Few of my experiences with smartphone games have been engaging. It’s hard to pinpoint the exact reason for this, but I’m certain that a general lack of interesting gameplay is part of the issue. Computer and console games have existed for several decades, so developers have had plenty of time to figure out how these mediums function and how they can make them function better. Smartphones, on the other hand, have been around for a mere 10 years; our exploration into how they can be used as game delivery systems is still in its infancy.
The transient, often-interrupted nature of the smartphone experience is another core problem. Notification pop-ups, low battery warnings and real-world distractions have resulted in developers and publishers fighting very hard for user attention. The industry has developed several troubling trends in response to this: persistent social media nag screens, gameplay designed around micro-payments, and unethical gameplay systems designed to capitalize on the always-connected nature of the medium. While these ‘solutions’ do result in attention being retained, the attention is being misdirected down a dirty alleyway of irritating, manipulative trash, rather than onto the (sometimes well designed) games themselves. How are users supposed to remain genuinely engaged in a world like this?
I first discovered Jackbox at a game night, and it was clear in the first five minutes that this was something beautiful. There’s a special kind of magic in sitting around a TV screen with friends, drawing silly pictures and writing jokes on a big screen. There’s a comfortable warmth in sharing a power-board with people you care about, your micro-USB cables intertwining as they trace a path across the carpet and up onto the couch. There’s a lovely coziness in having the people you’ve known and loved your entire life tell you to leave because (apparently) a joke about ‘smegma snow’ isn’t appropriate in any context.
Jackbox Party Packs are bought and run on Steam, PS4, Switch, Xbox One - almost any platform you can think of. Ideally, you’ll display the games on a TV. Your friends or family connect to the game using a 4-character code shown on the screen. Depending on the particular game, they might be able to write their name so that they can be identified, or they might draw a picture of themselves. They might draw a picture of a penis instead - Jackbox Games, Inc. are great supporters of player choice.
Players connect using their smartphones. They draw using their phones. They answer questions, get hints, play sounds, defuse bombs, and place bids using their phones. Their phones are information-rich game controllers, and because they're only dealing with 2D, browser-based content, almost all phones are compatible. The TV that players gather around is the central hub that directs and manages the overall flow of the game.
This is an inevitable development in the evolution of smartphone games - and it feels right. Jackbox Party Pack games don’t try to hold user attention in spite of distractions or, worse, attempt to manipulate distractions and social connections in weird, pyramid-scheme recruitment drives (I’m looking at you, Candy Crush). Instead, the game is designed in such a way that distractions are either minimized or capitalized upon to support the core game experience.
The game requires a central device and monitor - which often means a TV, with a console or computer. This, in turn, means the game will almost always be played at somebody’s house. By controlling the environment in which the game is played, the real-world interruptions that plague other smartphone experiences are minimized. The majority of the games in the Party Packs require 3 or more people who must be present in the same room, so any interruptions or real-world distractions that do occur tend not to pull players away from the physically-social nature of the experience - more often than not, these social interactions enhance the play.
In terms of gameplay, there’s something for everyone. My favorite Jackbox Party Pack game is Drawful. The game is a neat combination of drawing skills and written wit. Every player is privately given a unique prompt on their phone and asked to draw a picture in response. A man covered in seaweed. A hairy butt. A 2am existential crisis. Light, fun topics. The game then cycles through a series of rounds during which each drawing is displayed on the TV for all players to see. Each player anonymously writes a title for what the drawing could represent. When all the answers for the drawing are in, it’s time to guess, and all of the players’ answers are shown on-screen alongside the correct answer. If you’ve drawn the image on screen, you get points for every player who guesses the legitimate correct answer. If it’s not your image on screen and you’re submitting a potential title, you get points for every player who guesses your fake entry.
There’s something here for almost every type of player. Those who chase the solid win can play relatively seriously, approaching their drawings with care, leaving little room for ambiguity. Those who can’t draw but are good at thinkin’ can work hard at guessing the correct titles. Players who are good at writing (and can recognize the American flavor of much of the stock game text) will try to win by submitting answers that sound like the real deal. There’s even a ‘like’ mechanic to encourage players who are shit at all the other point-earning methods (like me) but who can write with humor (unlike me). After each round, players can ‘like’ the answers they enjoyed most, and the player with the most ‘likes’ is given an imaginary trophy at the end of the game.
Jackbox Party Packs are games for friends. You’ll have a lot of fun double-guessing one another and using your knowledge of your buddies’ personalities to trick ‘em. If you’re playing with strangers… well, there’s nothing like dick-jokes to bring people together. Unlike many other multiplayer mobile games - Words with Friends, 8 Ball Pool - the Jackbox Party Pack games do require some planning and preparation. But I’d argue that it’s worth it for the level of engagement that results.
Jackbox Party Packs are currently super duper discounted on the Steam Store. Neither Jackbox nor Steam paid me to say this. If you would like to pay me to say things like this or purchase a clean 10/10 for your game, please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org for my pricing schedule.