The Smartest Man in Gaming EXTRA!
6th Sep 2011 | 11:55
If you're reading this then chances are you've scanned the QR code found in the brand new issue of Xbox World - ON SALE TODAY! - for our full Jonathan Blow interview. Welcome! Due to space constraints we could barely fit half of our interview in, but thanks to the wonders of the internet, here are some of the questions and answers we couldn't print...
XBW: Are the targeted platforms and systems for The Witness all set in stone?
JB: It's undecided, really. We want to do some consoles and we want to do the PC. We are looking at the Xbox 360, for example. Obviously it's got a big crowd and it was very good for Braid and all that. I'm not really signing anything yet. It's going to be time for that soon, though I thought that this time last year and I procrastinated.
With respect to the 360 specifically though, if I did it the way I did with Braid, which is to work directly with Microsoft, they tend to deal with exclusivity still and I don't think I can do that. This game is much more expensive. When you look at Xbox Live Arcade games, some of them are still wildly successful. Limbo did great and a couple of other games around that other time did great. However, you also see a lot of games come out on Live Arcade and sell basically nothing. You could 'hit' but if you're not one of those hits you don't do well, and that is not a risk that one could take if one is being diligent and signing exclusivity to that platform.
I wouldn't mind saying, 'hey we are going to release on the 360 first because we are a small team because that's all we can do, and then turn around and do another platform later'. But I cannot put us in a position where we're not given that option, so we'll see.
The other thing coming in is that the 360 is starting to become a low end machine now. It's been a very successful console and it's been out a while. But my PC at home that I develop on, if you don't count video RAM, it has 24 times as much RAM as an Xbox 360. And that's huge in terms of my ability to make a game. So the 360 version of the game is going to have worse graphics than the PC version. Even if I had an army of graphics programmers to put on it that would still be true. How do I approach that and how do I deal with it? One way is to wait for the next Xbox platform but I think that's a little too far in the future. We are trying to deal with all these things to figure it out.
XBW: Going back to Braid, we understand you created one of the puzzles and, then much later on, discovered a new, easier way to solve it. The idea that you could create these set-ups and then, as the designer, be surprised by the solutions seems astonishing to us...
JB: I guess that's true. My original design idea [for that specific puzzle] was this brute force solution. My idea was you place this ring and you'd slow these guys down and it takes a certain number of steps. And the original number of steps that I envisioned as a designer started out relatively small and it could be solved precisely, and it turned out that because of the world rules that wasn't true. So I started playing around with it, and discovered the solution was possible but hard, yet in the process of exploring that I was like, 'oh yeah I could do this other thing that is so devastatingly simple that there is no reason to do all the original stuff'.
When I saw this simple solution I could design the puzzle so that the timing was easy to execute.
But that process of design was: observe the puzzle. Almost like the player would do, just trying to figure it out better. In order to get that simple solution you have to understand the game pretty well and that's why I liked it.
XBW: In the last couple of years, the general gaming press has regarded you, Spy Party developer Chris Hecker and Minecraft creator Notch as indie gaming spokespeople. Is that fair? Do you mind that label?
JB: Well that's only because we are saying stuff. Anybody can become an indie game spokesperson. You just have to say some things that are thoughtful. Not even thoughtful, maybe, just [things that are] interesting and that aren't the same party line that everyone else is saying.
I don't feel like part of the indie community. This thing has happened called the 'indie community', and it's mostly people who have very different ideas from me. Like, for example, that the 'indie community' is a thing.
I like a lot of independent games, but a game being independent isn't what makes it interesting for me. It's just that being independent provides opportunities, for example, to take your own creative direction. And it's the taking your own creative direction that's interesting right, not being independent because a lot of indie games are not that different from mainstream games. Or they're trying to be a mainstream game on a low budget, or they are just trying to clone someone else's independent game - there are plenty of those...
If I think of myself as spokesman for anything I like to think as myself as just a forward-thinking person about games in general. Whether the way I think about games is right or not? Well I don't even claim that. I have no idea. I am an independent developer I guess, but with the budget of The Witness I'm working with plenty of independent developers would tell you, 'oh he isn't independent if he can afford to put that much money on a game.'
XBW: Through your lectures we get a good understanding of what you don't like about games. So what do you like in gaming? What excites Jonathan Blow?
JB: I don't know. I'm finding that most of these games [at E3 2011] I'm really not interested in anymore. Part of it may be age and part of it may be that I have been playing games since I was probably six years old or something. I have been playing video games for 33 years and there is only so much of the same that is interesting.
When you look at one of these games the core interactivity is, 'I'm running around shooting guys,' or, 'I'm running around killing guys with a glowing sword that reaches out 20 metres somehow.' It's always beating guys up or shooting guys. There's something about that which is a power thing or an ego boost and it doesn't do anything for me anymore. I'm not interested in that.
My life is alright as it is. I've got interesting things to think about and work on and these games are not as interesting as those things in my life. I don't need to feel like I'm cool because I'm holding a really big imaginary sword. It's only the other things in the game that are interesting, like what are the tactics that come into play and what are the modes of interactivity and how do I flow out of one into another?
There's not very much creativity in that part of the game, usually, so I just don't like playing most video games anymore. There are occasional ones I like, but would I say I'm a gamer now? Probably not, whereas maybe a long time ago I was.
XBW: Is it the gaming press's job to then point more people towards those uniquely creative offerings?
JB: Maybe, but I don't know to what degree it's the press's job. It's obviously great if the press decide to say, 'well here's interesting games that you should play'. And they do sometimes. Some very interesting indie games get a lot of press attention, more proportionately than the dollars that they sell relative to another game. But it's because they are interesting, so that's cool. There is the question of what do people want to play or what do they think they want to play or what is the institutional idea that the populous has of what they want to buy.
The press does influence that, but the press also is just responding to that. What interests me is how do you change that? I can only speak for America here, but I feel like the older I get especially, the more I feel like it's a very empty, vacuous society. It's something that people say all the time but I'm really feeling it now.
I don't know if it's been that way... I was born in the seventies, which was pretty fucking vacuous. So I don't know if anything has changed and it's just that I'm seeing it more. Part of getting older is just having more interesting things to think about because you've built up this life process of thinking about things interestingly and getting better at that.
Part of it is just that less stuff is new.
In my twenties I would go see Hollywood movies because they were stupid mostly but they were also entertaining. But they really aren't entertaining anymore because I've seen too many of them and they were made for people my age in the 80's and I'm not that age now...
I feel like society is pretty vacuous and if I can make some contribution to somehow making it less vacuous then that's okay. That doesn't mean telling people what they should care about, because that is never successful. What it does mean is maybe making a little bit of a connection to people who care about the same things as I do, that wouldn't have been there if I hadn't been there and if I hadn't done something. That's kind of what I'm interested in.
So I don't know what the press's role in all that is. Maybe it's just what it already is: they see a game they think is cool, because of that connection already. It may be that simple.
XBW: Do you like it when gamers intentionally try to break your game for speed-running purposes?
JB: People found a bug in Braid I didn't know was there. The fastest speed-runs on YouTube use a jumping-off-the-top-of-a-ladder bug I didn't originally know about. It's always cool when someone is interested enough in the game to find that stuff.
The speed run was especially interesting in Braid because the time limit was 45 minutes, which is pretty fast. It's great too because you have to run through the epilogue - it's painful because you're like, 'I don't know If I'm going to make it!'
There are puzzles like the one we mentioned earlier with a brute force solution. You can solve the main game with that solution, but you're just not going to do that in the speed run because it's going to take five minutes [to do]. So you have to understand the puzzles on a deeper level in order to be able to do the speed run, and that's true for a number of puzzles in the game. Braid's speed-run really encouraged people to understand the game, and that's what I wanted to go for: that understanding.
XBW: If you had Tim's time rewind powers, what would you go back and do differently in Braid?
JB: Not very much. I would do the game faster and in less than three years... No, that's not even right, because if I had done it faster then I worry that it wouldn't be as good. There were one or two things I wish I had done differently. I feel like world two really just needed to be redesigned, straight up. But I don't know to this day exactly how I would do it; I haven't thought about it that much lately.
XBW: (On the subject of The Witness looking like Myst...) Do you appreciate the way Cyan Worlds created a game that could be completed in two minutes?
JB: Yes, I do appreciate that fact a lot. Although the way it happens in Myst is that you have to find this one book or remember a code and that's a little weird. You can imagine better ways of doing that...
XBW: Tell us about the Indie fund.
JB: Say you are independent and you have a really good idea for a good game and you have the capability to make a good game, but you don't have the money. What typically happens is you have to try really hard and waste a bunch of time and energy pitching it to publishers. Publishers are busy and they don't know you. Eventually you work really hard and get a deal that isn't that good for you as a developer. Then you make the game and you get no royalties and you lived off subsistence wages while you were making it and that's all that you get. That's a typical developer story, and then you do that over and over until you run out of business.
So what we wanted to do is provide funding for independent developers on nicer terms that are much more positive for the developer and help them to stay financially dependent. Our terms are pretty good. We don't take as much risk in some ways - we sign really crazy games that are different from most games. We require people to have a working prototype, which is some level of proof that they kind of know what they are doing. We wouldn't fund a game that was just a design doc with a bunch of pretty pictures, whereas publishers do that.
XBW: Do you think the major platform holders such as Microsoft and Sony are doing enough to encourage indie development?
JB: I don't exactly have a good picture of the inner workings of any of those places. I work with them as an external developing partner, so maybe they feel like they do a lot of that. I don't even know. It doesn't feel like it from my point of view.
It differs, though. Sony for example has a public stance: they sign relatively arty and strange games to PSN and that's kind of cool. Whereas I feel like Microsoft is more like, 'Look, what do we think is going to be a more successful game that most people will want to buy?' Sony is like, 'Maybe this will sell less but we think it will add distinctiveness to the platform'. That's cool; if Microsoft did more of that then it would be great.