“If I were going to pitch this to a publisher, I’d probably say it’s like Halo meets Angry Birds.”
That’s a rough approximation of what Tim Rogers (you might know him from his excellent commercials for his own game, Ten by Eight, or for Divekick), developer of Videoball, told me and a group of about 20 other people two days ago at the first ever Good Game Club. The official Videoball website has a more fleshed-out variation on the same premise.
“If we were sleazes and we were pitching this to Silicon Valley venture capitalists, we’d say ‘it’s Call of Duty meets Madden meets Wii Sports meets Angry Birds meets NBA Jam meets Bangai-o,’ and they’d ask us, ‘What’s Bangai-o?'”
For the uninformed, Good Game Club was a cozy get-together for San Francisco Bay Area press, developers, and even the public. It was organized by the same people behind Indie Press Day, which I attended earlier this year. It was a similar atmosphere, but busier, thanks to nearly 300 people packing into a smallish art gallery installation in the Tenderloin District of San Francisco.
And for the further uninformed, I live in Marin County, a stone’s throw north from the city. Which meant I had a limited amount of time to get in, see some cool stuff, and get out. In the last forty-five minutes of my visit, I had grand ambitions to check out most of what was being shown on the floor.
Then I played Gunsport.
“It seems like everyone’s playing my friend’s game right now,” said Brandon Sheffield, developer of Gunsport. He was referring to, of course, the Videoball kiosk right next to us. Eventually, though, we wrangled up two other people who wanted to give it a try.
“The world has descended into ruin. There is no more war. in its place, from Neo Tokyo to Neo USSR, disputes are solved with Gunsport.”
It’s a four-player game, two on each side of a futuristic volleyball net. Each team has two distinct roles: the striker and the keeper. The striker can jump, and stands in front. The keeper can’t, and kneels in the back. Everyone has a gun. You need to score points by letting the ball drop on the opponent’s side, like in volleyball, but your only means of interacting with it are your guns. First to 60 points. Go.
It’s simple and fun on paper, but the devil is in the details. Little, seemingly insignificant mechanics build up in a really satisfying way. The striker’s gun has a significantly smaller spread than the keeper’s. You aim with the triggers. Each player only has two shots to get the ball over the net, at which point the guns all reload. Every time the ball passes over the net, the points at stake increase, making a game’s length directly proportional to its importance.
It also had the unique effect of making me, a noted hermit and curmudgeon, desperately want to keep playing against the same two people. I didn’t know them. In fact, I’d just met them when they picked up their controllers. Gunsport brought us together in a beautiful post-apocalyptic conflict. Brandon and I won the first match handily, but were edged out by the opposing team in the rematch.
I set down the controller, intent on actually fulfilling what I came out there to do: play as many games as possible. I had about a half hour of time left to spend.
Then I played Videoball.
All the talk about how to describe Videoball to a “Silicon Valley venture capitalist” is half-joking, half-legit. The joking part is immediately apparent: Videoball is such a pared-down, minimalist experience that describing it as “anything meets anything” would do it a disservice.
But not unlike Gunsport (or perhaps even more so), Videoball‘s charm doesn’t end at appearances. I’ve become largely disappointed with modern sports games, because they often confuse complexity with depth. Not to say those games don’t have the potential to be deep, but staring down a playbook in Madden or fumbling with the “ShotStick” in NBA 2K14 is inscrutable and largely inaccessible.
Both Gunsport and Videoball are incredibly deep games, despite the way they flaunt their simplicity. Watching the latter seems straightforward enough. There are two goals, and two teams of two people. Each person can hit a button to fire a projectile, and the objective is to push the ball in the center of the field into your opponent’s goal. At this point, you score a “touchdown.”
Videoball is a game that can be played with a single analog stick and a single button (of your choosing; any face button on the Xbox 360 controller worked), but it scratches an incredibly primal itch. Not unlike Divekick, it all has to do with stripping away the layers of bullshit that come before the part everyone likes. For Divekick, it’s the moment when both players have a single tick of health left; for Videoball, it’s the feeling of competition and skill boiled down to its barest minimum.
Here are some modest examples. Holding down the button in Videoball charges the projectile shot, and naturally, the larger the shot, the more force applied to the ball should you hit it. There are four levels of charge, and the fourth isn’t an attack at all — it creates a large square for defense purposes. Using that square can be a strategic goldmine, but it also forces you to be vigilant when charging up your shot. The worst thing that could happen is deploying an unwieldy obstacle when you just wanted a powerful attack.
Momentum and physics also play a huge role in Videoball. Shooting a single projectile across the field might not do much of anything, but if you speed toward the ball and release it mid-slide, things can go much better. All of this gets trickier when you realize that touching pretty much anything directly freezes your ship for a couple seconds, leaving you hanging as the opposing team scrambles to score a touchdown.
I’ll just cut to the chase: Videoball is a potential masterpiece. Reading about it will never match the true sensation of playing it with three (or, according to the game’s website, five) other people. The chaos is perfectly measured and nuanced. Playing Videoball was the closest I’ve come to staring into a black hole. The timer for each round was 180 seconds, but I could’ve sworn I was playing for 2-3 months.
That’s the kind of experience that, for every impressive multi-million dollar game I enjoy, only a modern indie game can provoke. The feeling is rote at this point, but games like these remind me just how pure, focused, and engaging a great game can be. A team of 100 people can make something awesome, but somewhere along the line, it has to become compartmentalized. Gunsport is Brandon Sheffield, and Videoball is Tim Rogers — just as Fez is Phil Fish, and Braid is Jonathan Blow. It’s entirely possible that a lead programmer on Call of Duty: Ghosts is an auteur in a similar way. If that’s true, I have but one piece of advice: jump ship. Stop making Call of Duty, and start making Videoball.
“Hey,” Tim Rogers said to me energetically, just as a new match was starting. “Vote for my game.”
He didn’t need to remind me.