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Cartoon Network’s new series OK KO blurs the line between games and animation

A new process that could lead to better game tie-ins — and a better show

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OK KO! Let’s be Heroes

The first time Ian Jones-Quartey met up with the game developers at Toronto studio Capy, it wasn’t what you’d call a typical pitch meeting. At the time, Jones-Quartey — a writer and animator who has worked on series like Steven Universe and Adventure Time — was still early in development on his next project, OK KO! Let's Be Heroes. He liked the idea of turning the series into a game as well, and was a big fan of Capy games like Super Time Force and Sword & Sworcery. But when the two sides met up at E3 in Los Angeles, there was no formal pitch involved: instead they spent a few hours just chatting about their favorite movies and cartoons. “We just sort of hung out and got to know each other,” explains Jones-Quartey, with Capy president Nathan Vella adding, “We didn’t even know if we were going to make a game together.”

The OK KO show debuted on the Cartoon Network this week, and the game is expected to launch later this fall. But unlike most tie-in game projects, the two are inextricably linked. The show and game were created simultaneously, with the teams collaborating on ideas and sharing progress along the way. As new episodes of the show were completed, they influenced the game; as the game continued to progress, some of its ideas made their way into the show. “We didn’t want to make something that felt like they were following our lead, or we were following their lead,” says Jones-Quartey.

OK KO Let’s Be Heroes

OK KO takes place in a world where everyone is a superhero. It stars a budding, perpetually enthusiastic hero named KO, who works in a bodega and dreams of becoming even stronger. It’s inspired in part by Jones-Quartey’s own life. When he was young, he’d have to spend time at his mom’s office, and as a teenager he worked at a supermarket. It’s also a show clearly influenced by the kinds of entertainment he loves, with plenty of references to anime, games, and comic books. “I just sort of figured if I was going to work on this thing for a long time, I should make it something that’s really fun and expansive, and that I’ll never get sick of,” he says. “I just reached in and tried to be true to myself.”

“I just reached in and tried to be true to myself.”

The idea has been in the works since 2011, when he pitched the concept to the Cartoon Network, which eventually greenlit a pilot. It was put on hold shortly thereafter, as Jones-Quartey shifted his focus to working on Steven Universe, but eventually he returned to the concept. It was during those early days that he first started thinking about expanding into games. In fact, when he began talking to Capy, there wasn’t a lot of OK KO to show off. “When we started the process we didn’t have a show at all,” Jones-Quartey says. “We only had a couple of really rough storyboards and designs. And we basically just sat down, showed them what we had, pitched the idea, and explained, ‘The world’s not really fleshed out, it’s not like there are episodes you can go to and copy for ideas.’ We just sort of gave them the keys to the world and the characters, and said ‘Go crazy.’”

In a lot of ways Capy seems like a natural fit for a project like this. The influence of animation is evident in the studio’s work, whether it’s the Saturday morning cartoon aesthetic of Super Time Force or the vibrant, rainbow-hued world of puzzle game Critter Crunch. But the studio was wary of working on a licensed game. Capy got its start creating cellphone titles based on popular movies like Cars and Happy Feet, which often meant dealing with lots of strict rules and guidelines from bigger companies. Since then, the studio has focused on creating original work, like the upcoming adventure game Below. So when it came to OK KO, it wasn’t just the property that excited the team — it was the process. “Part of it was like, ‘Okay cool, it’s Ian and [OK KO co-executive producer Toby Jones], they’re amazing creators making stuff that we’re super inspired by,’” says Vella. “But I think more if it was that it was super chill. Usually there’s a process that game developers are given in order to create a licensed project. And we just had none of that.”

For game director Dan Vader, the fact that OK KO was still in such an early state was also a large part of the appeal. “If it was just ‘Hey, you know OK KO? It’s this huge hit show that’s been out for three years. Do you want to make a game for it?’ we could even be fans and I think the answer would be, ‘Well… maybe.’ In that situation, what you’re making is prescribed by the fandom of the thing,” he explains. “With this, the pitch was, they’re making a show right now, you can come in and be part of that whole process and make a game alongside it.”

OK KO Let’s Be Heroes

Part of the reason the process appears to have worked so well — in my brief time with the game, it felt like a solid mix of beat ‘em up and RPG — is that Jones-Quartey has been unusually open with his creation. Vader describes it as “a real mixtape vibe.” Instead of instilling rules around style or story that partners have to follow, Jones-Quartey has instead left his world in the hands of trusted creators, and left them to do what they want with it. “For me, the best part about making the show is opening up the idea and giving it to other people,” he says. “I’m really, really a big fan of being open with my ideas and giving them to as many people as possible.” Vella adds that “[Jones-Quartey’s] goal is the opposite of how brands are normally handled.”

“When we started the process we didn’t have a show at all.”

This openness has been ongoing. Capy and the animation team utilize Slack and weekly calls to share ideas and progress, and as new episodes and builds of the game are ready, everyone gets a chance to check them out. The sharing even extends to staff: when one Canadian-born animator was unable to get a US visa to work on the show, Capy brought him on board to help out with the game. The result is two projects that are clearly inspired by each other, yet remain distinct. There’s plenty of video game DNA in the show, even down to its structure, which has KO on a game-like quest to level up and get stronger. The in-game quests, meanwhile, are designed to act like short episodes of the show, three-act structure and all. The two have different art styles, and sometimes even conflicting stories, but they share a similar vibe.

This more open style of collaboration is something the Cartoon Network hopes to continue. There’s already an OK KO mobile game, and the network has held game and animation jams to let creators go wild with ideas, potentially generating new projects as well. The idea is that all of these different voices, from different fields, can continue to take the OK KO concept and expand it in new and interesting ways — which is exactly what Jones-Quartey was hoping to do. “It’s like a creativity multiplier,” he says.