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Joust Will Get By With a Little Help from Its Friends

The reason to buy a Move controller is slowly but surely coming to a PlayStation near you. Maybe.

Johann Sebastian Joust, the best argument to own a Move controller that has nothing to do with a PlayStation 3, may fulfill its destiny. It’s perplexed me Sony hasn’t made Johann Sebastian Joust a centerpiece of an outreach beyond the traditional player, but with the Sports project on Kickstarter, it could now happen in a roundabout way.

We showed off Johann Sebastian Joust on the Big Live Live Show Live in 2011. During a test run, Jeff threw a chair at me. He didn't hesitate.
We showed off Johann Sebastian Joust on the Big Live Live Show Live in 2011. During a test run, Jeff threw a chair at me. He didn't hesitate.

While Johann Sebastian Joust might be at the core of Sportsfriends, it’s much bigger than that. Sportsfriends is a collection of four local multiplayer games, including Ramiro Corbetta’s Hokra, Bennett Foddy’s Super Pole Riders, and Noah Sasso’s BaraBariBall.

Sportsfriends is asking for $150,000 over the next few weeks, raising money for a compilation targeting PS3 in fall 2013.

Bringing the four games together was largely inspired by Nintendo’s Wii Sports. Fun fact: Nintendo wasn’t interested in picking up Johann Sebastian Joust because it didn’t have single-player.

Learning these lessons has been part of Johann Sebastian Joust creator Doug Wilson’s rough year. Upon winning the innovation prize at the Game Developers Choice Awards earlier in 2012, it seemed like Wilson’s moment. He started reaching out to publishers, and trying to secure a deal for his game. The idea of being on a console was deeply romantic.

“The thing with publishers...I thought it was going to happen because we had so much exposure and I wasn’t that expensive in the grand scheme of things,” said Wilson. “As it turns out, that was a poor bet. [laughs] At some point late in the summer, it was like...’fuck this, this isn’t happening, I’m not getting the right offers, let’s self-release.’”

To be fair to publishers of the world, Johann Sebastian Joust is a tough sell. There’s no single-player mode, which Wilson found to be a sticking point with many. Sources within Sony have told me negotiations with Wilson about a release on PS3 have been ongoing for literally years, but it never came together. (Sony is involved with Sportsfriends, which I’ll touch on later.) Often, Wilson would find champions at publishers that would get his foot in the door.

“As it got up to their bosses in marketing, they didn’t know what to do with it,” he said.

Shopping Johann Sebastian Joust has been instructive to Wilson, though not one without regret. He’s now months past the game’s momentum coming out of the Game Developers Conference, and if Sportsfriends reaches its funding goals, the compilation isn’t scheduled for a release for another year. There’s a danger people will begin to forget about Johann Sebastian Joust, and move onto the next thing.

“Yup, which has happened already,” he said. “If I could reset time, I would have just Kickstarted it after GDC.”

He didn’t, though, bringing us to the present.

“It’s been a real education,” he said. “Look, I’m just some sort of academic guy who finishes a PhD in May, and then said ‘Okay, let’s go indie!’ But it’s been a rude awakening in my regards, but it’s been fun in a lot of ways, as well.”

Johann Sebastian Joust, Hokra, BaraBariBall, and Super Pole Riders were never designed to run natively on a PS3, and none of the creators involved in any of the games have the expertise to do what they’re promising. That’s the point of the Kickstarter: raise funds to hire one or more expert programmers. These programmers won’t come cheap, but they’re the ones tasked with taking four games built in entirely different ways, and make them work on a PS3.

There’s a general rule I’ve learned from talking to people involved with Kickstarter projects. “Whatever amount you actually want, ask for half.” Kickstarter has a psychological component, one that can easily work against you. People want to bet on a winner, not a loser, and if a Kickstarter has a rough opening day, it can be a slog to the finish line. See: Republique. While some Kickstarters barely cross the finishing line, it’s not common. Either a Kickstarter blows past its initial goal, allowing the creators to work towards their actual, unpublished goal, or it badly misses.

Sportsfriends doesn’t have this option, and that’s partially because of Sony’s involvement. Pub Fund, which also backed Dyad and Papo & Yo, is involved with Sportsfriends This is where the conversations between Wilson and Sony ended up. Pub Fund gives Wilson and the other creators access to capital, but it’s a check that doesn’t show up until the game has passed Sony’s QA department, a process that’s not likely to occur until the middle of next year.

“Let’s say they give you $100,” said Wilson. “Your first $100 of sales would go to them. [...] If you’re Shawn McGrath of Dyad fame, you are a talented programmer and it doesn’t cost you that much to develop the game because you can sit in a room for a while and do most of it yourself. In that sense, it’s kind of a good deal because your upfront costs [are low]. The thing that’s a big problem for us is that none of the four of us are an expert programmer, and there are four games, so we have to port all the games from all these different technologies that they’ve been done in. We have to hire an expert programmer to do it, which is very expensive, and we don’t have the upfront costs to do that because Pub Fund is this guarantee in sales. Hence, Kickstarter, and I’m a little worried people will think it looks like too much.”

Doesn’t sound like the greatest deal in the world, right? Here’s how Sony explains it.

“It’s different deals per studio,” said Sony VP of publisher and developer relations Adam Boyes (yes, that Boyes), “but usually it’s an amount of money, and in the past we’ve sort of capped it at $500,000. That gets advanced to the developer once they’ve completed the game and it’s approved by QA. They get that check once the game is complete, and that way they don’t have to wait month-to-month that a lot of other developers have to do wait. [...] What Pub Fund does is that it allows us to launch and go into deluxe extreme mode on our side, both from a digital marketing perspective and PR perspective, events, and be involved in all kinds of different activities that we do.”

Sony didn’t have a problem when Wilson approached the company about a collaborative Kickstarter, as previous Pub Fund deals have seen developers go several different avenues for initial funding, including government grants and venture capital interest.

As mentioned earlier, Johann Sebastian Joust could have been released in collaboration with Sony a long time ago. I asked Boyes what’s taken so long for something very, very obvious to happen.

“I’ve been here for about six months, but before that, we’ve been talking to Doug for years, trying to figure out something for us to work on,” he said. “Joust has always been a fan-favorite around here. Sometimes this stuff takes time. We explore a bunch of different opportunities. We’ve always had a lot of internal support for it, but it’s also the elevator pitch for it--how do you explain it to somebody that you’re trying to sell it to? That’s why putting it together with these three other games, as more of an experiential local multiplayer game, is the right way to go about it.”

The finished product will debut first on PS3, but will also be available for PC, Mac, and Linux. The possibility for Sportsfriends to appear in even more places is definitely possible, but it’s not the near future. Part of Sony’s Pub Fund deals usually includes some type of exclusivity, even if it’s only temporary.

Each of the games included in the Sportsfriends package will evolve from their current forms before Sportsfriends is released. Wilson won’t be adding a single-player mode, but a huge assortment of new game modes and optional changes for players to control. What if players could add their own music? What if each Move controller was tied to an instrument, and that instrument was removed from the orchestration as players were eliminated? What if, rather than winning as the last man standing, you had to survive an additional two seconds, eliminating the now-common tactic of players to perform suicide runs on everyone involved? What if there was a multi-round campaign mode, in which winners were awarded power-ups that carried to the next match? Wilson hasn’t nailed down the possibilities because there are so many, and it’s largely dependent on whether people get behind Sportsfriends as a concept.

The other games will change, as well. Super Pole Riders, for example, will essentially get a sequel, rather than the version that’s been shopped around at different festivals. The other will use the additional time and funding to flesh the games out into what each designer has always been hoping.

Of course, it might not work. $150,000 might be too much. Maybe it’s too close to Christmas.

“It seems like Kickstarter is sometimes a PR tool, less about the money,” said Wilson. “For us, this is going to sound lame: it’s actually about the money. I can’t get money from a publisher. If we want it on console, this actually has to be crowdfunded. I’m a little bummed that Kickstarter is sometimes now seen cynically, and it’s not just crowdfunding--it’s marketing voodoo. Again, I think the four of us are happy to try this, and, fuck it, it it doesn’t work out, we’ll sell beta versions.”

If you invest $30 or more, you won’t have to wait until fall 2013 to play these games, as the alpha versions are scheduled to begin rolling out for each of the games not long after the Kickstarter ends. I’ve had various versions of Johann Sebastian Joust on my Mac for months, and you can get plenty of fun right now. Good chance that it’s the same for Hokra, Super Pole Riders, and BaraBariBall.

“To me, indie is about this network of peers and the comradery and the support you get in that community,” said Wilson. “This is saying ‘Let’s do something really crazily collaborative.’ Almost this super band.”

Patrick Klepek on Google+