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IGF Factor 2012: Johann Sebastian Joust

Die Gute Fabrik does the chat

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Next up in our series of chats with this year’s Independent Games Festival finalists is Doug Wilson of Die Gute Fabrik, creator of Mac-based, screen-free party game Johann Sebastian Joust, which quite rightly has a bit of a Zeitgeist thing going on right now. It’s up for the Nuovo award and the Seamus McNally Grand Prize. Here, Doug talks about graphics-free gaming, deliberately broken games, his disappointment that there isn’t a writing/story category at the IGF, and tackles the most important question of all.
You’ll probably want to watch this to get a sense of the game before you read on:

RPS: Firstly, a brief introduction for those who may not know you. Who are you? What’s your background? Why get into games? Why get into indie games?

I’m Doug, co-owner of Die Gute Fabrik, a Copenhagen-based indie games studio. I’m also a game design researcher at IT University of Copenhagen, where I’m finishing up a PhD on deliberately “broken” games. You can watch my GDC Europe talk on the subject, here.

My dirty secret is that I’m actually American. I moved to Denmark 4.5 years ago when I started working at the university here.

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. I quickly got sucked into this whole games thing, and, well, here I am.

RPS: Tell us about your game. What was its origins? What are you trying to do with it? What are you most pleased about it? What would you change if you could?

Johann Sebastian Joust is a no-graphics, music-based party game played with the PlayStation Move. You can read more about it here.

In 2008 I worked on a cheeky erotic wiimote game called Dark Room Sex Game. We discovered that in the absence of any screen output, players would look at each other. 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., our IGF-nominated party game from last year).

Over the last few years, I’ve been working on a few other no-screen game prototypes. Some of those projects were less successful, but I learned a lot of valuable lessons along the way. Then, at the Nordic Game Jam last January, I used wiimotes to prototype the first version of J.S. Joust. The game worked surprisingly well – better than I could have expected! I quickly realized that the game would work even better using the LED light on the Move, and so this past summer I managed to get the controller working off my MacBook Pro. A few months ago I sent an early alpha build to Brandon Boyer’sVenus Patrol donors. But the game is still unreleased. We’re still working on it.

Beyond the whole no-screen games thing, one of my main interests is 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, do you really have to begin by standing in a circle? 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.

More than anything, I’m pleased that the game seems to appeal to a wide range of people, even people who didn’t think they were interested in computer games. Last June we went out into Copenhagen on a Friday evening and just started running the game on the street (see here). We attracted a throng of people – people of all different types! For me, it was a really beautiful moment. It’s gratifying indeed to reach new audiences. I’ve found that removing the screen is a nice “trick” to get more people interested in computer games. My hypothesis is that some people see players arranged in front of a screen and automatically think: “oh, videogames, they aren’t for me.” But a game like J.S. Joust feels more like a playground game or sport than it does a traditional computer game. Most people can relate to that.

RPS: What are your feelings on the IGF this year? Pleased to be nominated? Impressed by the other finalists? Anything you worry has been overlooked?

We’re humbled and honored! We had hoped that we might make the Nuovo category or something, but we didn’t think Seumas McNally would be in the cards. Wow.

I also want to add that I’m very proud of the Where is my Heart team. I didn’t work on the game 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.

There are several games that I wish could have made IGF too. Ramiro Corbetta’s Hokra (unreleased) is a wonderful 2v2 sports game – a kind of Nintendo Ice Hockey for the 21st century. And then there’s Zach Gage’s and Kurt Bieg’s Scoundrel (also unreleased), which is, without exaggeration, my favorite game on iOS.

More generally, I think it’s silly that theres no Best Writing/Story award at IGF. We celebrate graphics, sound, code, design, but not the written word or the craft of storytelling. On this point, I’d also love to see indies take Interactive Fiction more seriously.

RPS: Which game (other than your own) would you like to see take the Grand Prize this year?

Of all the IGF-nominated games this year, my favorite two games are Proteus and GIRP. I’ve written a little about both games, here. Proteus especially is one of the most genuinely moving games I’ve ever played. It’s mad that the game wasn’t nominated for Excellence in Audio. David Kanaga’s dynamic soundtrack is truly stunning. Oh well, at least it got the Nuovo nod. And GIRP I like so much that I even built an installation piece around it last year.

Of the other four Grand Prize finalists, I’ll be rooting for Dear Esther. Dan Pinchbeck is a close academic colleague of mine, and I’ve actually been quite inspired by his work. A few months ago I finished a dissertation chapter about J.S. Joust in which I cite Dear Esther. So, it’s rather crazy to be nominated along with him for Seumas McNally! People might not realize it at first, but J.S. Joust shares a lot of similarities with Dear Esther (and also Proteus), at least design philosophically. Both games are what I would call deliberately “low process intensive.”

RPS: How do you feel about the indie scene of late? What would you like to see from it in the near-future?

In general, I find the whole indie scene tremendously exciting! It’s quite literally changed my life. Over the past few years, I’ve met so, so many wonderful game people – here in Scandinavia, or at game conferences, or also over the Internet. My life is immeasurably richer for it. Maybe that sounds cheesy to you, but it’s the truth.

More than anything, I’m excited about all the localized gaming events and “scenes” that are popping up around the world. Some examples include New York City’s Babycastles indie arcade, the Prince of Arcade exhibition in Montreal, Dirty Rectangles meetups in Ottawa, the No More Sweden game jam in Scandinavia, London’s Wild Rumpus parties… and the list goes on. In short, game collectives, artists, and passionate indies around the world aremaking things happen. The cultural ramifications are big.

This also means that there are 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. As such, I hope more indies get interested in installation art, and that more artists get interested in indie games. Some of my favorite game makers – for example,Matt Parker and Kaho Abe of New York City’s Eyebeam center – are doing just that.

RPS: And how does the future look for you, both in terms of this game and other projects?

The future of J.S. Joust is very unclear. There are lots of opportunities, but also lots of challenges. We’re still trying to figure it out.

Meanwhile, we’re gearing up to begin production on Mutazione, an action-adventure game that Nils has been concept-ing for a long time now. I’m eager to get that project off the ground.

I’m also always working on new physical/installation games. Besides J.S. Joust, I’ve been working on a number of other PlayStation Move games. Perhaps the most interesting one is Beacons of Hope, which I’m working on together with David Kanaga (as mentioned above). It’s a no-graphics horror game for ~15 people, played in a large pitch black room. You can read more about it here. I’m very, very excited about it.

RPS: If you could talk to the monsters in Doom, what would you ask them?

I’d love to know what they think about Dangerous Dave in Copyright Infringement.

RPS: Thanks for your time.

Johann Sebastian Joust will be released at some point in the future. Let’s hope Doug brings it to PC too. The full list of IGF 2012 finalists is here, and keep an eye on RPS for more interviews over the coming days and weeks.

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