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.
Headshot of David Griner

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

@griner David Griner is creative and innovation editor at Adweek and host of Adweek's podcast, "Yeah, That's Probably an Ad."