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Catching Up With Jonathan Blow

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Catching Up With Jonathan Blow

December 6, 2010 Article Start Previous Page 3 of 5 Next
 

It's interesting you say that. It seems like a theme in Braid as well. It's just you, you're on your own, and even though there are enemies in Braid you still, that sense of there was something here before and then gone.

And I noticed this with Adam Saltsman's games as well. Do you think that's got anything to do with the way in which you work? For both you and him -- solitary programmers as your background, and not working with big teams.

Do you think that reflects something about you?

JB: It might. Yeah, I mean it seems undeniable that like... if you're in video games and you're able to do substantial projects, you probably spent a lot of your life figuring out how to do it, because video games are hard to make, right? So that's got to be formative on my personality or on somebody else's personality.

It's hard to say for sure because I haven't spent a lot of time working on big teams. I know that I don't like it, mainly for reasons of you're always having to compromise, you can't just get things done, and there's all this inertia; it becomes a political process, and I don't like political processes. So I would say that there probably is some degree of influence there.

Part of it, though, is also that... I feel like parts of what I'm trying to do is explore territories that are underrepresented in games. And so, you know, Braid had a certain kind of sadness to it, while at the same time having upbeat and hopeful elements; it was a mixture of things. And you know, if you think sadness in video games, it doesn't often get done except in a very direct like, "Oh you killed my son!" or whatever. And so I found that ambiguous kind of sadness to be what I wanted to do there.

And The Witness actually is less sad and more hopeful. It's a little bit of an emotional sequel to Braid in that way, even though the gameplay has nothing to do with it. You know, even though you're alone, in this game it becomes alone with a purpose, with a good reason for being alone that becomes revealed as you understand more about what's going on.

And as for the next game... the game that I am thinking maybe the next game... is very abstract, so it's hard to even call anything in it a character, so I don't know how I would file that. But maybe it does.

So you've been talking again recently about things that you perceive as damaging game design trends, which is kind of in a theme that you're known for. My perception of your work is that you value games that level the player over games that level the avatar. Do you think that's true, and would you prefer it if all games functioned like that?

JB: Well, you know, it's really difficult to say. I don't want to be in the business of saying that all games should be anything. Because I think that, actually, there should be a variety of all kinds of games. That's what makes things healthy, right? Like all the time, the way we progress in anything -- in science, in arts, or whatever -- is that totally out of some left field corner, some surprising thing happens and it moves us; it causes a paradigm shift. So having a wide variety of games, I think, is the most healthy thing. I don't ever want to say, "Don't make that".

However, that's not the situation that we have right now, right? What we have is, there are a large number of a small set of kinds of game, and there's all this territory that's kind of unexplored around it.

And so when I go and give lectures like that, I feel like it's a good idea to call attention to certain unexplored things and say like, "Hey, maybe this is valuable". And then also on the other side, like what I was doing in my most recent talk [is to] say, "You know, a vast majority of our games that we're making -- and almost all of them -- have these certain design trends in them and I actually want to question that trend because I do think it's unhealthy."

Now me personally, as a designer, I think very much about when I make something and I'm going to put it out into the world... You know, Braid sold hundreds of thousands of copies, right? That's hundreds of thousands of people playing a five-hour, four-hour... however long it is for them. And that game has an impact on somebody's mind, like that's just how it is.

And so when I do that and I'm putting something out with that kind of volume, I have to care about what it's doing. It's doing something to the minds of my players, and the question is, "What is that?". And for a lot of games, you know, going back to really old games like Pac-Man or something, what the game does to the mind of the player is mostly about just teaching them the basics of the game.

Like, okay, I'm this yellow guy and I'm eating these dots and these ghosts will kill me but I can eat the power pill and chase them. You don't know that before you ever sit down to play Pac-Man, but at first you know it and then you learn how to strategize around that or whatever, right?

So there's a learning process that happens, and that can be a very positive thing. And I think to a large extent, that's what games are actually about, is learning. So then the question is if games are about learning, if every game teaches people something, then if I make any particular game, what is that game teaching people?

And obviously there's always this very game mechanical level of things that it's teaching, but usually there are subtler things as well. And so what I try to do is think about what those subtler things are, and make sure that I feel okay about that. And call attention sometimes when I feel like there are huge trends of subtle things that are very negative that are being done to a large volume of people. I just feel like I ought to say something about that, because very few game designers think about things that way.

So getting back to the first part of the question, while doing all these talks, I don't ever want to say to any specific game designer, "You shouldn't make some kind of game." Actually, that's not true. I would say that about most actual games -- like, you know, even back when I gave a talk a couple years ago saying like, "Hey, I don't think World of Warcraft is that great".

I still wouldn't tell people, "Don't make that game" exactly, I would say, "Think about what you're making and be careful when you make it and try not to exploit players." But I mean now that we've got FarmVille and stuff like that, I pretty much would say "don't make that kind of game" because I don't see much value in it.

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.

And there's this kind of new way where people are, like Bryan Reynolds working on FrontierVille and stuff, making it supposedly deeper, but that kind of thing has been very token so far. And in fact, I would argue that the audience of that kind of game doesn't necessarily want a deeper game, or certainly that's not proven; it's very speculative.

So I would say don't make that stuff. If you want to make a Facebook game, there are a lot of very creative things that could be done, but the FarmVille template is not the right one.

A long-winded answer to your question.


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Comments


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."


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