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Blow: 'Unnecessary' XBLA Hurdles Hurt Game Quality
Blow: 'Unnecessary' XBLA Hurdles Hurt Game Quality
August 8, 2008 | By Simon Parkin, Leigh Alexander

August 8, 2008 | By Simon Parkin, Leigh Alexander
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    26 comments
More: Console/PC



Independent designer Jonathan Blow's award-winning Braid made its Xbox Live Arcade debut just last week, but Blow says Microsoft's certification requirements might have impeded the game's final quality.

Talking to Gamasutra as part of a larger interview to be published in the near future, Blow says the cert process for XBLA is more geared toward triple AAA games than perhaps is useful.

The Downside

"They removed some of the requirements for XBLA games, but there are still a lot of requirements, and I believe that, at least for a single-player game like my game, the vast majority of these requirements are unnecessary," he says.

"I put in a tremendous amount of work meeting all these requirements, when I could have put that work into the actual game, and made it even a little more polished, little bit better."

Blow says Microsoft's XBLA certification process is intended to ensure a standard of quality for all titles on the service -- "But I feel like it actually decreases the quality of games, because people spend so much of their energy on these things that users don't even really care about."

Were the challenges of certification enough to deter Blow from releasing further games on XBLA? "I definitely had a couple of unpleasant business interactions with Microsoft," he says.

"Nothing horrible -- well, nothing quite bad enough to cause me to cancel releasing the game on Arcade."

And it's unsurprising, because publishing relationships always have negative elements, he says. "But what would keep me from putting another game on Arcade again is just that they've changed the business deal -- at least as I've heard."

Braid was signed over a year ago, Blow says, and with a new deal structure in play, he fears cost sustainment. "If it's as I've heard that it is, I couldn't even necessarily break even."

Blow adds that his development team consisted essentially of himself and artist David Hellman, contrasted with even slightly larger teams of a handful of developers, as with Castle Crashers' The Behemoth.

But now that Braid is out on the service, can players expect sequels or downloadable content?

"Money is not really my goal, so even if Braid does very well... that's not my concern. I'm not going to do a sequel to Braid -- I don't care how many copies it sells," says Blow.

"I mean, maybe in five years when I'm motivated, if I have a really fresh idea for it. But I'm not waiting in the wings with a level pack, or DLC or anything."

Blow says he has considered releasing Dashboard themes since Microsoft announced the redesign. "I didn't want to do them on the old Dashboard, because it's covered with ads everywhere," he says.

"Braid is about setting a mood and a feeling, and you can't do it while there's like, a Burger King ad there, flashing... I just felt that juxtaposition would have been bad for the game."

The Upside

Responding to this article in the comments below, however, Blow said he also wanted to stress the positives of his interaction with Microsoft -- "they were also cool about a lot of things," he said.

"They didn't try to dictate the game design, as many publishers might -- they were very hands-off there, and what is in the final game is exactly what I wanted to put there."

"They also bent a lot of XBLA rules, in order to help me make the game the way I wanted, which was pretty cool of them," he said -- one example, the way in which Braid launches and places the player directly in the game is "technically illegal if you go by the book, but they saw what I was trying to do and went with it."

"For the most part, working with Microsoft has been great," says Blow. "There have been occasional problems, including one that I was very upset about -- but there are people at Microsoft who really got the game and worked very hard to help bring it to completion, and it would just be wrong to slight their contribution with some kind of blanket 'Microsoft = Bad' attitude."


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Comments


Jonathan Blow
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Hmm, this makes me seem extremely negative toward Microsoft, when that's really not how it is. Yes, there were some negative interactions during development, but they were also cool about a lot of things.



They didn't try to dictate the game design, as many publishers might -- they were very hands-off there, and what is in the final game is exactly what I wanted to put there. They also bent a lot of XBLA rules, in order to help me make the game the way I wanted, which was pretty cool of them. (For example, the way in which you can launch Braid and be directly in the game -- that is technically illegal if you go by the book, but they saw what I was trying to do and went with it.)



So I just want to add some balance here. For the most part working with Microsoft has been great. There have been occasional problems, including one that I was very upset about -- but there are people at Microsoft who really got the game and worked very hard to help bring it to completion, and it would just be wrong to slight their contribution with some kind of blanket "Microsoft = Bad" attitude.

Warren Currell
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Good luck with the game Jonathan!



If you were unhappy with the quality of the game, why not just spend more time on it and release it later in the year?

Steve Watkins
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I'm dubious, at best, on M$FTs "certification" processes. They green-lighted "Mr Driller ONLINE (emphasis added)" and released it and it wasn't even playable online. It was *finally* patched and now works - but it's months too late, as it's rare to find anyone playing it - the damage was done. Another quick example is "Lost Cities" - that crashes on me and gives error messages sometimes. I have downloaded it a few times - same results.



If Jonathan is reading this - I played the demo and I really like the artistic look of the game and the puzzles that were available. I am curious - who picked the price point - M$FT or you?



Good luck with it - I hope it sells well. :)

Steve Watkins
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Disregard Q about who chose price point. I saw a video clip of Jonathan explaining it. I understand the reasoning, but I disagree with it. I think the $15 price has placed a ceiling on the gamers Braid will convert to sales, ie, it just limited sales to the niche/"fans who've heard about it" crowd. I think it ensures a break-even only scenario. We'll see.



Big phenoms in gaming ceom from word-of-mouth as well as from massive hype. $10 would have captured the word-of-mouth adoptees.



I check new Arcade releases every week and try almost every demo. Aside from a few noteworthy exceptions, I don't see that Braid got more or less hype than the majority of Arcade titles.



Anyway - I hope Braid does well. This is an interesting situation.



[Disclosure: No, I didn't buy Braid. I will if it makes it to the Greatest Hits area at $10. And I don't pay $10 for movies either - only "dollar" movies and rentals.]

Jonathan Blow
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Warren: Wait, what? I am very happy with the final quality of Braid. What I was saying, though, is that I think the cert process may have an overall negative impact on quality (for Arcade-sized games). Yes, I can make up for that by working a few extra months -- spending more money which I may not have any of left, and more time which keeps the game out of players' hands, and more of my sanity because I have been working on this project forever -- how are those things good?



Why should I work harder, for longer, when I could work less and produce a higher-quality game?



As for releasing later in the year, do *you* want to release an indie game on a major console when all the Christmas season titles are hitting, and their title wave of PR is washing across the internet?

Jonathan Blow
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I meant "tidal wave". Lack of sleep. (Though I guess that could be interpreted as a terrible pun.)

Arthur Times
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I posted this in another Braid related article but I'll do it here as well because I realized it's the wrong one.



What language is the game programmed in? I know XNA focuses on C# but what about XBLA? Does it allow C++?



Thanks.

jaime kuroiwa
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Hi Johnathan,



If sales wasn't a factor, then why release it on XBLA? Just going through their certification process is a costly endeavor. You could have saved yourself some time/money if you had it hosted on another service -- you already had the hype machine working in your favor; you just needed to provide the link -- and you'd have been able to achieve your vision unimpeded.



I'm not going to defend Microsoft's requirements for submissions, but there's something to be said about maintaining a consistent end-user experience. As you've said, they've been pretty flexible with the development of your game, but, if you were planning to post it on XBLA, you should have included their requirements early on in development, possibly at the design stage.



Congratulations on getting your game to market, by the way.

Rodney Brett
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I'm going to have to check out this "Braid" game. Looks fun. It's amazing what negative publicity does for a game.

Greg Hennessey
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Interesting to see some light being shed on this topic.



I think it's clearly understood that the certification process is intended to benefit games, ensuring a level of quality that might otherwise be overlooked during the final stages of development. We all know it can get pretty crazy.



Even so, I can't help but feel sympathy for Jonathan and the other developers who have had to struggle with the process. Microsoft is in the limelight in this article, but you're sure to find just as many woes with Sony and Nintendo's certification, even expanding beyond XBLA or PSN.



The problem, from my experience, is that the certification requirements are written as broad brush-strokes intended to encapsulate every game and every situation. This often doesn't work for many games attempting something "different" or "innovative" and they may struggle to meet some of these requirements. The developers end up spending a lot of time trying to find clever ways to work around these requirements, which takes a great deal of effort and often doesn't look/work as well as the initial concept, hindering the final product from a productivity and quality stand point. As Jonathan mentioned, Microsoft helped find ways to work around certain requirements as well, which is something that happens quite frequently in the industry making the entire process somewhat of a dog and pony show.



It's apparent that certification is becoming a more stringent process with each generation of platforms, and while the intent is positive, the outcome is a painful trial towards finishing a game. I'm not sure what the answer is, but rather than making such stringent and specific rules, I think more time needs to be dedicated to reviewing overall quality and intent, rather than focusing on specific and often obscure rules that may not even apply to a specific title.

Aaron Claussen
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I've read a lot of people complain about the certification requirements MS has for their XBLA games, but what exactly ARE these certification requirements that people are talking about?

Jack Drake
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At last, I'd begun to fear the breed of game designers/developers who make their games for art, a message, expression and fun were extinct.



Money is merely a tool, perhaps a bonus, but primarily a means to get things done in a world bound by it. A salute for your attitude, and your game, the trial of which I enjoyed a great deal. If I could put the money in your hand directly, I'd love to buy it.

Ryan Schaefer
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Hey, John, I just want to say thank you for making such a great game. XBLA could use more original titles like Braid.

Chris Ainsworth
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Aaron: Essentially, they are rules that Microsoft lays out that the developer must follow. Things like how multiplayer works, ranked matching, quick matching, interface elements, how your menus are arranged, particular word usage, and so on. It's quite extensive. I don't have direct experience with the XBLA side of things, but I imagine it's similar to regular 360 title development.

Brad Whelan
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Johnathan, I could not have enjoyed your game more than I did. It gives me hope that we will start to see (as we have already) a resurgence in games as an art form as well as in the development of indie titles. I could not help but think the entire time through Braid that I was playing a "labor of love" because every aspect of the game, right down to the smallest of details just felt "right." That is what I mean when I say a return to the age when games were looked upon as more of an art form than the typical regurgitated dribble we receive from publishers like EA, Activision, etc, etc.



I just have one question though for you Johnathan: What was the draw that led you to ultimately pen the deal with Microsoft to release Braid on XBLA, and did you consider any other platform's network such as PSN or the Wii Virtual Console?



Just curious, thanks and I hope to hear your response, Johnathan!

Brad Whelan
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oops, meant to say "any other platform's networks)

Jonathan Blow
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I released Braid on XBLA first for a few reasons.



Firstly, I liked the idea of releasing the game on a fixed platform (i.e. not the PC) because I knew exactly what the hardware would be, didn't have to worry about driver bugs or scalability or varying CPU power. That kind of thing is very helpful when trying to craft a specific experience. So console downloadable seemed like the primary option.



WiiWare was right out, because their size limit (due to lack of storage on the console) is way too small for Braid. I talked to some folks at Sony but they were not interested in carrying the game. Later on I talked to someone from a different division who *was* interested, but by then I had signed with Microsoft and started the XBLA port.



Microsoft called me, rather than me calling them. The person there who called me was someone I knew from other circles (but not super well). He really understood the game and knew that it was something interesting and special, back when it looked extremely Programmer-Graphicsy and amateur. Unfortunately he left the company soon afterward!



Braid is written in C++. I don't think I would ever use XNA on anything, because if you do, your code base is permanently locked into Microsoft platforms. Part of the reason I was able to make Braid so "quickly" is that I already had a large codebase that had accumulated over my working in games for many years. That code is valuable to the extent that it is portable.

Elan Ruskin
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Hey Jon -- congrats again on a great product in Braid.



I'm curious which TCRs in particular you had trouble with, or at least, which general categories you think could have been pared back to the benefit of overall game quality.



I know the very specific UI and nomeclature requirements have been a big stumbling block for some developers, while others have had more trouble with performance and load-time mandates, so I'm curious to hear your opinion.

Jonathan Blow
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It's not about any particular requirement or category -- it's about the amount of work every developer must do, redundantly, that is wholly unnecessary.



Leaderboards are a requirement for every game, and require a huge amount of work to implement well. Okay, first of all, they could just cut the leaderboard requirement completely. But if they keep it, well, why don't they just provide to developers some code, *in the public domain* (that last part is important -- it can't be copyright Microsoft), that does a good job of handling Leaderboards? It should be a 1-day plug-and-play thing, but it isn't. It's huge work.



There is a large amount of work involved in user sign-in, sign-out kinds of stuff. Braid is a single-player game! Ideally it shouldn't know anything about users at all, and when you start it up, it just uses the profile of whoever started it. It's ridiculous that I should spend as much time as I did on multiplayer concerns, but I had to. Furthermore, there are a lot of bugs in the user-handling stuff at the OS level, which every developer needs to find out about separately and work around, and the workaround involves doing the code a different way, so you probably have to write this code at least twice. They could fix the bugs. They could patch the system so that you can tell who launched a game, making the Press A screen unnecessary. Oh, did I rant yet about the huge number of additional menus that XBLA requires? Oh, I didn't? Well... this post is long enough, I'll cut it off here.



Oh wait, yeah, performance. Let's talk about how I had to work very hard to make the game load quickly, because the content package format sucks. (I had to make a system that packages all my files into one file that I can load at startup... WHEN THOSE FILES ARE ALREADY IN A PACKAGE BUT I HAVE NOT BEEN GIVEN A WAY TO MAP IT. And reading from that package takes 7 or 8 seconds, because of hashing that I am unable to turn off... when Braid is permitted to load naturally from the hard drive, it boots up in less than 0.5 seconds).



But I could go on for a long time. When you are making AAA games with 10 million dollar budgets, these requirements are not bad, because hey, you have 60 people working on the game; just 1 full-time person to work on these issues is a bargain. For an XBLA-sized team, 1 full-time person is half your team or more! This was the point I was trying to get at.



If the next xbox adds even more requirements, as seems to be the natural trend, I would think that small-team games would become nearly impossible.

Saemon Gyohei
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Johnathan,



Thanks for your detailed examples of the XBLA requirements. Given how much you learned of the XBLA pitfalls (and workarounds), are you still open to future development on that platform?

Saemon Gyohei
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Sorry, misspelled your name :(

Chris Ainsworth
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Aside from some of the obvious issues, I wouldn't be surprised if more indie developers end up gravitating straight to XNA, just so they can avoid TCR restrictions (will they be able to avoid these, or is there some final MS vetting that goes on at some stage?) and use the prebuilt bits, but like Jonathan said, that does tie them further to MSFT's platform.



That's one of the reason we're building our (independent) title for the iPhone... Apple does have their own guidelines, but it's mostly wild west so far (for better or worse).

Oliver Snyders
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Wow, thanks for the rant, Jonathan!



I think it's becoming increasingly important for developers to intelligently dissect the problems they face and express them publicly (if private discussions don't work). Carmack's discussion surrounding Microsoft's requirements for multi-disc games is similar - calling people out in the open to apply pressure.



I would also like to see developers intelligently discussing other developers' games, in the future, revealing what aspects, to them, were bad decisions, good implementations, poorly done etc. Developers, in general, are too kind (unless your name is Itagaki) - this leads to the same mistakes being made and never being rectified, in the same way that Microsoft will continue to make these mistakes unless someone criticizes them.



Thanks for airing your views.

Adam Dorwart
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Sorry for commenting this fairly late but I this is the only way I've found to contact Jonathon.



Jonathon you sure are a hard person to contact, I couldn't find any kind of e-mail address or anything to contact you at. It would probably help if you put an e-mail on Briads page or blog :P



Anyways I would like to have a word with you when you get a chance. It's about porting your game to another console.. one you probably haven't heard of ;)



please contact me at soulkiller117 [at] gmail.com when you get a chance.

James Dominguez
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Heya Jonathan, I just finished Braid last night, and I wanted to congratulate you; hope you're still around and reading new comments on here.



Braid really is an impressive piece of work - both a satisfying (and at times maddening) game in its own right, as well as a beautiful work of art. Every part of it knits together so well that nothing seems tacked on. The level design, the gameplay, the controls, the story, the music, and the graphics are brilliantly unified. The only complaint I have (and from my reading the primary one) is that the whole experience is over too quickly. I was left wanting more, though I adored it while it lasted. The level design and temporal-warping concepts really are amazing, and many times I was convinced that you couldn't be absolutely sane to have thought of many of the concepts.



I also wanted to commend you for including real romance and sadness (and, quite often, a blend of both). The realities of love, sadness, pain, and loss are depressingly rare in games. We have such a powerful medium in our hands that can touch people on a profound level, and yet it is so rarely used to really move people.



I know some critics have whined about the confusing and angst-filled backstory, but I thought it was sublime, and many times when reading I found myself nodding and thinking, "Hoo yeah, I know how that feels..." The powerful final level nearly reduced me to tears.



Great work, Jonathan. I sincerely hope you make enough of a profit to justify another game project, because I am eager to see what you come up with next.



Good luck for the future.



James

Jesse Rizutko
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I have serious doubts as to whether this comment will ever be read by Jonathan, as I am close a to a full year late to the game(in a very literal way). But on the off chance that you do read this I want to thank and congratulate you on your unequaled success. Without argument Braid is the single most artistically complete piece of media I have ever digested. When we at last win the fight against the spielberg's and ebert's of the world I am confident that those with an eye and mind for such things will point to your achievement as the Lexington of modern gaming. I regret that I could find no better way to contact you, nor express my gratitude with more sincerity.



Thank you, and please continue working.


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