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Catching Up With Jonathan Blow

December 6, 2010 Article Start Page 1 of 5 Next

Jonathan Blow went from well-known within the development community to a rising star of the new indie movement when his Xbox Live Arcade, PC, and PlayStation network title Braid became one of the biggest successes of the nascent download space -- particularly on Xbox 360.

Since then, everyone has been waiting to see what his next title will be. Recently, he announced and began to demo The Witness, a 3D adventure game. While the shift from Braid's 2D platforming style was somewhat surprising, there are similarities -- and in this interview, given at the recent Nottingham GameCity event, Blow discusses both the subtle and obvious ties the new game has to his previous hit.

He also deeply discusses the ethics of game design, picking apart what he believes developers should and shouldn't do and why, what Microsoft forces him to do that he wishes it would not, and much, much more.

We haven't spoken for a couple of years.

JB: Last time we talked it was two days before Braid was released or something.

Or one day. So I didn't know how that was going to go, and fortunately it went really well; you know, people liked the game and it review well, sold well.

After that, I kind of took a bit of a break from serious development and prototyped some different ideas. Like... there were games that I spent two or three months on each, just playing around with.

They were good, interesting ideas, and the one that I liked the most... you know, that I didn't want to do at first because it was a very ambitious and challenging game is what I'm actually working on now, this game that we've revealed today.

Well, I've been working on it seriously for about a year with a small team of people. I started hiring those people on to work on the game almost exactly a year ago.

What kind of roles have you hired?

JB: There's a full time 3D artist and there's a full time tech programmer. And then, I did a bunch of tech programming early on just to get the engine together so we could kind of run the game.

Now, I'm mostly focused on game design and also on gameplay programming because as a designer it's easier to get things done if you just type it in. But most of the programming we've doing is like, "I want this certain object that behaves in a certain way", right? Whereas before it was like, "I need the shadows all over the world to be like accurate."

So you've recruited so you can do the stuff that you want to focus on.

JB: Yeah, because tech programming is really... It takes a lot of time and energy. It's very absorbing and it's hard to do game design while I'm doing that.

So are you working remotely or are you working together?

JB: We're a distributed team right now, which has advantages and disadvantages. I think that, eventually, we're going to get an office and maybe move in a couple days a week. But right now, people live far enough apart. And aside from those two other main people that I talked about... so we're the only three that are working on the game full-time, but there's a number of people who are contributing in a part time, looser kind of way. And they live even more discriminately.

Have you found people you've worked with previously, or did you advertise?

JB: Well, [Braid art director] David Hellman is doing some stuff. He's doing some conceptualization and advanced thinking about what certain parts of the environment should look like, you know, how to make things interesting.

Other people who haven't worked with me on a game before but -- there's audio work being done, there's concept art. We're in the process of hiring our architect to do design for the buildings, because we care a lot about what those spaces feel like to be inside and architects are very good at helping to channel that kind of thing.

And also, each location is going to have its own visual style as well as puzzle style and just making it cohere. So there are a bunch of roles like that. Like there was no role for an architect in Braid, so it's a little different now.

So were you certain that you wanted to do a 3D title?

JB: I absolutely didn't want to do a 3D title. You know, after you do a game and it's commercially successful and you have money and you can go and do whatever you want, the biggest mistake is to do what people often do -- a super ambitious second project that is very expensive and uses all of your money, and you don't get it done, or it flops, or whatever, and then you're poor and you're back to square one, right?

I didn't want to do that, but this is exactly that kind of game. It's 3D, it's much harder to make, it's sprawling, it's bigger than Braid, it's a longer play experience.

However, I look at these other prototypes that I did which would've been easier games to make, and I just felt so much more excited about the concept behind The Witness and I felt it was more important to do that game than the other ones right now.

So I just said, "You know what? It's risky, it's gonna take a long time to make this game, it's gonna be very difficult to make it as compelling as a traditional game is because it's so weird, but it's what I really want to do." So I did that.

And why did you really want to do it?

JB: Well, it's hard to explain, because it has to do with something that I don't want to spoil. The game is about certain kinds of magic moments that happen in the mind of the player.

So actually it's interesting... back before I did Braid, for a long time I was an independent developer and I would do little projects. And one of the projects that I talked previously about in the public I never ended up finishing it; it had some interesting game design ideas, but I kind of dropped it because it was too hard, it was kind of unplayable. But that game had like a kind of a magic moment in it that wasn't part of the main gameplay, but it was like a side thing that I thought would be really cool.

And after finishing Braid -- actually just before finishing Braid, when I needed a break from all the console certification stuff -- I just thought about some of these old games, because I was thinking, "What do I want to do next?".

And I thought about this game and I was like, "You know, I still don't know how to make the gameplay of that work. But this magic moment here is really exciting and cool." And as soon as I focused just on that, and I thought, "Why don't I throw away the rest of that old game that doesn't work and just build an entire new game around this kind of heart of an idea?"

So I ended up doing that, and that led to some very exciting things. But it's still kind of under wraps, because it's so pivotal to the experience of the game that I'd rather that players don't know about it. It's like the surprise ending of a movie or something: you don't want to tell people going into the slasher movie who survives at the end or whatever. But that thing was strong enough that it was clear that this is the game I had to make next.

But when you're talking about a spoiler you're talking about a mechanical spoiler rather than a narrative twist?

JB: Yeah. You know, there probably will be narrative twists in the story but they're not the focus of the game, whereas this other stuff is game mechanical. Like things that happen, things that you interact with in certain ways.

Article Start Page 1 of 5 Next

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Shay Pierce
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Great stuff. Also, gratifying to sit down and read that last part about Super Meat Boy right after spending 45 minutes playing and re-playing the infamously-hard levels for "The Kid" in Super Meat Boy, and being a bit amazed at the fact that I actually got better at it and clearly developed a certain type of skill between starting and stopping playing that level.

As he said earlier in the interview, it's "leveling up yourself" rather than leveling up the avatar. Similarly, Jon's game Braid was really about exploring yourself - making yourself think in an entirely new way that you could never have imagined before, and figuring out the way to get a puzzle piece which, minutes before, you literally believed must be impossible for anyone to get.

It definitely feels like a more honest school of game design than one built entirely around "external reward systems" such as achievements and XP.

On the other hand, I think he's a little hard on Farmville - not to say I love that game or anything, but it's also not like it's the first game that demands your attention when you're away from it. Tamagotchis were doing that fifteen years ago! Some people just like that sense of "fake responsibility."

Chad Wagner
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Unfortunately, "The Witness" sounds a little like "Myst." :) Exploring a beautiful once populated, now completely empty world...uncovering small bits of a story about what happened/is happening. I'm confident Jonathan will bring many new ideas to this familiar setup, though.

It was an age-old complaint of games in the 80's that they continuously presented us with fascinating, empty worlds -- and there's only so many ways to explain such a construct. Of course, this became tedious. Post apocalyptic this, alternate dimension that, and cataclysmic "wrongness" the other thing. However, as environments become more realistic, I think we can recapture the unnerving feeling of being in the middle of New York with no one in sight.

Chris Crawford suggests the reason we are drawn to empty worlds is more simple: we suck at making people. Although I think about "Deadline," a brilliant text adventure mystery -- which was populated by a ton of interesting characters. In that game, the "world" was quite small, but the story was discovered by carefully investigating each character (questioning, following, listening in on, and presenting information to them for reaction). They formed a kind of larger world in themselves! I long to see a game that can offer the same kind of character richness I got out of that game.

I imagine the "different perspectives" he's talking about might be like: look at this room through this mirror -- ooh, it's different. Through these glasses, from the other side of the window, upside down, through this reflection in a pond... That could be fun, to see multiple versions of the world in effect superimposed on each other.

Shay Pierce
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I haven't played "Deadline", but from your description (and your stated desire to play similar games), I'd suggest playing Jordan Mechner's "The Last Express"... if you can manage to find/torrent a copy, that is. Great game set entirely on a train, occupied with many strong characters... and spying on those characters definitely forms part of the experience.

John Vincent Andres
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I'm glad you mentioned "The Last Express." I was going to do so myself.

Evan Jones
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Braid borrows a lot of tropes from the Mario series (goomba-like characters, carnivorous plants in pipes, flagpoles at the end of levels, etc.).

Myst certainly isn't the first game to be based around solving puzzles on an uninhabited island, but it's probably the best-known. I wouldn't be surprised to see The Witness borrow a trope or two from Myst.

Wylie Garvin
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My guess is that Braid borrowed those elements deliberately, because they are so familiar to many gamers. It helps set up this kind of cognitive dissonance where you've got these familiar elements and familiar mechanics, but you're also engaged by some very different/unfamiliar gameplay mechanics and the reward structure is practically the opposite of what you get in a Mario game. I think it worked really well, I remember laughing out loud when I first got to the stuffed animal at the flagpole who said my princess was in another castle.

Joe Cooper
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I wouldn't say "borrowed a trope" so much as "directly alludes to for the amusement" - a dinosaur even comes out and says "the princess is in another castle".

Chris Remo
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Chad: The particular parts of Myst you describe are awesome, though. Myst's failings have to do with its "gameplay" aspects, not the tonal aspects of exploring a deserted world rich in detail.

Shay: Totally agree on The Last Express. One of the best adventure games ever, and it explores a lot of great setting- and gameplay-related concepts that have sadly been largely left unexplored in games ever since.

Chad Wagner
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Ooh yeah! Last Express has been on my Buy List since it came out! I'm way behind alright. :) Ebay has it for around $20 in plentiful supply. I can play that while I'm waiting for The Witness! (and replay Deadline, Suspect and Witness from Infocom)

I agree those Myst parts were the best -- I actually liked Myst altogether. And the Myst Ultimate (I think) even turns it in to a FPS style play.

Thanks for your replies.

jaime kuroiwa
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You're talking about "RealMyst," easily the best version of Myst. I'd also point out that Myst V and Uru are rendered in 3D as well.

Shay Pierce
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Chris: I only played it because you & your cohorts raved about it for like 3 episodes in a row on Idle Thumbs! Thanks for recommending awesome things, also baboo.

Chris Remo
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Shay: Success!

jaime kuroiwa
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I'm not sure how MS certification will accept secret achievements, but I don't see what's wrong with incorporating "traditional" Xbox achievements into the gameplay, like as a cryptic hint or inner dialog.

The Witness sounds fantastic. It's certainly more my type of game than Braid was.

Great interview, by the way. It's refreshing to hear a voice that doesn't sound like a hype machine.

Shay Pierce
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Most 360/XBLA games have a few secret achievements. I don't know if I've ever seen a game with 100% secret achievements.

Given that Microsoft compromised with Blow on certain certification requirements for Braid, and given that game's success and prominence, I'd expect that they'd be even more accommodating for this game.

Mark Venturelli
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So The Witness is like John Blow's open-ended Myst? I dig.

Mark Venturelli
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And on the "rewards" subject, I think that's what Blow meant, but just making it clearer: rewards are not intrinsically bad. Rewards are one of the key tools on a designer's arsenal. They are just bad when used for no other reason than motivating a player to continue on a treadmill.

In WoW, for example, the big "XP as content gate" design theme is not very respectful to the player, in my opinion. But a random rare loot drop in the end of a dungeon is an interesting reward because it brings an element of surprise and discovery as a reward to exploration - a theme that is deeply related to the D&D roots that WoW has.

Even though I am not specially gay for designing atmospheric puzzle collections, Blow is absolutely right about just asking people to *think* before shoving trendy reward systems on their games - whether it's an artsy fartsy platformer or a nerdy dungeon crawler.

Or shoving any other mechanic, for that matter. What role does that mechanic plays on the player experience? How does it affects dynamically the other stuff you already have in there? Smarter designers can only lead to better games.

Greg Wondra
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I couldn't agree more with this part:

"It's only about exploiting the players and yes, people report having fun with that kind of game. You know, certain kinds of hardcore game players don't find much interest in FarmVille, but a certain large segment of the population does. But then when you look at the design process in that game, it's not about designing a fun game. It's not about designing something that's going to be interesting or a positive experience in any way -- it's actually about designing something that's a negative experience.

It's about "How do we make something that looks cute and that projects positivity" -- but it actually makes people worry about it when they're away from the computer and drains attention from their everyday life and brings them back into the game. Which previous genres of game never did. And it's about, "How do we get players to exploit their friends in a mechanical way in order to progress?" And in that or exploiting their friends, they kind of turn them in to us and then we can monetize their relationships. And that's all those games are, basically."