These days, the "sports games" category is still somewhat disparaged in the minds of some video gamers. A lot of it probably has to do with the Madden series and other uninspired, annual iterations put out with the blessings of real-world sports leagues. But those titles, while most visible, still don't represent all the possibilities of the sports gaming genre. With Sportsfriends, a suite of sports games currently being Kickstarted for PlayStation Network, Windows, Mac, and Linux, four indie game developers offer their own take on the divergent genre, and pave the way for a new kind of face-to-face competitive gaming.
"We're trying to show people that sports games can be innovative and enjoyable."
"We're trying to show people that sports games can be innovative and enjoyable," says Doug Wilson of Dutch game company Die Gute Fabrik, whom you probably know as the man behind Johann Sebastian Joust. The motion-sensing, musical fencing game has been making the rounds at game conventions and parties over the past year, and it's a big part of his game design philosophy, which explores how video games take cues from other cultural traditions of play.
Last month at the Sportsfriends Quadrathlon, a panel and tournament held at the Parsons New School in New York City, Wilson and the other Sportsfriends developers gathered to jointly ponder what, exactly, gives a digital game the right to be called a sport.
The best answers, of course, lie in the games themselves: joining Wilson's aforementioned Johann Sebastian Joust is Noah Sasso's BaraBariBall, a fast-paced psychedelic platformer that mashes volleyball with Super Smash Bros; Ramiro Corbetta's Hokra, a stripped-down, 4-way game of video soccer that looks like it was designed by either Nolan Bushnell or Piet Mondrian; and Bennett Foddy's Pole Riders, a bizarre cross between pole-vaulting and polo, featuring the QWOP mastermind's signature knack for ridiculous in-game physics.
The tournament is a classic east-meets-west-style showdown: the game development community of NYU, having hosted a number of prominent game jams and speaking events over the past year, has literally arrived at the doorstep of their rivals at Parsons. Participants pair up into teams and tournament brackets are drawn across three enormous dry-erase boards. Players must excel in all four games to take home the gold.
As things start to heat up, the importance of replayability and spectators becomes a lot more apparent. A few hours in, more than half the audience gathered in the Parsons media lab seems to be there exclusively to watch the rivalry unfold. The games become more raucous with each sudden turnabout and close call, peaking with deafening cheers when the final climactic point is scored.
Wilson says it's important to make this action accessible and engaging, but that's not always easy with video games. "Many people out there just see video games and dismiss them immediately," he says. With Joust, his solution was to remove the "video" part altogether, forcing players to look at each other and play using the entire space, rather than huddle around a screen directly in front of them. "I think part of the reason why J.S. Joust shows so well at public events is that it doesn't have the trappings of a traditional video game. As a result, people don't always see it as a "video game." Often, J.S. Joust comes across as a playground game, or some strange martial art."
"Hokra features a kind of purity of spirit; no nonsense, no frills."
But even with screen-centric games, a simplistic and satisfying design on a local multiplayer game can captivate a wide audience with ease. Ramiro Corbetta's Hokra, for example, was initially inspired by the passing mechanic in the FIFA series of soccer games. "Part of the reason I love Hokra so much is that it features a kind of purity of spirit," says Wilson. "No nonsense, no frills."
Wilson acknowledges that there still exists some hesitation when most gamers encounter the "sports" category. "I do think that many gamers grew up a bit resentful of sports," he says. "Sometimes, they were excluded from or alienated [by] sports culture." But as he and the rest of the Sportsfriends team demonstrate, today's digital games can learn a thing or two from the analogue kind. "The idea is that those precedents can help inspire games that are more accessible and more spectator-friendly — at least for some people."
The team is aiming for a 2013 release, and pre-orders can be had for $15 via Kickstarter.