to see. Fingers and tentacles crossed and knocking on wood-like surfaces!

I would love to see ToeJam & Earl in VR, has there ever been a thought to change up on the original game formula for future games?

Yes! You aren’t the first person to ask us about that and we’ve had some fun thinking about it. VR projects are exciting but also very high risk, as they tend to require a lot of experimentation and don’t promise to generate much revenue. This means trying to keep your costs down at the same time as you are being technically aggressive and innovative. That’s why so many VR projects end up feeling more like demo’s than complete games. Still…. It is tempting and exciting. I hope we get the chance to take a swing at that. The first thing we would do is go straight to our fan community and ask them what they would want from something like this.

How much of a focus has the soundtrack of ToeJam & Earl been for you during the development of Back in the Groove?

ToeJam and Earl: Back in the Groove

I love this question. The soundtrack was a total blast to make. We did a remake of 15 original songs from game 1 and 2, and another 16 new songs, including the new theme song with vocals by TonezP (the voice of ToeJam in the game) and Greg Brown (the voice of Big Earl). At the start of this project I wasn’t sure how we were going to pull of high-quality music. I knew how important is was. I almost started working with a very talented group of musicians in Brazil called The Game Boys. (Different from the group in Australia called The Gameboys – another talented group). This might have been a good fit, but I wasn’t sure how working long distance like that would work out.

At one point someone contacted me and said he would like to play Bass and Guitar for us, and even offered to do it for free because he loved the property. I politely refused but then saw who it was and almost fell out of my chair. Cody Wright is a luminary and rising star in the world of Progressive Jazz Bass and I couldn’t believe that he had reached out to me. It turned out that he had started playing bass because of TJ&E when he was young, and he wanted to pay it back. I couldn’t say no. He ended up doing the Guitar and Bass tracks for every song in the game and was a joy to work with.

Burke Trieschmann, who did all of the music and audio for Game 3 also worked on this with us, as did a great keyboardists and friend of Cody’s Nick Stubblefield. The four of us had a really good time making the music. I came up with most of the basslines and then Cody and Nick and Burke would elaborate on the basic themes and do amazing freeform improvisational jam sessions right on the spot. We were sorry when all the music was done and we had to stop.

About Tech Wiz X - Contributor

Steven (TechWizX) has been into video games since Pong. When he's not playing video games or collecting Vintage 80s Toys he's running his YouTube channel.

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