"Like Working In A Band"
Interview with Douglas Wilson

Today I’m talking to Douglas Wilson, the creator of Johann Sebastian Joust and possibly the single biggest driving force behind the sales of PS Move controllers. (At least I bought four of them just to play his game.)

Our generation grew up on games that you could play with 2-4 players in front of a home computer. Playing together in a physical space is a very important part of almost all games you worked on. Do you see a Renaissance of local multiplayer games?

Yes, definitely, at least in the indie scene. You see game collectives around the world (like Babycastles in New York City, Wild Rumpus in London, Dirty Rectangles in Ottawa … the list goes on) throwing events and bringing people together to play installation games and local multiplayer games. My own party game B.U.T.T.O.N. was made specifically for the GAMMA IV exhibition in 2010. There are more opportunities than ever to show such games.

The PC and PS3 versions of Sportsfriends were funded on Kickstarter just two months before the PS4 was announced. What are your thoughts on releasing the compilation at the end of the console’s life cycle?

More than anything, Sportsfriends is a passion project. It’s not primarily a commercial venture, though certainly we hope to make enough money to cover our hard work! Porting the games to PlayStation 3 is an opportunity to get the games on a console, which we think is the right “environment” for the games. Putting the games on a console will help us get them to a wider audience. It would be great to release Sportsfriends on the PS4 as well – we’re still looking into that.

You have been critical of the traditional use of motion controls that focuses on increasing the level of immersion. In your own work you often try to make players look at each other and away from the screen. Why do you think there is so little – for the lack of a better term – innovation in motion controlled games?

I don’t think it’s impossible to use motion control to aid immersion in a virtual world. I just think it’s a difficult path, and it certainly isn’t the only path. There’s a more under-discussed approach, which is using motion control as a kind of slapstick comedy. That’s the approach I’m most interested in, at least. There are a number of commercial games that do this very well, like Dance Dance Revolution, Wario Ware: Smooth Moves, and Kinect Party. But because of all the sci-fi imagery around the idea of virtual reality I think consumers often expect a more traditionally “immersive” experience from new technologies. Sigh!

In addition, making motion control games requires a whole way of thinking about game design. At least personally, I found that I needed years of playing with physical games before I really understood the genre in a deep way. I had to “unlearn” a bunch of traditional design wisdom.

Your studio Die Gute Fabrik works on multiple titles simultaneously that are very different in nature and scope. How do you decide which projects to work on and how to prioritize them?

More often than not, our games start from the “vision” of one person. For example, Where is my Heart is the brainchild of our collaborator Bernhard Schulenburg. Mutazione is a project Nils Deneken (my co-owner) has been wanting to make for years. And Johann Sebastian Joust is very much my project, and speaks to my interest in physical games. I guess you could say that each game has a “project owner”. The rest of us then try to help that person bring their vision to life. For example, Nils helped me with the design of J.S. Joust, and I’m helping him with programming, design, and production on Mutazione.

Balancing all these projects has been a challenge, and is something I’m still learning how to manage!

Die Gute Fabrik was initially founded by Nils Deneken. How did you decide to become a partner? I met Nils at IndieCade 2008 (he was showing Rückblende, I was showing Dark Room Sex Game). I learned he lived in Copenhagen (like me), so we stayed in touch and started hanging out. We worked on some game jam projects together, and later we worked together on B.U.T.T.O.N. As I was finishing my PhD, I had to decide whether I wanted to stay in academia or go full-time indie. Nils asked if I wanted to work with him. You don’t say no to somebody as talented as Nils!

You have worked together with many different people on different projects. In a way it reminds me of a musician who’s working together with other musicians, sometimes being the lead, sometimes contributing. What do you feel is most important when collaborating?

I think your comparison to music is spot-on. I definitely think of collaboration like working in a band. All the instruments have to come together in a synergistic way, and there has to be enough trust between the band members. If that trust breaks down, the whole project falls apart so quickly. Also, it’s important that each person brings something valuable to the team. “Dead weight” (so to speak) isn’t just inefficient, it also can interfere with team morale.

You made a game called Tower No Tumble for the Sifteo platform. What was your experience working for a relatively small platform that has not yet been adopted widely?

It was an interesting job, but also quite difficult! I think we did a good job, but it takes multiple projects in order to deeply understand the design principles of a new platform. I mean, it took me years playing around with Wiimotes and PS Move controllers before I really “got” motion control games. Physical games are particularly challenging because you need to convince the players to help you “referee” the game in the physical world. For example, in Tower No Tumble we had to explain to the players how and when they needed to build a tower out of the cubes.

Some of your projects heavily rely on open source software for the technical groundwork. How do you feel about the idea of open source within the game developer community?

Open source software has been crucially important for me! Eventually I’d like to open source J.S. Joust and some of my other games, or at least some of my tools. I’ve already open sourced my Unity bindings for the PS Move API, and I’d like to share more. But maintaining those projects is definitely time-consuming.

You recently moved back to NYC after living in Copenhagen for several years. Can you talk a bit about the differences you see between the two, living and working as an independent game maker?

It’s certainly busier here in NYC, which is both good and bad. It’s good because there is so much going on, and so many talented games people here. So many of my favorite game designers live in NYC! It’s not such a traditional development hub like Seattle or San Francisco, but as a result many of the developers here have had to make their own way. There’s a lot of cross-pollination with other cultural spheres like art and music, which I think is wonderful. And there are a number of universities and arts organizations (Babycastles, Eyebeam, NYU Game Center, Parsons) that give out artist grants or organize events.

But it’s brutally expensive here, especially since I have to pay for my own healthcare (unlike in Copenhagen). It’s almost too busy here. It’s been hard to find a tight-knit group of colleagues and spend quality “slow” time with them. Everyone just has so much going on! As someone who thrives working collaboratively, I’m having trouble adjusting. We’ll see if I can make my way here. There are certainly other appealing videogame hubs in the States.

Also, I should mention that there are just so many more funding opportunities in Scandinavia. In fact, part of our company is still based in Denmark, and we’ve been working on Mutazione with generous grants from Nordic Game and the Danish Film Institute. Without that support, I couldn’t be full-time indie right now.

Everyone who follows you on Twitter knows that you’re very passionate about music. Are you interested in working on a game where music is at the center of the play experience?

Yeah! I’ve been working on the ambient sound engine for Mutazione, which is heavily music-based and features the music of Alessandro Coronas. In the game, you tend to these gardens where you grow a variety of plants. Each species of plant makes ambient music from a particular instrument or texture. Essentially, it’s a kind of generate-your-own Brian Eno’s Music For Airports. It’s one component in a larger adventure game.

And, I should point out, Johann Sebastian Joust already is a game where music is at the center of the play experience! The J.S. Bach music (selections from the Brandenburg Concertos) are absolutely key to the “identity” of that game.

Looking at the independent games scene today, what are you most excited about?

Hard to choose just one thing! I’m excited to see more cross-pollination between videogames and the contemporary art world, as I think both spheres have a lot to learn from each other. Just this past March, I got to show Mutazione at a small exhibition at SFMOMA, which was obviously a huge honor. It seems like museums and galleries are increasingly interested in videogames these days. For example, there’s currently a great exhibition at the Museum of Design Atlanta celebrating “alternative voices in game design.” More importantly than the museums themselves, it seems like more contemporary artists are “discovering” games and the world of independent games. This kind of cross-pollination will help bring a broader diversity of creators and collaborators, which is certainly exciting!