Johann Sebastian Joust: Making a video game without video

A pack of experimental PlayStation games is on the cusp of not being funded.
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Johann Sebastian Joust is a video game without video, is played with controllers almost no one has, and is best enjoyed in a giant room or outdoors with two to seven players. You could argue it's performance art; you could argue it's a sport. You could argue it's not even a video game.

Johann Sebastian Joust can't and shouldn't be condensed to a sentence. Or a paragraph. Or a feature on a website. The best way to understand Johann Sebastian Joust is to play it.

But that may never happen.

The game is a creation of Die Gute Fabrik, a collective of indie game designers based in Copenhagen, Denmark. I recently met with one of its members, Douglas Wilson, in a small Harlem apartment, to discuss the protracted path the team's taken to possibly release the game.

After two years of fruitless discussions with big name publishers, J.S. Joust's future now depends on a Kickstarter that, as of this writing, is five days and $74,000 from its goal. Wilson is unbelievably chill about it. "Let's start from the beginning," he says.

Life before shoving

Wilson, originally from New Jersey, has spent the past few years completing his PhD at IT University of Copenhagen.

He's not what you think of as an ivory tower game designer. His views on game design often skewer the traditional opinion of what constitutes a game. He relishes the absence of rules and subverting expectations.

It's a tough game that, when played at parties, I've seen do serious damage to furniture and egos.

One of his papers at the school praised deliberately open ended games, ones that left much of the rule making and enforcing to the player. Colleagues would ask Wilson how his games prevented cheating. Cheating, Wilson would respond, is the whole point. Sports, board games, anything in which there's no computer to adjudicate the rules, leaves room for human error, and for creativity. He wanted to bring that freedom to video games.

In 2010, Wilson and the freshly formed Die Gute Fabrik had established themselves as "physical" game designers with B.U.T.T.O.N. — Brutally Unfair Tactics Totally OK Now.

Johan Sebastian Joust
Johann Sebastian Joust

In B.U.T.T.O.N. up to eight players are told by an onscreen prompt to perform physical feats in the real world before pressing a button on an Xbox 360 controller. What happens during each round — kicking, climbing, unplugging controllers — is up to the players' discretion.

It's a tough game that, when played at parties, I've seen do serious damage to furniture and egos. It's also a lot of fun, like a rough and tumble playground exercise.

While talking about B.U.T.T.O.N., Wilson recalls another physical game, Dark Room Sex Game, which Wilson describes as "a crazy, no graphics, erotic rhythm game." He created it in 2008 with the Copenhagen Game Collective. The team found that, by getting rid of the television screen, players began looking at each other.

"That feels special somehow," Wilson says.

It's fun to push

In early 2011, Die Gute Fabrik attended the Nordic Game Jam with a bundle of Wiimotes and a seed of an idea: to make physical game without a screen, like Dark Room Sex Game — only this time it would be accessible to everyone.

The team needed a physical hook, something that was fun to do without a game. For B.U.T.T.O.N. that hook was pushing people.

The inspiration for this new game came from friends of friends in Denmark who had created a game called Liste Lanser, translated roughly as Sneaky Lance. To play Sneaky Lance, two people are blindfolded and handed spoons. The first person to hit their competitor wins. To prevent the game from simply being two blindfolded people destroying a room with wooden spoons, both players are required to move in super slow motion.

Wilson and his friends would play Sneaky Lance with thumping bass and a crowd of cheering onlookers. Wilson says that when playing, "you feel super bad ass because you can't see anything. You feel like you're in an action movie. Of course you look like a complete idiot. So everyone at the party is having fun."

For Joust, the team liked the idea of slow motion. The sensation of feeling like a bad ass action movie star.

The initial idea was a slow-motion racing game. Three players holding Wiimotes would try to be the first to reach the fourth Wiimote. The catch: their controllers would be sensitive to acceleration. If the player moved too quickly the Wiimote would "explode" and the player would be out of the game. To mix up the pace, the Wiimotes' sensitivity correlated to the game's soundtrack. When the music played quickly, the controller was less sensitive; for slow music it was more sensitive.

Wilson remembers the exact moment the team had the epiphany to make Joust what it is today. "Nils Deneken (the founder of Die Gute Fabrik) and I were testing the controllers' sensitivity. We were kind of walking towards each other. Both of us hatched this idea at the same time: I'm totally going to push him and make his explosion happen. At the same time, we kind of smiled, and then pushed each other.

"I kind of imagined when we do this racing game of course there'd be some pushing and shoving. After that moment, we broke down laughing, and I was like, 'Oh, I get it. What we actually want to do is have some sort of antagonistic [dynamic]. To try to hit the other person's controller.'"

Johann Sebastian Joust

Explaining Joust

Johann Sebastian JoustJohann Sebastian Joust

For me, Johann Sebastian Joust is a game of slow-motion samurai film.

In a typical game, each player holds a motion controller, which they must protect from other players.

Most of the game is set to the slow, digital soundtrack of Johann Sebastian Bach's Brandenburg Concertos (the inspiration for the title). The controllers are extra sensitive, so a skilled player tends to use this time to position him or herself. The game is graceful, like a dance, everyone moving in time with one another.

When the music speeds up, the sensitivity of the controller decreases, affording players an opportunity to strike with a fast blow.

People push, kick, charge, smack, and ram to hit other players' motion controllers hard enough that they "explode." Some players cheat. In one game, I saw a player walk far from the circle of players, hide his controller safely on the ground, then run into the fray, pushing and thwacking every player he could.

Transitioning from slow-motion to regular speed somehow makes regular speed feel ultra-fast. As with Sneaky Lance, you feel like a bad ass playing Joust. And like Sneaky Lance, you look like a crazy person to everyone on the sidelines.

Why it works

Douglas Wilson has the ideal physical build for playing Joust. He's very tall and lanky. When he plays, one arm holds the Move controller a foot above the other players, while the other arm slaps about like an exhausted slinky.

When he's feeling confident — most of the time; he invented the game after all — Wilson dangles the Move controller from the wrist strap. The vulnerable, glowing ball hangs over other players like a worm over baby birds. Wilson clearly enjoys teasing them.

There's something about antagonism and danger that Wilson loves about physical games. It really is like an athletic sport.

"Getting rid of the screen is huge," Wilson says. "I think people often see people with controllers in front of a screen and they go, 'OK, video games, that's not for me. Because I have some sort of preconception about what a video game is and who plays video games.' Which is really unfortunate, because I believe everyone could enjoy them. But unfortunately there are those cultural stigmas. But when you get rid of the screen, it doesn't look like a traditional video game."

Even without the screen, the game was lacking something that would attract new players.

Johann Sebastian Joust
Johann Sebastian Joust

Wilson saw the potential of Joust the first time he tested an updated version design for the PlayStation Move controller in public. The Move controller looks like a cross between an ice cream cone and a marital aid. It has a hard plastic black shaft topped with a semi-translucent plastic ball that glows and changes color.

The glowing ball is seductive. Played in public it draws people like a candle draws bugs. But it also served a practical purpose, turning red to show when a player was knocked out.

It was a Thursday July night in Copenhagen. The streets were filled with people attending a local music festival. Wilson and his colleagues grabbed a car battery, a speaker, a laptop and the Move controllers and set up in the middle of the street.

A flock of people formed a circle quickly. They weren't passersby. They were men and women. Old people and young people.

"It was crazy," says Wilson. "We were getting beyond the typical gamer demographic. I think that's because it looked more like a sport or a playground game that just happened to use these weird glowing lights."

Johann Sebastian Joust

Selling a crazy idea

Johann Sebastian JoustDouglas Wilson

"The plan was never like, 'Haha, I have this amazing game and we will monetize this and make a ton of money,'" says Wilson. "I couldn't work on it full time because I only finished my PhD in May. This was a side project while I was finishing my PhD."

With the time he could spare, he submitted to festivals, first Indiecade and then the 2012 Independent Games Festival where it won the Innovation Award, beating out Portal 2 and L.A. Noire.

"It was almost unbelievable," he said. "It was like, 'OK, I guess we have something real on our hands. Let's do something with it.'"

Wilson says he isn't an expert programmer. He needs funding to pay experienced programmers to help him complete the game.

By the IGF, he had begun talking to publishers. Some deals sounded promising, and he spent a lot of time chasing funding and negotiating possible contracts. In the end, the game was in Wilson's words, "too weird." For one, the game didn't have a single-player mode. Or online play. Or a screen.

A publisher never panned out. Wilson and Die Gute Fabrik needed to self fund the release if they ever wanted to see it on a video game console.

But J.S. Joust didn't seem like enough on its own.

"At some point, it's an economy of scale thing," says Wilson. "It's not going to make sense for me just to do Joust for console." Wilson knew a lot of game designers from the various festivals from Copenhagen to San Francisco to New York City. NYU's No Quarter in particular had introduced him to designers specializing in local multiplayer games.

He'd been playing Hokra, a local multiplayer game/sport designed by Ramiro Corbetta, the owner of the apartment in Harlem in which our interview took place. Corbetta is tall and thin like Wilson, but has an uncanny sense of optimism.

The two began talking about how to release their non-traditional games and decided a package was ideal. Joust, Hokra and a handful of other games by friends and colleagues would be bundled together under the title Sportsfriends.

Wilson says the title is meant to evoke the old multiplayer sports titles from the NES days, back when friends would get in heated competitive matches of jamming their controller pads to nubs.

Johann Sebastian Joust
Johann Sebastian Joust

Sony's Pub Fund agreed to help them publish Sportsfriends on the PS3 if the devs could wrangle funds on their own. (Sony has plenty to gain from Joust — the game requires multiple PlayStation Move controllers, for instance, which have been all but forgotten by consumers.)

Like so many other indie game developers, the Sportsfriends team then turned to Kickstarter. Wilson says Sportsfriends needs at least $150,000, telling me that's how much he needs to pay the programmers. "Some people do this bullshit thing on Kickstarter," says Wilson, "where they ask for less and hope it explodes. For us, it was like, 'No, we need to ask for the minimum amount we'll need to do this project.'"

They'll get an advance on sales once they deliver the game to Sony. That means they get the money after finishing, a problem for paying programmers to complete the game.

"We won't get rich off this idea," says Wilson. "It's a passion project."

Moving on

"It's a struggle being an indie," he says. "Luckily in Denmark PhD students are paid pretty well." He actually saved up money. He says he'll probably do some contract jobs and teaching on the side. He just moved back to NYC.

Wilson's now working on Mutazione with Deneken, his fellow member of Die Gute Fabrik. It's the opposite of Joust. A story based single-player adventure game. The irony of Joust is he made a no-graphics game with his collaborator who's an illustrator.

He seems ready to have Joust out the door, to focus on other things.

I ask Wilson if it was difficult going from winning the Innovation Award at the IGF to struggling to cement a publishing deal.

"It sucked," he says. "The past few months really sucked. But it's been really great to work with Ramiro (Corbetta), Bennett (Foddy) and Noah (Sasso) [the other creators of Sportsfriends]. It's been like, 'Let's turn this shitty situation into something I'm genuinely excited about.' I'm not going to throw in the towel."

Coordinating the Kickstarter with the designers and Sony has been taking up most of his time.

"I've reached this really zen point. No matter how it goes I'm really proud of the effort. I think it's the right idea. It's an idea I'm really proud of. To at least try to do something with these other three guys. Here's my best effort. Here's what I think is really cool. Let's see if it resonates." Babykayak

Image credits: Douglas Wilson, Jeriaska, IndieCade flickr account, GDC flickr account

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