Can’t we just talk? — HumaNature Studios founder and ToeJam & Earl designer Greg Johnson on Outta Our Shells

There’s always going to be days when we can’t seem to break the ice with new people in a group. Thankfully, HumaNature Studios founder and ToeJam & Earl designer Greg Johnson has created a Kickstarter campaign for the social card game Outta Our Shells, which hopes to alleviate this situation. The project was funded in less than a day, and is currently available to back on the site; we got to speak with Johnson about the game’s development as well as some ways we can ease the pain of social awkwardness.

In an age of smartphones and the lack of face-to-face conversations, what problem is Outta Our Shells trying to solve?

It is very true that we live in an age where families or couples will sit in the same room, or even lie in bed together, and interact with their smartphones rather than with each other.  Or, we often sit and look at the TV screen, or play video games, rather than talking.  To be quite honest, I wasn’t trying to change to fix or change that with Outta Our Shells.  I am probably as guilty of digital obsession as anyone.  Still, we do sit down together as families, invite friends over, go on dates, have get-togethers, or have group lunches at work, etc…  Human beings are social primates and that’s never going to go away completely, no matter how digital we become.  It really is a matter of making those moments as satisfying as they can be.

When we converse casually, we don’t have any agenda, and conversation wanders at random.  It tends to go down the path of least resistance.  Work, school, what our plans are for the weekend, our health, problems, etc.  We usually don’t have “fun” conversation.  We are also not all the same when it comes to social facility and to extroversion and introversion.  This means that in groups, invariably some do all the talking while others sit in the background.  I was noticing this over and over again in social situations and feeling like I wanted more enjoyable connection and more inclusive connection, so Outta Our Shells was born.  To be quite honest, I really just made it for myself and my friends and family originally.  And I have been using it for the last 10 years or so.  It seems to be super effective at getting people to relax and laugh and get to know each other, and at bringing everyone into the conversation.

Outta Our Shells isn’t a competitive game, per se. How is this different from a traditional card game?

In a traditional card game, the goal is to win the game, and play continues until there is a winner.  People clearly compete with each other.  That’s the whole point.  Outta Our Shells breaks this notion.  People play until they feel like they want to stop and people aren’t really competing with each other, rather, they are trying to get Fortune card that they like before play ends.  Fortune cards basically good or bad fortunes for your life that will “come true” after the game ends.  This is a silly and fun way to motivate people to have goals, and players can take fortunes from other players, which is probably the most competitive aspect of the game.  The real goal of the game of course is to just get people talking, and to spark fun conversation.  It is sort of a catalyst, where the real “good stuff” isn’t the game, but the creative things people share about themselves.  What this means is that people often forget about the cards for a while when they get into a really fun or interesting topic, and that’s a good thing.  It’s probably the only game designed to make people forget about it while playing.  Haha!

What is something that you want players to learn about Outta Our Shells?

Ok, this is going to sound silly and very grandiose, but I am only half kidding when I say “everyone needs this game”.  If I am really honest, and a little less self-serving, what I mean is “everyone needs something like this game at times in our lives”.  We are constantly in social situations, constantly trying to make new or better connections with those around us.  It’s what we do as Homo Sapiens (or maybe some of as Homo Neanderthalensis).  It’s an incredibly important part of all of our lives, regardless of our age, or situation in life.

Outta Our Shells is something you don’t realize you need until you try using it for awhile.  It’s like the Japanese bidet I installed in my toilet.  I never realized how much I need one for something I do every day, but now that I have one, I can’t imagine not living with it.  When we are with people we are super comfortable with we probably don’t want any structure or game.  But whenever we are in a situation where we don’t know others super well and want to enjoy the process of getting to know each other, Outta Our Shells works like magic.

How do you think Outta Our Shells could be used for socially anxious people in a group?

Honestly, Outta Our Shells is good for everyone.  I made it originally for myself and have been playing it for many years with lots of people in different social situations.  Still it’s an interesting question.  I think this game has some very special value for people who tend to be more introverted or even socially awkward.  It can be very intimidating to break into a conversation and so often these people just sit on the outside, like a fly on the wall, and listen.  It can also be hard to know what to say when faced with directly with another person you don’t know well.

Games can help make this easier, but most games are too “heavy”.  There is too much set-up and too much for people to learn, and playing requires a time commitment up front.  Asking others if they want to play a game can feel like an imposition and be awkward in and of itself, because then they have to be polite if they don’t want to play.  That’s why I wanted something super simple and super light.  Almost not a game at all, so anyone could introduce it into conversation without it feeling too awkward.  Once people start playing, conversation and involvement transform.  All of that pressure of “should I say something now?” or “what should I say or talk about”? goes away immediately.  You don’t even need to be clever with answering the questions because the simple Cat or Rat cards are something everyone can easily answer, and the Fortune cards are funny and you simply read those.  So yes, absolutely, this is a great game for anyone who feels a bit socially awkward at times.

Like most social gatherings, there’s the potential for some people to hog the spotlight. Will this be an issue for those playing Outta Our Shells?

Haha!  Well, we have all experienced that, haven’t we?  Some people love to hear themselves talk and once they have the spotlight they forget to hand it off to someone else.  I am probably a bit guilty of that if I’m honest.  There are no time limits in Outta Our Shells, and no rules that police people and keep them from gabbing too much, but what I have seen when playing is that the natural structure of turns and a game keeps this from ever becoming a problem like it does in normal conversation.  In fact, I specifically built the game to include fast paced Cat or Rat Cards, and Fortune Cards which you read out loud, and draw and exchange, so this keeps the game flowing and the ball passes from person to person.  Some people might still talk more than their share, but they at least have to wait until it’s their turn.  My experience is that Outta Our Shells does a really good job of leveling the playing field and giving everyone the spotlight.

Other than gaming, what’s another hobby that you like to do to pass the time?

Strangely enough I am not a big gamer.  It’s because when I am not working I mainly want to spend time with my wonderful wife, and she isn’t into playing games together.  I am lucky enough to live on Maui, in Hawaii, so going out to the beach is probably my favorite thing to do with my wife.  There are so many fish and sea turtles in the water around us when we just walk into the water, and looking out at the ocean, sometimes seeing whales leaping out of the water is good for the soul and for the psyche.  On special days we will go and explore the island a bit in our little convertible Mini cooper, or maybe rent a motorcycle and go for a ride.  I try to be away from screens when I am not working, as that’s what I do all day long for work.  My wife is also the most amazing Thai Chef in the world, so I eat a lot of food, way more than I should.  I try to burn it off with exercise but I am losing that battle.

The art style of the game looks quite charming. What were the inspirations for this?

Thanks!  The art style started with an artist named Stephanie Laberis who did the three card backs, and box cover, and then two other extremely talented young artists managed to absorb her style and work with it and extend it flawlessly.  It’s amazing to see talent like that.  Kind of mind blowing really.  These brilliant young artists are named Ferrari Duanghathai Sotthisaoaphak and Tanta Vorawatanakul.  (Seriously, I am not making that up.  Thai names are fascinating aren’t they? Imagine having to write that every time you fill out a form!)  Anyway, I wanted an art style that would charm people and make them smile and feel good, as that’s the vibe of the whole game.  Even the idea of the turtle and the snail in their underwear and outta their shells is part of the cute humor of the game.  (Steph came up with the underwear idea! Way to go Steph!) I actually wish there was more of an excuse to put this artwork into the game itself.  I am going to keep working on ways to do that.  Thank heavens we have a playmat!

You previously used Kickstarter for ToeJam & Earl: Back in the Groove. How has crowdfunding changed the way you develop games?

Oddly it hasn’t changed how we go about development much.  In the case of being funded by a game publisher, or being funded by crowdfunding, you need to have built a demo of the game in either case.  You essentially need to show the game in action, so backers or publishers or investors know what they are paying for.  This means you need to bootstrap and build something before you have the resources to do it.  This is the key challenge in getting any game off the ground.  The nice thing about crowdfunding is that it broadens the possibilities and gives you one more option.  You don’t have to have relationships with publishers and investors to get off the ground.  Still, there are so many products now on crowdfunding platforms it can be hard to get noticed, and it takes a lot of work to build a community of backers.  No one ever said it was supposed to be easy, right?

Speaking of ToeJam & Earl, how has HumaNature Studios changed since its inception?

We are a tiny indie studio and we sort of change as needed just to keep afloat.  This means I have had many good friends come and go from the studio as projects change.  At our biggest we were about 13 people, and now we are down to just three, and none from that 13.   The game industry is constantly shifting and finding solid funding is always a challenge.  Still, it is wonderful to have the freedom to build things that can make people’s lives better somehow, and that can be original and new.  That’s what I am in it for.  The game industry is a big money industry, and it is really the indie games that lead the way in terms of new and interesting ideas.  I like being part of that, so I will keep plugging away at it.

Are there any future projects planned after the end of the Outta Our Shells campaign wraps up?

I have several exciting projects that I am currently pitching and trying to get funded and off the ground.  I have a team waiting and ready to go, and I am hopeful that I will be able to get another great project going.  We shall see.  I have been doing this now as an indie for 35 years or so and somehow it always seems to work.  If there are any funders out there who read this and want to chat, give me a holler!

Finally, any last words to our readers? Pieces of advice, maybe favorite food to eat while hanging out with family or friends?

Sure, I always have advice to offer. ?  We are living through a very crazy and scary time right now with the spread of this scary COVID-19 virus, and with all of the economic fallout and fear.  My advice, for whatever it’s worth, is allow yourself to be scared just enough to be proactive in taking common sense precautions, like doing lots of hand washing, taking vitamin C, and avoiding groups and travel, etc.  and beyond that put your energy into being happy and healthy.  Stress actually reduces the effectiveness of our immune systems and keeps us from sleeping well.  It’s important to relax and have fun and smile and help the people around you relax too.

It’s very important to find the right balance of being smart and concerned and aware, but also happy and relaxed.  Don’t let fear and worry dominate your psyche. Don’t forget to enjoy life and help your family do the same.  Play games, laugh, create, enjoy good food, dance, exercise… act on the things you can control, and then don’t worry about the things you can’t.  That’s probably the best advice I have to offer.

You can back Outta Our Shells on Kickstarter right now. Stay tuned for more news here on Gaming Trend.

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Elisha Deogracias is an aspiring accountant by day, freelance writer by night. Before writing for Gaming Trend, he had a small gig on the now defunct Examiner. When not being a third wheel with his best friends on dates or yearning for some closure on Pushing Daisies, he's busy catching up on shonen manga and wacky rhythm games. Mains R.O.B. in Smash. Still doesn't know if he's a kid or a squid.

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