Jackbox And Other Party Games Thrive As People Connect Through Video Calls

This spring, the concept of “going out” became downright dangerous. As COVID-19 cases surged and stay-at-home orders were issued around the United States, millions of people hunkered down and spent their spring inside. With social activities put on pause, people stayed at home, logged on, and met their friends online instead.

Apps like Netflix Party exploded in popularity, and video calling technology once largely sequestered in the business world like Zoom became wildly popular. People all over the world checked in with loved ones, held virtual happy hours, and even theme parties. They also played a lot of games. The still-ongoing pandemic sparked record-breaking sales numbers for the video game industry. Nintendo Switch completely disappeared from stock as millions of gamers dove into Animal Crossing and others caught up on their back catalogs.

But it wasn’t just gamers playing solo while they passed the weeks and months as the pandemic raged. Couples and roommates bought up stock of board games. Sales of party games like Jackbox also soared, and through those games many people replicated the game nights they used to hold in person. A Gearbox study published in July found that 80 percent of those surveyed age 18-34 were playing more video games and watching more TV during the pandemic, 47 percent said they used games to socialize once a week or more. That’s from a company that makes Borderlands, mind you, but it speaks to the sheer number of people who have turned to games of all kinds to not just pass the time, but stay connected with others in a very trying time.

“Demand has definitely gone up. A lot of people have been introduced to our games via video conferencing software,” Jackbox Games CEO Mike Bilder said in April. “So we’ve seen quite a bit more demand and activity and sales and server activity just since this whole quarantine has been in place.”

Jackbox party games are sold in packs of five for every platform, as players use their phones to play trivia, drawing games and generally try to make their friends laugh. The games are quick to learn, come with built-in tutorials and only require access to a website — Jackbox.tv — to log in and play if they’re seeing a screen. The games are inherently meant to be played while in the same room, but the games have been popular on Twitch and other streaming sites. And so the company quickly put a guide to playing remotely on its website, exploring the various ways to play using video calls and Twitch on different consoles and devices. It also put all its packs on sale and even made games like Drawful as cheap as possible so people had something to do as unemployment and uncertainty soared.

Though the pandemic was unprecedented in many ways, Jackbox was in a position to lean into streaming and playing games over video calls because of its “audience” functions, which were added to some games that were particularly popular with large streaming audiences and at large gaming conventions like PAX.

“Those things have come out of use patterns,” Bilder said, pointing out games like Quiplash that can have up to 10,000 people in a game’s audience. “And we’ve embraced them and added features over the years to enhance them.”

Those features have put Jackbox at the forefront of games that have helped people stay connected over the last few months. Instead of going out, people sipped drinks at home trying to come up with funny things to draw with their fingers on smartphones and laughing with friends across the country. Instead of photos from nights out, social media feeds became places to drop in screenshots of the funniest answers on Jackbox.

Others had to be a bit more creative when it came adapting game night favorites to remote gaming. The online RPG site Roll20 saw a surge in people taking their Dungeons and Dragons games online, using video calling and other apps to replicate the in-person game night online. Sites like Roll20 can digitize much of the game’s necessary tools like player sheets, maps and even rolling. Others have simply had to convince people on the other side of the phone call that the natural 20 they rolled really happened, they swear.

“Playing remote D&D has been my primary means of keeping in touch with friends during the pandemic, and we’ve been surprised by how well it works,’ Ray Winnniger, executive producer of D&D Studio at Wizards of the Coast, said. “Once the dice start rolling, we feel like we’re sitting around the game table.”

And tabletop games weren’t left behind, either. Some companies have offered print-at-home games to play, including full-scale major titles that would be full price otherwise. Online versions of a number of games like Codenames became popular, too. Many cooperative games only need some slight tweaks to work remotely, though they tend to take a bit longer to coordinate move and talk over video calls. Even games like Pictionary could be played through Zoom calls using a white board or screen sharing technology.

“One of the hallmarks of Pictionary is it’s collaboration. It’s not a singular game. You’re not playing by yourself. And so by its nature you have to connect,” said Rob Angel, who created Pictionary and was thrilled to see it played remotely. “So seeing it adapted to Zoom or Facebook Live or whatever, it’s great. It really makes me feel good that it hasn’t gone by the wayside.”

Personally, I’ve played games like Burgle Bros, Pandemic and Codenames using a document camera, running the board while collaborating with friends in three different states to rob a bank, save the world or do some general espionage. DMing RPG campaigns and safely catching up with friends has been essential to feeling normal in what’s been a difficult year at times, a feeling millions can relate to over the last few months.

As the pandemic stretches into late summer and fall and states see cases continue to rise, the question for many developers becomes whether the surge in remote gaming is a sudden necessity or a more permanent trend not just the way people play games, but the distance needed to safely live. It’s something that’s already impacted the way companies make games, but it could also change the way we play them, too.

“From a personal standpoint I really hope this is temporary,” Bilder said. “There is definitely something missing to being co-located and having meetings and being able to pull in people and the spontaneity of game build. We can do things like that over video conferencing but it’s really not the same.”

Bilder said Jackbox will continue to focus on the living room experience with Party Pack 7, which will be released in the fall, but it’s a company that’s already embraced emerging markets likely to grow in the wake of extended social distancing.

“I expect going forward, if unfortunately this becomes the new norm, or we expect play to continue even if the world goes back to ‘normal’ as we knew it, play will continue to happen over video software,” Bilder said. “There will likely be some feature tweaks or some adjustments or things we will add to the game to better embrace that reality of how people are playing it.”

Most designers and companies stress remote play won’t become the centerpiece of game design, but it might create more innovative concepts as companies adjust to, as Angel called it, “the new norm.”

“It’s opened all kinds of creative doors. This is just a new technology, if you will, being quarantined,” Angel said. “It’s forcing game inventors and marketers and everybody to come up with new ways to play. And I think it’s just going to accelerate the creative process over time.”

As the United States attempts to emerge from its life in quarantine in fits and starts, for better or worse, Saturday nights may no longer be evenings spent inside looking for things to replace more traditional entertainment. For many, though, the realization that they can replicate game nights from afar will keep people connected long after this new normal starts to look and feel more like the old one. Until then, plenty of game companies will be ready to entertain.

“I’m sure there are other game developers who are trying to figure out ways to embrace what this current environment is,” Bilder said. “From our standpoint it’s a bit of a validation. People like to laugh together and socially interact and play and to see that that’s happening even though everyone’s stuck at home and alone? They can still do that with our games. It’s something that we’re very proud of.”

In other words life in quarantine didn’t end the game night, it just made it a bit more technical.