GDC indie: "Motion control is the slapstick comedy of computer games"

Johann Sebastian Joust creator says we should embrace the limitations of the tech rather than fight them.

Kicking off the independent games summit of this year's Game Developers Conference in San Francisco, Douglas Wilson - who makes experimental motion games like indie darling Johann Sebastian Joust - explained that he saw motion control as "the slapstick comedy of computer games".

"It's an excuse, or an alibi, for the players to look like a**holes and make everyone in the room laugh," he said. He also acknowledged that "all these technologies kind of suck", and that developers should "accept these limitations and embrace them, rather than trying to fight latency," for example.

Douglas Wilson is the co-founder of Die Gute Fabrik, the Copenhagen games studio responsible for Where Is My Heart? for PSN Minis. Johann Sebastian Joust is a game that uses PlayStation Move controllers, but no screen or graphics. It's not commercially available but has been going down a storm at indie gatherings like The Wild Rumpus.

The object of the game is to knock other players out by jostling their controllers, while protecting your own. While music by J.S. Bach plays slowed down, the controllers are very sensitive to motion and any jerk or quick movement will knock you out of the game. When the music speeds up, the controllers become less sensitive, giving players a window of opportunity to lunge at each other.

Wilson was inspired to make it by a Finnish party game in which blindfolded players who are only allowed to move in slow motion try to strike each other with spoons. "Moving in slow motion feels badass - and looks ridiculous," Wilson said. "You have fun and the spectators have fun. Moving in slow motion is f***ing sweet!"

Joust fits Wilson's vision of an electronically-enabled "folk game" - an "unserious, physical, popular sport" like Ninja. Folk games differ from sports or formal games because they often accept "house rules", rely on players themselves to enforce the rules, and centre on the "joy of subversion" or "playing the fool", he explained.

Wilson said that he thought the best Wii game was WarioWare: Smooth Moves, which requires players to hold the Wii remote in silly positions and perform ridiculous actions in its quick-fire micro-games. "The point of the game isn't to win or play well, it's to look like an a**hole," he said.

He's also a fan of the PlayStation Vita exclusive Frobisher Says - look out for a full Eurogamer review soon - and Fingle, an iPad game not unlike Twister played with your fingers. One Frobisher micro-game asks players to look away from the screen and then tempts them with ridiculous subliminal images. If you succumb and the Vita's camera senses the whites of your eyes, you lose.

"There's an aesthetic of imperfection here. The games are really messy, the technology is imperfect," Wilson said, speaking of his own games. "All these technologies kind of suck - it's precisely because they suck that they can be fun.

He recommended that developers - indies in particular, who wouldn't have the technological resources to implement four-player Kinect tracking as Ubisoft has in Just Dance, for example - work with the limitations of motion controllers rather than try to combat issues such as latency.

"The idea is not to use technology to improve games. You often hear rhetoric like 'enhancing the living room' or 'optimising play'. That's too optimistic - a game like Ninja is perfect, it doesn't need to be improved.

"I'm not interested in how technology can improve games, I'm interested in how games can improve technology. I actually kind of loathe this f***ing little smartphone," he said, waving his phone around. "I want to use games to improve it and do something more personal."

To that end, Die Gute Fabrik plans to make a series of smartphone games in the "folk game" mould called Spielplatz. They'll be "physical, but less aggressive" than Johann Sebastian Joust, and wouldn't necessarily require multiple devices: "A lot… could use one device that you pass around between lots of people."

We're going to attempt to check out Johann Sebastian Joust later in the week.

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