How Trombone Champ went from an inside joke to a viral hit

Combine the dramatic story of Dark Souls (when baboons were in it), the gameplay of Guitar Hero (when Guitar Hero was drunk and played with a single button), the card collecting of The Witcher 3 (when the cards consisted mainly of dead composers ) and you could Get a game similar to Trombone Champ. What started out as a single funny idea from married couple Holy Wow Studios has grown into the most hilarious game of 2022, built with a simple philosophy: “If it’s funny, get in it.”

Trombone Champ is a rhythm game that has players – in their own words – “honk, puff, and toot” their way through more than 20 songs as they attempt to unravel the mysteries of the Trombiverse while collecting Tromboner cards. It’s ridiculous, and creator Dan Vecchitto knows it.

“My motto for this game was, if it’s a fun idea, do it,” Vecchitto told IGN. “I didn’t let standard game design rules or common sense get in the way of comedy. I gradually turned the game into one big sloppy bunch of jokes: lots of poop jokes, lots of inexplicable references to baboons, and lots of parodies of other games.”

But where did the idea for a trombone-based rhythm game come from? Another joke. “I originally envisioned Trombone Champ as an arcade game where the player uses a giant rubber trombone controller and desperately tries to play along squiggly staves,” says Vecchitto, but “at this point it was nothing more than a comical one head picture.”

It was only later that he envisioned using a mouse to mimic the motion of playing the trombone, and from that Vecchitto came up with a prototype that was almost as fun as he imagined. “I decided it was a solid idea and worth developing into a full game,” he said.

Holy Wow had made games before, but these were all smaller, browser-based titles. The Curse of the Chocolate Fountain is a sidescroller about chronic diarrhea and bird avoidance. Icarus Proudbottom Teaches Typing is a typing game with fun facts like: “Typing was invented by Steve Jobs in January 1984”. World of Typing is an episodic Twin Peaks-inspired sequel, followed by Typing Party, a two-player local multiplayer spin-off.

“My ethos for this game was, if it’s a fun idea, do it. I didn’t let standard game design rules or common sense interfere with the comedy.”

However, Trombone Champ is the team’s first game to actually be sold as a product – although Vecchitto expects it to be a relatively quick and easy game to make. “I thought the project could be completed in less than six months, but as so often, it turned out to be a lot more work than expected,” he said.

In the end, the development took a total of four years, with a few starts and stops along the way. Holy Wow is not a full-time games studio, where work is done in the evenings and weekends outside of Vecchitto’s main job as a web designer.

One thing that protracted the development of Trombone Champ was the need for an extra hook that would keep people playing beyond the few hours of songs. The first thing added was the Tromboner Cards mechanic, where players can open packs and collect cards featuring famous trombonists like JJ Johnson, Al Gray and others. This is also a parody of loot box systems in other games like FIFA, as players unlock the packs in various over-the-top ways.

Inspiration was also taken from other games. “The plot is a direct parody of the Dark Souls series, which I found funny because those games are extremely dark and serious, the exact opposite of a goofy trumpet,” said Vecchitto.

While Trombone Champ is now blown up – with overwhelmingly positive reviews on Steam – the game has had a small following throughout its development: fans of the comedy in Holy Wow’s previous games. However, an open playtest period a month before launch caused the first uproar of wider interest when Holy Wow received a totally unexpected and overwhelming 600 feedback forms. Things really exploded at launch, however, which came as a complete surprise to Holy Wow.

“I always found the game concept to be fundamentally solid and knew it would have some viral appeal,” Vecchitto said. “But realistically I expected a handful of people to share funny videos and for those videos to go viral.

“I really didn’t expect that the virality would lead to an explosion of interest in the game itself. It was beautiful, but also overwhelming – it’s too much demand for us to keep up. We are currently trying to develop a strategy on how to deal with it.”

“[The success has] was nice, but it’s also overwhelming – it’s too much demand for us to keep up. We’re currently trying to develop a strategy for dealing with this.”

While the future is still a bit unclear, Holy Wow has committed to working on Trombone Champ for a while rather than turning to other games. “I have a lot of game ideas, and my initial idea was to update Trombone Champ for a while and then move on,” Vecchito said, “but given the strong response, we’ll probably stick with Trombone Champ for a while.”

A console version may also appear. “I can’t say for sure that Trombone Champ will be coming to consoles, but I can say for sure that we’ll start soon,” he added. Holy Wow will also be exploring other avenues to expand its audience, such as localizing Trombone Champ into different languages, but there are still many different things for the duo to figure out.

Vecchito puts it in words worthy of the game itself: “The challenge for us will be to navigate here without going insane.”

Ryan Dinsdale is an IGN freelancer. He’ll be talking about The Witcher all day. How Trombone Champ went from an inside joke to a viral hit

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