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GDC Europe Speaker Spotlight: B.U.T.T.O.N.'s Douglas Wilson On Breaking The Rules

In the latest in a series of interviews with speakers from this August's GDC Europe, Douglas Wilson, developer of the IGF-finalist B.U.T.T.O.N., discusses how to design multiplayer games that don't adhere to strict rules.

In 2009, Wilson (pictured, right) co-founded the Copenhagen Game Collective, a non-profit game design group in Copenhagen, Denmark He is also a Ph.D. candidate at IT University of Copenhagen's Center for Computer Games Research, where he teaches and researches game design. In addition, his upcoming dissertation will discuss intentionally abusive, unbalanced, or broken game design.

Next month at GDC Europe, Wilson will host a talk as part of the Independent Game Summit titled, "Intentionally Broken Game Design and the Art of "Deputizing" Players," where he will examine "traditional folk games, design research, and precedents in other media forms" to explain how players tend to enforce game rules without strict systems in place.

With GDC Europe just weeks away, Wilson discussed the concept of his upcoming talk, outlining the core design of his unusual multiplayer title B.U.T.T.O.N., as well as the benefits of creating games with lenient rules.

Your recent multiplayer title B.U.T.T.O.N. used a very minimalist approach, omitting some of the traditional systems and rules most often seem in multiplayer games. What inspired you to take such an atypical approach?

One of the core ideas behind B.U.T.T.O.N. is that modifying and negotiating the rules is sometimes the most enjoyable game of all. I feel like this is a lesson that we computer game designer sometimes forget. The system itself is never what comprises the game. Rather, it's what the human players do with that system. Just think about the kind of improvisational play that underlie kids' playground games, or the "house rules" that inevitably crop around boardgames and pickup sports.

Some game design theorists have argued that these ambiguities are a "problem" that computer technology can fix. How dull! As I see it, the key is to actively embrace these ambiguities in a way that feels intentional and fun. To this end, we conceptualized B.U.T.T.O.N. not as a "computer game," but rather as a game that just happens to use a computer. I do admit that all games -- even the most traditional and "closed-system" games -- are subject to these kinds of negotiations and house rules. What we tried to do with B.U.T.T.O.N. was to actively call attention to the ambiguities of gameplay, in attempt to convince players to revel in and enjoy them.

Your talk description says you examined "traditional folk games, design research, and precedents in other media forms" when looking at alternative methods of multiplayer games. Can you describe what this research entailed and what you learned from it?

For my Ph.D. dissertation I've spent a lot of time studying folk games and sports, from old Danish children's games to the American New Games movement of the 1970s. One of my favorite examples is the traditional Inuit game of Iqiruktuk, also known as Mouth Pull. In Mouth Pull, two players stand side-by-side, placing their arms over each other's shoulders and hooking their thumb into their opponent's mouth. When the game begins, both players start tugging away at each other's mouth! The first player to surrender loses.

Mouth Pull is a very performative -- and grotesque -- game. Play theorist Henning Eichberg calls it an "impossible game," in that the game is somewhat impossible to carry through. If the game was ever played too competitively, the players would literally end up mutilating each other. Eichberg points out that many games can be viewed in a similar light. For instance, the playground game Tag would also degenerate if played too competitively; the slowest player would get stuck as "It," never able to tag the faster players. What a game like Mouth Pull does is signal to its players in an especially obvious way that the game isn't really about "winning," but about public performance.

B.U.T.T.O.N., too, is "impossible" in a very immediate sense. There isn't very much "game" there other than the silly tasks that the players are supposed to perform. An ultra-competitive player, for example, could refuse to put down the controller or follow any of the other instructions. This would certainly be an effective strategy, but it would also defeat the entire purpose of playing the game. Inspired by the festivity and laughter of folk games, B.U.T.T.O.N. is more about playing and performing together.

I also draw a lot of inspiration (both positive and negative) from a variety of other academic disciplines, like interaction design and ubiquitous computing. For more reading, you can refer to my recent journal article about B.U.T.T.O.N.

What would you say are the essential components of a successful multiplayer game?

Boy, that's a tough one! I don't think there's any one formula. There are so many different types of multiplayer games. Plus, multiplayer fun is always so dependent on the particular people playing and the setting and context. For that reason, I only put so much faith in the game system itself. After all, with the right attitude or the right group of friends, you can make almost any activity fun - even a putatively "bad" game.

Of course, I don't mean to argue that game systems themselves are somehow irrelevant. But when creating a party game like B.U.T.T.O.N., I tend to think of myself less as a "designer" and more as some kind of "creative marketer." My goal is not to give the player some readily consumable game system, but rather to convince them to "play along" and complete the design on their own. I need to "sell" the players on the whole idea of playing the fool in front of each other. Thus, the primary design challenge, as I see it, is to instill in the players the right kind of playful attitude.

How do you test and refine a multiplayer game that doesn't have a strict system of rules? How do you anticipate player reactions when everything is left up to interpretation?

I think the key principle in designing these kinds of deliberately "broken" games is to signal to the players that the ambiguities are very intentional. A game like B.U.T.T.O.N. can be viewed as an ongoing joke. In that regard, it's my job as the designer to make sure that the players are in on the joke -- and that they're able to make the joke their own.

To this end, the game's multimedia content -- the text, the graphics, and the music -- all play a critical role in setting the right mood. It's no coincidence that Nils Deneken's graphics are so silly, and that Nifflas' soundtrack is so whimsical. The whole idea is to get players to understand that B.U.T.T.O.N. is supposed to be a stupid game -- one where performance and clever improvisation matters more than competitive skill.

There's actually a nice Gabe quote from a recent Penny Arcade post that speaks to this design approach: "All I'm saying is if you're gonna make dumb shit anyway, you might as well own it. Do it with a wink and let people laugh with you."

How will your GDC Europe talk address unconventional multiplayer game development, and what do you expect people to take away from it?

More than anything, I hope to share an alternative approach to thinking about multiplayer game design. B.U.T.T.O.N. may be a particularly extreme game, but I think some of the general ideas it explores are applicable to party game design more generally. In my talk, I hope to mention a few of my more recent game projects, including Johann Sebastian Joust. In fact, I plan to give a live demo of that game at the end of my talk.

New technologies like the Kinect and the PlayStation Move promise to more accurately monitor and systematize our every action. That's all well and good, of course, but "broken" games like B.U.T.T.O.N. offer an alternative, more low-tech strategy for designing physical gameplay -- one that celebrates human agency and improvisation. An older game like Dance Dance Revolution might not be able to enforce that the player is "actually dancing," but this shortcoming is also one of the game's strengths. It's precisely because the game doesn't actually care that makes it so endearing and so impressive when the player choreographs an elaborate dance performance. Professor Bart Simon argues this same point convincingly in his work on "gestural excess" and the Wii.

I'm especially skeptical when I read the rhetoric behind new digitally-enabled boardgames like Monopoly Live, which aim to "get rid of" cheating and rule disputes -- ugh! In my talk, I hope to present a more playful approach to digital game design. What if instead of designing against "cheating," we designed for it? This is the kind of question I hope to raise, both in my research and in my design practice.

Additional Info.

GDC Europe will take place August 15-17, 2011 at the Cologne Congress-Centrum Ost, alongside the major gamescom trade show, and will host lectures and panels with other notable speakers, including keynotes from Epic Games president Mike Capps, Ultima creator Richard Garriott, and Wooga founder Jens Begemann.

For more information on GDC Europe, please visit the official GDC Europe website, or subscribe to updates from the new GDC Europe-specific news page via RSS, Twitter, or Facebook. GDC Europe is owned and operated by UBM TechWeb.

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