February 9, 2012 1:00 AM | John Polson
PlayStation Move-controlled Johann Sebastian Joust is the sort of thing that truly needs to be played to be understood. The improvisational, highly-physical experience has captivated indie gaming fans worldwide -- chances are you've heard the flood of enthusiasm from those who have tried it.
It's earned an honorable mention in the Excellence in Design category for this year's Independent Games Festival, and -- as an unconventional, experimental game -- has earned a nod in the Nuovo category. The galvanizing title also has a nomination for the IGF's Seumas McNally Grand Prize.
In this extensive interview, we catch up with Douglas Wilson of Die Gute Fabrik (who's also long been an inspiring figure in the Copenhagen Game Collective) on the genesis of the project, the idea of digital folk games, and the strength of the indie community.
What background do you have making games?
I've always been an avid player of games, but it didn't occur to me until college that I might seriously study or develop them. In 2003, I took a class with Professor Henry Lowood, called the History of Computer Game Design. So, I actually started writing about games before I started making them. But fortunately I complemented my humanities degree with an MS in computer science. For one of our project assignments, some friends and I developed a game called Euclidean Crisis. It was nominated as a Student Finalist at IGF 2007. I suppose that was my first "proper" computer game.
In 2007, I moved to Denmark on a grant to research games at IT University of Copenhagen. Beyond just my studies and research, I started hanging out with a some other students and artists who were also interested in developing games. Together, we started making all sorts of games, both digital and non-digital. In fact, that year worked out so well that I decided to settle in Copenhagen more permanently. I'm still living here today!
My best known projects are probably Dark Room Sex Game, a cheeky Wiimote game which we developed in 2008, and B.U.T.T.O.N., a highly physical party game which we developed in 2010. B.U.T.T.O.N. even ended up getting a nomination for the Nuovo Award at IGF 2011.
But I have no commercial development experience. I'm just an egghead researcher!
What development tools did you use?
I'm actually using the engine Unity, mostly because I prefer to code in C#. To get the Move controllers working with my MacBook Pro, I'm using Thomas Perl's Move api, which in turn is based off Alan Ott's hidapi. That code, including our Unity bindings, is freely available online!
How long has your team been working on the game?
I first prototyped the game at the Nordic Game Jam last year. At that time, it was for the Wiimote. I quickly realized that the game would work even better using the LED light on the Move, and in May I got Thomas Perl's Move API working on my computer. We debuted the Move version of the game in June, in the streets of Copenhagen. Since then, I've been slowly adding new features and fixing bugs in my free time. I'm currently finishing up my PhD dissertation, so until now I've only been able to work on the game very gradually, on the side.
Where did the concept for Joust come from?
It's very unconventional. At the Nordic Game Jam last January, I prototyped the first version of J.S. Joust using three Wiimotes. Partially inspired by the Animal Tracker mini-game from Nintendo's Wii Party, as well as my own game B.U.T.T.O.N., I originally wanted to develop a racing game where three players would carefully inch towards a fourth controller on the other side of the room.
The breakthrough moment came when Nils and I were walking around the room with Wiimotes in hand, testing the controllers' sensitivity values. At one point, we found ourselves walking towards each other from opposite sides of the room. Both of us silently hatched the same mischievous plan; as soon as we were in range, we shoved one another in an attempt to make the other lose. In that instant, it became clear to us that the game we actually wanted to play was a more antagonistic duel.
The game was also inspired by several non-digital folk games that we play here in Copenhagen. For example, my obsession with slow-motion games is no doubt influenced by Liste Lanser (translation: "Sneaky Lance"), a game invented by some friends of a friend. In Liste Lanser, two players faceoff blindfolded, each with a wooden spoon in hand. The first player to hit the other wins! The twist is that both players must move in slow-motion, enforced by the cheering spectators. To make the whole thing extra silly and cinematic, we often play loud drum and bass music!
What do you mean by "folk game"?
Good question! I'd say that "folk game" encompasses a diverse variety of sports and games. As I use the term, "folk game" suggests a relatively simple game played with commonly available equipment (a ball, a rope, dice, etc.) or no equipment all, such that the game can be easily spread by word of mouth. A defining feature of folk games, as I use the term, is that they facilitate "house rules" and player modification. They generally evolve over time, and are appropriated by different player communities in different ways. Often, they involve physical interaction between players. Some examples might include Duck-Duck-Goose, Freeze Tag, Ninja, Solitaire, and Mafia.
But I also have my own, more idiosyncratic definition. For me, "folk game" suggests festivity, laughter, and bodily physicality. I write about this in my PhD research (see here). When I look towards folk games for design inspiration, I'm usually trying to capture a particular kind of physical comedy and humor of the absurd. I'm not sure if that more specific interpretation holds for other people, but for me it's been very useful.
Does J.S. Joust itself qualify as a folk game? I'm not sure. I've called it a "digital folk game" for lack of a better term, but there are some reasons one might be a little skeptical of that description. Sure, the game is very amenable to player modification, but the software isn't even available yet, and the hardware (i.e. the Move controller) is still somewhat niche. Of course, now that many of us have smart phones, accelerometers are becoming commonplace. Are smart phones, then, going to become a general-purpose gaming "tool," like the jump rope or deck of playing cards before it? And does a game's code have to be open-sourced in order for it to qualify as a folk game? These are tricky questions.
One notable thing about your game is it challenges the idea that video games require graphics. Getting outside the bounds of what we normally think of as "video game design" is something you've worked with for some time. Why is this compelling to you?
J.S. Joust embodies two core interest of mine. First, ever since I worked on Dark Room Sex Game, I've been interested in digitally-mediated games where players look at each other rather than at a screen. Obviously, that's something we're used to doing when we play non-digital games like sports, boardgames, etc. But it isn't typically what you do when playing a computer game. So there's something fun in it of itself in the subversion of re-purposing gaming technology towards different ends (this is the same trick behind B.U.T.T.O.N.).
Second, I'm interested in games in which players are actively encouraged to negotiate and improvise their own "house rules." That's actually the core focus of my academic research. Some people have argued that the main benefit of computers is that they relieve us the "burden" of having to enforce the rules. I disagree. In the right context, it can be deeply enjoyable to argue about and modify the rules. In J.S. Joust for example, are you allowed to kick other people? What would it be like to try playing with the controllers in your pockets? There are a lot of physical world actions that the computer isn't able to monitor, and that can actually work to the players' advantage. Often, the most enjoyable game of them all is making up your own game.
Actually, we've always talked within the context of the Copenhagen Game Collective. When did you form Die Gute Fabrik, and who's involved?
Die Gute Fabrik is a small indie games studio founded by Nils Deneken. Nils is an illustrator by training, but got sucked into the gaming world when his adventure game Ruckblende was nominated for IGF in 2008. Nils and I met each other at IndieCade 2008 in Seattle. I was there showing Dark Room Sex Game, and he was there showing Ruckblende.
We both loved each other's games, and so we got to hanging out. He lives in Copenhagen (though he's actually German), and I was about to move back to Denmark myself, and so we decided that we should try working together. In early 2009, we worked together on a silly Flash game called 5 Minute MMORPG (along with some other friends). Since then, we've been collaborating a number of projects, including our party game B.U.T.T.O.N.
This summer, we decided to finally make our partnership more "official." When I finish my PhD this Spring, I'll be joining Die Gute Fabrik as a co-owner and Lead Game Designer. I'm going full-time indie! It's both exciting and terrifying.
Nils and I are the main owners of Die Gute Fabrik, but there are also a few more people in the extended Die Gute Fabrik family. Our friend Bernie Schulenburg is the lead designer behind our recent PSN game Where is my Heart? My roommate Christoffer Holmgard does web development and biz dev for us. Finally, our friend Alessandro Coronas (based in Italy) does sound and music for us. Alessandro did the soundtrack for Where is My Heart? and he'll also be working on our upcoming game Mutazione.
Nils and I have indeed been involved in the Copenhagen Game Collective, which we helped co-found in 2009. However, these days I'm not so involved in the Collective, as I'm trying to focus on Die Gute Fabrik and my own projects. Beyond my work with Nils, I'm increasingly interested in collaborating with friends back in North America. This past year I spent a few months in Montreal, San Francisco, and New York, and I'm very excited about the game dev scenes in all three areas. I'm already working with David Kanaga (based in Oakland) on my upcoming Beacons of Hope installation. There are also a number of indies in New York (e.g. Matt Parker, Zach Gage, Ramiro Corbetta) who I'd love to work with some day.
What's next for Joust? Anywhere further you want to go with it?
Oof, good question! I can't say too much right now, but we're still trying to figure out release plans. We're considering a variety of different platforms. There are a lot of opportunities, but also a bunch of challenges. I'm delighted that the game seems to appeal to a wide variety of people - even people who didn't think they were interested in digital games. So, I'm hoping to find a way to reach that broader audience.
Ultimately, I'd like to release the game with a ton of optional gameplay features, so that players can more easily invent their own variations. For instance, I recently added a "handicap" feature that allows you to make some controllers more sensitive than others.
As suggested by one of my playtesters, Mikhail, this allows for a "Protect the King" mode where two "guards" need to protect a third player whose controller is ultra-sensitive. I'm also quite happy about the "invincibility" feature that I recently added, where you can press the trigger button to go invincible. The thing is, the invincibility only lasts for a few seconds; if you ever use up your entire meter, you kill yourself. The feature opens up some fun defensive tactics.
The LED light on the Move controller helps a lot here - just simple things like color changes and brightness allows me to signal a bunch of different gameplay information. Man, that controller is so underrated! A lot of people dismissed it as a Wiimote knockoff (see this Penny Arcade satire), but as I see it, that LED light changes everything. The radical thing about the Move controller is that each player essentially carries around with them a giant pixel.
The controllers act as a kind of distributed screen. I find that affordance so exciting that I'm currently working on a whole series of no-screen Move games. One of them, Beacons of Hope, is a horror-game played in a large pitch dark room. The Move's LED light is particularly beautiful when it shines out in the darkness. You can get a glimpse of that in this video we shot in Death Valley National Park.
Have you played any of the other IGF finalists? Any you particularly love?
Yes! I've been lucky enough to play several of them. As I've written before here, I particularly love GIRP and Proteus. In fact, I'm so obsessed with GIRP that I was even inspired to build an entire physical installation around the game, called Mega-GIRP. Proteus, meanwhile, is one of the most genuinely moving games I've ever played. David Kanaga's dynamic soundtrack is truly stunning. The game itself is like an indie take on The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker, but infused with the spirit of Boards of Canada, James Turrell, and Carl Sagan. It's magical.
I do want to add that I wish Where is my Heart (also by Die Gute Fabrik) had made IGF too. I didn't work on it myself, but I love that game to bits! Where is my Heart received three honorable mentions (Audio, Design, Seumas McNally). I'd give them my finalist spot if I could. They deserve it.
What do you think of the current state of the indie scene?
The indie game development scene has quite literally changed my life. Ever since I was a kid, I always thought I'd go into academia (my father is a professor). Now I find myself leaving the ivory tower to run my own indie studio. It's so strange for me because I never figured myself for an entrepreneur. But there's just so much energy in the indie scene right now. There was no way I could resist its gravity! In just the past year, I've met so, so many wonderful game people across Europe and North America. I feel so blessed.
More than anything, I'm excited about all the localized gaming events and "scenes" that are popping up around the world. One of my favorite examples is New York City's Babycastles indie arcade, which I've been fortunate enough to collaborate with over the last year. More generally, game collectives, artists, and passionate gamers around the world are making things happen. I think this development is fundamentally changing what it even means to be "indie." There are now more opportunities than ever for game makers to show work in public and physical contexts.
Indie games can be more than just "products" distributed over the Internet. A game like J.S. Joust, for instance, is more of an "event-based" game. There's a lot of fertile ground to be explored at the intersection between games and more experience-based creative traditions like performance art, new media art, LARP, etc. If Babycastles is any indication, I think we'll see more indies exploring installation art, and more artists interfacing with the indie games world.
All that said, the gaming scene is obviously haunted by a number of thorny diversity issues (i.e. in regards to race, gender, age, etc.). Some intrepid game developers (for example, Toronto's Difference Engine Initiative) are working to change things for the better, but obviously we still have a long way to go. This is part of the reason why I'm so eager to reach out to collaborators in other cultural traditions like dance, music, contemporary art, etc. I think we need to expand the indie gaming "tent" as much as we reasonably can. For this reason, I'm far less interested in "advancing" the medium of games (ugh, the age-old myth of cultural "progress" - such bullshit) than I am in exploring the territory between games and other traditions.
Like DJ Spooky says: "It's the twenty-first century. Things should be really wild. Anything else is boring."
[This article originally appeared on Gamasutra, written by Leigh Alexander.]