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Jonathan Blow: The Path to Braid

With art game Braid now a significant hit on Xbox Live Arcade, Gamasutra talks to creator Jonathan Blow on its long path to completion, challenging conventional pacing, and hopes for XBLA's future.

Simon Parkin, Contributor

September 12, 2008

45 Min Read

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.

I also wanted to ask you about the phrase you coined: "dynamical meaning," which is something I've been hearing about quite recently, the whole idea of game mechanics communicating something emotionally and intellectually to a player, in a similar way that narrative does, through the very structure and interactions. Which is the first game that really brought that to your attention, in which those things were really there and important?

JB: It's hard to say. This is something that games have been doing forever. I don't remember the sound effects from Pong or anything, but in an early game like Space Invaders or whatever, the game mechanics are communicated to you in various ways. You can read the rules on the cabinet, but really, there's sound effects in there. There's an ominous sound to the invaders, to help you realize that they're dangerous. It's a bad sound when you get hit, and a good sound when you hit the enemy and blow up the boss UFO. Those kinds of things are so simple that people weren't thinking of them that way.

But that kind of nonverbal communication... it wasn't in the gameplay rules yet, but it was in what I was calling the... I don't remember what I was calling it, but the core audiovisual elements of a game, like the symbology of a game. That's the kind of thing that a lot of academic game people have talked about, so there's probably a standard term for that, like... communication through the sound effects and stuff, that I don't actually know, because I don't read enough about it.

But over time, back then, games got more complicated. You had games on the PC, or on home computers before the PC, that you needed a manual to play at some point, because it needed a lot of keyboard controls, or if you had a lot of time to figure it out, you probably could. Then from there, everybody was like, "Okay, games need to start having tutorials." That was something that the industry was doing in the '90s. I remember when I started, which was in '95 or '96, it was like, "Oh yeah, you need to put in a tutorial so people can figure it out."

And from there, tutorials became more elegant. If you look at a modern game like Portal, you start the game and you're kind of in the tutorial, but you're playing. And the level design is set up to communicate things to you as you go through the game. Valve are very clear about that. In the developer commentary, they describe that sort of thing.

Which is not to say that Portal was the first game to do that sort of thing -- not even close -- but for a long time now, games have been using more and more things to communicate to the player. They're using the structure of the world, where things are located... you come over this hill, and you see this castle on the other hill, and you know that you should probably go there, in an open-world game. Things like that. The gameplay rules, on the one hand, are kind of a new thing. Like the art games that I was talking about have popularized that, or made it popular or more well known.

Like The Marriage.

JB: The Marriage was a breakthrough game for me, because it was the first game to really do that. That might be at least a good half-answer to this. Before The Marriage, I didn't quite see it that way. Rod tells me that The Marriage was a little bit inspired by Braid, actually, because there's a last level in Braid that does some things about telling a story through gameplay and not through text, as it does in the rest of Braid.

Rod Humble's The Marriage

But what The Marriage does is very different from what I did. What I did was set up a gameplay scenario -- basically a level that behaves a certain way, that tells you something. What he did was more lower-level. It was built in to the bottom-level rules of the game, which is what Braid does a little bit, but The Marriage made it clear. The Marriage was like, "This is what I'm doing. This is all." Something about that clarity really helped, and it inspired a lot of people.

But games have done that for a long time. Chris Crawford, the guy who founded the Game Developers Conference and then got kicked out from it, has been doing that kind of thing for a long time. For the past 14 years, he's been working on interactive stories. That's different. But way back in the '80s and stuff, he was making serious games -- games about nuclear reactors or the Earth's biosphere or Balance of Power, which is possibly his most famous game, and is pretty much a message-based game.

It had this theme where you just can't bully people when you're a world power, and all these things are at stake. I don't want to say that he was pedantic about that, in a way that a lot of message-based games are now, because it was definitely a game, but it was in there. Right down to when you lose -- he made a public statement like... when you lose that game, he didn't want a cool nuclear explosion to happen or anything, because that's an audiovisual reward.

He understood rewards and penalties a lot earlier than a lot of game developers did. He was like, "No. You just get a black screen saying 'You Failed,' because I don't want to encourage failure." That was a thing where the rules maybe had the message, or the tuning of the parameters maybe kind of had it, and that was from the '80s. It's been a long tradition slowly building. That's a long answer to a short question.

I liked when you were talking [as part of Blow's Develop Conference lecture] about developer standards like, "Okay, we're going to make a really big, triple-A title. We'll start with the scenario first, then the characters, and the story." And you were saying, "Why don't we find a new way of doing it, where we start with the messages in the gameplay mechanics, and then move on to something larger?" The challenge is always going to be how you start from that position and then make a game that's not just an indie game but a mainstream blockbuster. Is that even possible?

JB: It's not just starting with the gameplay mechanics, because a lot of games do that. A lot of games say, "We're a first-person shooter. Maybe it should be World War II. Maybe it should be in the future. Have the concept and some decent things and we'll figure it out."

But what I was after is starting with whatever the thematic, meaning content of the game is -- that could come from the story and it could come from the game rules -- to start with that content and then make sure that coming from both sides, you can get there. You can communicate that in a way that doesn't conflict with itself. So is the rest of the question like "How do you do that?"

Yeah. How do you scale that up to a blockbuster title?

JB: That was kind of the big question. I don't know how you scale that up. Even the idea of scaling it up is not something that I thought about concretely until the night before I wrote that lecture. You look at these smaller games and you take it for granted that it's a smaller game and it's different from a big game. It's different in so many ways, it's hard to see a path from one to the other. How do you go from Gravitation to Gears of War? I don't exactly know.

But because I don't know, I can't see it clearly, but I also don't know that it's not possible. I just feel like we should start exploring in that direction. Actually, there are some games that are sort of doing that. There's a lot that I cut from that lecture, but one of the games I was going to mention was Far Cry 2, where they have this dynamic story situation, and there's a core gameplay mechanic that supports that about how friends that you have in the game are relationships that you maintain that come in to the action gameplay and interweave with that.

Of course, I haven't played the game, but I've talked to the designers about it. So it's too early to see how that's going to work. And it's still not quite the same level of thing that I was talking about, starting with these really low-level, abstract rules. But it is a step in that direction, from the top down. Starting with the given, "Hey, we've got a big-budget first-person shooter. How do we make it more meaningful?"

When you were first designing Braid, did you have a metaphorical meaning in mind that... I guess you didn't want to push it on the player, but wanted to leave enough clues there to find that kind of thing?

JB: I did. Even before I wrote any of the code or anything, I had a full idea for the game. It would've been an okay game, both in terms of gameplay and in what the story was about. Then I started doing that, but even in the first day or two, it changed when I saw how the gameplay was turning out and as I saw how the mood of the game was developing. That kind of changed my idea of the story, and it went in a different direction.

I started the game with some very strong literary influences -- Invisible Cities is a book by Italo Calvino. It's a series of very short, three-to-four page pieces about different fictional cities that have different kinds of reality and different ways that they work.

Then there was another book written by Alan Lightman called Einstein's Dreams. He's a physicist, actually, and he wrote this book which was very much like Invisible Cities, but was about Albert Einstein thinking about... he still hadn't quite figured out relativity, and he was still working as a patent clerk during the day and was very busy, but he would go home and think about how time behaves in the universe. Like Invisible Cities, the way that he was thinking about time was linked to how people are in the universe. Because if the universe is a certain way, it's going to determine what's in it and if people are in that universe, what they're like. That was never quite a satisfying book for me, but it was definitely a strong influence on Braid.

But I wanted to take that and go in a different direction. The initial idea was to do something like that, but with gameplay. Go to different rules, have different rules of time, have that relate to humanity somehow, and just speak to what it means to be in our universe. I didn't know the details. I had ideas for details. Then I started filling in the details and that took the higher level idea further. So the game is still about that, but it has a lot more to it now.

I started out by stylistically imitating Calvino, and I moved away from that as I saw that there were better things for this work. There are a lot of details in the game that I hope that people notice or they at least feel at a subconscious level. There are a lot of things, even in screenshots and stuff on the web, that no one has noticed. I follow forum discussions about the game, and it's cool that nobody's noticing them, because that means that they really are not obvious, and I think once people start discovering those, they'll enjoy the game even more.

I was excited about the game when I started, but what I ended up with was much better than the original idea. I don't think that happens very often in game development. I got lucky there. Usually, you have a great idea for a game, and you can't do all of it. You can maybe do half of it. And it's still kind of cool, but it's not quite what you thought. This is way better than what I had originally written. I don't know if I'm going to be as fortunate in my next project, but I'll take what I can get right now.

You've talked about how when you've got like a gameplay potion that you've made up with those elements, as soon as you drop something else in there, then the meaning and metaphor changes. With Braid, I think I'm right in saying that the time travel came later? That way you could rewind and fast-forward -- was that always there?

JB: That was the very first thing in the game. What happened was I originally had the idea that it would be about time, but I had other ideas about what it would be. The rewind was something I wanted to try.

There was a mailing list discussion with me and a bunch of designer friends about Prince of Persia and Blinx and games like that. It was kind of cool that you could rewind, but they don't use it very well. I've given this thread in lectures before. So that was kind of in the back of my head. "Hey, I want to try out rewind."


But that wasn't even the major idea, since a couple of other games have done rewind, and I wanted to be Mr. Experimental Gameplay Guy. I want to do something totally different that nobody's ever done. So I had some ideas about... there was this idea in quantum mechanics about how time doesn't actually go forward at a small scale. It's called the arrow of time.

It's an obvious fact about our macroscopic world. You can remember the past, but you can't remember the future, and you can't predict the future. But on the quantum mechanic level, that doesn't exist. The rules go the same in both directions. So where does that come from? I wanted to explore the idea of what if that is actually illusionary.

So one of the worlds was going to be trying to conceptualize that somehow. Maybe I go through the level with whatever powers I have -- maybe it's just running and jumping and opening doors -- and then time reverses, and I have to follow the same path in reverse, and I hope that I did something that's actually possible to do in reverse. It can be a puzzle like, "Hey, if I went down somewhere that's too high to jump up again, then it was invalid somehow with the bidirectionality of time." That was one idea that I had.

The other one was, maybe I can do something -- it's a 2D game and has always been conceived as a 2D game -- where you run around a level that gets extruded into 3D. Like, you stack the different frames on top of each other, and you can see a cube from different [angles] and then you can maybe do something with that, to visualize this hyper-gameplay thing.

I tried both of those to various degrees, and other things too. The quantum mechanic thing or the bidirectional time thing, I mean, just on paper really, and I didn't come up with enough compelling... I thought the theme was cool, but the gameplay wasn't living up to it. I didn't see why that would really be compelling. I ended up programming the cube thing later, and it just didn't... that came later, and it was harder to program, after the rest of Braid, and it didn't add enough. It's like, "Okay, I'm rotating this graphical thing and I'm seeing the future and stuff." I was like, "The rest of the game is strong enough. It doesn't need that."

But the rewind was the first thing that I actually programmed. Because I'm the programmer and the designer, this is one of those things that might not happen with a bigger team. As the programmer and the designer, I instantly saw, because of the way I programmed it, that certain things were possible.

All of the ideas were mixed around in my head, and I had the idea without knowing where it came from, which is just, "Oh! I made it so you can rewind, which involves storing all the memory about where everything was in the world somewhere so that the game can go back later and retrieve it. Obviously, I can do that to only some of the objects. I can have some of the objects always go forward in time."

I didn't logically plan that idea out or brainstorm it. It just happened. From there, the rest of the game just exploded. Originally, it was going to just be rewind and a bunch of things unrelated to rewind -- maybe time-related, or universe or quantum mechanic-related things. But from there, as soon as I had that idea, the game was about rewind centrally, and everything else was as minimal possible changes as I could make to that core rewind that would still be very interesting.

There was just no end of ideas from there. It was like, "Oh yeah, I can do that. I can have time tied to your position in space." That idea happened within five minutes of the first one. The other ones came a little later, but right there, that was enough for a full game. I programmed those little levels, and I knew that this was the best game that I've ever been working on.

I don't know if I was just the designer and there was a different programmer if that idea would've happened. This level of idea mixture doesn't happen on a team. It might've happened. I don't mean to say that Braid is somehow a brilliant idea that only I could conceive. Given enough time, all ideas are going to get explored. But I don't know, it might've been a while before anyone made this game otherwise.

One of the things I found interesting while playing the game is that it's kind of like a series of logic puzzles. Each room you get to, you've got a logic puzzle. You work out what to do, and then you can move onto the next one.

I don't know if you saw Jonathan Smith's talk about the springy path, so you could get through the game and generally get through the game without too much resistance, but you can see all these other things if you go back and look again.

But the bit about being in a room and trying to work out what to do in a room kind of reminds me of point-and-click adventures. It's something that's been kind of left by the wayside, that way of doing things. Obviously, it's in no way a point-and-click adventure, but that active process that you go through as a player is similar.

It's one of those games where one person might get it straight away. They'll walk into a room and go, "Okay, I get it." And then someone else will be there for an hour. I've seen that with your game. Some people do it straight away, and some people take forever. How on earth do you balance something like that? It depends on the minds approaching the game in a much more exaggerated way than in most games.

JB: Early on, once I had all these ideas and was really hyped about the game, I decided that this is going to be the best game I've done so far. It's going to be like a philosophical pursuit for me. So I'm going to abandon all the other traditional ideas about game design that I've had.

Those include stuff like, "You need to have danger in order to keep the player interested." It started as an action-platformer, and it moved to puzzles when it was like, "Well, I don't want to kill the player or have lives, so how do I make the game interesting?" It's about thinking about where you are, and not just jumping over monsters.

Another part of game design that I just threw out was the idea of balance, or even the idea that everybody should be able to finish a game. That's certainly something that's come into prevalence. It's not something the industry does very well. People still don't play through most games.

But it's something that designers try to do. I was like, "No." This game is like a meditation or a kind of study -- a fun kind of study, hopefully. But it's about understanding the answers to these puzzles, and if you don't understand them yet, you just haven't finished the game, and that's okay.

Now, I did design the game because... not only are different people going to have different ease at solving this kind of puzzle, based on how much they've thought about weird time stuff or if they've read science fiction as a kid. I don't know what it has to do with. Not only that, but different people find different puzzles harder than others. There are definitely some puzzles that are easier and some that are harder, but among the ones that are harder, you just don't know.


So the game is designed so that it doesn't actually block you in a room almost ever. It does that a very little bit at the beginning in order to make sure the player understands the rules of the game. It starts out with just rewind, and then rewind with exceptions, but once you understand the exceptions... well, you can get through that level without really understanding it by failing, but once it's been shown to you, then the game is actually open. All you have to do is walk to the end of every level. You don't actually have to solve a puzzle almost ever. There's boss monsters that lock you in until you kill them, but that's it.

And that was just to provide some pacing and not make the game totally feel like a cakewalk to get to the end. That was actually a case in which I didn't throw out traditional design wisdom, which has been hard-earned over many years. It's like, if there's a hard puzzle that you just can't get because you can't read the designer's mind or whatever and it's frustrating, there's no reason why you shouldn't be able to play the rest of the game and then come back to that later. I wanted to allow that.

In fact, in Braid, sometimes there will be a puzzle that's pretty hard. It's almost like dynamic difficulty adjustment. Sometimes you'll have a puzzle that's hard in some way. "I don't get it." And then you play on, and maybe there's another puzzle that has an easier aspect of that that you can solve that will remind you of the earlier one and give you an idea. "Oh yeah, that puzzle that I was stuck on might work like this!"

So if you're a more hardcore player who wants to grind through the game, you can attack that puzzle and not give up, but if you don't do it that way, it might be a little easier, but you're still not being given hints. The game never gives you hints.

I think Microsoft wanted a hint system early on and I was like, "No. There's no way that there's going to be a hint system in this game, because it's opposed to the fundamental philosophy of the game, which is about actually understanding." So yeah, I think I talked that one dry, but I don't feel like I've quite hit the end.

When you were testing, did you balance anything as a result of that? Or were you like, "No, there's no room for balancing. Either you get it or you don't and come back to it later, but that's just how it is?"

JB: Yeah, most of the puzzles are just the best puzzles that I've found through interpretation. It so happened that there was a good difficulty variety.

That was another thing. One traditional idea of games is that a game starts out easy and then gets harder toward the end, and it ramps up, because you've got to have this challenge that ramps up. I didn't find that to be the case when I really questioned that for Braid because of a couple of reasons.

One is that it has this parallel structure. Every time you go into a new world, there's a new rule that wants to ramp up from easy to harder, at least. But then also, it's just nice to have pacing. It's nice to be playing something hard for a while and then have something easy and then hard.

If you go see an action movie, it doesn't ramp up the action until it's solid action for the last hour, necessarily. I guess some movies do that, but it's kind of exhausting. It's like, maybe you open with a big scene, then you have a rest period, then you have another big scene. Things like that.

Kind of like comic relief game mechanics.

JB: Yeah. I've had lectures about rewards -- artificial rewards and natural rewards -- and it's kind of a natural reward to work on something hard and figure it out. First of all, that feels really good, like, "Dude, I am smart. I figured this out. I didn't think I would be able to. It took me an hour of just staring."

Because Braid is not like one of those 13-puzzles or whatever where you're moving something around, or a Rubik's Cube, or anything. It's like, there's two things on the screen, and you're like, "What? It's not possible to get that thing," and then like an hour later it's like, "Oh yeah, I actually just do one action and I can get it."

That's another reason why it feels good, because it's not arbitrary. It's not like you've stumbled your way through a complex series of motions, usually. There are a couple of puzzles in the game that you can get that way, but there's always a better solution. The speed run at the end of the game that unlocks after you win it encourages you to find a better solution so that you can get through the game in the minimal time. There's layers of improvement that can happen.

But what I was trying to say is not only do you get that little rush of, "I've figured out something hard. That's so cool." But then you get some easy stuff as a little lull after that, hopefully. You can't quite predict what's easy for whom, but you don't want to bang your head against something and then bang your head against the next thing. Ebb and flow was more of the idea, so I tried to pace it that way. Who knows if I did a good job? But I do feel like it doesn't feel like traditional pacing. I think people can see that.

I wanted to talk very quickly about World of Warcraft, because you said some interesting things about that. You called it unethical in its game design, I guess because of its exploitative qualities.

JB: Yeah. Although, when I use a word like "unethical," that's a strong word. I do think it's a little bit accurate to say that about World of Warcraft, but what I'm really applying the word to is the widespread industry practice that produces all of those games. I

t's not like World of Warcraft came out of nowhere, and it's not like no other game is trying to copy World of Warcraft. Everybody is trying to, with the same gameplay mechanics. They exploit these psychological phenomena that are pretty well understood by designers right now, and will get a better understanding of over time, because that's how it goes. But they know what they're doing. That's what makes it unethical.

I was going to challenge that, not in the sense that I actually believe the challenge, but just to see what your take on it would be. Don't these kind of mechanics mirror all game mechanics, in that it's small returns for repetitive tasks that you learn, and with a social dynamic overlaid over that, whether you're doing it with your friends or whatever? You're having a nice time, and it's just a different way of framing Tetris.

JB: There's always a matter of degree. One of the things... I've done a couple of lectures on this, and I never remember what I said in which one, but one of the things that comes down to is natural rewards versus artificial rewards. Every game has both of those.

An artificial reward is a cool-sounding sound effect for when you... I don't know, Tetris didn't really have cool sound effects, but imagine that it did -- when you filled out four lines, you got a cool, Bejeweled-like particle effect or something like that.

Maybe it would've been a success if it had that. (laughter)

JB: Maybe the XBLA Tetris...yeah. (laughter) So that's even an artificial reward, and lots of games do that. But what I feel is that there's some very fuzzy line somewhere, where if you're on one side of the line, players are playing your game because of the natural rewards, because they enjoy playing the game's core mechanics. Tetris is like that. It maybe feels a little addictive, and we feel a little wary of having that addiction, but it's innocent in certain ways.

Tetris had little cutscenes in it. It had the little dancing Russian guys in the arcade version. But I think that was maybe more to provide a break so that you don't fucking die from all the intensity of dealing with this. But for the most part, when you're playing Tetris, you're enjoying it because you enjoy fitting the blocks together.

Whereas when you play World of Warcraft -- and what I'm about to say is a generalization, since different players enjoy different things, obviously -- a lot of the appeal of playing World of Warcraft is not in the core gameplay mechanic, because it's boring, a lot of the time. Sometimes when you're on a really good raid with a team and you're getting teamwork going and that's a close call, that can be exciting, but if you graph out what players are doing over the average 12-hour play session or whatever...

That's obviously hyperbole, but if you're looking at what activities they're actually performing, there's not that much good gameplay in there. I think what keeps them in there is, at first, the level ding, because it's very addictive to get that. "Okay, I've got more gold. Whatever." And eventually, they've made this huge time investment and they've got a character there and they know what that level ding feels like and the next one is pretty far off, but they can get there! And it's not any better, because this is like number 67. It's got to be better than 66!

And they've got their time logged that says, "I've now logged 78 days in this game, and if I throw that away, then it's all been a lie."

JB: It's all been for naught, yeah. There's many different reasons that people play these games, though. One of the things people have said to me after lectures is, "Well, I play World of Warcraft for the social element," which I think is a little bit true, but again, I think it's magnitude. They're playing World of Warcraft, and aren't on IRC or a forum or talking to people in real life.

Social interaction in real life is way better. If you look at how long it takes to communicate to people in World of Warcraft, and the depth and subtlety of the ideas you can get through may be a little bit better on a headset... often it's just typing, but even on a headset, it's not good communication like you have with a person in real life. If what they really cared about was rich, social interaction, they would be out there in the real world.

Questing. (laughter)

JB: Yeah. What it's really about is that the social aspect is something that they value in the context of this game, but it's really the game. In fact, what they've said is, "Oh, I like having social interactions when I can go out and kill some monsters with people." I think that's true, but you just look at the whole of it and how diluted all these things are -- how diluted the gameplay and social interactions and all that are -- and it just doesn't make it worth it, I think. It's on the wrong side of the line.

Now what's scary about that is that World of Warcraft was the most concentrated gameplay version of an MMO ever, right? They have the least downtime. I haven't played some of the games since then, but certainly EverQuest is like fucking downtime forever. It's like you have one fight, then you go sit and meditate for like five minutes before you can have another fight.

Think about what you've done! (laughter)

JB: (laughter) Think about the tragedy of killing the poor swamp rat that you just killed, and the next 100 that you're going to have to kill. That's I think is one of the core reasons... obviously there's audio and visuals that WoW has that are better and stuff, but they also did give the player more gameplay. I don't want to say, "WoW is completely barren," and things, but by the standards of any good single-player game, the gameplay in WoW is really kind of terrible.

Is it possible to have an ethical MMO? How would you go about doing that? Or are MMOs basically about hitting things for numbers?

JB: No, I think that you easily could. What is an MMO? It's just a game where you have a lot of players in a world. That really could be almost anything. I actually had a plan for my next project after Braid, which I almost would've started by now if I hadn't decided not to do it, which was like an MMO with a different core gameplay mechanic, which was heavily about communication and puzzle-solving and that stuff.

It had a level progression system, but it was more about having pacing to how the levels open up. It was like a Diablo-style, isometric perspective, 3D rendered game, but like that, where you're looking down at a dungeon.

So the leveling system is more about having the dungeons open up at an appropriate pace of complexity. It wasn't about keeping people playing. In fact, people would max out relatively early, and hopefully they would keep playing the game after that because the new levels they could explore are interesting, and they actually enjoy exploring the levels.

blow_puzzlepirates.jpgI think there's some extent to which some games have already had gameplay that people enjoy for the gameplay. Puzzle Pirates is an MMO that's done very well, especially for an indie game, and for the budget they developed it on.

It doesn't have WoW kind of numbers, but it's an MMO, and you go in there and there are games like Bejeweled and Dr. Mario and stuff like that that you play.

I haven't played that into the late game, but I played like eight hours of it or something, and the time that I was playing it, it was really about the gameplay. It was like, "Awesome! I'm going to beat a carpenter on this trip and fill in the little gourds," and it was fun.

I enjoyed it for what it was, unlike every other MMO that I've played. And I'm sure that there are other ones. I haven't played one percent of MMOs, and if you count all the ones out of Korea and stuff, I don't even know what they all are. So I'm sure that there are some doing it, but they're not the most popular ones.

One final question. You sat out the start of your session about how you just want to make games that change peoples' lives, in a way, which is a good vision, but a grand one as well. Is that possible? Has that ever happened before, you think?

JB: Absolutely. In fact, it's not a question of whether you can change peoples' lives, because that was the point of my three-minute opinion thing that I gave. And actually the first Montreal lecture where I was talking about World of Warcraft being unethical, which is that games are part of peoples' environment now. They're everywhere.

And it's the whole nature versus nurture thing. The old philosophical question is "Are people products of their origins or their environment?" And it's kind of been resolved that it's sort of both. We always seesaw in different ways, but your environment has a big effect on who you are, so games have to have an effect on who you are, because they're just there, and you play them. They're a mental environment and an audiovisual environment that you spend time with.

So then the question is not "Do they affect you?" but "What is the effect and how big is the effect and how long does it last?" And I don't know the answers to those things, but it's definitely something that we should explore thoughtfully. That's all.

Which is something that previous people haven't done. Television, obviously, has an effect on people, whatever that is, and various contradictory studies say different things, but it does have effects. Television very rapidly degenerated into just crappy shows, like "whatever we can get viewing eyeballs for."

In some sense, the same thing is inevitable in the games industry, because if you're just chasing money, that's what you do. The big companies are going to chase money, and that's fine, but I'm hoping with the internet, people who have different goals than just chasing money will be able to find distribution for their game. It may be a smaller audience, but they hopefully can find it.

How have you found the process of getting it onto XBLA? Has it been smooth, or enjoyable, or horrible?

Jonathan Blow: Well, it's a difficult question to answer, because it's at least two of those three, and possibly all three. The process is definitely smooth, in a certain sense. It's well mapped out. They had 150 games go through it at this point, or something, right? There are all these stages that you have to go through, and the requirements are well mapped out.

There are some things that are annoying, like you always end up having certain things that you have to fix in your game, and you're like, "I know at least 100 of the 150 games figured this out for themselves, and why do I have to figure it out myself and waste a few days?" But it's pretty well organized, so that's not bad.

The problem is that it's a certification process that came from triple-A games. That's where it started. They removed some of the requirements for Xbox Live Arcade games, but there are still a lot of requirements. I believe that -- especially for a single-player game, like my game -- the vast majority of those requirements are unnecessary and in fact are for things that realistically, no user would ever care about, or most people wouldn't care about.

I've put in a tremendous amount of work meeting these requirements, when I could've put that work into the actual game and made it a little more polished and better. So I feel that Microsoft feels that this certification process is to ensure that the games are high quality, but I feel like it actually decreases the quality of games, because people spend so much of their energy on these things that users don't even really care about.

So do you think you'll do it again, with whatever your next idea is that you're cooking up? 

JB: Well, money is not really my goal... I'm not going to do a sequel to Braid. I don't care how many copies it sells. Maybe in five years when I'm motivated, if I have a really fresh idea for it. I'm not waiting in the wings with a level pack or DLC or anything.

No dashboard themes?

blow_jb.jpgJB: No. In fact, I was actually thinking about doing dashboard themes since they released the new dashboard, but I didn't want to do them on the old dashboard, because it's covered with ads everywhere.

Braid is about setting a mood and a feeling, and it can't happen while there's a Burger King ad flashing in your face. I just felt that that juxtaposition would've been bad for the game.

But do I want to do it again? I've definitely had a couple of unpleasant business interactions with Microsoft. Nothing horrible. Well, nothing quite bad enough to cause me to cancel releasing the game on Live Arcade. And it's not necessarily surprising. Publishing relationships always have negative elements.

But really, what would keep me from putting out a game on Arcade again is that they've changed the business deal now. Right? Or at least I've heard. I had the old deal. My game got signed barely over a year ago, before they were changing it.

So with the new deal, if it's as I've heard that it is, I couldn't necessarily even break even. And I'm one guy. David Hellman did a significant amount of work on Braid. He worked a year and a half -- not quite full-time over that time, but a lot -- but it's still like one and a half people worth of work for three years, or something.

Across all disciplines, isn't it? Is it like business as well as design?

JB: Yeah. But the point is, most games actually have larger staffs than that, especially the games that a lot of people want to play. If you look at The Behemoth, they're releasing Castle Crashers, which has a lot of people looking forward to it. I don't know how many people are actually on that team, but I think it's four or five, at least. They'll probably sell a lot of copies, because they have a lot of people looking forward to their game.

But still, to even break even... Braid and Castle Crashers have been in development for about the same amount of time, so their costs have got to be a lot higher than mine. And Microsoft is now talking about, "Well, everybody is going to get about half as much money as they had." What that means is, in practical purposes, the amount of money that developers can spend on their games and break even is cut in half. Which means that if I were making Braid for XBLA, I would've had to release it a year and a half ago. How would it have been? Not nearly as good as it is now. I worry about that.

Xbox Live Arcade had a lot of really lousy games for a while. When the service first started, it was great. Everybody was like, "Awesome." Little downloadable games -- they've fast to get into, and they're fun, like Geometry Wars. Then, for a while, they just started releasing a bunch of junk with occasionally good games. But they released a lot of bad games.

Now, especially with the Summer of Arcade, but with some of the games leading up to it, too, you've got some really high quality games that people want. And just when they're getting that and reestablishing the quality of the service, they've changed their deal, and we're going to start seeing games come out under the new deal, which means a lot less work can be put into it. And I fear that they're going to lose the quality right when they've got their best games. But who knows. I could be wrong about that, but I don't think so.

Three of these games in Summer of Arcade are from like Capcom and Konami and people like that. They don't do one-person games at Capcom. It'll be a small team, but it's a team, and it has to be funded. Though actually, I guess it's the case of the larger publishers still getting the old deal, so maybe it doesn't affect them. But then what you're going to see is that larger publishers have the same quality of games, and independent games are going to get worse, which sucks.

Because you want the independent games leading the bigger push.

JB: Absolutely.

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About the Author(s)

Simon Parkin


Simon Parkin is a freelance writer and journalist from England. He primarily writes about video games, the people who make them and the weird stories that happen in and around them for a variety of specialist and mainstream outlets including The Guardian and the New Yorker.

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