THE WASHINGTON POST – Once a traditional video game developer, known for the trivia franchise You Don’t Know Jack, the studio Jackbox Games rebranded itself in 2013 as a hub for online party games.
Since then, the company has counted on regular spikes in traffic around the holidays. Thanksgiving, for example, brings a significant surge as friends and families gather to feast together. But the busiest day of the year on the Jackbox servers tends to be New Year’s Eve, when partygoers turn to parlour games before counting down to midnight.
Now, with the novel COVID-19 pandemic prompting shelter-in-place orders across the country, Americans are pivoting to virtual game nights as a socially distant remedy for cabin fever. For Jackbox, that trend has triggered a massive rise in traffic over the past two months.
“Just about every weekday is the equivalent of Thanksgiving,” Jackbox CEO Mike Bilder said. “And every Friday and Saturday is as big, or bigger, than New Year’s.”
Every year since 2014, Jackbox has released a new “party pack” of five games. The party packs and individual games can be purchased on more than a dozen platforms, allowing hosts to launch games through their computer, tablet, video game console or cable provider.
Once a Jackbox game is ready to go live, invited players go to jackbox.tv on their smartphones (or other web-enabled devices) and log in with the four-letter room code provided on the host’s screen. From that point, the experience is a roll of the dice, so to speak, that varies from game to game. Some Jackbox favourites are straightforward spins on familiar parlour games. Drawful is like Pictionary with cheekier prompts. Quiplash is a fill-in-the-blank contest that rewards the wittiest responses. In Fibbage, players with a taste for lying through their teeth get the last laugh.
Other games are more abstract. Trivia Murder Party sharpens your standard question-and-answer session with minigames and a macabre theme. Players of Patently Stupid solve peculiar problems by sketching, branding and pitching ideas for inventions. But users can count on every Jackbox game to feature an irreverent ambiance. The Chicago-based company shapes that tone, in part, by plucking writers from nearby comedy institutions such as the Second City and iO Theater.
“We have the good fortune of having a pretty strong pool of talent that we can locally pull from,” Bilder said. “That helps to maintain the comedy edge and angle to a lot of what we do, and it also allows us to bring in some fresh new voices.”
Because each player uses his or her own device as a controller, Jackbox makes virtual game nights simple to pull off. Washington, DC-based Political Analyst Chris Sebastian has hosted a half-dozen sessions with his parents and four siblings in recent weeks by firing up Jackbox on his computer, via the gaming platform Steam, and sharing his screen on Google Hangouts. When social distancing restrictions made travelling for Easter unfeasible for Sebastian’s family, a long-distance game night became a workable substitute.
“It’s nice to have this as an excuse to have one big call – to shoot the breeze and joke and laugh and talk in between rounds,” said Sebastian, 23. “No one wants to say, ‘Hey, let’s just set up a Google Hangout and have a rambling, aimless, two-hour stare-at-each-other-a-thon.’ Jackbox is structure.”
Jackbox has responded to the current climate by discounting a number of games and posting tutorials explaining how to use the service remotely. Behind the scenes, employees are working to ensure the games and website hold up amid unprecedented usage. More traffic means more customer service requests, prompting the company to hire additional contractors. Cybersecurity also is a concern, Bilder said, because the site’s increased popularity makes it more of a target for hackers.
“We’re very happy that our games can bring some social interaction and some laughter and levity, which is much needed in what’s a pretty anxious time for the world right now. But we’re still a pretty small company in Chicago,” Bilder said, noting Jackbox has around 40 full-time employees. “So it’s been exciting, it’s been humbling, but it’s also been a bit of a challenge for us, to be honest.”
It’s a challenge Jackbox is poised to face for the foreseeable future. If providing users with a welcome distraction wasn’t enough of an obligation, Jackbox also is continuing development on its seventh party pack, due to arrive this fall.
“Jackbox is a little island where the point is to make the dumbest joke or know the most random piece of trivia or draw the funniest thing,” Sebastian said. “It’s something I look forward to every week.”