Board games often pop in and out of the limelight, picking up on the zeitgeist for brief moments. There’s one exception to the usual rule: the Jackbox Party Packs audience is secretly huge; Over 72 million game rooms were created in 2021. The various games in these packs are a mainstay on Twitch but also sure to break out in a family setting. The rules are easy to learn and follow, and most of them can be played from a console while others tune in on their phones. There are no microtransactions, skinner boxes, sign-up bonuses, or hooks. The overall design is seamless and inviting.
The Jackbox Party Pack model works because of the regular releases and consistent quality – which isn’t easy to pull off. The ninth pack was recently announced, with all new games set to be released in fall 2022. It’s a welcome addition as the COVID-19 pandemic has left people feeling disconnected and the party packs have become a staple of digital birthday parties, office events, and friend groups.
Each Party Pack contains a bundle of games. Some of these encourage competition or mean (but ultimately funny) jabs like Press the button or Survive the Internet. Others are quiet little trivia games or brain teasers, such as supposition or chatter ’round. It’s the sheer variety of games that can be played over and over again, and over and over again with friends, that makes it such a draw. Jackbox Games is remarkably consistent and their party games are slowly becoming more complex and challenging.
“When we see new groups of people playing, or people who don’t consider themselves gamers or are attracted to video games, suddenly do it with family or friends, that’s great,” said Mike Bilder, CEO of Jackbox Games, in an interview with Polygon. When the pandemic began, the team struggled to meet demand. “It’s a testament to a fairly, fairly talented engineering team that we have in-house – it’s probably overlooked by a lot of people that you’re just looking at the TV you’re playing on. But there’s a lot of technology happening in the cloud, on your controller, there’s a lot going on there. It’s been refined quite a bit over the years.”
As soon as a pack hits the market, the Jackbox Games team immediately starts sifting through a pile of ideas for the next one. “When we started party pack 8, we immediately brought the studio together – and everyone in the studio can participate in this process,” said Bilder. “When they have an idea that they want to test on paper and pencil, or we’re working on a prototype of something, there’s a process that’s open to the whole studio.”
Once ideas are in place, a formal committee within the studio, which rotates annually, greenlights titles. It’s a careful balance – the team wants accessible low-lift games like Quiplash or fibbage, as well as some more complex and complicated titles like Tee KO or Press the button. The format of a pack encourages creativity as each pack contains five games – there is inherent room for experimentation.
“If you don’t like drawing games,” said Bilder, “there are four other games in the pack. Maybe the person who is not into the drawing game will like the other games. So there is a formula to try and bring out a well balanced pack. If we immediately greenlight a drawing game and there are multiple drawing games on the table, we’re like, “Hey, let’s hold this off for a future year.” Even if it’s a really strong concept, you don’t want two or three coloring games in the same pack.”
As titles are cut, some mini-games will be canned, but others will go into a backlog to be revisited for years to come. Bilder notes that some of the most popular games in the packs were launched multiple times before finally being accepted.
Another rule the team adheres to is that they will not include more than one sequel in a pack; You won’t see Survive the internet 2 and quiplash 4 in the same hypothetical grouping. To determine which games will get a sequel, the team is poring over dates. “We know who’s playing, what they’re playing, what games are popular, and we can see which games in the back catalog are really strong and still popular.”
This urge for variety works well for Jackbox Games – especially since the company was originally built on the success of the You Don’t Know Jack trivia franchise in the ’90s and early 2000s. The company went dormant for a time in the 2000s, with brief forays into Facebook. “The first Party Pack was very randomly put together by a very small skeleton crew,” Bilder said. The team took technology from a mobile game, lie swatterand repurposes it to act as a connection to the host’s lobby.
“Growing from there became a process of – how do we do that on an annual basis? How do we stay a small team and develop five games that we then release on 10 or 12 platforms every year in an annual cycle? It was a challenge for us – we refined the process, refined criteria that worked for our games.”
Some titles, like the classic You Don’t Know Jack franchise, required a huge investment – editing, voiceover, trivia sourcing. These games are supported by smaller, compartmentalized games that require far fewer resources to create. The Jackbox studio has grown and over time they are able to build more sophisticated systems – The party pack 8for example, had some quality of life features like shared menus that seemed small at first but made a big difference.
The Jackbox Party Pack 9 is on the way and is scheduled to arrive in fall 2022, as well a Jackbox Starter Pack featuring three of the most accessible games in the series. The yearly model and product’s constant change is very different from developers focused on updating the same core game, but the strategy is clearly working – and there are still few social experiences that are as fun as your friends are in to throw space Press the button or get applauded for an absolutely awful punch line Quiplash.