Forget about StarCraft, Counter-Strike, and any other conventional e-sport for a moment. Now think wobbly noodle poles. This is a story about the creator of the viral sensations QWOP and GIRP’s first attempt at making an electronic sport.
In QWOP you control the limbs of an Olympic athlete as he tries to complete a 100m sprint. Legs moving awkwardly, knees almost grazing the ground with every wobbly stride, you are the puppet master of a challenged marionette.
In GIRP you swing the body of a rock climber up a sheer cliff, relying on momentum to help your rag-doll climber reach the next ledge. Your body feels like over-cooked spaghetti dangling all over the place. Seagulls won’t leave you alone.
Now comes Pole Riders, the single and multiplayer pole-vaulting game with noodle-like poles and a delightful sense of physics. The QWOPY and GIRPY brand of quirkiness flows through the veins of Pole Riders, but unlike its predecessors, Pole Riders is competitive. It's an e-sport.
Games As Games
Bennett Foddy has an unconventional approach to making video games. A research fellow at Oxford University, his games are unlike any other game out there. He is interested in games as ideas and, unpolished as some of them may be, every one of his games explores an idea or a novelty.
“I’m interested in games as games,” he says.
“It’s not so easy to come up with a good definition of what a game is, but I can tell you some of the elements that are inessential.
“Poker is a game, and it does not have an open sandbox world or exploding tanks. Chess is a game, and it does not have a loot system or character customisation or premium download horse armour.
“I like games because they give the game designer a lot more creative options and a much better way of giving feedback and information to the player(s), not because they can give me a completely convincing reproduction of New York City being hit by a cruise missile.”
Foddy isn’t writing-off games that present the player with sprawling worlds to explore. He says he has enjoyed the experience of “visiting” places like Ico’s castle and the seaside locale in Super Mario Sunshine — such games can be great; but they’re not the main reason he wants to play games and they’re not the kind of games he wants to make.
An E-Sport Sport
So what is he interested in making?
To say he wants to make sports games would be grossly over-simplifying things, but let’s go with that for now — it’s a starting point.
His first huge successes, QWOP and GIRP, are games about sports. They went viral on release as people tried and failed repeatedly to run 100m in QWOP and climb to the top of GIRP. QWOP and GIRP were the video game equivalent of trying to eat soup with chopsticks — players knew what they wanted to do but, through fumbly fingers, they just couldn’t do it… and the results were hilarious. The games were passed around in office emails and shared over social media, everyone wanted to see how far others could get before stumbling clumsily. Some people mastered the games, others came close, and most just rolled around on the floor laughing like hyenas as their friends and colleagues flopped around like fat bags in the breeze.
As difficult as players found the games, there was never any confusion as to what players had to do, which is why he made QWOP, GIRP and now Pole Riders sports games.
“It’s using existing sports as a kind of creative shorthand,” Foddy says.
“If you put a bat in a player’s hand, she knows she has to hit a ball. If you put her in running shoes, she knows she has to run to the end of the track.
“What I really hate about a lot of commercial games is the amount of explanation involved. I like games where you can perceive what you’re supposed to do and how you’re supposed to do it without reading a dialogue box or following a tutorial. I’m sitting down at the computer or console because I want to play a game, not because I want to read some long-winded, patronising explanation.”
So it is not so much that he wants to make games about sports as much as he wants to use sports to make the kind of games he wants to make, and with Pole Riders, he wanted to make a game about sports that was actually a sport in itself.
The Essential Ingredients
Foddy was inspired to make Pole Riders after playing Messhof’s Nidhogg at the Eurogamer Expo. Seeing the way people played Nidhogg competitively, he thought about what made a game worthy of being used in an e-sports competition. Then he thought about the flaws of the games currently considered to be e-sports.
“I love traditional fighting games like Street Fighter, but I think that the design is fundamentally busted in some ways because the endless string of button-presses maximises input latency and closes the door on novice players,” he says.
“I love competitive e-sport shooters like Counter-Strike, but I feel that in the end too much of it is based on reflexes and memorisation, rather than the more interesting aspects of battle.
“[And] I love multiplayer sports games like FIFA but feel that they are overly bound by the concept of ‘realism’. And I hate the most popular e-sport, the real-time strategy games, because I feel like you have to have a spreadsheet open to be playing them well.”
The best e-sports, in Foddy’s view, would be totally simple to learn and control but would reward creative play more than long practice, stimulant abuse, or min-maxing. Foddy says he wants to make games that two people can pick up and play together and have that experience of vying for the glory of victory and striving to avoid the shock of defeat.
“They should be deep enough to support the invention of new moves and the experience of ‘yomi’, the Japanese concept of trying to read your opponent’s mind as he tries to read yours,” he says.
“But they should also be very simple and self-explanatory.”
Foddy believes he hasn’t quite been able to achieve yomi in his games yet, but it is one of his goals.
His other goal is to foster a certain attitude in his players, and he does this by threatening players with humiliation if they fail.
“The penalty for failure varies wildly from one game to another. In Counter-Strike the penalty is that you have to sit and watch while other people continue to play. And in single-player games like Super Mario Bros. you are threatened with having to repeat a section of the game you have already played. Both of those are cases where you are threatened with a feeling of boredom.
“But there are multiplayer games where you are threatened with a loss of status of a loss of power when you lose. What I want to bring out with the rewards and penalties in my game is a sense of pride in the player. I want to bring out a ‘never say die’ attitude, a sense of dogged, grim-faced determination to succeed.”
Pole Riding Is Like Fencing
Frank Lantz is the director of New York University’s Game Centre and the creative director of Area/Code, which has now become Zynga New York. He believes that Pole Riders is a great example of a fascinating little underground micro-movement that he calls “minimalist e-sports.”
“E-sports, video games that are designed to encourage and reward high-level competitive play, is an idea that is experiencing a watershed moment right now,” Lantz says.
“Games like StarCraft 2, League of Legends, and Street Fighter are developing large, enthusiastic audiences and pro-gamers are devoting their lives to mastering these games… similar to professional athletes in physical sports.
“At the same time that e-sports is maturing into a large-scale, global scene, there is an interest among underground, independent, experimental game designers exploring similar ideas.”
According to Lantz, these creators are making games that aren’t for a solitary player to explore a fictional universe or solve puzzles, but for communities of players to explore the aesthetic potential of skillful play. Lantz believes this is partly related to the renewed interest in play as performance, which has emerged from the “new arcade” movement where creators pay closer attention to the social context of their games.
This, says Lantz, is where Pole Riders fits in.
“Foddy is the master of what Steve Swink (the developer of Shadow Physics) calls ‘game feel’. Foddy was bending physics back on itself and creating dense nuggets of systemic brilliance that pulled players into a strange space of meditative madness. The results are ridiculous but they are also sublime and, in their own way, far more profound than they look.
“He creates simple systems that gain immense depth, not from adding ‘content’ like levels, but from creating a context that pulls players more deeply into the emergent properties at the core of the system itself.
“In some ways Pole Riders is as simple as a physical game like Fencing, but is also as deep as Fencing, and that’s saying a lot.”
The 1968 Olympics
Foddy is modest. Aside from believing that Pole Riders hasn’t hit the mark with “yomi”, he also doesn’t think that Pole Riders has been successful as an e-sport — minimalist or otherwise.
“I guess a real success of an e-sport would gather a huge audience,” he says.
“People would be organising tournaments and conventions over it.”
Enormous conventions and global tournaments aside, Foddy says that there are certain elements that make for an interesting e-sport and these are the things he kept in mind when he decided to make his own e-sport in Pole Riders.
“I don’t think you can force something to become an e-sport, but you can definitely design a game with e-sport adoption in mind, just like musicians can write a song that is radio-friendly,” he says.
“I always think of the Olympic high jump as being a kind of archetype of the way that sport can be interesting and dramatic.
“When Dick Fosbury came to the Olympics in 1968, people were doing scissor jumps or barrel rolls. But his new technique was so superior that he single-handedly changed the way the sport was played. And I think this kind of situation [in games] is possible because the problem of getting a human body over a high bar is a really complicated and deep one.”
A game made for the purpose of e-sports also needs to have unlimited room for improvement. Foddy says that in many single-player games, the player ultimately reaches a point where they feel like they “get it”. They may not master it or get a perfect score, but there comes a point where they fully grasp what it would take to get the perfect score and they lose interest in playing the game.
“To take a really trivial example, we don’t have tic-tac-toe as a competitive sport because there’s a right and wrong move to play at each point, and because the person who goes first can always win if they play it right,” he says.
Foddy says that if a game is going to be played as a spectator sport, it also needs to support the right kind of improvement.
“What we want to see is a player who gets better at reading her opponent’s intentions, or who invents new moves or new strategies.”
Coming up with designs that allow players to continue to innovate and improve over years of competitive play without breaking the design is an enormous challenge. It takes hundreds of years of iteration to get real-life sports to the point where players can innovate within the game, and that challenge also exists in e-sports.
“But game developers have one advantage,” says Foddy. “They're not bound by the laws of reality.
“An e-sport can have any kind of rule. In soccer, we have the boring and disruptive offside rule because the rules of the game break down when players sit and wait really close to the opposing goal. In a video game, you can put spikes near the goal, or just make it so the players teleport back to the middle of the field if they stand there for too long.”
Pole Riders was prototyped in an afternoon and chipped away at for months. Creating the game with e-sports in mind has made it a far more fascinating game than QWOP and GIRP but with a similar brand of simplicity and frustration, and the same sense of satisfaction and empowerment when the game is cleared.
Somewhere in the world people are still awkwardly running along the track in QWOP, knees almost touching the ground, looking like challenged marionettes. Somewhere else in the world the rag-doll body of the GIRP rock climber is hanging there as seagulls kamikaze straight into its head. And somewhere this weekend five friends are crowded around a computer monitor, swinging noodly poles in Pole Riders and screaming at each other like they are playing for their country. They may as well be.
Portrait of Foddy by Alana O'Dowd.