The GameCola Interview: Greg Johnson

Chances are if you're reading this, you love ToeJam Earl. Chances are that you love the first one, aren't a big fan of the second one, and haven't yet had a chance to play the third one. Chances are

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TJ&E BoxChances are if you’re reading this, you love ToeJam & Earl. Chances are that you love the first one, aren’t a big fan of the second one, and haven’t yet had a chance to play the third one. Chances are that if you’re not a fan of the game, your best friend is, or maybe your girlfriend, or perhaps your nephew or your babysitter or your dentist or your guy-in-a-carrot-suit. Chances are that you’ve familiar with the series, and chances aren’t that you’ve never heard of the games.

With that said, our latest “GameCola Interview” is with Greg Johnson, mastermind behind the ToeJam & Earl saga. Many of my questions are follow-ups from an interview he did a few months back, so if you’re interested, check that out before reading this. And if you’re not interested, just go ahead and read what he has to say now. I wish more in the gaming industry thought the way he does.


GameCola: How did you get started in video game development?


Greg Johnson: It was back in the days of the Atari 800.  The whole idea of computer games was a new concept.  EA was just getting started.  In fact when I did my first project with them they only had about 25 or 30 employees.  I started off helping out with design on a title called Starflight, which I sort of ended up taking overat least design-wise.  It was a lot easier in those days.  I feel sorry for people trying to break in as designers now.

GC: How long did it take you to create the original ToeJam & Earl?

GJ: That went pretty quickly.  It was really just two guys in an office.  Me and my business partner Mark Voorsanger.  I believe it took us a little over a year to build.  We had a lot of fun.  It’s very different these day with huge teams and big budgets.  It really was a garage shop type thing.

GC: You’ve said before that the concept of ToeJam & Earl came from your subconscious. Can you elaborate on this a bit? Did ToeJam & Earl come to you in a dream?

GJ: Actually that’s not too far off.  The first entry point of ToeJam and Earl into the universe that we know was when I woke up at about 3:00 AM and wrote down a scrap of dialogue on a piece of paper.  It was basically just “Greetings and various apropos felicitationsmy name is ToeJam and this here is my homeboy, Big Earl.  We are aliens from outer space.”  Not like it was anything that incredibleI guess it must have just tickled my funny bone enough to wake me up and get me to write it down.  Maybe it’s best not to ask too many questions…

GC. Tomatoes play a huge role in ToeJam & Earlyou can throw them, slingshot them, make ’em rain from the heavens… is there any particular reason they’re so abundant in the game, or do you just really like tomatoes?

GJ: Reason?  Who said that “reason” had anything at all to do with ToeJam and Earl.  No, no reason.  It just seemed like they were the weapon of choice at the time.

GC: When Sega wasn’t showing much support for ToeJam & Earl, did you ever consider going to a different publisher?

GJ: No.  It was already too late by then.  When you have a signed contract you can’t just up and change publishers.  After some years the exclusive publishing rights will sometimes revert to developers but that’s generally something like three to five years after it’s published.

GC: You started working on a sequel more similar to the original ToeJam & Earl before scrapping that and creating Panic on Funkotron. I’m sure ToeJam& Earl fans would love to catch a glimpse of what could have been; are there any copies of that original sequel floating around?

GJ: Nope.  Sorry.  That got trashed pretty quickly.  It’s not that hard to imagine though.  It was just like the original game but they could go into interior spaces, and we had cliffs, and we had some new surfaces like ice and snow.  In the start of a platform project you build your building blocks, that you will later construct levels out of.  It was that sort of stuff.  Some of that ended up going into the Xbox version of the game.

GC:  Why was the subtitle of ToeJam & Earl III changed from “All Funked Up” to “Mission to Earth”?

GJ: Well, I’ll bet you can guess the answer to that.  And you’re right.  The marketing department.  They are forever trying to guess what will make games sell more.  They were worried that people who didn’t know about ToeJam & Earl wouldn’t have a clue about it, and that the subtitle “Mission to Earth” would peak their interest because it sounds like a quest of some sort.  I told them that I thought it would be better to have a fun title like “All Funked Up”, but it was their call.

GC: Many diehard ToeJam & Earl fans weren’t pleased about the addition of Latisha to the series in the third game.. What goal did you have in mind when adding her to the mix?

GJ: Well, are those die-hard fans male or female?  Let me guess.  I added her because TJ&E is a cooperate game for everybody.  Lots of couples and families play it together and the only playable characters are two guys!  I wanted to give the female players a girl character that they could play.  I suppose for purists it doesn’t seem right, after all it is ToeJam & Earl, but hey, I don’t get why people whine about that.  They don’t have to play Latisha if they don’t want, and she really wasn’t put there for them anyway.  Girl power!

GC:  Was there anything scrapped from ToeJam & Earl III that you wish you could’ve hung on to, besides online and 3-player modes?

GJ: Yes, there were many features that never made it into the game. For example, TJ&E were supposed to have a little robot dog named Neon.  Earthlings were going to have houses that you could go into.  We were also going to give players a freeform music jam out mode where they could go to town on their own and then we evaluate how they did.  We tried coding thatit was pretty tricky and we gave up.

GC:  Sega thought that the class ToeJam & Earl was too “old school” for today’s gamers, and thus needed some sort of updating. What would be different about ToeJam & Earl III if Sega hadn’t taken this outlook?

GJ: That’s an easy answerpretty much everything that made the original TJ&E different.  Hub style levels instead of stacked levels.  In the original game you could die and have to start over.  That’s why the random levels made so much sense.  Sega said, no one wants to die anymoreso we took that out and we put in the hubs, and we sort of lost the reason for the random levels, and I think TJ&E lost a lot of that “how far can I get” addictive quality that it used to have.  They also insisted that we put in more collectableskeys, microphones, etc.  They had me play Donkey Kong and said “This has sold 3 million unitsmake it like this!”.  They had us put in gates, bosses, mini-games, a final big battle, etc.  I don’t think their influence was all bad.  They had some good ideas, like the Lamont segments between zonesbut still I wish we had put up more of a fight and gone with the old approach.  Rushing in Sega’s changes also caused us to introduce a few pretty bad bugs that it shipped with

GC: If you were to develop a ToeJam & Earl for the DS, how do you think you would implement the touch and dual screens?

GJ: Good question.  Not sure.  I’ve gotten a number of emails about that.  Mainly I suppose I’d use one screen for your map and inventory.  Seems like that could be really useful.  That doesn’t seem super innovative, but hey, can’t be a creative genius all the time, right?  🙂

GC: Where do you see the ToeJam & Earl series in 10 years?

GJ: There is still a remote chance of a TJ&E movie but I wouldn’t bet a lot on that happening.  Hollywood seems to like to simply sit on properties, at least this one.  Apart from that I don’t really expect we’ll be seeing more TJ&E, but then again, that’s what I thought about five years ago too.  Final answer….no idea.

GC:  What’s the latest news on the potential ToeJam & Earl cartoon and/or movie?

GJ: Oh wait, I just answered that.  It has all of the potential of a wonderful seed sitting in the middle of a desert.  Or perhaps it’s the potential of a seed sitting in the middle of a dessert.  I like that better – seems to offer more hopedepending on the type of dessert, of course.

GC: You spent seven months with Maxis working on The Sims 2. What were your responsibilities in the development of that game?

GJ: Lucy Bradshaw, the lead producer in charge of the project actually brought me in to help them try and figure out ways to make their characters more believable and more interesting.  I was really about as far on the sidelines as one can get.  It was a very crowded pond and most of the other designers didn’t really want another voice in the mix.  I think mainly I simply helped support some of the things Lucy already knew she wanted to do.  More than anyone else I think she deserves the credit for the great things in that title.

GC: During those seven months you were also working with Will Wright on a “new secret project.” Was this project the “Spore” game we’ve been hearing about since E3? If so, are you still working on it, and what are/were your responsibilities with that project?

GJ: I only worked on Spore for about three months.  It was in an interesting stage where it was sort of sprawling and all over the place.  I sort of helped Will and his design partner Chris Trottier focus a bit, and get a little momentum.  One of the primary challenges on that project was, and still is bounding it, as it is pretty darn ambitiousit’s like eight games wrapped into one.  It was great fun working with Will and Chris.  They are amazing people, and that whole Spore team is pretty incredibly talented and filled with really nice people.  I expect Spore will do really well.

GC: What other projects have you been working on lately?

GJ: I’m working right now with a company in Seattle Wa. called Multiversal Entertainment (  I’m actually an employee and I’m commuting here from the Bay Area.  It was worth it to me because they are just about the only people in the entire interactive industry willing to spend money on innovating in the area of emotional AI, and expressive virtual character interaction.  And I’m not talking about the kind of “incremental innovation” that a few other publishers do and pat themselves on the back for. These publishers basically just want to make their shooters a bit better.  I’m talking about boldly going where no man has gone before, etc.

GC: What do you think is the biggest problem of the gaming industry today?

GJ: Problem?  I don’t see any problem.  Unless maybe you’re referring to that insane production values race, and blockbuster mentality where everything that gets put out is so darned expensive that it has to sell a minimum of a million units to justify itself, so to mitigate their financial risk games publishers only go with what they consider to be mainstream “safe bets” and they only fund sequels, movie licenses, and formula action games that appeal to power hungry teenage boys.  Is that what you mean?  Or maybe I misunderstood your question.

I think the game industry needs to pick itself up and go on a spiritual retreat or something and re-evaluate life and it’s place in the universe.  If nothing else, it’s unfortunate myopic, inbred market focus is causing it to pass up all of the additional dollars that might come from innovation and variety.  Hell, you’d think they could carve off just a little bit to test the waters with some new things.  They do it in Japan.

Why do you suppose that a title that isn’t due to be released for two more years won “best of show” at E3 this year.  (It was Spore of course).  Well Spore is brilliant, but it was just an early demo.  It’s because there is nothing else original, that’s why.


Remember, if you’d like to hear more from Greg Johnson, check out the homepage of his new gig, Multiversal Entertainment!


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From 2002 to 2013

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