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.