Finding hope in the maniacal absurdity of The Game Band's Blaseball

"Blaseball emulates the brokenness of systems that we see around us; the absurdity lets us step back from it, laugh, and maybe learn a little bit."

This interview is part of our Road to the IGF series.

Blaseball is baseball through a lens of absurdity -- a sports gambling simulation where bizarre teams play a game where just about anything can happen. Like a black hole swallowing the moon mid-game.

Gamasutra spoke with The Game Band, developers of the Nuovo Award-nominated title, chatting about what drew them to create this absurd vision of baseball, the challenges they faced in staying ahead of its explosive growth, and the design ideas that went into making it approachable for people who don't usually play video games.

Who are you, and what was your role in developing Blaseball?

Clark: My name is Joel Clark. I'm a Game Designer at the Game Band. I built the simulation of Blaseball and do both design & code on the project.

Bell: I’m Stephen Bell. I’m a designer and writer on Blaseball. I came up in film, but have been around the games industry for a little over a decade now. My brother Chris was a designer and producer on Journey, so I got to help out a bit as TGC refined that project. My first official credit was writing on What Remains of Edith Finch, which Sam also worked on. I’ve written and consulted on a number of projects since, including The Game Band’s first title Where Cards Fall, Sky: Children of the Light, the Sea of Solitude Director’s Cut, 12 Minutes, et al.

Rosenthal: I’m Sam Rosenthal, Founder and Creative Director of The Game Band. My role on Blaseball shifts between game design, creative direction, and business development.

I moved to Los Angeles in 2009 to attend USC’s game design program. While I was there, I started working on a game about building houses of cards that I kept alive as a side project while working in the video games industry. I worked as a game designer at Disney on Where’s My Water, Toys for Bob on Skylanders, and Giant Sparrow on What Remains of Edith Finch. Eventually, I teamed up with my friends at Snowman to start The Game Band and bring my student project to completion.

How did you come up with the concept for Blaseball?

Clark: Sam and I came up with the concept of Blaseball as a way to create social interaction during a global pandemic. Baseball felt like a natural foundation for this experience, both because of its simple design and our shared love for the game. Sam had an idea for a social gambling experience and we riffed on it for a while before finding Blaseball. The idea of a global league that anyone could contort was really exciting to us.

Bell: Joel had already built an early version of the sim when I came aboard. He was running these tiny Elections in Slack and manually logging people’s votes. I remember suggesting potential rule changes, and no matter how ridiculous the idea was, Sam and Joel seemed game. I immediately saw how vast the possibility space was for Blaseball - all the different directions you could push it. I immediately fell in love with that. So, I was very grateful to have Sam ask me to help build out Blaseball and get it ready for launch.

Rosenthal: During the pandemic, I noticed that a lot of my friends were eager to play browser-based board and card games over Zoom. My friends generally aren’t interested in video games, so I thought it was interesting that they gravitated towards these social browser games that were fairly low-production value but easy to jump into. That got me thinking about designing a game with a low barrier to entry that brings a massive amount of people together during this isolating time.

I originally pitched the team on a social gambling horse racing game, but Joel helped push the idea to baseball. We had riffed about weird ways to make the rules of baseball more interesting at a Dodgers game a while back, so it was fun to rekindle that conversation. I remember Joel saying early on, “I never thought I would work on a game like this professionally.” Delighted that we were able to.

What development tools were used to build your game?

Clark: The game is built with javascript/Typescript, Node, and React. We had no prior experience in these areas, and are still learning. We felt, though, that a web-based experience was right for the game, so we learned it on the fly.

Bell: Notion forever.

What drew you to bring absurdity to the sport? What do you feel that added to the game and its reception?

Clark: Absurdity is something I like to bring into any idea. I love letting my subconscious drive my design. With Blaseball, we leaned hard into the absurdity because of the real-world chaos around us. Blaseball emulates the brokenness of systems that we see around us; the absurdity lets us step back from it, laugh, and maybe learn a little bit.

It's also just very fun to see people's reaction to the absurdity. Whenever something weird happens in the game, you can just watch the confused reactions ripple out to the Discord, to Twitter, and onward.

Bell: Blaseball’s a sport that takes place in a hyper-capitalist nightmare, driven by broken electoral systems and ruled over by untouchable, malevolent forces. I think we can all relate to that, and I think that kind of mask-off tone really helped the game connect. It also tries to expose the lie of the power fantasy that bolsters most games. You can’t affect Blaseball all that much on your own. But together, organizing with other fans, you can literally reshape reality.

It might sound corny, but I think absurdity can open the door to hope. Blaseball is a game about building solidarity in the face of impossible odds. The sim is a shared reality - a foundational axis upon which the fans find one another. By creating worlds and scenarios that oppose or skew the “logic” of our accepted reality, by burying the narrative as deep as we can, by dropping the fans in the deep end and forcing them to sort out the rules and mysteries of the space themselves, they naturally seek out and rely on one another. The absurdity provides space for evolution, for new realities to gain footing, and for new worlds to begin.

What thoughts went into making a baseball game for people who don't usually play video games? How did you pick the mechanics and how they would play out?

Clark: We put thought into how the game will be perceived by people who don't play video games or watch baseball, particularly early on. A lot of the times, it's just about keeping the iconographies and interactions simple.

When we're adding anything to the game, we'll try to strip it down to its barest elements. We want every system to be as simple as possible on its own. Blaseball is weird and complicated when the systems mash together, but if each piece is simple, it's easy to cobble together an understanding.

Bell: The game is all about simple systems stacking to cause chaos. Sam first conceived of Blaseball out of a desire to make something that his non-gaming friends could play together, so from the beginning our priority was always refining things down to be as simple as possible. We drew a lot of inspiration from games like Universal Paperclips and Frog Fractions - games that people who have never played games before can easily pick up and play, but which also use these simple systems to make some really surprising and ambitious things.

Rosenthal: The first key decision was the choice of platform. The Game Band’s background is in Unity development, but we decided to make a web game because it felt like the lowest barrier to entry. We knew this was going to be a weird game, so we wanted to make it easy for people to jump in and see if it was for them.

We kept the layout simple, taking the fundamental information you use to follow along with games in sports apps but removing everything else. The monochromatic visual style doesn’t use any imagery that’s specific to video games. I remember pushing back against a suggestion to try a retro pixel art aesthetic. I enjoy a lot of games that go that route, but for Blaseball I thought would turn away people who aren’t naturally drawn to the form.

Mechanically, we wanted this to be a passive game from the start. The loop comes from placing bets and cashing in your rewards. It requires thought, strategy, and organization, but you shouldn’t have to constantly engage with the game to feel like you’re making an impact.

How did Blaseball change over the course of its development? Or has it stayed largely the same over time?

Clark: Blaseball has changed a ton. It's a game in which we keep adding layers; it's always increasing in complexity. There's always something new each week, whether it's a new system, new content, or just new narrative beats. Our processes of development have to constantly change alongside that.

These days, we're (typically) a little bit more ahead of things than when we started. We have things planned in advance and we've figured out our development processes. Nowadays, we're creating so much more content week-to-week than we ever have. Sometimes I step back and am wowed by the amount of new things our small team is building.

Bell: Blaseball changes literally every week, and so our development process is constantly evolving. We’ve gotten better at getting ahead of things, we’ve refined our workflow, but we’re also constantly designing new systems and content, as well as evaluating the community’s decisions and responses and refining our own landmarks. We’ve tried to make it more sustainable, and we’re not scrambling as much as we used to be, but when Blaseball is running it can still be pretty overwhelming.

What challenges have you faced in the game's explosive growth? How have you been working to overcome them?

Clark: New challenges arise every day. Early on, we had a lot of technical issues. We were in an unfamiliar workflow and didn't have much engineering power. At this point, we've more or less got a handle on that aspect of it, but the site will still surprise us sometimes.

The design of the game gets harder every day as more systems get thrown into the pile and as more strategies arise. We have to frequently reevaluate and gauge how players are perceiving the game. We have to rewrite or redesign things at the last second constantly.

A lot of work is put into moderating our community. We have a big, lively community, and that comes with a whole set of challenges. We are very proud of our moderation team and how they've built up the Blaseball community.

Bell: Blaseball can be exhausting, and memories are often short, so it can sometimes be difficult to convince the fans that we actually do have plans and know where we’re going and convince them to trust us. But I think we’re slowly building that credibility over time.

In the early days, when there were only three of us designing the game (and Joel handling the entirety of the tech responsibilities), it was this constant feeling of laying the tracks a second before the train rushed over them. The site was constantly breaking under the strain of the growing user base. None of us really knew how to build a website, so we were learning on the fly. The three of us tried (and mostly failed) at community management — I remember being overwhelmed when there were a few hundred people in the Discord. We have tens of thousands now. Thankfully our producer Felix stepped in and recruited a team of skilled (and all-around wonderful) Keepers — our name for Discord Moderators — to manage and build the community so we could focus on building the game.

Blaseball has always grappled with sustainability, whether that’s on our side making the game, the impact of its relentless pace on the fans, or financially. Making and running a website is expensive, and for a long time it was unclear just how long we would be able to continue doing this. We are incredibly grateful to have had the support of the Patreon, but that could only ever really slow the bleeding. Sam has worked really hard to keep the lights on, to keep the studio afloat. Thankfully, we’ve just announced that we secured a round of funding for the studio, so that we can actually pay people for all the hard work they’ve put in, scale up the team, and build out all the ideas we weren’t sure we’d be able to chase.

So we’ve overcome a lot of those early challenges, but Blaseball will continue to evolve, and with that, new challenges are sure to arise. Ultimately, we have a big, diverse community growing alongside the game, and we’re focused on finding ways to support and honor all the creativity and love they’ve shown us.

Do you have any fun or interesting stories from your time working on the game?

Bell: Making Blaseball with this team is a joy. We’ll often jump on zoom calls and watch games and cheer together — we’re at the mercy of the sim just like everyone else. A highlight was the day that, due to an ill-conceived attempt to get ahead on work for once, Joel accidentally caused a black hole to swallow the moon.

Rosenthal: I showed an early version of Blaseball to my dad, who is an actual baseball reporter. I remember being giddy with excitement – we were all having so much fun with it at the studio. My dad didn’t get it at all. I remember him asking, if the games aren’t real and the teams aren’t real, why would anyone care? He’s never been so glad to be wrong.

How has it felt to see audience reactions to what you're made? To seeing the game has such reach and has inspired such creativity?

Clark: The audience reaction has been incredible. Early on, seeing the creative energy outpouring was a big part of what kept us going. There are so many talented and creative people playing this game!

Bell: It’s overwhelming in the best way. We never expected this. From efforts like BlaseballCares — the community-led effort to raise money for charity that has raised tens of thousands of dollars for worthwhile organizations — to the statistical analysis coming out of SIBR, to all the mini games and digital tools and music and art, the fans creativity continues to inspire and energize us.

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