Jabloo - An Introduction

Jabloo is the biggest project I've ever undertaken, and for that reason, I'll be breaking it down into a bunch of different entries, each focusing on different aspects of the project (which is still far from fully launching).

I had the idea for the then-unnamed project in 2006, after reading Seth Godin's Free Prize Inside (more on that book later). I started thinking, in a purely analytical way, that I'd benefit from creating a project that exploited what I believe to be my strongest skills - vector character design, animation and Flash programming.

A lot of graphic designers don't have strong Flash skills, and even if they do their programming abilities are often limited. Something about the freedom of art, and the unforgiving nature of code, don't seem to mix often or well. But I was a Commodore 64 programmer in middle and high school (a badge of honor forever, even though I never got past BASIC back then) and entered college as a Computer Science major, with the plan to develop my own video games. Not a good idea, as I quickly realized the video game industry had already begun moving away from the lone programmer/graphics/animator/music guys I admired from the Atari 2600 and Commodore 64 realms, and each separate discipline was being broken down to different people with different (very different) skills. I found myself sitting in classes with high-functioning science and math guys with an understanding of the deeper aspects of computing that I knew I'd never approach (I'm still not clear on stacks and heaps), so I moved on over to the Graphic Design major, which was a much better fit. Still, though, I had the foundation of programming in me, and it only took another ten years to actually be able to use that skill set again - in Flash.

Back to 2006: I started to think about the different things that were inspiring me at that time. I'd recently read an interview with the Homestar Runner guys, detailing how their fun little project had moved from a diversion they worked on in their spare time to a full-time business that sustained them and a couple employees, all based on the products from their growing product line. That's very impressive in the online world - unprecedented, maybe, at least in this area (an original animated series). They even turned down opportunities for a Homestar Runner television series because they didn't feel they'd have the ability to control the quality of the website's content and a TV series at the same time. I'd have loved to see a Homestar show, and I admired their integrity, but I was especially impressed that they had the focus to foresee where their primary efforts should go - into their online presence, which they could completely control. They really were truly living off their creation - which is about as silly as it gets, by the way. Awesome.

And as this nebulous idea for some kind of interactive, animation-centered project continued forming, I thought of the things that inspired me from childhood as well. My wife Sharon had recently bought me a Captain Zoom CD because I'd told her about the Captain Zoom flexi-disc I had as a kid. These cheaply-made records contained the same fun little song that was made special by the fact that the fictional Captain would sing your name several times throughout the tune. That personalized quality was impressive - they had a library of hundreds of names, and in pre-digital days, that must have been an incredibly labor-intensive process. But the benefit was, kids got to hear their very own name in their birthday song, and they loved it (check out some of the fond memories this site has collected). So that was swirling around now, too - "individual name spoken by a character". Remember that.

I also kept thinking about a personalized children's book my aunt had ordered for me when I was about six or seven. The way it worked was, you ordered this book and sent in your child's first name, age, and a few other facts about them, and in a month or two, you had (from what I recall) a fairly nicely printed, bound book, with the child's name inserted throughout. The story also contained other facts ("Steve went into the jungle with his favorite toy - his Pet Rock!"). I know the book my aunt choose for me featured me, Steve, following my new friend "Evets" through a jungle environment, to get to a birthday party. Get it? They flipped the name around. But that means, I would guess, some kind of primitive computer was involved.

As a pre-teen (the last time I can remember still having that book), I decided they must have printed the pages blank, with no text, first - the final text had an almost typewriter quality. The text was clear, but left very slight indentations in the page. I'm sure that's the best they could do in that decade. The problem with these "personalized" books, though, was the fact that they could never show you, the actual kid, in the illustrations. You were always a hand or leg peeking out from behind a bush or rock or something - colored a brownish-peach (they didn't want to betray race by showing a specific skin color), not looking fat, thin, feminine, masculine, toddlerish, older or anything else specific. So the fun was limited. I don't even remember if they had a variable for the gender - I think the book may have avoided personal pronouns completely - "Steve ate Steve's favorite food in Steve's back yard!" - or maybe not. Either way, you really had to use your imagination in the 70's. I began looking around online for some of these bits of 70's ephemera, but I was never able to find one of those original books (though there are, of course, plenty of modern versions). Still, that concept was swirling too - another instance of "child's name in the story", like the Captain Zoom song.

Another favorite memory from childhood was the Choose Your Own Adventure book series. If you're not familiar with them, they were very popular Young Adult books that had stories whose plots you could vary by making a choice at the end of each section. You'd read about how you, maybe as a knight or space explorer or just a regular kid in way over your head in some nutty situation, were stuck in some situation, and then at the bottom of the page would be at least two options: "If you want to betray your friends and run into the cave, go to page 31. If you'd rather not be such a jerk, go to page 37." Not really like that, but hey - you had options.

Before I'd even played Zork or any other text or graphical adventure on a computer, I loved the story possibilities the Choose Your Own Adventure books gave you. In fact, the only thing I ever "stole" (from a library, though) was one of these books. Shame. It's not that I just wanted to have the book - I wanted to possess the story possibilities it contained (if that makes sense). So that added one more swirling childhood memory as I worked on my "big idea" - it's nothing new in the online world these days, but the idea of a story that a child could control, and explore, making each visit slightly different - I wanted that to be part of whatever it is I was planning.

In the midst of all this thinking, Sharon and I went to Grounds For Sculpture in Hamilton, NJ. It wasn't my first trip there, or even the first time we went together, but being in this creatively-inspiring place - specifically, hanging out in their water garden on a cool summer day, being spritzed from a fountain when the wind pushed a little harder, let my brain really open up, locking in on the overall tone I wanted for my project - that warm childhood feeling of friendship, adventure, exploring, creativity - and having unbounded fun.

And I'll leave it there for now. Lots of ideas swirling, looking for a home - a home which would eventually have a very silly name: Jabloo (rhymes with "canoe", by the way).


  1. I've chanced to read one of the "Choose Your Own Adventure" books (of the Star Wars variety) and I thoroughly enjoyed it. I'm disappointed the trend had to die; I think it could have been more than a gimmick if given the chance.

    And you know what? I was also a fan of Zork and Homestar Runner. You've already gotten me interested.

  2. That's cool that you found one of those books, Steven. It opened a world of possibilities back before there were many real options like that. I think they're still being produced, and I know there were hundreds of them published back in the 80's, at least.

    I was pretty much obsessed with Zork back in 1982 or 1983. I remember actually getting scared while playing it a couple times - it's only words! But I really immersed myself in it.

    And Homestar is awesome - one of the most consistently high-quality things online. That reminds me, I need to catch up some Strongbad Emails - my son loves those, too.