Taking Games Off the Television Screen

Tom Mc Shea talks to Johann Sebastian Joust creator Douglas Wilson about the joys of local multiplayer.

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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."

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