Inside the Rise, Fall and Triumphant Rebirth of a Beloved Chicago Game Studio

Jellyvision's CCO explains the pivots that saved everything

Jackbox Games is still built around the classic You Don't Know Jack.

The year was 1995. Coolio and Alanis Morissette ruled the charts. Friends was at its peak (this isn’t a debate; Season 2 was the peak).

And one of the weirdest, most revolutionary video games was born: You Don’t Know Jack.

A trivia game invented by people who hated trivia games, Jellyvision’s You Don’t Know Jack used the emerging potential of CD-ROM gaming to create a truly interactive experience that made you feel like you were literally on the set of a gameshow from the comfort of your living room.

It became one of the gaming industry’s most influential hits, but success was fleeting, and by 2001, the Jellyvision team found itself on the verge of closing its doors.

Thanks to some daring pivots, Jellyvision has endured and even thrived in the years since, and You Don’t Know Jack is back in gaming rotation as part of the Jackbox Games brand, alongside newly created hits like Drawful, Fibbage and Tee K.O.

Adweek recently caught up with Allard Laban, longtime creative chief of Jellyvision and Jackbox Games and a recent honoree in our annual Creative 100. We asked him to walk us through the software studio’s roller coaster history in the 17 years he’s been on board:

Allard Laban
Rudra Banerji / The Jellyvision Lab

Adweek: How did you get your start with interactive design?
Allard Laban, chief creative officer of Jellyvision and Jackbox Games: After getting my BFA in painting at the School of Visual Arts in NYC, I moved to Toronto, where I worked mostly in print and publication design. Canada was great, but I was intrigued with what I saw happening in California. It was the early days of “multimedia,” games and other interactive experiences being delivered on those shiny new-fangled CD-ROMs.

I liked the idea of designing for the screen versus paper—it removed the guesswork of, “How will this look when it’s printed?” It was truly “what you see is what you get.” So, in 1991, my wife and I packed up the Datsun 210 and drove out to San Francisco. I had no job, no place to live, and was armed only with some skills in Illustrator and QuarkXpress.

How did you join up with Jellyvision? What was the company like at the time compared to now?
After working freelance for a few years, I scored a great full-time gig with the screensaver company, Berkeley Systems—the flying toaster people. After designing a few products, I was assigned to art direct their first CD-ROM game, You Don’t Know Jack.

The idea originated from a bunch of comedy writers and performers in Chicago who comprised the early Jellyvision (then called Learn Television). The deal stipulated that Jellyvision would produce the writing, direction and audio, and Berkeley Systems provided the art, tech, marketing and publishing.

Jellyvision was founded by Harry Gottlieb, a guy who I would have described at the time as looking like Serpico but with mad Hypercard skills. Unlike a lot of software folks I knew at that time, Harry focused on the entertainment potential of technology versus the typical Silicon Valley gambit of feature one-upmanship. Not many people were thinking that way back then—or do now.

But it was still a few years before you joined Jellyvision. Where did you go in the time between?
By the time we hit alpha for You Don’t Know Jack, I was in discussions with Disney to produce creativity products for their edutainment division. I left Berkeley Systems and had five wonderful years of learning the ways of the Mouse. In August of ’99, Jan Smith, president of Disney Interactive, walked up to my cube and asked, “Can we produce a CD-ROM version of Who Wants To Be a Millionaire with Regis Philbin … in eight weeks?”.

That reconnected me with Harry and Jellyvision, because I approached them to help out with the wild deadline and thankfully, crazily, they signed on. Regis was a hoot to work with. We shipped on time and were the fastest-selling CD-ROM game of all time (before The Sims broke our record).

Around that same time, Macromedia came calling with a cool creative director job offer, and then Jellyvision jumped in with a counter offer, and the rest is history.

"In 2001, we dropped from around 75 people to about six."
-Allard Laban, CCO of Jackbox Games

What kind of changes did the company go through after you joined?
We call early Jellyvision “Jellyvision 1.0” because in 2001 we dropped from around 75 people to about six.

The massive layoff was due in part to a shift in CD-ROM pricing and a lull in the market as folks moved to the new, next-generation game consoles. It was devastating. A year later, we reinvented ourselves and launched The Jellyvision Lab, “Jellyvision 2.0.” Our mission was to bring the design philosophy of You Don’t Know Jack to a new form of communication we called “Interactive Conversation.” Initially it was a blue-sky effort, but eventually we gained some traction, and a bunch of clients, many of whom played YDKJ in college.

How did you get back into gaming?
In 2008, we relaunched Jellyvision Games Inc., now branded as Jackbox Games, with the goal of bringing our content back into the living room. By 2011, we shipped a new You Don’t Know Jack across all the popular gaming platforms. It was a super satisfying release. We’d essentially brought the band back together, and it was great to see we could still fill the stadium.

Jellyvision's annual Mustache Day celebration in 2015.
Jellyvision

In 2012, The Jellyvision Lab developed ALEX, a product that talks people through their stupidly confusing health benefit options. Apparently people really needed this service, and The Jellyvision Lab has grown to more than 350 people strong. Naturally, with growth comes all sorts change, pain and learning. We’ve coped pretty well however, often referring to our Jellyvision 1.0 cultural tenets to guide us when we’re flummoxed.

How did the Jackbox Party Pack model come about?
After dabbling in free-to-play mobile and Facebook games, we decided to see whether folks would actually pay for our games.

We released Fibbage, a bluffing game, across several platforms. It got immediate traction, thanks in no small part to a number of Let’s Play and Twitch.tv broadcasters. For the first time, streamers were letting the audience play along with them, and it really helped get the word out.

Seeing a trend emerging, we decided to quickly create a higher value SKU, bundling You Don’t Know Jack, Fibbage and three other games. This has now put us on a pretty regular development cycle. We’re currently working on The Jackbox Party Pack 4, intended for release this fall.

"I'm not a fan of massive brainstorms. They're great for generating lists, but not for honing ideas or letting people run with something."
-Allard Laban, Jackbox Games CCO

What’s your team’s process for developing new games?
It’s a mix. Sometimes the leadership team will issue RFPs for game ideas in order to feed a little grit into the oyster, or we will spend a few months dedicating a day each week to prototyping and paper-and-pencil testing gameplay.

What works well is when ideas are born from small groups or individuals. I’m not a fan of massive brainstorms. They’re great for generating lists, but not for honing ideas or letting people run with something. The small team approach has allowed us to generate a lot of ideas.

For the unreleased Jackbox Party Pack 4, we created over 50 play-tested concepts. A couple were holdovers from earlier years that were further tweaked. The hidden-action game, Fakin’ It from Jackbox Party Pack 3, spent nearly four years getting small enhancements until we thought it was ready. In the end, this new pack will include four completely brand new games, with Fibbage 3 bringing the total up to five.

Smartphone sketch game Drawful remains Laban's favorite.

What is your favorite game or mini-game you’ve made so far?
Naturally, I love them all, but Drawful is still one of my favorites. It successfully puts players’ drawings and ideas out front to carry the fun of the game and is still hilarious to me, even after playing it so many times.

What’s kept you at Jellyvision/Jackbox for so many years?
Folks usually move to L.A. from Chicago and not vice versa. My reasoning was that if you create art or design content, why not partner with some of the best writers and creatives in America? I loved Los Angeles, Disney and everything they had to offer, but once you’ve worked with really funny people it’s really hard to leave that. It’s what kept me here, the people. They’re so talented, smart and, honestly, kind of adorable.

Why have you and Jackbox stayed in Chicago? Are there aspects of the city that keep your team separated from the occasional herd mentality of the game and software industries?
What keeps Jackbox in Chicago is the same as what keeps me at Jackbox and Jellyvision: the people and the talent base. Not only are there great writers and idea people here, there are also amazing artists and a thriving technology community.

Would Jackbox be a different company if we were in the Bay Area? Undoubtedly. We can’t help but be influenced by a city that also is home to the likes of The Onion and great improv institutions like iO and Second City. It must be something in the Lake Michigan water.

A headhunter in NYC once told me why it was so hard to recruit for Chicago: Because of the perception of bad weather, it’s difficult to get people to relocate here. But it’s even harder to get them to leave. It’s such a great place to live and work.

Laban at Jellyvision and Jackbox's 2014 Christmas party with Jellyvision CEO Amanda Lannert, founder Harry Gottlieb, Jackbox and and You Don't Know Jack writer/director "Steve-o" Heinrich.
Jellyvision

How big is your company now? Where do you see most of your growth happening in the coming years?
We’re under 30 people at Jackbox Games, some of those folks being interns and contractors. Growth for Jackbox means continuing to put our ideas on the latest platforms and into new venues. We like to be where people gather to have fun; whether it’s on a couch with friends, on a stream or at a live event. Jackbox will continue to focus on the mass entertainment potential of technology combined with great, and usually ridiculous, ideas.