Greg Johnson may be the nicest guy in the game industry. He is friendly, soft-spoken, someone who carefully weighs each word before it passes his lips — all traits that don't necessarily line up with "the creator of ToeJam & Earl" in my mind.
Yet Johnson is exactly that. And he's also the man behind a new Kickstarter plan to bring this classic series back from the dead.
Johnson started creating games in 1981, but he didn't have a serious hit until 1991's ToeJam & Earl. This Genesis exclusive followed two bizarre-looking aliens who crash-landed on Earth. They had to scour the planet for parts to fix their spaceship while avoiding dangerous earthlings. The actual gameplay to accomplish this task was unlike anything console owners had seen before.
"If I'm to describe it to anyone who doesn't know ToeJam & Earl, I go straight to describing Rogue," Johnson says. "That's what ToeJam & Earl is at its core."
Rogue was a dungeon crawler that showed up in its earliest versions on PCs in the ‘80s. This extremely difficult game spawned a sub-genre known as "roguelikes," games which are primarily known for variations on the super hardcore "one life only" design. This isn't the part of Rogue that Johnson was interested in, though; what he borrowed for ToeJam & Earl was the game's structure.
"...I go straight to describing Rogue. That's what ToeJam & Earl is at its core."
In Rogue, players enter a randomized dungeon layout. They must work from the top floor of the dungeon to the bottom, defeating monsters and collecting treasure as they go. The treasure, too, is randomized and, most notably, anything you pick up can have an unexpected effect attached to it. Essentially, each journey from the top of the dungeon to the bottom is entirely unpredictable.
In ToeJam & Earl, you start on the lowest of a series of islands floating in space. Each floor has an elevator that goes one floor up, and players must work their way to the top, collecting spaceship parts along the way. Rather than skeletons and orcs, ToeJam & Earl's enemies are light-hearted goofs on humanity: dentists, angry shoppers, a pack of nerds.
And rather than collecting swords, potions or armor, the titular heroes can stumble across presents containing randomized power-ups. For example, a present with some tomatoes will temporarily allow the alien protagonists to incapacitate earthlings. Sneakers might increase your run speed. Or a rain cloud could pop out of the present and continuously zap you with lightning.
For those who missed ToeJam & Earl in the Genesis days, this description might be a little difficult to follow, but Johnson is used to it.
"Any time you do anything new, you face the problem of having trouble describing it," he says. "That's sort of been the bane of my existence in the game industry. I always want to do something new and different, and it's always a challenge to explain it relative to what people are already familiar with."
This issue may also explain why Johnson struggled so much to get follow-ups to the original ToeJam & Earl created in line with his vision. An initial sequel, ToeJam & Earl in Panic on Funkotron, was released for the Genesis in 1993. However, the isometric perspective and Rogue callbacks had been dropped in favor of a more traditional — if still colorful and weird — sidescrolling platformer.
"I started off to make a sequel to ToeJam & Earl along with my old partner, Mark Voorsanger," Johnson says. "We wanted to make something true to game one, and then Sega asked us to change course. We ended up doing Panic on Funkotron. That's what they wanted us to make, but our fans were pretty confused by that."
After a fairly tepid response to the sequel, both Johnson and Sega decided to set aside the ToeJam & Earl series. It would remain on the sideline for another nine years, until Sega had moved away from hardware. In 2001, Johnson decided to approach Visual Concepts, then a subsidiary of Sega, with a pitch for a third ToeJam & Earl game, one that could reclaim the wacky style of the original.
"I don't want to moan about it too much, because that's just sort of the industry."
"They said yes to us making a sequel," he recalls. "We got two-thirds or three-quarters of the way done, and they changed their minds and suddenly wanted it to be very different. They said the stacked levels were too old school. They asked for all these changes — a hub structure and bosses and mini-games and unlockables. We ended up changing course again."
The result was ToeJam & Earl 3: Mission to Earth, a watered-down take on the concept that received some very kind reviews and just as many harsh rebuttals from fans of the original. It was, yet again, neither what Johnson wanted nor what fans wanted.
Johnson is quick to accept some of the blame for this. "It wasn't all because of Sega," he says. "Some of the choices I made, like having the over-the-shoulder camera ... it was a bit of an experiment, because it was back in the days when that camera angle was exciting. The Xbox had just come out, and you could do all this cool stuff. 3D was advancing really quickly. But the net result was that it was kind of disorienting in our game."
When discussing the development of the last two ToeJam & Earl games, Johnson sounds frustrated but also aware of the realities of the situation he was in.
"I don't want to moan about it too much, because that's just sort of the industry," says Johnson. "You're taking their money, they should have a right to say what they want and evaluate what they think is risky and not risky. I don't hold it against publishers at all."
He may not hold it against publishers, but in planning the next step for the series, Johnson thinks he's figured out the best path to avoid having to work with them: Kickstarter.This screenshot from an early build of the new ToeJam & Earl project was provided for the article by Greg Johnson.
In 2006, Johnson created a small game development studio in Albany, California, called HumaNature Studios. Most recently, this team worked on Doki-Doki Universe, a charming PlayStation exclusive that's focused on empathy over competition. Like ToeJam & Earl, it's largely non-violent and really hard to describe in comparison to other games.
But as a small downloadable game, Doki-Doki Universe never found the audience that ToeJam & Earl did on the Genesis.
"None of Sony's digital only games did well [at that time]," Johnson says. "I think it's something about the way the PlayStation Store is arranged and how people have to dig through it to find stuff."
After Doki-Doki Universe's struggles, Johnson looked for something more comfortable to tackle next, and every sign pointed to ToeJam & Earl.
"I've been wanting to do it for a long time," he says. "I have tried pitching ToeJam & Earl to publishers periodically over the years, but I've been doing different projects. Once I'm buried in a game, I'm out of commission for a year-and-a-half or two years. And then I have this window of opportunity between products where I can raise my head up and take another shot at it. Now, because of crowd-sourced funding, it felt like a really good opportunity."
Johnson and his small team launched a Kickstarter today to fund the new ToeJam & Earl project. They're seeking $400,000 for the game, which they intend to bring to PC, PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Wii U "and maybe 3DS." Johnson also mentions the possibility of doing a mobile version for tablets, though he clarifies that they won't "do any funky monetizing."
In addition to the availability of crowdfunding, Johnson also notes the wave of nostalgia in gaming at the moment. He cites a GameSpot editorial from last year titled "We Need a New ToeJam & Earl As Soon As Possible."
"I know that such a game would be a wild success, so I can only hope that we're treated to a new entry in the not-too-distant future," reads the piece by Tom McShea.
Johnson laughs off the high praise, calling it "a very subtle article," with a wink, but he's clearly flattered.
"I don't know why there's so much nostalgia these days," he says. "I think it's the age people are at and the fact that social media makes it so easy for people to tweet out, ‘Hey, wasn't this cool?'"
That nostalgia means Johnson is comfortable with going back to the first game for inspiration. The new ToeJam & Earl will return to an isometric view with a fixed camera. It will retain the original game's structure, of slowly working your way up a series of floating islands. And it will have the same "undercurrent of social commentary," as Johnson describes it.
"We're kind of splitting the difference in a way," he says. "We're going to make it feel very much reminiscent of the first game, much moreso than ToeJam & Earl 3 was, and it's going to look more like that. But it's also not just a straight-up remake. There's going to be a bunch of fun new things. There's a long list of things I want to get in. I'm just keeping my fingers crossed that we'll have the resources and the time to do it."This screenshot from an early build of the new ToeJam & Earl project was provided for the article by Greg Johnson.
After the recent buzz surrounding Peter Molyneux's failure to deliver on Kickstarter promises, it's a complicated time for any developer to jump into crowdfunding. Johnson understands why people might be skeptical of Kickstarter campaigns. He's also very confident.
"I've been doing this for 32 years," he says. "I've done an awful lot of games. And when I say ‘done,' I mean came up with a concept, pitched it to publishers, got a budget, hired the team, managed the whole project, did all the designs, delivered the project, stayed on budget and time, all that stuff. I've done it to that level for decades. This is pretty known territory."
Johnson says he has a lot of respect for Molyneux — "his desire to do really new stuff speaks to me at a personal level" — but he also has a realistic handle on how achievable his project is and how much his team needs to get there.
"If I can, I want to take two years to do this. I want to have a lot of time to play it and playtest it and polish it."
For a Johnson, a big part of delivering is related to setting a realistic goal. While he'd love to get more than $400,000 and has plans for what will be possible if that happens, he isn't going into the Kickstarter asking for significantly less than needed. He says that even if they only make the minimum amount asked for, and even taking into account the extra costs associated with Kickstarter, Amazon and reward delivery, the team will have enough to make the game.
"We're a very small team right now," Johnson says. "There's just three of us. It's me, an engineer and an artist."
That team could grow if they get enough money to warrant it, but Johnson wants to "stay small and lean" regardless. "I don't want to grow beyond, say, maybe eight people," he says.
As for how he plans to spend the development money, Johnson says most of it will go toward living expenses as the team takes its time. He reminisces about how the tiny team working on the original ToeJam & Earl came up with a playable build of the game very quickly, and then spent most of its time playing it, tweaking it and adding new elements. This is what he's hoping to do with the new game as well.
"I don't want to be in a rush," he says. "If I can, I want to take two years to do this. I want to have a lot of time to play it and playtest it and polish it. I feel like that's what will really yield the best results."
Johnson is also very clear that the multi-platform plan for the new ToeJam & Earl is not something that will be tied to stretch goals. If he needs extra funding to get the game onto other platforms, he has other sources to turn to.
"I'm not sure yet whether or not I'll be funding the other platforms myself or whether or not I'll partner with somebody, like Unity or Humble Bundle, or whether I'll go straight to Microsoft and Sony and strike a deal with them for funding," Johnson says. "I have a great relationship with Sony. They've been very gracious. They said the door is wide open if I want to put future games on their platform. There's a lot of good possibilities out there. I'm not too worried about it."
That lack of worry is perhaps the most surprising part of talking to Johnson as he stands on the verge of launching this new Kickstarter. On some level, he must be a ball of nerves, but he plays it completely cool. There's a lightness in his voice as he talks about returning to one of his most treasured creations and once more embracing the concept of "funk."
"Funk is our word for the joyful spirit of music and love and acceptance and feeling good," Johnson explains. "That's about as heavy as it gets."