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.