J S Joust, BaraBariBall, Super Pole Riders and Hokra make up the cosmology that is Sportsfriends. Local competitive multiplayer in a suite of flavors has been showing around the world highlighting some of what has been lost in the past decade of gaming. J S Joust creator and Douglas Wilson joins us along with BaraBariBall creator Noah Sasso to talk about their fictitious sports and the independent game scene.
SportsFriends is a game anthology featuring a suite of fictional games designed all around the central idea of local competitive multiplayer. Douglas Wilson is responsible for Johann Sebastian Joust, which I would argue is the most popular game in the bunch. J S Joust has been touring around the world for a couple years now and if you hang out in the indie space I am sure you’ve seen a gaggle of flannel clad nerds running around with Playstation Move controllers to the tune of… well… Johann Sebastian Bach. If you are unfamiliar with J S Joust, I would highly recommend you click this link and, as they say, get yourself cultured. BaraBariBall is an asymmetrical fighter created by Noah Sasso. BaraBariBall feels like a mix of old school NES sports titles with the finesse and skill ceiling of venerated Super Smash Brothers Melee. BaraBariBall is that good. The bundle also includes the wonderful talent of Bennett Foddy of QWOP and GIRP fame and his game Super Pole Riders, as well as Ramiro Corbetta’s extremely satisfying and reductively designed Hokra.
Let’s back up a moment. What is interesting about all four of these games is how and why they were made. It may surprise you to know that J S Joust wasn’t originally planned to be a part of Sportsfriends, it was only till much later and no publishers taking interest to it that he then added it to the Sportsfriends. Douglas Wilson originally made J S Joust for the Nordic Game Jam in 2011. He also exhibited the game at Babycastles an Independent Game Arcade in NYC which features various indie games in a proper old school arcade setting. Sounds like heaven.
Anyhow, while in NYC for a Babycastles Exhibition Douglas learned that Bennett Foddy, creator of QWOP and GIRP, was in NYC giving a lecture. Douglas a longtime fan and collaborator of Bennett invited him to curate the exhibition with him. During that Exhibition is when Pole Riders was show to Douglas. Pole Riders, as you may have already guessed, later becomes SUPER Pole Riders and is one of the four friends. Also in 2011 NYU Game Center hosts their annual independent game exhibition “No Quarter” and commissioned designer Romiro Corbetta to make Hokra. The following year at the 2012 NYU Game Center hosted No Quarter, Noah Sasso is commissioned to make his game BaraBariBall.
Why is all this important? Well it could be said that each of these games exists solely because of various exhibitions either offering straight up commission based work or social opportunities for these designers. That is so fundamentally awesome that I couldn’t help but raise the issue. Games are Art, obviously, and this is how we benefit from that omission. Through the actions of institutes like Babycastles, or NYU’s No Quarter, or things like The Wild Rumpus we as players get to enjoy styles of games that have fallen out of commercial favor.
Think about how hard it is today to find excellent local competitive multiplayer games these days. The days of Golden Eye and fist fights have long been over. “That’s the great and the difficult thing about Sportsfriends. That is one of the motivations to bring these things together. All that local play is great, it’s rare because people used to the internet now…” agreed Noah. This motivation is one part of it, but how they are designed is the other key component. Douglas explains, “… it means something really different to design a game from the ground up for local multiplayer, which all four Sports Friends have been.” His argument is that most commercial games are built around a single player experience with a tacked on multiplayer mode to add longevity.
“Independent game development all happens in a social context. You are motivated by what you see is possible and what your peers are doing.”
Why now? Why does it feel like Sportsfriends is part of a litany of games looking to get back into this physical space of local competitive gaming. Recently we have all seen the party making monster that is Towerfall or the crowd shouting Samurai Gun make waves. Douglas put it best, “Independent game development all happens in a social context. You are motivated by what you see is possible and what your peers are doing. You know where there are opportunities. That’s not even necessarily commercial (opportunities).” So on one side you have various developers making headway back to this style. Peers are constantly watching each other, so they see the movement and wish to iterate on the idea, or simple join in on the fun. Then on the other side we have larger institutions providing the physical space for these games to be played. IGF, IndieCade, No Quarter, Babycastles, The Wild Rumpus, even PAX and The Indie Megabooth, “Deserve a lot of credit for creating a lot of incentive. Incentive is too clinical of a word, it’s creating the imaginative possibility,” stated Douglas. “As well as even creating a physical place for this to exist…” added Noah. It’s hard to disagree.
What ultimately impresses me with Sportsfriends is how the development has been structured. Douglas has been the main producer on the project, communicating between all designers like Noah and their respective teams. This structure is something we have seen elsewhere (Boston’s IGC) and look at it as a model moving forward. Douglas is skeptical,
“Is this a sustainable way for working and can you make a career out of this? Sportsfriends is a passion project not a commercial venture… Luckily the only reason we can do this is because of the KickStarter supporters. None of us see any of that KickStarter money, we have a Sony pub-fund that is making it feasible for us to complete this, but none of us are going to get rich off of this game.”
He did admit that this has been a long production and he is beginning to be worn down by it. But his concerns are valid. The ability to be more agile is an extreme benefit, 1but indies suffer from a lack of other benefits like ^the lack of a steady income. This is where we are beginning to see new publisher spring up like Devolver, who I joking called ‘god’s amongst men.’ Noah went on from there,
“I think it’s fair to call them god’s amongst men. It’s actually something people have been predicting for a while, this kind of game production becoming more similar to say movie production. You will have teams assemble for a project then disassemble after the project’s completion and then disperse and join up with other projects. The part that people didn’t predict was the crowd funding revenue streams.”
I don’t think anyone else predicted the role that game exhibitions would play but we can now look back and trace the lines that lead up to SportsFriends. SportsFriends is due out on PS3 this fall with a following release to Mac and PC. You can keep up to date with the Sportsfriends blog, or follow Douglas and Noah on twitter.