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Johann Sebastian Joust turns motion control into slapstick comedy
November 21, 2012 | By Simon Carless

November 21, 2012 | By Simon Carless
More: Indie, Design, Video, GDC China

The fun part of making motion-controlled video games isn't making your players feel like virtual heroes -- it's about getting other people to laugh at the players' expense.

In a GDC China talk, Die Gute Fabrik lead game designer and researcher Douglas Wilson explained the history of Game Developers Choice Innovation Award winner Johann Sebastian Joust, suggesting motion control is "the slapstick comedy of games."

Wilson showed an early Harry Potter-inspired predecessor for the unofficial multiplayer PlayStation Move party game, Face-Off In The Magic Circle, using the Wiimote. Players could cast offensive and defensive spells, with gestural controls - and complex combos making spells like Fire Ball, Death, and other more complex charms.

But the prototype was "in the end not very fun," and one big problem was that there were too many spells to memorize. In addition, actually working out gesture recognition was extremely complex, thanks to movements being made in 3D space.

Lastly, "the stupid little pre-defined gestures don't feel very wizard-ly" - versus casting magic in Harry Potter, which is very fluid and natural looking. So the lesson, according to Wilson? "We had focused too much on the game system… instead of starting on what's fun to do in the physical world, and making a game out of it."

The second iteration of the game was called Tryl, which simplified things. Offensive magic was made by big Wiimote movements, defensive magic was small movements, and speedy magic is much more jerky movements - and magic can be fired from player to player.

There was an associated screen with avatars and health bars, and you could look at the screen when you wanted. Once again, there were flaws - people didn't know which screen to look at, and in fact, it was even more awkward. Wilson lamented: "The idea sounded really great on paper… but really wasn't that fun."

Enter Johann Sebastian Joust

Having learned from B.U.T.T.O.N., a much simpler multiplayer title that gives you instruction via your computer that ended up being much more pure fun, Wilson came back to the motion control concept with Johann Sebastian Joust.

A key design principle for Joust is that people can and do look ridiculous when playing. Wilson showed a picture of PlayStation mascot Kevin Butler promoting PlayStation Move by majestically miming a crossbow, and suggested that this kind of extreme heroic fidelity isn't really where the fun lies.

In fact, he suggests that motion control is "the slapstick comedy of games" - and posits that the point for him is not about getting the player really immersed in the virtual world, but getting them immersed in the physical world, and "having people laugh at their expense." And it's the fun of playing in the same room with other people that really makes things tick.

Wilson is currently raising money for an official PlayStation 3 (and subsequent PC) version of Johann Sebastian Joust via Kickstarter, twinning it with other excellent indie multiplayer titles such as Hokra and Bennett Foddy's Super Pole Riders - and hopes that will be a way to further get its quirky physicality out to everyone.

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Ronaldo Fernandes
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Motion controls can work pretty well in specific situations when they actually fit better in the game than traditional controls. Wii Sports demonstrated that years ago. The problem is that most game designers didn't tried to create their experiences around this kind of controls. In most cases, they just forced them over a game design that was not created to use them, which explain the rather weak results.

It is curious though that some people feels more comfortable in mocking something that haven't mastered instead of placing more effort on it or, at least, accept the defeat and admit they are not just ready to this kind of stuff.

David Holmin
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Agreed. The best application of the Wiimote for games was using it as a pointer in games like Sin & Punishment 2. Games like Skyward Sword would actually work better with buttons and a stick, in my opinion.

Wii U interests me more, because its gimmick is non-intrusive (there are still buttons) and has several nice side effects like being able to play anywhere in the apartment, and browsing the web comfortably on the TV.

Jim Anderson
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Douglass Wilson is definitely on to something when he says that motion control is the slapstick of games. I had a chance to play J.S.J. during Pax this year, and it was a total hoot. Everyone looked completely silly playing the game, but we all had enormous grins on our faces the entire time. This is especially telling when you contrast it with the partially puzzled/partially frustrated expressions you see on folks playing "serious" motion control games.