Greg Johnson (SEGA/ToeJam and Earl) – Interview

I am pleased and honoured to say that Adrian managed to pin down the legend that is Greg Johnson, who is of course one of the guys (along with Mark Voorsanger) who brought us the amazing ToeJam & Earl in 1991 – an Arcade Attack favourite.  A new instalment of TJ & E  has recently been funded by Kickstarter and we can’t wait for its release!  Adrian quizzed him on this and his retro past.  This interview was done before the Kickstarter goal was reached.  Enjoy.


You are using Kickstarter to hopefully bring back Toejam and Earl to the masses and launch the highly anticipated sequel. What made you decide now was the time to bring back the zany duo?

It’s ALWAYS the right time for a little funk!  Which is to say, I have been looking for opportunities to bring the funky duo back for years.  Now with the advent of Kickstarter, and me being free from working on another game, it seemed like it was worth a shot.  A lot of fans have been asking me over the last 2 years why I’m NOT doing a Kickstarter for TJ & E.  Usually my answer was, “because I’m busy making another game”.  Now the time has come.  Get ready to get on down (we’re ready! – Ed).


Using Kickstarter seems like quite an original idea to raise funds to launch a game. How did this fundraising idea initially come about?

How did I think of using Kickstarter for ToeJam and Earl?  Well partly from the fans and partly from friends who are game developers.  It is talked about a lot in the game development community.  Tim Schafer is an old friend of mine and he has been very involved in Kickstarter, as you probably know.




Toejam and Earl was such an iconic Mega Drive (Genesis) game back in the 90s and is still fondly remembered to this day.  Are you looking to target the new game on the more retro gamer or to a younger audience?

I am definitely designing this for the old TJ & E fans, not so much for new games.  I mean, if they like it too, great!  But that’s not what this project is all about.  I want to make a game that the TJ & E fans can enjoy, so they can relive all those things they loved long ago about the game, and then extend that and take it further.


The new ToeJam and Earl title will officially be the fourth instalment of the series, how do you feel it compares and ranks to the other games?

Well, that’s hard to say since I haven’t built it yet…  Of course, when you build a game you go into every project intending to make it the best game you’ve ever made.  That is the plan here.  It is going to be super mega awesome.  That said, there is probably nothing that can supplant the original game in people’s memories, and I wouldn’t want to.


What can we expect to see in the latest ToeJam and Earl game? Any big features you can reveal?

Sure.  Day and night, hidden presents, meta-game elements like hats that give you abilities, or presents that stay unlocked in future games.  Or a comic book that gets unlocked more each time you complete a game….  Amping up presents into super presents, customising your characters abilities as you level up, more cooperative presents, infinite play mode, hyperfunk zone and coin meters… I can go on and on will all of the things I hope to get into this game.  That’s just a very small sample.  How much I can get in will depend in part on how much funding we get because that turns into more development time.


What platforms do you hope the game will be available on?

We hope and plan to be on all platforms.  It’s one of the great things about being independent.  Of course that takes time and money, but assuming we can get funded at all via Kickstarter (according to the website – $500,000 has been successfully raised!  Hurrah! – Ed) I think we’ll find a way to get onto all the different consoles and onto tablet as well.  In terms of the Kickstarter campaign, we plan to stay focused on just the PC/Mac/Linux versions so that we don’t have to split our attention between different platforms while building the game.  I’ve done this before and it is a big distraction and takes away from the quality of the game.  You get a much better product if you focus on one platform first.  If people want the game on consoles or on android/iOS, their best shot is to help us get this thing built first on PC/Mac.


How exactly did you come up with the characters of ToeJam and Earl?

Oddly enough they came to me while I was sleeping.  Many years ago.  I woke up and wrote down a little bit of dialogue.  The next morning I sketched a picture of them.  I’m not sure why they popped into my head, but I often dream about aliens.




ToeJam and Earl is a true video game classic – how proud were you to see the game from start to finish?

They are a product of Mark Voorsanger’s as well as mine.  We’re both really proud of what we created.  TJ & E will always hold a very special spot for me as my favorite game characters.


Why were the first ToeJam and Earl titles never launched on the SNES?

Because we were first party with Sega.  That means that we went directly to Sega and they were our publisher.  When this happens you can’t put it on a competitor’s platform.  Eventually it did get licensed to Nintendo and to Microsoft, but that was decades later.


Who is cooler; ToeJam or Earl?

Cooler?  No question, Earl.  Earl is all about the cool.  ToeJam is sort of what drives the pair though with his energy and his spunk.  Earl is happy to be the follower.  But he is certainly cooler.


Who would you rather party with; ToeJam or Earl?

I think I’d like Earl better, but ToeJam would be more fun.  He would make me laugh more.  It would be fun to sit back and laugh with Earl at all of TJ’s showing off and crazy antics.


The random level generator concept must have been a nightmare to program on a 16-bit console. Was the biggest challenge when making ToeJam and Earl?

Well I can’t say for sure, as I didn’t program it, Mark did.  But I don’t think it was so hard.  We actually simulated how it would work first with 3×5 cards on the floor.  The biggest challenges in those days were memory.  The random maps re-used tile assets so it was just a lot of logic and took up very little memory.


How did you get first into the gaming industry?

When I got into the game industry in 1981, it barely existed.  It was the era of the Atari 800 and the Commodore 64, and vector line graphics.  No one knew what they were doing really.  It was much easier to get started in those days than it is now.  The key to getting started now, is to build something that you can show.  Without that it’s very difficult.




Starflight was the first video game you were involved in – what was it like working on this title?

Crazy.  None of us had make a game before.  We made it up as we went along.  It took us three years.  The game was almost cancelled many times.  Our lead engineer had a breakdown at one point, and the lead designer left the project so I took over and lead, even though I was straight out of college and had never made a game before.  Somehow we managed to finish it though.


Star Control 2 was a huge hit on the PC – when making the game did you know you were involved in something special?

No.  I was just having a good time.  It wasn’t even my game.  Paul Reiche and Fred Ford built that and I just helped.  Paul had helped me on Starflight, then I helped them on theirs.  In those days we laughed a lot and enjoyed the process.  These days it feels much more stressful.  I think expectations are higher than they used to be and more money being stress means more deadlines and more pressure.


Which video game are you the most proud of being involved in?

Probably ToeJam and Earl is at the top of the list.  I think it’s the one that has touched the most people.  I love hearing their stories of what the game meant to them growing up.


How were you involved in the making of The Sims 2?

I worked on the team for about 5 months consulting.  It was great, they brought me in to help them make the characters more human and more believable.  After working on that I got to work with Will Wright on Spore for a few months.  That was great too.  I’m not used to working on projects with teams that big though.  I much prefer smaller teams.


What is your favourite video game of all time?

Well, probably Age of Empires.  I still play that today with my wife and son.  It’s a cultural and cooperative.  I love the vibe of that game.


Do you get a chance to play a lot of video games today? And if so, what games are you currently playing?

Recently I’ve been playing a lot of World of Tanks with my son.  He is 14.  I’m not too into shooters, but this one doesn’t bother me as there is no blood, and I quite enjoy it.  I have about 7 tier 10 tanks if that means anything to you (erm, sorry Greg… – Ed).  I also enjoy lots of indie games, but I’m not playing any at the moment.




What are your views on the video game industry of today?

I think there is sort of a renaissance going on.  Because of crowd source funding, smaller digital only games, and mobile games, there is a growing indie movement and an appreciation even among publishers of indie style games.  That means more experimentation and more creativity.  There are more opportunities for people to get into the game industry than there were 5 years ago.  I’m hopeful that we’ll be seeing more originality.


Which video game character would you most like to share a few pints with?

Oddly enough that may be one of the more interesting questions I’ve been asked.  Notwithstanding the fact that I don’t drink, so it would be pints, still the question is what is the most interesting video game character out there.  Do you remember the game ICO, by Sony?  I’d like to meet the girl that was in that game – she was ethereal and mysterious – although come to think of it she probably wouldn’t say much.  The characters in Journey were very cool, but again, not big talkers.  Do you remember a game called Dead or Alive 2?  I always liked the girl with the purple hair and the big bow, Ayane.  Maybe her.  She seems like she’d have some attitude and that might be fun.


– Adrian

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