In the wake of its success on Xbox Live Arcade, Number None's innovative platform title Braid has majorly increased the profile of independent games on consoles.
Its creator, Jonathan Blow, previously a code columnist for Game Developer magazine and a contract programmer/designer for a number of notable games, from Flow through Phase and beyond, has always been an outspoken advocate of working outside of the orthodoxy -- in more ways than just going it alone as an indie developer.
Blow runs the Experimental Games Workshop at GDC, and is an advocate of creating games that challenge the conventional wisdom about how to make a game -- from their core design on up.
In this in-depth Gamasutra interview, the designer talks candidly about the ideas that led to the development of Braid, and why challenging conventional pacing and gameplay is so important.
As someone who is doing all of the roles within the traditional development team, as one guy... you talked about how you're trying to keep from getting jaded and protect a bit of innocence in the whole process, as you're stretching yourself to do all of that stuff. How are you trying to keep some purity and vision?
JB: I don't know if there's any kind of technique that aids that. I don't know. The actual hard thing for me has just been to do the work. Three years is a long time. It's been about three years of calendar time working on Braid, but I actually started the game and did a little prototype, and then there were several months of break before I was able to really start development.
So it's been like three and a half or more, total, since I first conceived the game to when it was done for Live Arcade. And I still have to do the PC version, so it's going to be even longer. It's a long time to work on one thing, to not have any external validation for it. So I'm not making any money [during development].
I guess one of the reasons I showed the game at the GDC a few times -- not only because it was cool and I wanted to share it -- was because I knew from my history of getting burned out on long projects, I wanted to have at least some kind of communication with the outside world about this. Because otherwise, you just get nothing. You don't get nourished at all for that entire period, and it becomes very depressing.
I'm not a very materialist person. I don't feel like I really need external validation in my personality, but actually, the human psyche does, always. Even if it's not in your higher level of personality, there's something down there that wants that.
It's something, I guess, when you announce your game, and people start to get excited about it. It's like, "Oh crap, I actually have to do that now. I've got to deliver the goods." It's a super-real motivator.
JB: Yeah. In fact, I announced it very early. I showed it at the GDC in... I lost all track of time now, but I guess it was 2005, like March 2005, after I'd really only done a few weeks of work on it. So it was just a basic prototype.
But it was at this experimental game session that I run, so people weren't expecting more than a basic prototype, and they really liked it. I showed it in '05 and '06 and '07, like at various stages of development.
So that kind of process you were talking about, about how most development teams have become so process-driven, it's like a factory. You get your head down and list all your tasks to make the game, fulfill your tasks, and then you get onto the next one. That results in game designers becoming quite jaded and tired. Do you think that filters down to game players in any way?
JB: I think that everything that the developer does shows up in the final game, somehow. Or doesn't show up -- it shows up as something that's missing. Large-scale game development with big budgets has a way of polishing over that.
Like, "There's some kind of joy that didn't make it into the final game, but we're going to spend some money and have some awesome full-motion video animation on the main menu when you start up the game, and it's going to get people hyped." Gamers kind of commute to that, and that's what they expect -- that kind of production value.
Number None Inc.'s Braid
Indies can't necessarily do that. We can do a smaller amount of stuff, so our job is to just do it better, in order to be relevant to the player. With Braid -- and this is one of the things that doesn't come across -- people look at screenshots on the web and videos... I haven't put a good video of it up yet, but they look at bad videos on the web and they're just like, "I don't quite see what's good about this game." Part of that is because they can't see the gameplay, but part of it is because the game is about setting up a mood and instilling a feeling, and when you play it, hopefully...
Some people have told me that they do feel this way. If you do feel that the developers really cared about this game and really set it up for you to play and meticulously thought about everything... hopefully that's something they feel from the very beginning. That's not something that just happens. That's something that has to remain intact through all of development, from the beginning from when you're excited about the idea, and at the end, when it's just painful to work another day, but you have to, to get all the bugs nailed down and stuff.
I still haven't quite answered the question, but it's in what you do every day. You have to keep that certain feeling about the game. You have to know that it's important enough.