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Last year, Number None's Braid for Xbox Live Arcade became both a critical hit and a commercial success, proving that creator Jonathan Blow's views on experimenting with gameplay concepts can have real relevance with the wider gaming public in a concrete way.
Does this open the door for more experimentation? Where is the medium headed? Blow, who was previously a code columnist for Game Developer magazine and a contract programmer/designer for a number of notable games, from Flow through Phase, talks in-depth to Gamasutra in this post-Braid interview.
Among other things, Blow discusses his thoughts on PC as a gaming platform, the importance of PR to indies, and the new game ideas he's working on, as well as the role of story in today's biggest games:
What have you been up to since Braid shipped?
Jonathan Blow: A little bit working on an updated version for Xbox Live Arcade, because there were a couple of bugs in it. There were some more minor things, just little, tiny gameplay glitches. I've been doing that.
I have been talking to people about Braid on other platforms, like the Mac and PC. What's going on is that I took some time to do that originally, and then we hit this season where there were just a zillion PC games out. And I didn't want to release it in the middle of that, because probably nobody would notice.
You indicated at one point you were talking to Valve about Steam.
JB: A long time ago, I was talking to them, and it didn't really work out. Since then, they've come back and contacted me, and they are interested in putting the game up. So it's just a matter of me having a PC version ready that I feel is good to go with.
Would you be looking to distribute across multiple digital distribution platforms?
JB: Yeah. I don't think that locking down an exclusive agreement with one online distributor is a good idea. And a lot of people are willing to do non-exclusive publishing, so I'm just going to do that.
There are different schools of thought on that. Some people who would like to see it become almost more console-like, where it's just, "I want to be able to go into Steam and everything's there." Conversely, there's the principle that the PC should stay totally unlike consoles, a completely free market.
JB: I think both those things are true. I definitely like Steam, in that I can buy a new computer and bring it home and turn it on and install Steam and I have all my new games on there. And pretty soon, they're doing the settings and stuff now [via Steam Cloud, which allows users to store save game and configurations server-side]. That's pretty cool.
At the same time, I definitely want to be able to play games that aren't on Steam, right? I definitely want access to services that are not Steam and that are competing with them, because maybe they'll do something better. Maybe they'll do something in a different way.
So I'm in favor of both. And I realize that that introduces some amount of chaos into the thing. That's okay, though, because the PC is the place where that can happen.
If you want a very clean system where there are no alternatives, then that's consoles. That already exists. So, if we were to take that away from PCs, then what happens? What if somebody wants to do something new, and they just can't, because there's no longer a platform? So, I like the way it is now.
What I don't like about PCs is how hard it is to make a shipping-quality game on them, in terms of it not crashing on people's machines, or sounding and looking consistent, or whatever. It's nearly impossible.
Well, actually, it is impossible. What is possible is to do a job that doesn't screw up on that many people's machines. I think that there's no inherent reason for that anymore, so that needs to get fixed. But I don't see anyone working on it seriously.
Microsoft is trying to take stabs at it with Games for Windows.
JB: They're not doing a very good job. And I don't think many people would dispute with me on that fact. [laughs]
As an independent developer, there's another thing about the PC, which is there are a very large number of games -- independent games, even -- getting released on the PC.
I'm not the typical gamer, but a typical gamer only has a limited amount of attention. What should they be paying attention to? It's an open question.
And for me, as somebody who didn't have a big advertising budget, how do you communicate to people that this is a game that you actually want to be interested in?
Having it be released on a console, you don't have that problem, because, for example, on Xbox Live, there are only a limited number of games in the pipeline. If a game comes out on a given week, it's notable at least because it's the game of the week that week, right?
From there, if it's well-received on the console, I can still come to the PC and say, "Well, look, this game, a lot of people liked it." Whereas you could release a really good game on PC, and maybe just it never gets word of mouth, even though it's good. I was very concerned with that.