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GDC: Blow's Ten New Challenges For Game Design

At his GDC session, independent designer Jonathan Blow (Braid) suggested that game design might be too ambitious in aiming to add meaning to games by richening characters and developing less linear stories. Instead, he offered ten easier problems w

Leigh Alexander, Contributor

February 20, 2008

11 Min Read

At his GDC session, independent designer Jonathan Blow (Braid) suggested that game design might be too ambitious in aiming to add meaning to games by richening characters and developing less linear stories. Instead, he offered ten easier problems with which to begin in order to build a foundation for deeper meaning and engagement. "I don't really like saying the same thing twice," began Blow, explaining that he had no plans to repeat the same talk he gave in Montreal in November. This talk, he said, would focus on an area that didn't get as detailed a treatment as it would have -- and yet he began with Daniel Radosh's Halo 3 review again, which said that games would need to "stop pandering to the player's demand for mastery in favor of enhancing the player's intellectual and emotional life." "The question that Daniel puts forth is, how do we make games more emotional and meaningful?" Began Blow. The usual approaches he cited were the departure from the linear story model, the improved simulation of characters -- both in terms of AI and in terms of emotions -- and the more realistic rendering of characters to provoke sensual responses. "We've succeeded at that latter approach," Jon said, recalling the first videos from Valve depicting Half Life's character technology. And yet, he called Episode 2 "just as robotic and lifeless a game as any FPS was in 1998, except it looks better." Blow challenged the assumption that more realistic characters would make a game more affecting and meaningful. Another school of thought Blow cited addressed logic more than visuals, citing the example of Chris Crawford's Storytron, a 17-year work. "This is a really difficult problem to solve," Blow said, calling dynamic storytelling "the Moby Dick of the games industry." Rather than continuing to bang our heads against the problem, Blow suggested the industry address some easier problems, for the time being, to build a foundation to more effectively approach the issue of emotional characterization. "There are a lot of approaches to this kind of question, and most of them are analytical," said Blow, giving Raph Koster's Game Grammar and Dan Cook's Chemistry of Game Design as an example. "First of all, [these techniques] seem very sterile," Blow said, suggesting that these logical approaches can't create a game that can really affect people. Rather, he said, "They only catch about ten percent of what a game is... it's like an iceberg below the ocean." "When I try to understand games, these aren't the kind of approaches I take anymore," Blow said. Instead, he offered ten different perspectives by which to interpret a game: A consumer product, as escapism or fun, as exercise, as communication, as artistic expression, teaching, training, a challenge, exploration or practice. Blow admitted these categories are "messy," not orthagonal and even overlapping. Ultimately, however, he suggested that we haven't yet defined game design sufficiently as a science to be so analytical about it. Games as Consumer Products This, Blow said, is one of the two dominant paradigms designers use to think about games -- it focuses on maximizing sales and minimizing investments. Designers implement only the features and upgrades necessary to keep a game selling, and requires analyzing the market to determine what people will buy to drive design decisions. "This is not a creatively-sourced method of game design... it's often just pragmatic," he explained. Games as Escapism The second of the two most dominant categories, Blow said, is a design philosophy that prioritizes fun whether or not it correlates with sales. "If you're looking at a design decision... maybe you look at some user tests or predict what users will respond to, and if they're not having fun with something you change it or cut it." Blow suggests designers can make more valuable or meaningful work by rejecting this concept. He showed a screenshot of God of War 2 as a canonical example, with enemies that exist to be killed without much meaning behind them. "When I hear people talk about these games... I just get really put off. These are not the games I really want to be making. First of all because it's boring to make the same game over and over," Blow said. "Why are we making these things that are not even necessarily that appealing? ...I buy these games and I play them for ten minutes and I realize there's nothing in there for me." These are the sorts of fantasies, Blow said, that Radosh was discussing -- pandering to the player's desire for mastery and fantasy. "It's all about pretending to give you a challenge and letting you win and giving you bright colors and sound effects to celebrate the fact that you won. And that's disturbing to me." Games as Exercise This method "grounds the fun and gives it more meaning," Blow said, noting that fun has a purpose from an evolutionary standpoint. "You've evolved to enjoy things that have positive survival value, or reproductive value, and to dislike things that have negative value." This method provides a compass, Blow says. He noted the philosophy of fun as subjective, but with this model, fun can be judged based on its evolutionary purpose, and evaluated based on whether it's helping to further some of these drives. "Sports are a kind of fun that help make us more fit, and slot machines are a kind that's more like a parasite," he said as example. "This perspective of games as exercise gives us a way to judge the suitability of fun, which is something that we in this industry do not do very often. Games as Communication Blow used Braid as an example of this method, noting that communication is one of his favorite purposes for games. "There's a lot of passive communication going on," he said, noting that Braid contained various puzzles in the platform-jumping level design that require clear understanding on the part of the player. He showed Braid's different foreground and background palettes to indicate how each part of the environment help direct and inform the player. "The player understands this just as soon as he glances at the screen, and he also understands there's a threat... these fireballs are moving down this tunnel and he has to avoid those," Blow said. "This paradigm of communication extends all the way to the character design." "We want the player to not be confused... in order to successfully play the game as best as possible," he explained. "The rendering of audio and visuals is not just to look pretty. It's to communicate to the player the state of the world," stressed Blow. Games as Artistic Expression This overlaps heavily with communication, but is done with a different intent. "When I talked about my game, it was all about not confusing the player. But you can communicate with the intent of planting thoughts or feelings inside the player's head, and that's artistic expression," Blow explained. Those who think games are not art, "haven't played the right games." Meaningful artistic expression may be subjective, but it comes down to what the artist gives and the player receives. "When we manage to hone games to the point where they're very effective art tools, that art will come from a different angle than other media," he said. Blow demonstrated a still from a film alongside a screencap of the poem The Waste Land, with a picture representing a string concert depicted as well. "Those media all have different strengths and weaknesses, and as humanity we are enriched by having all of them. We don't really understand games well enough to know what the expression will be like... we're a long way from completely understanding. Someday we'll be able to fill in that question mark... and we'll be richer as a people for it." Everyday Shooter, Blow said, is "obviously art... it expresses audiovisuals in an artistic way as many games do, but it also expresses gameplay in an artistic way." Rod Humble's The Marriage is another example. "This expresses intellectual things rather than emotional things," Blow said. "That the title is The Marriage is all the backstory you have." The blue and pink squares are canonical symbols for male and female," Blow noted. "When they meet, they touch for a moment and move away again. ...You start interpreting the rules of gameplay in an intellectual way, the way that you might interpret symbols in a short story or a novel. Anyone who says these games aren't art are crack-smoking." Games as Teaching "Teaching is another form of communication, but it's one that unveils over a series of interactive steps to implant ideas intellectually in a player's mind. All games inherently teach," Blow said, recommending Raph Koster's A Theory of Fun For Game Design and Ian Bogost's Persuasive Games. "The reason that all games teach, though, is because you have this structure that's a goal, but you don't necessarily know what the goal is when you start playing the game." Games make goals achievable by teaching the player, explained Blow, which allows a player to build a "mental model" of the game. Seeing a screen shot of Super Mario 3, for example, would look meaningless to someone who's never played it before, but seeing a scene from the game from experience shows information about what choices and behaviors are available in the game. "Teaching is an interactive process that we can leverage in more ways than we do," Blow said. "It's not just edugames or serious games that teach -- all games teach. It's just a question about what they're teaching." For example, Blow noted that in Portal, the player can learn how the portal structure works mainly by experimenting with and looking at it. "The designers of Portal were very conscious of this perspective of games as teaching." Games as Training "Teaching is giving you ideas, or helping you learn ideas that you're aware of and you have a conscious interaction with the game about. Training is subconscious... it's about conditioning rather than teaching you," Blow said, citing the iconic Pavlovian dog as an example. He likened games like Warcraft to the rat-training skinner box. "That has ramifications we can think about," Blow advised. "I said earlier that the way that we teach is by giving players reward and punishment," he said. "There are natural rewards and artificial rewards... there are things that we do to try and motivate the player to keep playing." Some of these artificial incentives are MMO gold, Xbox Live Achievements and even the sound effects on Peggle. But "natural" rewards reward the player for doing something good that corresponds to evolutionary drives. Games as Challenge Challenge is not perhaps the right word, Blow said, but it's as close as he knows how to get. Back in the arcade days, designers wanted to "kill" the player to get them to put another quarter in. "A problem we have as the games industry is we have this idea that challenge means difficulty, it means stopping the player from going on in the game if he's not good enough." This causes problems, Blow said, because part of the satisfaction and efficacy of a story is the pacing. "If we want good, effective stories in our games, they have to be well-placed. And part of the problem with our current paradigm... is that it fights with the fact that there's a story we have to keep proceeding through. The way that designers are responding to this is that they keep taking out the difficulty... but without the difficulty, a shooter has nothing," he said as example. "That's a problem, and I think that's due to our limited perspective," he added. There are other challenges besides mere increased difficulty that can be integrated into a game, Blow stressed, such as challenges to curiosity, social challenges and ethical challenges. "We need something less like 'challenging' and more like 'an invitation to respond effectively.' ...Once we do that, I think we'll be able to touch people in a wider variety of ways." Games as Exploration Blow showed the game Go for its simple rules and very complex situations for an example of this. "As you get deep into the game, you look at higher-level players and they have a sense of philosophy inspired by Go. There are things that they learn," Blow said. "They see a way to project it onto life in general." There are other kinds of exploration -- Braid was about exploring ways to make time behave and to observe natural benefits and consequences. "I didn't start with puzzles and then try to figure out time manipulation that would create those puzzles. I started by exploring time, and then created level design that reported what I found." Game Design As Practice "When you play a game, you're kind of designing it in some sense, in an easy training-wheels kind of way. But the more games you play, the more experience you have. Eventually players are designing games that aren't the games in front of them." "A practice is a lifelong pursuit that hones you as a person and can give you a new way of seeing the universe and being inside it," continued Blow. He doesn't claim to have mastered game design, but enjoys thinking about it this way. "When I look at certain things, I build corellation," he explained. "There are similarities and there are differences... and I can contemplate [them] on a subconscious level. And someday, something new will pop up because of that," Blow concluded.

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About the Author(s)

Leigh Alexander


Leigh Alexander is Editor At Large for Gamasutra and the site's former News Director. Her work has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, Variety, Slate, Paste, Kill Screen, GamePro and numerous other publications. She also blogs regularly about gaming and internet culture at her Sexy Videogameland site. [NOTE: Edited 10/02/2014, this feature-linked bio was outdated.]

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