A team of writers, four recording studios, and three days: how to keep a Facebook quiz show fresh
How did one of the most respected virtual quiz shows end up on a social networking platform? Jellyvision Games was reformed in 2008 with the express purpose of creating a new version of the classic video game quiz show You Don’t Know Jack for modern consoles. The updated version of the title was released at the $30 price point, and featured heavily scripted episodes with a number of themed questions. Sadly, it didn’t make much of a dent in the retail market. “We executed well, and we were reviewed very well, but unfortunately the market shifted and we saw a big focus in social gaming and mobile gaming for the kind of casual type of game play and social type of game play that You Don’t Know Jack provided,” Mike Bilder, the general manager of Jellyvision Games, said. The awkward price point didn’t help; at $30 it was neither a premium product nor budget release. The company decided to “pivot,” and began to work on a self-published version of the game on social and mobile platforms. The Facebook version of the game was released in May, and after being hounded by friends and family I gave it a try. To my surprise, I found a wonderful quiz show with fair monetization strategies. Even better, the team has created a platform that allows them to keep the game fresh and topical, while making asyncronous multiplayer feel immediate. This is how that was done.
The illusion of competitive multiplayer
Quiz shows, even virtual ones, are only fun when you're playing against other human beings. “We still wanted to give that feeling of head to head competition,” Bilder explained. That’s difficult on Facebook, a platform that most people use off and on throughout their day. The company’s compromise is the “ghost play” system. Players work through the same series of five questions, and the game pulls information from your friends list and their sessions and places it in your game. You get to see when they buzzed in, what questions they got wrong or correct, and how well they scored. The system is seamless, and gives the illusion that everyone is playing simultaneously, even though the multiplayer is asynchronous. It’s a brilliant piece of sleight of hand that makes the game feel truly social. After each round you can share your score or talk trash to the other players via Facebook. The game also features a straightforward monetization scheme. Everyone gets to play a single free game each day, but you need to pay if you’d like to play through multiple episodes. It’s just like an arcade game where you put in your money and get a play, only in this case the cost is $2 for five games or $13 for 40 games at the higher end. You can also purchase boosters that boost your score, but you can clearly see who is using these and then mock them after the match. Filthy cheaters… At any rate, the price for extra content is fair, and it's clear what you're paying for. “We realized that allowing people to play on a daily basis for free is the best model. And then allowing people to continue to play if they want to consume more, there’s an option to do that at a very affordable price,“ Bilder said. Marc Blumer, Jellyvision Game’s marketing director, pointed out that You Don’t Know Jack is unique due to the content being continually updated for players. “What we need to charge for and what we can give away is a little bit different,” he explained. They may be charging players to play multiple games each day, but that content takes time and money to create.
The content remains topical
The game launched with 165 episodes, so it’s going to take some time for anyone to play through them all. Even better, each episode is individually scripted with jokes from the host, a series of questions that may or may not fit together, and special challenges. Since each game is produced to feel like a short episode of a television game show, there is no chance for questions to repeat themselves. Three new episodes are launched every week, and this continual release schedule allows the writers to create shows and questions based on current events. “That is the value proposition, that is what we deliver that is very unique relative to other game show type games, or social games, that mirror You Don’t Know Jack. We’re highly topical,” Bilder said. Jellyvision Games has the ability to make the questions timely, as well as funny. There is a team of 5 or 6 comedy writers, along with some contractors, coming up with questions and writing the jokes for You Don’t Know Jack’s virtual host, Cookie Masterson, voiced by Tom Gottlieb. There is also team that creates the music and sound effects. “It’s definitely a sizable piece of production,” Bilder said. The team has three recording studios in the Chicago office, and Tom Gottlieb has his own small recording studio in his home so he can record the dialog and send it back to the studio directly. The production of each episode is aided by a proprietary toolset that allows everyone to work directly on each series of questions. “We have a series of production tools that allow the writers to write directly into the tool, Tom records directly into the tool, and the audio engineers record sound effects and edit within the tool, and then editor can trim and re-arrange and assemble episodes before uploading them to the game,” Bilder explained. It’s a sort of content management system for quiz shows, and it allows them to create a large amount of custom content very quickly. Each episode takes 48 to 72 hours to write, record, and edit, and that time can be shaved down if they feel an episode needs to be online quickly. The new episodes are pushed to the top of the pile so players get to them when they're fresh; when you play a game the latest one will always be the first one you play. The writers come out of the Chicago comedy scene, with talent coming from Second City and the Improv Olympics, and it shows in the dialog. The game throws jokes and puns at the player rapidly and, if a few jokes lead to groans, there will be something genuinely funny right behind it. Each episode is written in a dense, rapid-fire manner that you rarely see in games, much less actual quiz shows. The content feels crafted in a way that’s rare in the video game world.