In preparation for the NYU Game Center’s PRACTICE conference, we are publishing long-form interviews with some of the amazing designers that will be speaking at the event.

The PRACTICE: Game Design in Detail conference runs on November 9-11 2012. PRACTICE

In this first interview, MFA student Ilya Zarembsky interviews game designer Doug Wilson. Doug Wilson is a Lead Game Designer and Partner at Die Gute Fabrik, a small indie games studio based in Copenhagen, Denmark. He is currently working on a number of game projects including Johann Sebastian Joust, which received the Innovation Award at the 2012 Game Developers Choice Awards. Doug recently finished a PhD dissertation at IT University of Copenhagen, where he wrote about designing games that embrace an aesthetic of confrontation, silliness, and brokenness. His work has been shown around the world, in venues such as the Independent Games Festival, IndieCade, Babycastles, and the Museum of Modern Art.

Ilya Zarembsky:  You’ve written about how “broken” games with unenforceable rules can foster a spirit of togetherness and allow for more creative play. At the same time, all of your games do enforce a rule or three — the button presses in B.U.T.T.O.N., the movement speed restrictions in Joust and Beacons of Hope, etc. Can you talk about finding the boundary between purposeful brokenness and excessive amorphousness? How do you decide which rules do need to be non-negotiable?

Doug Wilson: Good question! I wrote about this in my PhD dissertation (see Chapter 5) in regards to a somewhat less successful broken game I designed. This is certainly a tricky issue, and I don’t think there are any easy prescriptions. At heart here is a motivational challenge – how do you successfully coax the players into embracing a spirit of improvisation? This is obviously very dependent on social context. Two design principles I highlight in my dissertation are subversion and spectacle. Both of those design goals tend to be useful “guiding posts” for nurturing a more successful kind of brokenness. Still, it’s worth mentioning that I’ve seen J.S. Joust fall totally flat in certain contexts that weren’t right for the game. What I’ve learned is that it isn’t enough to simply focus on the game system/object itself. Designers of these kinds of games also need to consider how to present these games in public, how and where to exhibit them, etc.

IZ: You’ve talked about the difficulty of sharing Joust with more people as a problem. At the same time, sessions of Joust seem to be happenings of a sort. One could argue that they draw some of their appeal and beauty from their rarity (I’m thinking will-o’-the-wisps, the aurora borealis). Is thinking about ideal frequency of play a part of your design process? You write about Beacons of Hope that it is intended for 12-20 players; what kind of sense might it make to think about it as intended for 12-20 plays?

DW: Yes, in retrospect I have definitely benefited from the event-based nature of the game. I do have to admit that this wasn’t so premeditated. Honestly, the game would have been released to the public months ago if I weren’t facing such tricky technological and business challenges. I think the low frequency of exhibitions has been productive to an extent, but now I think the “exclusivity” of the game is starting to backfire a little. I’ve certainly built up enough “buzz” by this point, and so now I’m just very eager to get the game into players’ hands. Hopefully soon!

IZ: Joust is often described as having no graphics, but its dance of glowing orbs makes for a striking and memorable spectacle. Can you tell us about the process of choosing a color palette for a game that might be played in all kinds of light conditions and against all sorts of backdrops? What factors into your thoughts on how much feedback the game system should offer and what forms that feedback should take?

DW: The choice of color palette wasn’t so conscious – I simply tried to pick bright colors that were discernible from one another. The two exceptions are that I chose red to signal when you’re eliminated, and white to signal when you’re invulnerable. One of the only times I’ve consciously thought about color is for the Wild Rumpus party at this year’s GDC, where I used cyan, magenta, and yellow for the three teams to match Dick Hogg’s brilliant poster design. I should also add that the game isn’t actually so resilient in all light conditions, as you can’t see the Move’s LED light in direct sunlight. Someday, I’d love to manufacture my own hardware, as there a number of hardware changes and additions that would benefit the game (and other games like it).

But yes, those LED lights add significantly to the game experience. They’re brilliant for attracting a crowd of people. Last summer, for example, we ran an impromptu session in the streets of Copenhagen. People see those beautiful glowing lights and they walk over just to see what’s happening. From there, you can quickly build a crowd and attract players. Moreover, the lights give the game a clear metaphor – don’t let your candle be blown out – that helps spectators figure out how the game is played. I personally think those Move controllers are underrated. What’s so radical about the Move controller is that each LED light acts as a giant pixel (I can set the RGB value arbitrarily in code). Essentially, this means that the players carry with them a fluid screen. I’ve since made a number of other installation pieces with those controllers, including a sound-based horror installation game, Beacons of Hope.

In addition to the lights, the music and sound also play a key role in J.S. Joust. The music sets the mood, and gives me a way of “pacing” the game without relying on a screen. The choice of J.S. Bach music was very intentional. Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos carry with them all kinds of cultural associations that make you feel like some aristocrat dueling in olden times. It’s no surprise that players start carrying the controller like a sword, bowing to teach other, etc.

IZ: When asked about how you came up with the idea for this or that party game, you’ve often replied to the effect of “Me and my friends were sitting around talking and we were a little drunk.” How important are altered states as a design and playtesting tool for games that will be played by people in those altered states? What do you do when you are working on a game that might be played by sober people and tipsy people alike, and you have two competing mechanics, one of which feels more fun than the other when sober, and vice versa?

DW: I don’t think it’s about “altered states” per se but rather about social context. In that sense, “tipsiness” is a symptom more than it is a cause – a symptom of a loose and social environment. That kind of social context, paired with some focused ambition and a burning desire to create cool things, is a powerful facilitator. It’s for this same reason that I love game jams – not necessarily for the format itself, but for the social energy you feed off of at such events. Certainly, the kinds of physical multiplayer games I’ve been designing benefit tremendously from such settings, especially since they’re so often reliant on humor and spectacle. I don’t think J.S. Joust would exist as it does now if I had developed it alone in my bedroom. Originally I had actually envisioned a racing game. It was only through some improvisational, sleep-deprived playtesting with my colleague Nils that we realized that the game worked better as a more explicitly combative fighting game.

IZ: In a write-up on Joust at The Verge, you’re quoted as saying the game grew out of a realization that moving in slow-motion was “basically the funnest thing you can do.” At the same time I imagine you had to consider that making the accelerometer settings too sensitive could excessively restrict the physical strategies players could use. Can you talk about the process of finding a kinesthetic sweet spot?

DW: I don’t think there’s any one sweet spot. Personally, I think different player groups require sensitivity settings. The original Wii mote version was very sensitive – far more so than the current version. That’s partly because you had no light to help signal when you were eliminated, only the rumble. So, to make the flow of the game clearer to both spectators and to the players themselves, the pace of the game had to remain slow. The current incarnation version allows for a significantly more movement, but consequently it’s also a more physical game. Some players may prefer a slightly less physical game.

IZ: During a fascinating interview at The Happy Medium, you talk about the importance of language in shaping the B.U.T.T.O.N. experience: the difference between saying “The player who doesn’t press his button wins” and “Any player who presses his button loses”, in your example. It was heartening to read this; I think this kind of close, nuanced attention to words is as important to game design as it is under appreciated. Could you talk about your thought process in choosing a name or the instruction wording in one of your other games?

DW: That particular phrasing comes from thinking about the nature of traditional Danish games. Perhaps reflecting cultural differences between American and Denmark, traditional Danish games are often more “collectivist.” For example, take the bar game Liar’s Dice (in Danish, called Snyd). In America, variations of the game are often played such that one individual wins a pool of money. In Denmark, by contrast, you often play to isolate one loser who then has to buy the whole table drinks! As an American, it feels refreshing to play a game that isolates one loser, rather than one winner. On the surface of things, it might seem meaner, but depending on the players and the context, I think such a dynamic can actually more enjoyable for everyone involved. I write a little about these “scapegoating games” in this journal article I wrote about B.U.T.T.O.N. It felt appropriate to call attention to these kinds of cultural differences in a game like B.U.T.T.O.N., where the whole idea is that it should feel like you’re playing not just a game, but also with the game itself (i.e. its conventions and rules).

IZ: To make Mega GIRP, you had to transpose Bennett Foddy’s finger-twister input mechanics to 4 dance mats. Can you tell us about what it was like to search for a letter layout that brought across the difficulty (and the difficulty curve) of the original without making the game unplayable? As nightmarish challenges go, the problem seems up there with translating Oulipo poetry. Was it as hard as it seems?

DW: No! I threw together the lettering order last minute, as we were madly setting up the exhibition where I first debuted the game. I tried to emulate the ordering of letters on a standard QWERTY keyboard, but obviously that doesn’t quite work out. I should try out a different layout someday, but it’s a real hassle to tape those letters to the buttons, and also to reprogram the button to key mappings. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it!

IZ: Have you found any insights from working on games that try to “nurture a spirit of togetherness” useful for improving collaboration in your own design process?

DW: Yeah, I’m very interested in collaborative design. Working alone is so dull! I work best bouncing off of other people’s ideas. To me, that’s the whole point. Of course, collaboration is always a risky proposition. Like any serious relationship, it sure does sting when things go sour, and I’ve definitely been burned by my fair share of failed projects. But when it works, man, it is the best. As I see it, games themselves will always be less interesting than other human beings. So yeah, I would agree that that “spirit of togetherness” is something that pervades not just the play experiences I design, but also my process.

Doug Wilson is a speaker at PRACTICE this year.  Join us on the weekend of November 9th – 11th for a deep dive into game design theory and practice with Doug and a collection of the best game designers in the field.