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"Originally Joust wasn't even part of the conversation. We kinda knew it in the backs of our minds that that might be interesting, but it wasn't really a serious discussion."
When Douglas Wilson first created the prototype for Johann Sebastian Joust back at grad school in early 2011, he had no way of knowing just how much that simple demo would consume his life for the next three years.
The game, as has been detailed many a time before, does not utilize your television screen -- rather, it's a physical game in which players attempt to knock the PlayStation Move controllers in the hands of the other players. Whoever keeps their controller steady throughout play wins.
After being carted all over the world to various festivals and meetups, and being bigged up in the press on numerous occasions, the PlayStation Move game is finally getting a release alongside a bunch of other fellow local multiplayer games.
Sportsfriends is the brainchild of Wilson, Ramiro Corbetta, Noah Sasso, and Bennett Foddy, with programmers Jonathan Whiting and Edward Di Geronimo Jr. also putting in plenty of work. It's being released this month on PS3, PS4, and PC, meaning that the general public will finally be able to play it themselves.
So why exactly has it been such a long time coming, and why did J.S. Joust need to cuddle up with a bunch of other games to receive the proper release it deserved?
"It's been a very long road," says Wilson. "I got really fortunate. Joust made IndieCade in 2011, and then it made IGF in 2012. The IGF nomination and then winning the Innovation Award at the GDC Awards was big. Business people take notice of that -- at least, 'insiders' of the industry."
"So I was actually talking to some publishers, and spent way too many months in 2012 possibly trying to negotiate a deal or two. Ultimately, the game was kinda too weird, and it didn't really make sense for publishers."
This was Joust's core problem -- people seemed to love it when they got their hands on it, but it was a hard sell when it came to actually releasing it. How many people would buy a local multiplayer only game that required multiple PS Move controllers?
"I was actually talking to some publishers, and spent way too many months in 2012 possibly trying to negotiate a deal or two... It turns out that negotiating with publishers is kinda the worst."
"In retrospect, I wasted way too many months," Wilson admits. "That's part of the reason development got stalled. I was also finishing up my PhD at the time, so I wasn't paying attention to the game's development."
"But it turns out that negotiating with publishers is kinda the worst," he laughs. "Who knew! So that kinda fizzled, and I was pretty bummed and not sure what to do."
Meanwhile, the beginnings of what became Sportsfriends were already set in motion without him realizing it. In early 2011, around the same time that Wilson was inventing Joust, Ramiro Corbetta was putting together his own strand of local multiplayer brilliance.
Hokra is a barebones sports game for four players, that has colored squares bounding around a plain playing field and attempting to knock a ball into goals in the corners of the screen. It may sound simple, but in action it's a frantic, fantastic experience to have with friends and strangers alike.
"Immediately we were obsessed with this stupid, really simple squares game," says Wilson of the first time he saw the game in 2011. "It was kinda dumb, and wasn't that amazing-looking, but it was pretty much the funnest game I had ever played."
Wilson had actually met Corbetta a year before, when the pair put together some Babycastles exhibitions in New York. What they both came to realize rather quickly was that they were in the very same boat -- they both had these great local multiplayer games that a publisher were never, ever touch. Either they were both going to be doomed to be exhibition-only games, or end up in the pit of Xbox Live Indie Games.
"So we were thinking through these problems, and then at some point we thought well, maybe inspired by Wii Sports, if we put a bunch of these small games together..." Wilson recalls.
"This was in 2011, and it's the moment when local multiplayer was exploding. Nidhogg wins Nuovo, TIGSource did their multiplayer compo. I feel like 2011 was the watershed year where this kind of stuff was exploding. So we were like well, maybe we should try to make some kind of compilation, and I had this company Die Gute Fabrik, so maybe I could be the producer."
"I thought 'Wii Sports has five, maybe we should have five.' ... A few people talked me down from that."
Here's where Bennett Foddy comes into the story. The QWOP, GIRP, and CLOP developer, best known for creating games that make people want to scream, was in New York in the summer of 2011, when Wilson was part of the Babycastles exhibition.
"I'd never met him in person," notes Wilson. "I was hugely obsessed with GIRP, and I had already been in touch with him online about MEGAGIRP, which is how I kinda got to talk to Bennett one-on-one. So we were like, 'You should come to Babycastles, we can show MEGAGIRP, you can curate this show with us.'"
But Foddy had a different game on his mind. He'd attended a game jam in Cambridge, UK three or four months before, and created a multiplayer game called Pole Riders. While it showed huge potential, he just couldn't find that little extra something to give it the push and polish it deserved.
"I'd be waiting for more inspiration to strike," Foddy tells me. "After sitting on it for a while, I thought, 'Fuck it, I'm just gonna launch it.' It seemed like it lined up with the show pretty well, so I decided to premier the game as a global thing at Babycastles."
Interestingly, when the idea for Sportsfriends began brewing around this time, Pole Riders and Hokra were the two "confirmed" titles for the package. Wilson was still doing a jig or five with publishers. He was happy to be producing Sportsfriends, but Joust wasn't in the picture.
"Very early on, it was me, Bennett, and Ramiro thinking, like, 'What should this compliation be?'" says Wilson. "Super Pole Riders and Hokra were the two confirmed games. Originally, I thought it should be more than four games -- which I was definitely wrong about. A few people, including Bennett, talked me down from that, saying it would devalue them if we put too many in the package."
"I thought 'Wii Sports has five, maybe we should have five.' But actually these games are pretty meaty -- so four at most, otherwise you start losing track of the games you have."
So it was decided - Sportsfriends would have four games. But this meant that the team still needed two more games, and the big problem was that, well, there aren't really that many sports-related games out there, especially indie ones. In fact, it took nearly another year before the third game was added to the package.
"I originally really wanted TENNNES from Vlambeer's JW," notes Wilson. TENNNES, a stylish tennis game, was made for No Quarter in 2012 -- the same year that Noah Sasso's BaraBariBall was also a No Quarter game.
"JW was pretty burnt out from Ridiculous Fishing and all his Vlambeer stuff, and he was like, 'I can't commit to this.'"
"We were all super hooked on TENNNES," continues Wilson. "It's really pretty incredible. But JW was pretty burnt out from Ridiculous Fishing and all his Vlambeer stuff, and he was like, 'I can't commit to this.' He foresaw how much work this was actually going to be for everyone involved. But he was nice enough to let us give it as a Kickstarter backer-only goodie later on."
Fortunately, BaraBariBall was also a bit of a winner. Wilson had gotten the opportunity to try the fighter/ball-dunker out before No Quarter, and he immediately saw potential in the game. Sasso was approached for Sportsfriends, and he accepted.
"So then we had a few ideas for the fourth game, but nothing was really sticking," says Wilson. "We didn't really just wanna do just general-purpose local multiplayer -- this was even before we had the name Sportsfriends."
He adds, "I was pretty keen on keeping it with weird sporty games, because I thought -- listen, I love games like Samurai Gunn and Towerfall, but we thought the sword/gunplay genre was already established, and it'd be cool to do this game that was a little bit more abstract."