In their GDC Summer talk, Mike Bilder and Brooke Hofer from Jackbox Games speak about the highs and lows of gaining new players during COVID lockdown.
The Jackbox Game Series has quietly become one of the most popular party game franchises on the market. It’s found success through a range of well-designed games – Quiplash, Drawful and Guesspionage are all classics – and a focus on accessibility. No matter which gaming platform you use, players can quickly take part using nothing more than a smartphone web browser. The result is a series of games that are inclusive and immediately fun to play.
Despite the world lurching its way through a global pandemic, the video game market has continued to thrive. Titles like Animal Crossing: New Horizons. Doom Eternal and The Last of Us Part II are massive hits, and, with much of the world entering lockdown, multiplayer-focused games are also popular. The Jackbox Party series is one such beneficiary of these strange times.
Since 2014, Jackbox Games has released six Jackbox Party Packs, each containing five individual games. The series has grown in popularity year-on-year, so far totalling over 430 million individual game sessions.
Although the franchise is an obvious fit for local multiplayer, the low barrier to entry has also seen it develop a dedicated follow on Twitch, an audience that marketing director Brooke Hofer says was unexpected. Up to 10,000 people can “play along” with selected games, and new features and functions have been added to support this audience.
“We put a lot of attention on really growing those communities of streamers,” says Hofer. “Around launch and the holiday season, we also support this community by sharing pre-release or post-release codes, and we do our best to amplify any marathon or charity streams that are happening and involve our games in some way.”
The nature and behaviours of the traditional family audience have also been surprising.
“Typically, what happens is that the gamer in the family hears about our games, and introduces them to their family members,” Hofer explains. “They are the advocate, and then when the family members that have tried the games want to go and play on their own, they have a lot of questions.”
To help, the studio has developed a series of guides, blog posts, and emails to explain the features of each game and reduce confusion. The content is wide-ranging, even going so far as to explain what Steam is. (Now that is useful.)
“We basically have to break down every step of the process to make sure their consumer journey is a smooth as possible.,” says Hofer.
Making the Jackbox series approachable for Non-US players has also been a challenge. Flaming Hot Cheetos, to use one quiz solution as an example, are not universally known. To help, recent games have included a US-centric content filter and a standalone PC version of Quiplash 2 is now available in French, Italian, Spanish, and German.
Nurturing each of these audiences helped the Jackbox franchise reach an impressive 100 million players last year. And then came COVID 19.
Like most businesses, the studio had to quickly adopt new working practices. Despite the disruption, development on The Jackbox Party Pack 7 has continued and all employees are now working remotely, communicating via video conferencing in discipline-focused teams.
In “normal times”, progress on the new game could continue as planned. However, along with the global pandemic came a sudden, unexpected influx of new players. In April, there were so many visitors to the Jackbox Games online store that the studio had to change hosting providers to cope with the increase in traffic and customers.
“We had people hack our store. We ran out of Steam code inventory. We had to rewrite all of our store copy to speak to a new audience,” recalls Hofer. “It was an intense experience, to say the least.”
The knock-on effect of so many new players was a huge increase in controller and server traffic. Daily activity was consistently higher than the peaks usually experienced around the Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays.
“We can certainly anticipate a few big holiday weekends each year, and we can prepare our infrastructure that increased traffic,” Jackbox CEO Mike Bilder explains, “but what we didn’t anticipate was daily traffic at that level. So, we had a few, big outages.”
Despite these growing pains, Jackbox titles reached over 110 million players between March and June, more than in the entirety of 2019.
Video conferencing has become a familiar aspect quarantine life, and it has also contributed to the recent success of the Jackbox series. Games are now being played en masse across Zoom, Whatsapp, FaceTime, and Google Hangouts It’s something the team actively supports.
“Since quarantine, we’ve consistently updated and added to our Remote Play blog,” says Hofer. “We’ve also added sections to our website to make it more easy [sic] to funnel to helpful content on our blog. And we’ve created video tutorials for playing games remotely on various video conferencing solutions.”
Interestingly, the fastest-growing audience demographics, post-COVID, are players in the 35-54 age, and those who identify as female.
“It means we have a lot of new people exposed to our games, and for some of these people we are finding that it’s their first exposure to gaming in general,” Hofer says. “So a lesson we had to learn was that if you have thousands of new audience members, you’re also likely going to get thousands of questions from them.”
With over a thousand support tickets raised a day, the studio has expanded its customer service team and rolled out a chatbot to help direct players to the right support information.
Although COVID has been a double-edged sword for the studio, the nature of the game – and its inherent streamability – has also been put to good use. Through the Celebrity Jackbox: Games & Giving Initiative, the studio has pledged over one million dollars to various charities that support frontline COVID work. Well-known participants have included Charlize Theron, Olivia Wilde, and Jack Black.
“Jackbox was fortunate to find some success, obviously, through this time, says Bilder. “It’s a very trying time for most people, and we’re very happy that folks can find some much-needed laughter and social interaction with our games. But, we wanted to give back, and we’re proud of the work we did with Celebrity Jackbox: Games & Giving.”
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