A few days ago I posted a funny Tweet about the making of our Johnny Castaway story telling screen saver from 1992. I got a ton of questions. Errol Flint on Twitter, and Damiano Gerli, a gaming historian, sent me a bunch of questions. I answered and decided to post them here as well, so people can read the answers in the future.
How long did the development take?
It went really fast, green light in January, shipped in November while we were working on The Incredible Machine and Turbo Science. The only technical hurdle was figuring out how to do a screen saver back then because they were not truly supported by the Windows OS yet. Rich Rayl did that research and the final coding. Mostly Johnny just mopes around the island, then occasionally does a little gag like fishing or looking through his telescope the wrong direction while a motorboat speeds by behind him.
So it generally runs a little loop that is interrupted by random events. Then for the story telling part we decided on an amount of days (randomly give or take a few) that the story would play out. The basic story was that Johnny would occasionally think about getting off the island and going home. In fact, that is his motivation all the time, but he usually fails. Then, ironically, once he gets home he just wants to go back to his little island paradise. Of course, along the way he has his love interest, the Mermaid, and a bunch of different adventures.
Truly, the hardest part of developing Johnny Castaway was creating all of the animation sequences. We had developed great tools at Dynamix for doing animations and sequencing because of our project, The Adventures of Willy Beamish. Our process involved having wonderful animation artists do pencil animation frames, then we would painstakingly scan in those images and clean them up for the tiny resolution of computer screens back then. Animation for Johnny was done by ex-Disney animator, Sherry Wheeler. She was a wonderful animator that lived off grid about ½ hour from our office. She would bring in a pile of animations every week, and we would put them in the screen saver and then laugh at the result!
As far as I know Johnny Castaway was the first development of your Jeff Tunnell Productions. Why did you choose a screen saver?
Johnny Castaway was one of the first three products that we developed at Jeff Tunnell Productions. The other two were The Incredible Machine and the little known Turbo Science.
A bunch of us were drinking beers after work and I said I thought I could make a game out of anything. At the time I was looking at a bus stop, and said, “I could even make a game out of this bus stop. It would be cool to see little people coming and going, seeing thought bubbles about what is going on in their day, showing little fights, etc.” Somebody else in the group said, “Along those lines, how about a little guy stranded on an island?” Well, I carried that idea around for a bunch of years, and wrote down notes about what it could be. Then, the flying toasters screen saver came along, and I just knew it had to be a screen saver.
Game designers always have WAY more ideas than you can ever create, but sometimes the situation is just right to finally do it.
There is the line from Ken “What’s your next best idea?” – Did you have a next best idea?
Yes, and we worked on them all at once as described above, Johnny Castaway, The Incredible Machine and Turbo Science. After doing a bunch of huge projects like Rise of the Dragon and Willy Beamish, I was disappointed with the kind of stories that could be told in the adventure game format. I had a ton of other ideas that I wanted to experiment with, spearheaded by The Incredible Machine. I was allowed to break away from the main office of Dynamix, and start up Jeff Tunnell Productions with a bunch of people of my choosing from the main office.
Even though Dynamix is known for simulations like Red Baron and Front Page Sports Football, the biggest sellers in the company came from JTP. 3D Ultra Pinball was labeled Sierra, but it was a JTP game, and was the biggest seller ever for Dynamix (of which JTP was still a part of). The second biggest seller for Dynamix was Trophy Bass, also a JTP game.
Then how did you sell the idea to Ken? cheap to produce?
That is a story of ask for forgiveness rather than permission. After Ken famously said to give him my next best idea, I went ahead and did a little demo of Johnny walking around the island, climbing the palm trees, and fishing. Once he saw the demo, he loved it! Also, it was cheap to produce and went on to become one of the best ROI products ever created at Dynamix.
Shawn Bird designed the character to be “weathered but likeable”. Did this instruction come from you?
Shawn was an incredible artist and character designer. I am always involved in the direction and final designs of the characters in games that I direct or produce. Shawn and I were absolutely on the same wave length for the Johnny design. It didn’t take long at all to develop the character. It is always magic to work with incredibly talented people.
PC Mag 03/30/1993 describes Johnny as “looking suspiciously like Leisure Suit Larry with a beard”. I don’t think so at all, but maybe that was actually the case?
I would have to say the Leisure Suit Larry was the furthest thing from our mind when we made Johnny Castaway.
In the Dynamix Wiki Chris Cole and Brian Hahn are listed as the responsible persons for “Gags”
Chris Cole did not work on JC. Brian Hahn and I, but mostly Brian, came up with most of the gags. Brian is so funny, he is always the guy when thinking up funny characters and almost Vaudvillian stunts and pranks. It is a little known fact that the original idea for Willy Beamish was Brian. He said we should do a game about a little kid frying ants with a magnifying glass, and it expanded into Willy!
In addition to a continuous story, many episodes happen wildly randomly. Was that originally planned? Or did it happen “on the side” because of too many ideas?
It was always pitched as the world’s first story telling screen saver.
Who had the idea to include the real calendar-dates as part of a few of the story-bits?
That was my idea from the beginning. I wanted day and night, holidays, etc.
Were the sound effects part of the development from the start? Aren’t they more of a nuisance within a screensaver?
SFX were always going to be a part of Johnny Castaway. We did think they could potentially be annoying, so we made it easy to turn them off. I still have fond memories of the “Ugh!” “Whooshes”, etc.
“Screen Antics” is emblazoned on the packaging. Should this be a series? I only found Johnny Castaway.
At Sierra and Dynamix we always positioned and thought of products as the potential for a series. Even though the ROI on Johnny Castaway was really high, the budget was so low that it was not worth doing another one. Also, Sierra ended up acquiring the After Dark company that specialized in screen savers, so they kind of took over that category in the company.
Did you expect that even today, fans will still make Johnny Castaway run on the new machines?
I never expected Johnny Castaway to become the underground cult hit that it became. Of course, you always want a product to be successful, and JC was. The only surprise was how long it lasted.
Do you have a rough number how many different scenes there are?
That is one thing that I do not remember. I know there are sites out there that used to have all of the sequences named and numbered.
-Jeff Tunnell, Game Maker, @jefftunn on Twitter