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 systemů 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 paperů 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.