An Interview With Timothy Rapp, Co-Creator of Disc Jam

By: on April 7, 2017

Disc Jam is a competitive multiplayer, arcade-style, alternative sports game that is somewhere between a mix of hockey and tennis. Players face off in either 1v1 or 2v2 matches, throwing a glowing disc back and forth, and trying not to let the other team score goals. It’s frantic, fun, and released on PlayStation and Steam last month.  The most impressive part, is this game came from a team of two people, who just wanted to make something like Pong. We sat down (Skyped down really) with Timothy Rapp, co-founder of High Horse Studios, and co-developer to talk about Disc Jam’s initial release, and what went into its development.

How do you feel about Disc Jam’s initial launch?

Timothy Rapp: You know, it went pretty much as expected. It’s a really tough business to predict. Especially given the lack of data around launching on PS+, we weren’t really sure what to expect. Our guess was a big install thanks to PS+ and that PC sales were going to be tough, but our Steam user reviews were a lot better than expected, so we’re happy with that.

We had a 30% off sale on PC the first week, making sales better than expected for that week, but then they dropped off pretty heavily when we went back to full price. We’re on a lot of wish lists. With that being said, it’s going better than expected. Numbers have been great on PS4 and we’re looking into ways we can maybe join those communities together, and we’re looking into technology that will let us alleviate some of the concerns for PC players.

Does this mean you are looking into the possibility of crossplay between platforms?

TR: You know, we always have been, dating all the way back to the beginning of development. It’s just one of those things where not only are there technical hurdles, there’s also business hurdles in place. It’s not something where you can just flip a switch and it’ll happen, you have to get some pretty real sign off from all the stakeholders when it comes to cross play. So, it’s something that we’re always looking into, and it’s certainly a rather large technical endeavor, but it’s just something that I think might actually have to be the norm in the future.

What was the inspiration behind Disc Jam?

TR: It really was just born of Jay’s and my desire to play these simple old school arcade style games that we grew up with. We always kind of say that Disc Jam is like Windjammers meets Mario Tennis meets NBA Jam. Jay came over one night and we were just playing video games. They were all competitive MP games like Windjammers, Sanrio World Smash, 2 on 2 Open Ice Challenge, and then we played PS1 pong which is just a phenomenal game. It didn’t get huge recognition, but PS1 Pong is an excellent game. So, we’re playing all these games, and we’re laughing at each other, and by the time we’re on game five or six, we realize we’ve essentially been playing Pong this entire time. We’ve been playing some rendition of one game object and two buttons for the entire night. But we were like this is super fun, and we just had so much fun doing this.

So, Jay and I having spent ten years at Activision doing exactly this, working on multiplayer game engineering, we were like: “We can actually make something like this.”

On the development cycle for Disc Jam:

TR: We knew we wanted to make arcade-style, accessible titles. So, we spent about a year building the technology to enable that and make that happen, the whole network architecture. Then, Epic Games, the people who make Unreal Engine 4 said “Hey, we have a booth for you at IndieCade 2015 if you want to go, but you have to have a game obviously.”

We had eight weeks, and we were like “Ok, well how about this: We’ll make something, we’ll give you a trailer in four weeks and, if you like what you see, we’ll have a game for you four weeks later,” you know, day of the show. Four weeks in, we sent them this really ugly trailer that I’ve removed all instances of on the internet, and four weeks later we had the game, and that was Disc Jam v0.0.1. Really what it was, was it proved that our online technology worked, fully networked, everything working over the LAN, and it was just like “Ok, let’s see if this game is even fun.” I knew we were having fun, but we could just be crotchety old dudes who are living in the past right? We had no idea if it was something that would resonate with people.

But the show went really, really well. We had a crowd the entire time, I mean we had a line for the entire show, we had an impromptu tournament we threw together, and that’s the show where we met representatives from Xbox, Sony, and Nintendo, and every one of them was like “Here’s my card, we need to talk right now.”

At the time of the eight-week development, both Tim and Jay were part time contracting on other projects, but after the eight week development cycle decided to quit and work on Disc Jam full time. This was the first time either of them had published a game, and they did every aspect of it themselves. No QA, no outside help, and Disc Jam was born. 

TR: A large part of this working out has been due to the fact that our community has been excellent to us. We just sit there in our Discord, in our subreddit, gauge feedback and try things out. All through development, the reason we got away with not having a QA department is because we had, at first a couple dozen, but what grew to a couple thousand people sitting in our Discord and giving us feedback, telling us what sucked and what didn’t work. The game got a lot better because of that because we don’t have time to play fifty matches and say: “You know what? This is a little unbalanced…” Finding exploits is something you have to play a lot of competitive matches to get to the bottom of, and our community provided that for us. If we were going to start hiring, we’d tap some of these guys first.

Speaking of your fast development and explosion onto the indie scene, how do you feel about comparisons to a game like Rocket League?

TR: It’s probably the best compliment we could receive. I think largely that comparison comes from the fact that it’s an arcade game, it’s launching into Plus, and they’re very similar in vibe. I think the future gladiator arena thing is a very similar note to hit. We were a couple of months into production on Disc Jam when Rocket League came out, and it was very validating for us because we said: “Oh wow, if this game does well there is actually a market for this.”

We see “the next Rocket League” a lot… Jay doesn’t mind that phrase as much, but it makes me nervous and it makes me uncomfortable hearing that because Rocket League is, for me, game of the year. I haven’t played a game that fun in many years… The level of polish is certainly AAA quality. The content and polish of that game is so, so excellent. The concept is very simple, much like Disc Jam, but the execution is an absolute home run. Just knocked it out of the park. So, the comparison is hugely flattering, but we’re talking about two people in a year and a half [referring to Disc Jam]… so while it’s flattering, it’s also such a bizarre comparison because we’re talking about a veteran studio of UE3 [Unreal Engine 3] developers… There’s a lot of other reasonably scoped indie games I think we’re better compared to…

What sort of features are you planning now that the game is post-release?

TR: Our top priority now is delivering an offline mode; a really cool AI version of the arcade experience that I think people will really dig. I won’t go into exact details on it, because I think we’re going to have a pretty big announcement for how this thing is going to work. It’s a novel, kind of cool way to do it. We’re basically adding the option for people to play against bots, but not in just a “beat all four of the bots and you get a trophy” way. It’s going to be a little more involved than that, and I think it will fit well with the vibe of the game.

Beyond that, we absolutely want to revamp how people unlock gear, and content. It’ll still be similar; the prize machine isn’t going anywhere.

That’s good, I love the prize machine.

TR: See? We dig it too, maybe it’s me being born in Las Vegas, but the whole randomness thing doesn’t bother me. But you know, it does bother enough people that we want to give them an option to alleviate the negative feedback from getting a duplicate, and you really want something for a character and you can’t get it. So, we’ve got some plans for that, that I can’t go into yet, but I can promise we’re going to be adjusting that and making it so that people have a little more control over the path in which things are unlocked.

Praise be to the almighty prize machine!

TR: Alongside that we’re also bringing on a bunch of new content. We’ve got two new characters on the way. We’ve got more maps. We’ll probably launch one map at a time, just for momentum and marketing beats, but we’re working on several right now.

I’m bringing in more artists so we can shine up the game’s presentation a great deal…It’s worth mentioning that this is my first ever professional artistic responsibility. I’ve never actually worked as an artist in my career. Jay and I were both programmers… Jay took over the technology for this project, and I took over the art for this project with a bit of overlap. So, we’re bringing in some people who are just career artists to really shine this thing up…

One thing we’ve kind of been talking about lately is that we actually had to move our release up by four weeks. So, even with a year and a half development cycle, we still lost about four weeks at the end of development. A lot of things that people wanted on release day (stats, leaderboards, offline AI, etc.) those are all coming online 4-6 weeks later. That’s where those 4-6 weeks went… It’s funny too, because what kind of lunatic cuts their development time that close? But that’s just how it is. There’s two of us and we had to constantly be focusing on the priority stack, and those priorities shifts around…

Do you plan on supporting mods/Steam Workshop in the future?

TR: I think the long term for that is we want the customization of the characters to have sort of the sky is the limit. A big part of our platform is not just Disc Jam, but the games we’re going to be working on in the future which are these sort of character-centric IPs. We want people to gravitate to and be able to develop the characters they respond to…We basically want to make paper dolls out of these characters where all of a sudden we’re talking about accessories, maybe even armor sets where you can get the crazy beach set… But let me reiterate, this isn’t to profit or gouge people on. We’re not going to say 99 cents for sneakers. We’re not going that route… So, down the line, if it’s community content and Workshop content that we have to curate that’s not out of the question at all to me. Curating it takes a great deal of time and I think our business would have to grow a great deal before we could support something like that, but it’s not something we’re opposed to.

On the future of Disc Jam’s Monetization

TR: We get asked about this a lot, because people say “I want to put money into this to accelerate” [speaking about the prize machine system for cosmetics]. We’ll probably have something to do that because personally, as a gamer, that’s exactly how I feel. I don’t mind putting money into a game to unlock things quicker… If I could bust out a few bucks here and get some things that I really want to get that would take me several hours to get… that’s worth it to me. I want that option.

Will it ever be pay-to-win? Of course not. We don’t want to charge for characters if we can avoid it because, although they’re expensive to make, characters affect gameplay. Maps and modes will always be free. I think something like “I can buy Jamoleon packs” makes a lot of sense to me.

Jay and I are very guarded about how and when we ask people for money because people are very sensitive about that for good reason. Games are expensive as hell already, and there’s a lot of entitlement that comes along with asking someone for money. We want to make sure that we’re setting up a successful business that can be self-sustaining… hopefully people understand that if they do see something like that [allowing people to monetize in game]. Microtransactions can be non-invasive and self-sustaining for the game. It’s better for everyone because the game will live longer, and we’re going to invest every penny right back in the game anyway.

If you could have one feature tomorrow (with no dev cost), what would it be?

TR: Well it’s tough because there’s no such thing but, if I could have a feature overnight, I think it would be crossplay right now. I think crossplay would be the best thing for our game as a whole right now because the main thing that I want the people on PC to understand is that we love the fact that they came here on the first week, first day, first month of the game… I wish they had the audience to enjoy what the PlayStation players are enjoying right now… I think that would fuel the growth a great deal.

Disc Jam is out now on PlayStation 4 and PC. Early reviews have been very positive, and the game is only continuing to get better as time goes on. A big thanks to Timothy Rapp for taking time out of his hectic development schedule to speak with us. Follow High Horse Games for updates on Disc Jam, and subscribe to GIZORAMA on Facebook/Twitter for future interviews and updates on the gaming industry at large.

About Ashton Macaulay

Ashton lives in the Ewok village that is Redmond Washington, enjoys gaming, writing, and a good pug.