Last year, I made a conscious decision that I was going to transform my living room into a place where I could happily spend time playing video games. And before too long, there was one game that got played so much that it felt like part of the furniture itself: Drawful.
After Jackbox announced Drawful 2 earlier this year, I had to talk to the people responsible for bringing so much laughter into my living room. So I fired an email out into the wilderness, and the director of Drawful and Drawful 2, Arnie Niekamp, replied.
Niekamp's been around the Jackbox studios for a long time, starting a decade ago when the company was working on educational ventures. You Don't Know Jack (YDKJ) had been consigned to the wilderness then, Facebook wasn't the social behemoth it is today, and livestreaming wasn't quite part of the conversation yet.
"When that project was done, I was asked to come back and help them relaunch YDKJ which had been dormant for a while at that point," Niekamp told me. "I’ve seen the company change quite a bit since then, breaking off from Jellyvision to become a studio that still focuses exclusively on games."
The modern YDKJ games retain much of the original's structure
Jellyvision was a production company that started out in 1989 making films for kids. As their business grew, they decided to venture into interactive entertainment — which led to a partnership in 1995 with Berkley Systems and the first iteration of YDKJ.
And for a long period, that was largely what those working on titles for the gaming market were doing: YDKJ, and not much else. "I have a deep love for YDKJ, and it’s fun to work on, but after years and years of working almost exclusively on that one big game, it’s very exciting to work on a lot of somewhat smaller but also weirder and more interactive games every year," Niekamp said.
That changed model has been a lightning rod for the studio — and it's also produced some of the most entertaining party games in the last few years.
Part of that magic has been the meteoric rise of streaming. And what's interesting is that while Jackbox built their recent games with that in mind, they didn't fully realise how important it would be. "We didn't fully realize just how well our games could work via streaming until the day Fibbage came out," Niekamp recalled. "And we saw people playing together via Twitch and immediately saw that it would be hugely important to us."
Thanks to Niekamp, that initial experience with Fibbage immediately fed back into Drawful. "The first Drawful was almost done at that point and I jumped into a meeting saying, 'We have to make the timers longer and push as much info to the controllers as possible.' And we've been iterating ever since."
Part of those iterations are being introduced in Drawful 2, such as the ability to draw in two colours. But the new colour begs the question: if two colours, why not three? Or four? According to Niekamp, however, the limitation is necessary to stop the game from looking like a mess. "Mostly, the more colors you add, the more the drawings start to look ... just bad. Not amusingly awful, just aesthetically unsettling," he explained.
Two colours is surprisingly versatile though, and Niekamp added that there were UI issues to consider when adding too many colours to a screen that, for most, will be viewed on a fairly small surface.
Another major contribution from Niekamp to the series is the inclusion of misspelt answers, something that only really appears with Drawful in any frequency. "I really wanted to push the idea that any answer could be right," the director began.
"Whenever you play and someone misspells their fake answer, someone in the room will say, 'Well, it’s not THAT one.' I really wanted to push the idea that any answer could be right, wanted to put that little bit of doubt into players."
One of the other surprises for the team was the presence of trolls. Sometimes they take the form of abusing the streamer or a certain player; sometimes they just give up and refuse to continue playing, souring the experience for everyone.
"As the games became popular with Twitch broadcasters with really large audiences, the trolls started to see the potential to act out," Niekamp said. "It still only happens in a fraction of the games out there and there are ways to minimize the likelihood of it happening, but even still, we really wanted to give players a line of defense to protect their games."
Drawful 2 will be the first of the Jackbox games to feature tools designed to counter trolls. Hosts will be able to censor players and ban them from the rest of the game if necessary. The game will supposedly have more features as well, but those weren't announced and Niekamp didn't go into detail.
Speaking of details, I couldn't help but ask: why release games separate from the Party Packs? Why not release everything as a complete bundle? According to the director, there's a simple reason: it allows the studio to test or trial features that will be included in the later bundles, as Quiplash did with the audience feature.
Drawful 2 is set to introduce new mechanics, and it won't be included in the third Party Pack when that launches in the final quarter. It's being made available for all platforms, and hopefully won't suffer the mysterious issue that stops Quiplash or the second Jackbox Party Pack from being accessible on the Australian Xbox Live store. (I asked about that, but didn't receive an explanation why.)
When Drawful 2 is released over the next month or so, it'll become a staple in my living room just like the other Jackbox games have. The only question that remains is whether my friends will draw hairy balls for their Drawful avatars in two colours, instead of one.