GDC Europe: B.U.T.T.O.N.'s Wilson On 'Intentionally Broken' Games

In his Independent Games Summit talk at GDC Europe, Copenhagen Game Collective's Douglas Wilson discussed why his titles like the IGF-nominated B.U.T.T.O.N. mess with conventional ideas about what video games should be.
In his Independent Games Summit talk at GDC Europe, 'Intentionally Broken Game Design and the Art of "Deputizing" Players', Copenhagen Game Collective's Douglas Wilson discussed why his titles like the IGF-nominated B.U.T.T.O.N. and Johann Sebastian Joust mess with conventional ideas about what video games should be. Wilson, whose work at Copenhagen Game Collective includes many deliberately provocative party games, explained his view on a whole set of titles - including his own - that "are intentionally designed to be broken". For example, with Independent Games Festival 2011 nominee B.U.T.T.O.N. (players pictured), a violently competitive four-player party title, Wilson found that people kept asking of the title, which has onscreen prompts for frantic team button pressing and shenanigans: "But how do you make sure that nobody cheats?" Wilson brought up an Internet-borrowed Double Facepalm graphic -- and explained that it shouldn't just be the game that regulates behavior while playing them. Referencing an Ernest Adams textbook, he noted that the traditional rule is that computers relieve you of the need to calculate the rules. He agreed that titles like Civilization are much easier to play because the computer does the math for you, but: "There's all sorts of digitally mediated play where negotiating and implementing the rules yourself is actually the main attraction." In fact, in a game setting like a party, "it's really fun to argue about the rules", Wilson notes, citing a '70s theorist called Bernard De Koven, whose book 'The Well-Played Game' argues: "It's not the game's that sacred, it's the people who are playing." For B.U.T.T.O.N., it's actually piquant, Wilson argues, that: "The game tells you to do all this stuff and we as the programmers couldn't be bothered to actually enforce it." There's all these ambiguities -- and the game would be unplayable if people just went out for themselves in a Machiavellian way. The title "requires a player to get into the spirit of the game and perform and act silly" -- for example in a mode where the first person to press a button loses -- so you have to go and press other people's buttons. So Wilson's concept is that he is 'deputizing' the player to "partially design and enforce" the game design -- and that's much of the fun in these 'broken' titles -- the notion of the imperfect and surprises along the way. Finishing up, Wilson referenced two more of his highly mobile, unorthodox titles. The first is the currently in progress Dog The Wag, which he illustrated with a photo of a PlayStation Move controller on a lead sticking out of the back of someone's jeans as a 'fake tail' you have to move around. The second is the buzzed about Johann Sebastian Joust!, a PlayStation Move homebrew title for two to seven players which was played onstage. The audio- and controller-only title uses a variable-speed recording of the Brandenberg Concerto. Players have to move slowly when the recording is slow, and can speed up when it speeds up, and must knock other players' controllers so that they 'die' (complete with explosion sound effects as their Move controller light winks out.) It's another example of the alternative multiplayer design that Wilson and his cohorts are working on. Overall, the Copenhagen-based American designer concluded, more game designers should think about ways that "Human beings can enforce rules, too" -- it's not true or perhaps even preferable that that computers think through all the rules for you.

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