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Developer Spotlight: Jonathan Blow

By Emmanuel Deloget | Published May 21 2007 01:33 PM in Interviews

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How hard is to enter the game industry? Will next-gen consoles have an effect on independent game development? What kind of message am I allowed to express in my game? How do I design a game?

If you are a regular reader of our forums, you'll recognize these are some questions that occasionally pop up - and for which it's sometimes pretty hard to get an answer. So why not ask them to industry professionals? We did.

This series (because yes, it is a short series of interviews) is just about that: asking questions to successful and sometimes famous game developers around the world, and bringing back their answers to you. It's all about experience, philosophy and game development.

So, who are you? Can you give us a brief biography / history?

I live in San Francisco, California, USA. I've been an independent game developer for 12 years. The first game I ever made professionally was Wulfram, a multiplayer sci-fi action/strategy game, a descendant of which is still running at http://wulfram.com/. I've done a bunch of technical consulting for other game companies. For a couple of years I wrote the technical column for Game Developer Magazine, and with Jeff Lander I co-organized the Game Tech conference. I'm a regular speaker at the Game Developers Conference, and started a yearly event there, the Experimental Gameplay Workshop, which showcases avant-garde game design. Most recently, I've been developing the game Braid, which won the award for Innovation in Game Design at the 2006 IGF, and was also a finalist in the 2007 Slamdance Guerilla Gamemaker competition, prior to dropping out.

Attached Image: braid_title_small.jpg

How did you become interested in game development? What drove your interest/passion for game development at that time? What about today?

Making games was always just something I wanted to do, instinctively, from the first time I ever used a computer. I was about 10 years old when I first got to use a computer in school (a Commodore Vic-20), and I just wanted to make a game for that. My parents bought me a computer or two over the subsequent years, and I just spent a lot of time working with those, playing games and making little hobbyist game-ish things (though I never made any kind of complete game that could be played by other people until I was out of college).

Today I still have just as much interest in making games, but the motivation is very different. Originally I had the excitement of the young, and everything was "wouldn't it be cool if this", "wouldn't it be cool if that". Now, I have specific kinds of things that I am interested in exploring, and that drives my game-related work. I'm very interested in finding gameplay that nobody has ever seen before, and in discovering what games can do that can't really be done in other media, and in expressing ideas and emotions through gameplay (rather than graphics and sounds and story words). So I would say my approach is subtler and more seasoned now.

Next-gen platforms, mobile gaming, massive online games... it looks like there is a revolution underway. In your opinion, what is the future of game development?

I don't feel like there is a revolution. Things are going the way they always have. MMORPGs are mentioned in your question, but those of us who played text MUDs around 1990 or 1991 were playing with several hundred people on the same server, in the same world. Now, World of Warcraft is a much bigger, more complicated project than that, but the connection to the past is clear, and it's very much a progression rather than a revolution.

Mobile gaming, I feel like it's mostly hype. Someday we may have interesting location-based things, but in general I don't feel that mobile devices are very good hosts for your common form of non-embodied gameplay experience.

As for what is the future -- how far from now do you mean? 5 years, 20 years? I think things are going to keep changing, for a long time, and I don't see them stopping in any one spot. In that sense it's a very good time to be alive and interested in games, because we will see a lot of different things.

Can independent and hobbyist game developers fit in this future? What could be their role?

Independent developers have certain powers that larger, more risk-averse companies don't have. They have the power to create things that are meaningful to them personally, rather than designed-by-committee. They have the power to create things that are actual heartfelt expressions. They have the power to try out risky new gameplay ideas, which may fail -- and they have the power to fail without it being the end of the world. They have the power to enter into a project knowing that, even if it succeeds, it may not make very much money.

These things are important to counterbalance the overly-conservative behavior of the rest of the industry.

How do you see the indie and mainstream markets in the future?

I don't feel that I have the basis to make any kind of informed prediction. As an indie, it is currently much easier to reach an audience than it was when I started; I just hope that continues to be true.

As you know, we had a fair amount of controversy on recent independent games like Super Columbine Massacre RPG. Do you think that games (and in particular independent games) are a good medium to express artistic, political or social messages?


After the controversy regarding Super Columbine Massacre RPG, you decided to withdraw your game, Braid, from the Slamdance Festival. What are the impacts of such a decision from an independent game developer perspective?

I was split about that decision. I think that festivals like Slamdance are very important for the emerging field of independent games, for giving these games more of an avenue to be encountered by society at large, and legitimizing the basic idea that games can be real art. On the other hand, I felt that Slamdance's decision to drop Super Columbine Massacre set a terrible precedent, and I didn't want that precedent to go by unchallenged. Dropping Braid out of the festival was the sort of statement that inherently becomes part of the public record of the festival and can't be ignored. Several other developers felt the same way, as you know, and also dropped their games out.

Ultimately, Slamdance didn't really have enough games left to carry through with the competition, and that could have been a bad thing -- maybe the game part of Slamdance would have dissolved, and then the IGF would have been the only festival left, and maybe nobody else would start festivals for a while and things would stagnate, and then we might have felt a little guilty about stunting the growth of independent games just in order to make a point.

But that's not how things went. Behind the scenes, Slamdance is working on new contest rules that will help them carry on next year and handle games that might present operational difficulties, while maintaining credibility as an independent festival. Hopefully those rules will be ratified and things will go well. Even if that doesn't happen, other festivals have popped up, like Indiecade, or the genre specific Eerie Horror Game Festival. Festivals that were just getting started, like the games competition at FuturePlay, appear to be building momentum. So even in the worst case, if the game part of Slamdance were to completely self-destruct, I think we would be okay.

Attached Image: braid_world_5_small.jpg

Many of our readers are interested in the nuts and bolts of game development. How do you take your games from concept to completion? Do you follow an architectural route, designing as much of the game up-front and building to a rigid blueprint? Do you prefer a more iterative approach, building up from prototypes and refining the gameplay as you go? Or do you have an alternative system which you feel works best for your team?

It's a very iterative process. I will spend 1-2 weeks doing an initial prototype; then I'll mail that to friends to get comments on it, and also just spend some time reflecting on how the prototype turned out (compared to my initial design ideas), whether I like where it went, and whether I have ideas for better places to take it. This can be an extremely introspective process and I've let prototypes sit around for months, or perhaps a year or two, before the ideas bubbled up from my subconscious to help me take the design to a better place.

As you may know, the audience of GameDev.net is made up of a large number of dedicated hobbyists and independent game developers. What would you say to those who want to find their way into the mainstream game development industry?

I've never been a part of the mainstream industry, except as a contractor/consultant, so I don't know that I have much advice there. I don't really want to be part of the mainstream industry -- the things I am interested in are out on the fringe. I would say that if you want to work for a mainstream company but you don't yet know how, then just work very hard on what you care about, and make sure your work is good; and before long you will just have the right skillset. The internet has all the information you need; you don't have to go to a school or intern at a company.

What qualities do you feel an indie game developer needs to succeed in the industry today?

It's hard to say, because everyone has a different definition of success: Finishing a complicated game? Surviving as a company? Making a lot of money? Being famous? Making the games you want to make, rather than pandering to an audience for income's sake? Making strong contributions to the development of games as an art form? Habits that will help make some of these true, may take you away from other ones. Here is what I think: if a developer is persistent and open-minded and always learning and really cares about what they are doing, then that's not too bad.

What is one secret you would like to share with our readers?

The kinds of secrets that I care about are not little industry trade secret kinds of things. They are more like the underlying secrets behind existence. Part of what I am after, through making games, is to capture even a small portion of that.

Recently, I read the Realtime Art Manifesto and liked it. But I felt a little differently about games, and I wanted to express how I felt in a way that wasn't necessarily prescriptive in the short term, but that would be a tool for long-term contemplation. (Because if one is going to find these secrets, long-term contemplation is, I believe, one of the most useful tools). So I wrote the following:

Statement on the Interactive Arts
(in progress, 21 March 2007)

The Work itself is a small system,
rules that govern imagined entities;
but in the absence of the player,
this small system is empty.

The system that is full
extends beyond the small.
It contains the player
and the played;
that which connects them,
and that which keeps them foreign.
Thereby it propagates outward,
touching ten thousand things;
these are inseparate.

This connective tissue
can be played harmoniously
or in a conflicting manner.
Harmony allows the system to resonate.

The system imparts perception.
Perception engages thought.
Perception engages emotion.
Thought and emotion, in a roundabout way, guide the body.
The body moves the system.

The small system moves the large;
The large system moves the small.
Every system is a subsystem.

Within the resonating part
lies a destiny for the whole.


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