Tom Mc Shea talks to Johann Sebastian Joust creator Douglas Wilson about the joys of local multiplayer.
Three players circle each other in a crowded living room. Vestiges of a well-fought competition litter the area, the room seemingly hit by a whirlwind of well-meaning chaos. The couch cushions have been scattered carelessly across the floor, briefly used as a shield or projectile and then quickly forgotten, and the upended lamp has seen better days. Move controllers in hand, the remaining participants walk with a hunched gait, plotting how to unseat the other players without eliminating themselves by rushing in too quickly. Classical music streams from the television speakers, but no one is even glancing at the screen. This is Johann Sebastian Joust.
The ubiquity of online networks has transformed multiplayer gaming into a largely isolated experience against faceless opponents from across the globe. And though the convenience this approach offers has had a positive impact on everything from high-level play to approachable entertainment, it has been a serious thorn in the side of local competition. Douglas Wilson, the creator of J.S. Joust, is trying to change the perception that you need to connect to an online infrastructure to have a great competitive experience. "Let's get friends and acquaintances to the same physical space and play these games that are really good for spectators and are easy to pick up."
Sportsfriends is on Kickstarter now, a collection of local competitive games that lie outside industry norms. One game in the collection is J.S. Joust. This game urges you to shake your opponent's Move controller while keeping your own stable, and, by shifting your attention away from the television and to your friends, it's a drastic departure from a typical video game. The other three games are more traditional (they use a television screen!), but have the same competitive spirit. Hokra is a two-on-two virtual sport in which you vie for an elusive ball to score goals against wily players trying to thwart your fun. BarabariBall mixes the high-jumping shenanigans and platforming expanses of a Mario game with a dangerous ball-based sport. And Super Pole Riders captures the the essence of the track-and-field event, except with an added dose of silliness.
Sadly, Kickstarter is the only way a collection such as this could appear on consoles. Wilson laments, "Even if we had a really excited contact at a publisher, their bosses or their marketing department didn't really get it." Innovation embodies the creativity needed to ensure games continue to thrive, but the financial risk is often too great for a business to bear. It's the sad reality of how the industry functions. That's why Wilson went through Kickstarter instead of a traditional publisher and teamed up with like-minded designers to create a compelling collection. By making Sportsfriends a group of games, as opposed to releasing J.S. Joust on its own, it's "a package that has more meat to it, more weight to it, that could really excite the end users," Wilson said.
Wilson believes that games you return to time and again are "the holy grail of game design."
Funding isn't the only aspect that could hinder Sportsfriends. Though three of the games rely on standard controllers, J.S. Joust needs the Move. By including an already niche game that requires additional hardware, this novel collection faces an uphill battle, but that hurdle isn't a new concept to Wilson. That's why the other games in the collection are easy to grasp, and require less equipment, than J.S. Joust. They tried to "mitigate that risk and that barrier by housing it in a context that leads you in and then ramps up to the technical requirements."
One of the ways Sportsfriends moves beyond typical video games is by appealing to people who don't usually play games. J.S. Joust is the best example of this. Yes, you do have to hold a controller, which could be strike one for those who are sour to the very idea, but by removing the television screen from the equation, a door is opened for people who still think digital imagery is going to rot your brain. An emphasis is put on full-body movement as opposed to fine motor skills, and that creates a level of unpredictability impossible to emulate in the video world.
Rules offer only the barest hint of structure. Shake the controller too much and you're out of the match, but the manner in which that's achieved is up to you. Do you separate people into teams or let every person fight on their own? What sorts of weapons are kosher? Would anything soft be all right, or should you open the door to heavier objects as well, crossing your fingers that you don't get hit in the face? And that doesn't even consider the offensive and defensive maneuvers you can pull off with your own body. Wilson asks, "Are you allowed to take off your shoe and throw it at people?" Letting people create their own rules has a profound impact on how they view the experience. "That openness leads to a kind of ownership when people craft their own exact social rules."
The physicality of J.S. Joust transforms it into a spectator-friendly endeavor that bears a much closer resemblance to traditional sports (basketball, football, and so on) than to the video variety. That's not to say that it's going to become the next big thing in Major League Gaming, or transition to a weekly televised event in which millions of people gamble on the results, but it does show how technology can change our perception of games. Just like average, non-game-playing members of society could enjoy competing in J.S. Joust in the right environment, so too could they watch others play it while sitting back and being entertained. And that's one of the reasons that local competition is so important. By removing the isolationist aspect and forcing people to compete head-to-head in the same physical space, the barrier for entry is significantly reduced.
Wilson has seen the undercurrent slowly build in recent years for games that emphasize local competition. "People are starting to say, 'We miss the arcade. We miss getting together.' It's bubbling. I hope that trend continues." And he thinks that it's up to him and fellow designers to deliver what people most desire. "I think it's going to be up to us, the gaming community, to stoke that fire." Ultimately, Wilson dreams of creating something that really catches on with people. He believes that games you return to time and again are "the holy grail of game design."
The rules that define what is and is not a video game are crumbling down. We've entered an era where it's incredibly difficult to pinpoint what it means to be a video game, and that fuzzy line is going to ensure we see a variety of previously unheard-of ideas in the future. In some ways, Sportsfriends is a return to older ideals, like the sense that getting together a group of friends is more important than headshots and kill streaks, and it's that closeness that forms the bonds holding this experience together. Even with difficulties finding a publisher, Wilson knew early on that he had to find a way to get J.S. Joust in people's hands. "This isn't just some pretty fun multiplayer game; this is something really special."
This multiplayer-centrism is something I will forever mourn when playing Nintendo handhelds, since for whatever reason they have largely neglected this very key element and it is such an unspeakable shame.
It's a rotting shame that more developers don't seek that 'Holy Grail' because their design either fails that standard or devours players with disgusting addictive elements and a lack of real fun.
@franzito I think you underestimate the addictive power of games. Anyway, if people with a social life can play the games, there's a statement of it's appeal, and besides, these are not the sort of games most gamers would consider anything but social or casual.
@tgwolfI do recognize the power of games, a bit too much by the way, since I'm a 31 guy who has been playing games since I was 8. To play games with your friends, you need titles that appeal to everybody OR have friends who like every multiplayer title. Casual gaming, for me, is Zynga-like titles, which you can play on your cell phone or on your social network.
Virtual reality is the only thing that interests me in games anymore, I don't want to play "sports" with the people of this world, I want to experience grand adventures with believable npc's in a totally immersing environment so I can truly lose myself in the characters and world the artists create. I'm guess I'm an escapist. Make it happen, stop focusing on online bs. The future is in virtual reality and A.I. that is truly mistakable for reality.
I'm not convinced that "taking video games off the television screen" is the movement of the future. I do, however, believe that video games are becoming too solo heavy or too heavily designed to be played remotely. Modern board games are in a golden age right now and will overtake video games if the current trend continues. Multiplayer focused video games should look at what board games are doing and try to implement some of the differences. I'd love to see party games that aren't about movement and reflexes, but about thinking.
@bahamut_au I asked Tom on Twitter and he said that they're spending time with the video team so they can run the show on their own. That was a couple of weeks ago, though. I'm not sure what's taking so long...
Nothing like playing Tekken Tag 2 and actually seeing your opponents reaction in real time on the couch next to you :D
"One of the ways Sportsfriends moves beyond typical video games is by appealing to people who don't usually play games."
Sorry, but Nintendo already tried this with the Wii. While a financial success, it didn't keep the interests of many non-casual gamers.
@FallenOneX Simply because Nintendo tried to appeal to a broader audience doesn't mean that Sportsfriends shouldn't. Just because it "failed to keep your interest" doesn't mean that it's not a really fun party game.
Is it so wrong to appeal to people who don't usually play games?
@Granpire Nothing at all, but look at how much crap they had to put up with while doing it. And I never said it didn't keep MY interest, I've never even played the game. I stick by my original analogy; It will probably do well (hopefully), but many people will be done with it quickly.
@FallenOneX Actually, I think we have exactly the same opinions about the article, but very different opinions about your analogy. :P
@Granpire ""One of the ways Sportsfriends moves beyond typical video games is by appealing to people who don't usually play games."
How is this approach different that what Nintendo tried to do? And BTW, I was talking more about the quote I used, hence the reason I started with it. I'm not bashing the company for going that route, I was just saying that it really isn't doing anything that hasn't been done before. Are they really moving "beyond typical video games"? No, because someone has already done that. I could have used the iPod/iPad/any other device or tablet that plays more casual games, but I used the Wii because they were talking about a game for a console.
I brought up the Wii U because obviously somebody was listening, that's why they're releasing a system that the world knows will be outdated (in comparison to competing consoles) in probably less than a year. If they truly didn't care about public opinion, we wouldn't be seeing a new console for another year.
We just seem to have different opinions about this article. I do enjoy this healthy debate that hasn't turned into a name calling cry baby fest though. Live long and prosper, Granpire.
@FallenOneX The analogy doesn't work because you're comparing the approach of a megacorporation (Nintendo) to that of a small indie-developed game (Sportsfriends) and saying that it's something gamers will become bored with in a short time.
And what does the Wii U have to do with anything? Nintendo's approach with the Wii U has mostly been to try and win back the core gaming crowd... That's not what Sportsfriends is trying to do...
@Granpire How does the analogy not work? The Wii U is coming out in less than a week!
@FallenOneX I know, millions and millions of dollars of crap. Complaints from the hardcore don't sound so loud when you're swimming in cash.
Supposing the complaints actually meant anything to Nintento, though, the analogy still wouldn't work because Sportsfriends is a single game developed by an indie developer, and Nintendo is a multibillion dollar corporation. A single game doesn't tend to suffer from image problems the way a large company would.
@FallenOneX I'm a "serious" gamer, I have no interest in Wii whatsoever, seeing as there are no games worth playing. I do play PS3, own the move control, and aside from the Resident Evil HD Chronicles, which are great to play with the Move controller, even better with the pistol attachment I have, I also prefer to play RE5 with the Move controller. This is the good thing about Move, it has been integrated into some of my favourite games, that way, it is worth get it.
I cannot imagine games without the social aspect. Whether it's sharing a local multiplayer experience, or retelling stories of routes taken and decisions made in single player games, if my friends are not also enjoying the game, then it's just less fun to me.
I'm probably out of the norm, but I can sit and watch a friend play a single player game while side seat gaming and get just as much enjoyment as if I had the controller in my hand, so long as it is entertaining to both of us.
I can only hope that more mainstream games catch the idea and create more valuable, local multiplayer content.
@Quaseymoto I share the joy to see friends playing Sinple Player games, however, I don't need to share my gaming experience to enjoy it more, I enjoy it just as much whether I let people know what happened or not..
Just had a big Halo 4 party last night. We had a fucking blast, albeit all that Mountain Dew is catching up to me. Hook up a few TVs and Xbox's and you got a helluva night, lol. I love that Halo still has four-player split-screen multi-player and four player co-op campaign. Though, its a little disappointing you can only co-op two people on one system.
I thought about blogging the disappearance of local co-op, competitive, and hotseat games. Such games have always been my favorite, and Joust looks pretty fun. Developers keep pushing the online playability, but I want to play against/with people in the same room. I hope games go back to that eventually.
This is a creative and fresh approach to video games, but I think, like the Kinect, it will cost a big living room and lots of broken house hold objects. Still interesting though.
Also, Joust has been, and always has been F'n Awesome. If you can't appreciate it for what it is, then I feel you are suffering from a disconnection from the old school arcade era. You may as well say, Pac-man, pong, and asteroids suck too.
The lack of split-screen co op/ local multi-player IMHO is a SLAP in the face of gamers who grew up with gaming.
The fact that I can't play the new SSX or NFS: Most Wanted with my little brother, (unless he buys his own copy) is flat out F'n wrong.
Fix it developers. Fix it NOW.
@VenkmanPHD Also agree with you totally. As an adult gamer, I still find that I enjoy having friends over and enjoying an all night gaming session. I have a friend that semi works with the gaming industry (game guides). As much fun as we have playing over XBL, I cherish the times we meet at someone's house and play Capcom fighting games online and pass the stick around even more.
@VenkmanPHD Totally. I had been out of gaming for quite a few years, then I got a PS3 about 2 years ago. My friend and I wanted to play NFS: Hot Pursuit and Burnout Paradise together then found out we couldn't without another copy of the game. If developers/publishers think it forces people to buy more copies of the game, well, it doesn't, we just moved on to games where we could play together.
My friends and I have a hard time finding modern games with local multiplayer that we can all enjoy.
Both games look fun, and the videos you posted were fun to watch. I would never buy either of them though.
I still don't see how any of these games fit in a title that has the word Sport in it. But maybe it's just me.
Not interested in handheld, tablet, phone, etc gaming. If it is not on a console or PC, I have no interest in it.
On a similar note, there is another Kickstarter based in Indianapolis that is looking to open a fun, convenient, social location for games like this to be played: http://www.kickstarter.com/projects/687269882/nerdgasm-a-bar-for-nerds-0?ref=city
I do miss the old split screen gaming with friends, but once you leave school/college there's not so many chances for that, and online play does match you closer to people of a similar skills.
Though it would be nice to get some split screen gameplay in modern games, just for when you do have more than 1 person in the room.
@JimmeyBurrows For you it would be nice, for others it's essential. I am lucky enough to have a wife who likes playing games with me--but most of the games we would enjoy playing don't have split-screen, so what's the point? Eventually my kids are going to be big enough to enjoy games, but I sure as hell aren't going to be buying them games that they sit by themselves to play, playing together is the only way to justify it.