Die Gute Fabrik
Johann Sebastian Joust leads Kickstarter-funded indie game supergroup to PS3
Johann Sebastian Joust has been one of the stars of the indie game circuit for a long time, and the motion-sensing game made a huge splash at PAX Prime this year. Games like Hokra, BaraBariBall, and Pole Riders have also been hits at festivals and trade shows. These four games are teaming up to create a sort of all-star package of locally played competitive games called Sportsfriends, and as a single product this could bring people together and re-energize couch-based multiplayer. In terms of indie games, it’s hard to find titles with more respect.
This is interesting news, but the real shock is the home of Sportsfriends: these games will be released as a single package on the PlayStation Network first, supported by Sony’s Pub Fund, and the team is trying to raise $150,000 via Kickstarter to polish the games up to the level expected of a console release. Should they succeed, the gaming equivalent of art films will be available to console gamers for one price, and one of the most long-awaited indie games will finally be available to a wide audience. Are you ready for an official, Sony-released version of J.S. Joust?
How this happened
“This is like a 21st century reincarnation of Summer Games. This is like an indie Wii Sports. I really think these games share the same spirit, because the four of us have been part of the same scene and have influenced each other,” Joust creator Douglas Wilson told the Penny Arcade Report.
The Kickstarter amount may be high, but it’s important that the games be released with the proper care and support. “$150,000 is a lot to ask for, but it’s also kind of responsible. We need to be reasonably sure we can actually do the thing,” Wilson explained. Sony’s Pub Fund gives developers an advance on sales, and that isn’t paid until the game is delivered. The money raised via Kickstarter will allow the creators of these four titles to hire dedicated coders to polish the experience and package them into a single “game” with menus and options that people expect from a premium console release.
“Console coding is nuts,” Wilson said. “It’s beyond the four of us. Immediately we need expert programmers, and that’s where most of the cost is coming from.” All the games were created with different tools and technologies, so making sure they all work well together on a console is a big job. Wilson also has to lick the problem of syncing Move controllers to Mac systems, and possibly Windows PCs, after the PS3 version is released.
Joust works well on Macs right now, but the utility used to link the Move controllers to the system operates with what seems like virtual rubber bands and prayers: You often have to kick it a bit to get things working. These issues are fine for underground games played by tech-savvy fans and developers, but Sportsfriends wants to be an inviting product for everyone. That takes time, money, and expertise.
The team also needs to hire graphic design help for the menus and to make certain aspects of the games presentable; right now options for Joust are handled by editing a text file. Again, this is fine for enthusiasts, but it won’t work for a general audience. All the games will be polished for the console, with Wilson working as a producer on the entire project.
Releasing on a console first is a big deal, especially for games focused on playing with people all on the same couch. Local multiplayer games are tricky in many ways, especially since these games were designed to work on the PC or Mac. It can be hard to collect multiple PC or Mac-compatible controllers and then use TV out to play the game. The PS3 erases these problems, as anyone can find friends with controllers, invite them all, and play on a nice big HDTV. If you want to play Joust in a larger area than your living room you can merely bring your system to a larger room and use speakers. If you want to wait for the Mac version, the money given to the Kickstarter campaign will make sure it’s a smoother experience than the existing builds floating around the indie community and press.
A collection of indie games like this has never been done on a console, and certainly not with funding done with Kickstarter. “I think it’s an interesting thing. If it does totally fail because it’s just too weird, they’ll know that before we get into the heart of it… The whole Kickstarter thing allows [Sony] to take this crazy risk on these weird-ass games,” Wilson explained.
An experiment for Sony
Sony will be issuing PSN codes for backers of the Kickstarter, allowing you to treat your funding as a pre-order of the game. You don’t need to worry about the quality of the games themselves; the press has played these games extensively and they’re all very good. This allows you to support the creators in order for the games to be made better, and be giving a large stage in front of gamers. It’s surreal to think a game as well respected, but odd, as Hokra will be available as part of a package with these other amazing games on a mainstream console.
I spoke with Adam Boyes from Sony’s Pub Fund about the project. “This is something we’ve never tried before, and we’re interested in trying all sorts of experiments,” he said. They’ve been in talked with Wilson for a long time about bringing the game to the PS3, but it’s a hard sell in many ways, and it’s not easy to describe to people who have never played it. “The elevator pitch for Joust is pretty hard, right? It’s seven people in a parking lot with a laptop,” Boyes said.
All of these games are hard to describe, but there’s no risk for either Sony or the game’s creators with the Kickstarter in place. If people back the project they get to play four amazing games on the PlayStation 3, and later the Mac and possibly PC. If the interest isn’t there, neither the indie developers or Sony lose money on the deal.
I asked if there was some nervousness from Sony Corporate about helping to release a game that uses the Move controllers on non-Sony hardware. How are they going to feel when people can use their Move controllers on other systems in a polished, easy to manage way?
“If you look at Move.me there are many different skunkworks projects out there where people utilize the hardware. When it comes down to the core, we just love good game experiences, so starting on our platform makes a ton of sense. We’ve seen Doug run it at different trade events, and I was at PAX when there were I think 250 people playing in that big tournament. We don’t get offended if it’s running on a PC or Mac. That’s a great thing about Pub Fund. It comes out on PS3 first, but after that they all own their own stuff and they can take it wherever they want.”
This is a grand experiment
Sportsfriends will be self-published, so everyone involved will own the rights to their work. These games work well with controllers, if not outright require them, so finding a console home will make them accessible for a wide audience who may have stacks of PC or Mac-compatible game pads. These games have been hits on the indie circuit for a long time, building awareness with fans and gaining fans in the gaming press; these aren’t titles with a vague idea and a few screenshots. In many ways this is like a band that has been playing in small clubs to gain legitimacy moving into an arena, and it’s just a matter of raising a money for the necessary equipment.
I may have stretched that simile to the breaking point, but this is a promising Kickstarter campaign. These games deserve success, and giving the creators the tools and resources needed to polish the experience to the level of a console release will benefit anyone who buys any of the games on a later platform. I’ve taken Joust to parties and had people throwing money at me trying to buy an early build. This is a way to finally give cash and support to these titles, and for them to see a wide release on Sony’s console.
Each of these games is designed to be played with friends in the same room, which is a wonderful thing that’s lacking in most modern games. “The reason I’m doing this is because I’m a huge fan of the other three friends,” Wilson said. “This is a passion project for us.” I asked what would happen were the Kickstarter take off in a major way, and Wilson said that they’d be ecstatic to simply hit their goal. “There’s been some talk of a Dodgeball game,” he finally admitted when I pushed him on it. “I think Dodgeball is fucking sweet.”