Audio and Slides for Jonathan Blow’s lecture at MIGS 2007, “Design Reboot”.

I gave a lecture on November 27th at the Montreal International Games Summit; this lecture was highly critical of current game design practice. It’s about what I think is wrong with the intentions designers have when they set out to create a game, and points out that, as games are played by more people, this will become increasingly societally damaging. It also holds some suggestions about how to create games that are deeper and more meaningful, rather than being throw-away entertainment.

Here’s a zip file containing an audio recording of the lecture, as well as a PowerPoint file containing the slides:

“Design Reboot”, Jonathan Blow, Montreal International Game Summit 2007

Unfortunately there’s nothing embedded in the audio telling you when to flip slides. Hopefully I will make a video version soon, which will be easier for people to deal with (and they won’t need to worry about having slide presentation software installed).

A number of news sites have written stories about it and people have started commenting on what they feel is the validity or the invalidity of the arguments. However, I don’t think this really works, because the news sites are only reporting about 2% of the lecture; the rest of the lecture is very important in terms of providing context and setting examples. So if you are interested in this kind of subject, I recommend you get the full lecture.

54 thoughts on “Audio and Slides for Jonathan Blow’s lecture at MIGS 2007, “Design Reboot”.”

  1. Jon, there’s actually something embedded telling you when to flip slides: the sound of you hitting the space bar. Although it’s quiet, I found it easy to hear at least 90% of the time

  2. Sweet. There was one time when I flipped back a couple of slides to the first Smash TV one, which was probably ambiguous. But if this works most of the time then that’s great.

  3. Your lecture really moved me and helped me put words and get a better grasp on things I’ve been thinking about.

    Thanks for putting it up, now I don’t have to worry about my memory forgetting parts of it.

  4. I thought your MIGS presentation was totally inspiring. I was the guy near the back .. you remember me, right? Blue hoodie? Just kidding. Funny little story – There were a bunch of guys sitting in the row to the front of me who were getting increasingly annoyed every time you mentioned WOW – they kept looking at each other like you’d just got naked and slapped ’em with your bits. It turned out that they were from Blizzard – I had to laugh because I agreed with what you were saying, it was great to hear it said out loud and it was even better to see the reactions of the audience. The whole thing really got me thinking outside the usual bounds and for that, I thank you.

  5. Very nice presentation and thanks a lot for providing the audio download! Switching to the next slides in sync with the audio wasn’t a problem at all, quite self-explanatory actually.

    Your view about how games teach us and can explain things about the universe and basically how systems work is very interesting. I do wonder what this means in a less abstract way though. Is it purely the thought-process behind the interaction in these other worlds or is it the realization of something deeper?

  6. I was at MIGS 2007 and I still think about what you said. Since then, I am asking myself if what I do in my job is really what I want to teach. I consider myself a good person (I am nice , I compost and recycle…), but I have realized that the games I do are not good things.
    Thanks for your courage, it may be contagious.

  7. Games are also a means of exploring philosophy, as well as the universe. Will Wright talked about Spore being a Montessori toy, which really extends to all games.

    I think the theme of survival is holding games back from being “food”. If you look at the really good, artistic games, survival might be there, but it takes a back seat to whatever else is going on.

  8. I also was at the MIGS(the student with the herring bone hat that interrupted your game of Diving) and your presentation really struck a chord with me. Coming out of your presentation I really wanted to search out and play the games that you had described. You had hit the nail right on the reason why I had to quit WoW, the leveling treadmill coupled with the realization that the goals I was given had no real effect in the game world. One thing I think you glossed over is the very strong social aspect of WoW, I know a few people that wouldn’t play the game if they hadn’t made friends earlier on. I suppose that that isn’t really the target of your argument, and effectively makes it a glorified I’m client but still.

  9. Thanks for verbalizing a lot of things I’m sure many of us have felt.

    Like, bashing BioShock – hehe. I paid $50 for it, and it was a big disappointment…I want my money back! And WoW. It pains me to see how many people waste so many hours on WoW. Sure, it’s not really bad for you, but c’mon – it’s not good for you and you should be doing better things with your time.

    Concerning BioShock, I think an interesting question is: How could it have been designed better? I’m mainly talking about the “Little Sister” thing. How would you teach that short-term gains can lead to long term losses (assuming that’s what you want to teach)? How would you recreate the human sensation of, “Should I take this now for short-term gain, or save for later?”

    Now that I think about this, one game that did re-create that feeling for me was Tetris. Should I stack the pieces I’m getting now and leave a hole in preparation for a nice red line, or just fill in the holes right now for some quick 1 or 2 line rewards? Unlike BioShock, there was always the risk that the red line wouldn’t come if you waited for it too long…in BioShock, you pretty much knew that the game was gonna give you a sure-fire “gift” for sparing the sister – making the decision trivial.

    Perhaps we can apply Tetris’s rules to BioShock? But, I better sleep now!

  10. MMORPG’s are dirty crack dealers! About time something was said for the value of games and its content, other than the violence and sexual content that’s always harped about. Make a game that’s worth playing!

  11. Thanks you for publishing your speech, and a very interesting speech at that!
    I think more of the old.. er… experienced gamers share that hunger for game “food”. With this trend in the hardware, like the Wii and DS there is the possibility of games exploring new space and it pulled me back into gaming.
    I also hear what you say about games trying to cater more people and being more bland because of it. Still it’s the gamers that fill up the emptiness in those games, in WoW that could be the interactions, in a game like Spore that will (hopefully) be the creations made by the players.
    The danger of that is that the subtle message you as a designer want to bring, might be drowned in the process.
    The last thing I want to say is it is telling, IMO, that the military already seem to have realized what you’re saying and is using games to prep new soldiers.

  12. I just read the short writeup about this talk on gamasutra and it made me very glad. We have recently brought some new people onboard our small team and this really helps me better verbalize and explain to them some of the issues we are trying to deal with.

    So I went here in hope for more info on the lecture and found the full audio and slides, so yay for that.
    Downloading now and really looking forward to checking it out, thanks.

  13. “Fantasy is not fulfilling to me”

    You do realize that fully nine tenths of the great works of world literature are fantasy, correct?

  14. Many are fantasy, but they are not *only* fantasy. I was saying that a work that is only escapism is not fulfilling to me.

  15. Oh, Jonathan. You and your ability to always make me go, “I’ll just listen for a bit since I’m busy” then waste several hours thinking and discussing it all.

  16. Thank you for that. I’m a graduate student working on a master’s degree in education. So-called educational games suffer from the same issues. I’ve been trying to articulate that for a while now, and it’s especially encouraging to hear that other people are thinking along the same lines.

  17. you gave me alot to think about, I’ve been renting and buying games I do not enjoy for xbox 360 “achievements” when I should be focusing on games that actually reward me in more legitmate ways.

  18. Interesting speech, but I had to stop when he started to talk about Bioshock. I still have to play it, so I don’t want any spoilers :p

  19. Thanks for the opportunity to listen to your speech Jonathan. It has given me a lot to think about as an aspiring game designer / current game programmer.

    I’ve been addicted in the past to games such as Diablo 2, which actually gave me carpal tunnel – took me a year to get past that. I was most of the way through when I suddenly realised that all I was doing was incrimenting some damage variables in a computer and then fighting incrimentally harder monsters. The same concept makes me feel sorry for people who level up characters in MMOs for no other reason than to level them up (having exausted the plotline & having no social reason).

    There are many games that are addictive in the same way – many online fps games might seem like they are not incrimenting variables but they are just as bad. I loved (and still love from a distance) the mod Natural Selection. I think that Flayra led a great team and made an exceptional mod. I played that game to the point where I was in a clan, playing scheduled matches and spending all weekend inside with the blinds closed. My girlfriend (who is now my wife) would suffer through that – having to schedule things like going to the movies around some clan schedule. Once you create social ties such as a clan or a guild and schedule players it gets very hard to walk away from a game. One day I realised that after the huge payoff of winning a game (i.e every 15-60 minutes) everything would reset and your victory would mean nothing.

    To the point, this huge investment has to mean something or it just costs lives (slowly pushing friends away). I now much prefer a chunk of gameplay that I can complete and move on. I enjoyed Bioshock but loved Portal. I totally agree with your analysis of both. I also enjoy games that foster a social experience, i.e SingStar or Wii Sport.

    I’m glad that you are pursing and exploring these ideas, I am looking forward to experiencing your future games.

    Thanks again for posting this recording.


  20. Great stuff…I reposted your slides to my blog as well. Gotta spread the word to other designers. I can’t tell you how much I agree that we need to take a step back from our designs and understand the “why” a hell of a lot more.

  21. I had not played a FPS in some time, so the fact that I needed to kill everyone in BioShock bugged me a bit. (Even though I played Quake 2 Daily back in College) I gave the first few characters I met a chance to not attack me, and I paid for it, so I had to take a more hardened approach. So I guess I’m saying I agree with you on what the life lesson of BioShock was. However, the real point of the game is that it is an unfavorable critique of The Fountainhead, and I loved it for that.

    I’d like to see more people in “The Games Industry” take note of what’s going on in the world of hobby developers making web-based games in programs like Flash. There is a lot of good stuff happening there, and also a lot of problems similar to what you talked about in your lecture.

  22. Great presentation. Really enjoyed it. It does make you look at games in a different way. However, as a WoW player for quite some years and having loved/hated it, quit it and return to it many times, I think you are correct about WoW as a single player experience, but not as the social world it is.

    A big part of WoW is still its social interaction. As most MMO’s, this is what the game has going for it. Strip away the social part and I doubt anyone would continue. Rewards keep you busy, that is a fact. The new patches and expansions keep us going since we are crazy about new loot.

    But loot is not what makes the World (of Warcraft) spin. It still is the people, the boss battles, the team play, strategies and that feeling of victory when your hard working guild finally downs that boss or clears that instance it’s been working for months on.

    Loot actually spoils the fun. You can hear the people cheer and chant when a boss goes down, a wonderful feeling for the entire group (like solving a room in Portal). But that all goes away from the moment the loot pops up on the screen. Jealousy kicks in, frustration due to never-dropping items, etc.

    Of course, the slow-paced grinding and the unpredictable loot tables make the players come back day after day. And when finally all goals are achieved, we all log off until the next expansion arrives and yes, I think here I just helped you made your point.

    Still, I believe online and off-line game design can’t be judged by the same rules. I personally hate grinding, whether it is the flags in Assassin’s Creed or the gold in World of Warcraft (I’m the poorest member of my guild for sure). And I think the Achievement system is a joke, which I try to object to by having the lowest score possible 😉 But online, there is the real reward of social interactivity, of playing with real people and just having a good time.

    Compare it to going to the pub. You’ll come back for the people, whether or not the Blizzard pub is serving a new kind of beer.

    Feel free to completely disagree or tell me my comments don’t make any sense 😉 This is just my two cents!

  23. Thank you for presenting and posting this candid viewpoint. I agree with much of your analysis, and have passed links to the presentation on to my coworkers. I hope to be a part of the community that moves games to a new level.

  24. “In a direct counter argument to World of Warcraft imparts no skills, a 12 year old boy was successful in ‘feigning death’ to avoid a moose attack, a skill he had learnt from world of warcraft.”

    As far as I know Mooses don’t normally attack people, so I guess the other thing the 12 year old boy learned from World of Warcraft was to try to kill wildlife for “gold”…. right? 😉

    Really though.. World of Warcraft doesn’t require skill to progress in the game which seems to me have been the point made by Jonathan Blow. He didn’t say people don’t ‘learn’ from the game, no matter how useful or useless the things learned are. (I mean really, how often would one encounter a Moose in reallife? )

  25. Very thought provoking presentation. I know that myself and other developers have been feeling a yearning to do more with games for quite some time. As I mentioned when we briefly chatted at MIGs, you had put in mind of a Maslo’s Hierarchy for game designers. I did a rough draft of one that I wanted to bounce off you. You can contact me thru my email attached to this post.
    Satisfied people never push for progress, its good to see you disatisfied and energetic!

  26. i haven’t played WOW, so can’t really comment on that, as seems more of a online social world, than really a full blown game.
    to me, diablo 2 is the best designed game ever. to me, a game is about fun, and i have never had more fun playing a game than playing the game diablo 2.
    i’m talking about hardcore, of course. making it all the way to guardian. where every move could mean your last. one lonely figure standing against the legions of hell. one falso move, death. no loading your game. what a rush!!
    i loved it. and i don’t mind admitting it.
    no game has ever come to close to me in terms of gameplay than playing diablo 2 hardcore. just the levels of strategies you have to figure out to overcome some of those battles in hell level was insane. some battles could take literally 30 minutes or beyond.
    its just the perfect game to me. that was and will be what gaming is all about to me.
    i’m almost 25 now, so if that helps. i also grew up with the first games.
    don’t really play todays new games, as my pc is too old to handle them.
    haven’t played a single commercial indie game yet, as i have limited budget, so only buy 1 or 2 games a year.
    so, im not really agreeing or disagreeing with anyone here, just wanted to give a different opinion.

  27. Greetings,
    I really appreciate the sentiment of your address. As an “outsider” in the game industry(I was a pianist and teacher before taking an interest in game audio, now I work in the industry), I am repeatedly disappointed by the quality of what we produce, I’m also often disappointed by the lack of moral compass, maturity and intellectual depth of many of our workers. Really, when you get down to it, almost every game ever made has been about pushing buttons, and given the choice I’d rather push the buttons of the piano keyboard, an activity that takes more than 10 hours to master, and can inspire people in a different way. Not to say that I’m not extremely excited about the potential that’s out there, game engines are a very powerful new tool for human expression that have not even come close to realizing their potential. I do think that game developers fail to make some key distinctions when they talk about elevating games to the category of “art.” I use the word “elevating” to make a specific point: is a work of art intrinsically more elevated than a game, or do they serve a completely different function? I’ve been moved to tears by passages of music, but I can’t say I’ve ever been moved in a similar way by even the best game of chess, or the best video game experience ever. In order to have a truly moving artistic experience, I believe you must give yourself over, submit to a personal communion with the artist. This is hard to do when you’ve got such a thing as player input. It’s also hard to do when you’ve got a committe of hundreds of people acting as “artist.” Film makers from DW Griffith to Andrei Tarkovsky grappled with this problem, questioning whether or not a film could even be considered a work of art. So…while I do think game developers need to rethink the moral/societal implications of what they’re doing, they also need to be secure in the fact that they’re producing games, and games serve an entirely different function from other diversions, but are still essential human activity. We just need to decide whether we’re going to encourage people to spend this essential time doing something repetetive, addictive and empty, or something truly enriching and thought provoking. My hat’s off to you for having the courage to ask this question.

  28. I believe that the depth in a game can be found to a large extent in the player. While Bioshock’s ‘moral’ choice may not have had the impact they wished I viewed it in another way, as I will explain.

    I felt that I had to ‘save’ the little sisters not for the ‘Adam’ they posessed but to remove them from slave-like marauding existence, maliciously forced on them by a synthetic symbiotic relationship with the blameless but somewhat contrite Big Daddies.

  29. @Alex Gilbert:
    I’ve been moved to tears by video game experiences, but I can’t say I’ve ever been moved in a similar way by even the best passages of music ever.

    Or so I could say.. 🙂

    But there’s both of course. I like your description of moving to tears better than you using the word art, because I don’t know if that term means the same to you as it does to me. We could both use the word art but we’d lose all the subtleties.

    (I totally agree with your comment on the multiple creator thing, but it’s possible to see all the programmers, artists and musicians as the orchestra with the game designer as the composer right?)

    “…, and games serve an entirely different function from other diversions…”
    Can you elaborate on what you mean by other diversions? And possibly on why their function is so different from games?

  30. No hay banda.

    Is the search for meaning in videogames (in life) not just illusionary as well? Like the rewards in MMO’s? The same as the desire to enrich our lives? It never stops. You can always learn and experience new things right? Each new experience only adds up to the bulk of rewards (or so called enlightenment).

    I know of one fundamental difference, which is that life experiences/confrontations cause us to re-evaluate previous experiences and from that may change how we look at life or live our lives. But it would be easy to have new rewards influence old rewards to change the style of gameplay now wouldn’t it?
    What causes you to say one thing raises a certain bar and other things do not? Is it this re-evaluation of our lives?

    So why is adding meaning important to you?
    Would you still want to play the game/live without rewards/meaning, without story?
    I’m not saying meaning is bad but I would want to know if it really improves the quality of life or if in the big picture it’s just keeping ourselves busy.

    Do you want to add meaning to be able to be responsible and to at least feel safe that humankind or the quality of a player’s life does not suffer?
    Isn’t it somewhat arrogant to think you have that much influence? Or that you are able to judge someone else’s quality of life? Isn’t that subjective?

    I don’t mean to offend! Cause I agree with what you’re so passionately saying, but this is kind of a little problem I’m having myself right now.

    I think the gamers themselves should be just as responsible, if they want to die playing WoW or eating burgers, let them knock themselves out. Who are we to NOT offer them the opportunity, to take the choice away from them and to only offer health food and brain training 🙂 instead?
    As this Benjamin R Barber guy said, consumers have to be responsible (as well).

    Thanks for your thought provoking words!

  31. Interesting comment ‘open dicht’, I think curious people that are aware of the world around them will always feel the need to discover the meaning of all what’s around them. I don’t think it’s a goal of living or even a direct consequence of living though. Rewards in games are the result of doing things, where the search for meaning in real life surely will never end.

    I think ‘meaning’ in games in the context we’re all talking about here is more that things in games, parts of gameplay, features, objects, gear and so on should really have some kind of sense of being there other than just to be there as filler content so to speak. I guess there’s a deeper kind of meaning meant here too perhaps, but it’s certainly way more abstract. Game worlds can show how systems interact, how hierarchies work, how patterns tend to resurface perhaps, things like that. Things that work tend to hold truths, like systems. Some systems will always fail because of the way they are, others won’t fail and therefore have meaning.
    Personally I do not expect to find answers to the universe or extremely deep stuff like that, but I do think that life isn’t all that different from a character in a video-game after all. I do not believe in God, but often this world does look very designed to me (through evolution, but still looks designed). Researching the ‘design’ will give us answers, perhaps making games can be considered a new or at least different way of researching the world around us, researching our imagination, researching systems and so on.

  32. hey open dicht.
    Many good points…not even sure where to start. I think your impulse to avoid the word “art” is spot on. The only reason I used it initially is because it was mentioned in the lecture that he wanted games to evolve to the point where they deserve to be called art(paraphrase), and I was trying to say that there is nothing inherently wrong with them being “games,” as opposed to “art.” I’ve got this hunch that comparing a game to a symphony, film or painting may not get you anywhere. Which is why I’m really glad he mentions the game “Go” in the lecture. It seems like gamers generally don’t think enough about the nature of what a game is, fundamentally speaking, why it’s satisfying. Erik Franken talks about a deeper more abstract meaning in the last post, systems interacting etc. I think a lot of game designers get seduced by the aesthetics/technology and fail to produce a satisfying “game” experience. Which brings us to another loaded word: “meaning.” I think what those of us who are disappointed in what the game industry is producing are looking for a richer experience, the type of experience you can have playing a really simple game like Go. But the word “meaning” implies something different than that, at least to me. I prefer the word “richness.” When you ask if it’s right to impose my own ideas of quality on somebody else, you have a point. But I’m talking more about imposing these ideas on myself by taking a closer look at what I’m producing. I guess since we now know that it’s possible to kill yourself playing WoW, we need to find out how many people have died from reading too much Proust or practicing too much violin….is there something inherently destructive about the product we’re producing? On another note, I do think there’s a fundamental difference between a pure game experience and a purely artistic experience. The former appeals to the apollonian, the latter to the dionysian. But other than that, I guess I can’t really answer your question! There are a lot of instances where these two types of experiences can overlap!

  33. Sorry Alex, I didn’t mean you when I was talking about imposing ideas on someone, the second comment I made was addressed to the guy who keeps writing news posts on this weird website.
    But it’s basically the same as you saying: “I was trying to say that there is nothing inherently wrong with them being “games,” as opposed to “art”.”
    Personally I think there’s too much crap already and that’s a big turnoff for me, for instance I think most books (novels) are really bad so I don’t bother reading much.
    But that’s just my personal opinion, we could argue about it for a while and nothing would change so I was wondering if Jonathan Blow has some good arguments to push for “art” that are not just personal longing or are using some weird alien logic. In short: What is his motivation?

    But you make a lot of good points in answering anyway!
    About destructiveness for instance:
    There are plenty of deaths related to the music industry like john lennon, kurt cobain. Sometimes people get trampled (and die as a result) going to a music festival. While you could say that wasn’t caused by playing or listening to music, I’d like to see someone die from playing a non social game.
    Not really of course! but I think it’s their unwillingness to deal with reality or their longing for an easy social environment that kills them.
    There is something inherently destructive about living, games can influence lives, so indirectly: yeah games are destructive! but so is everything else that could influence a human life.

    Does that mean the game industry should be careful in providing ways to escape from reality? Isn’t that taking freedom away from the consumer?

    (And if you play so much Go that you’re seeing things in universal context then you’re probably addicted, a hazard to your environment and need to be taken care of somewhere far away. 😉

    I totally agree with what you said about the systems and game experience and meaning and about looking at what you are producing.
    I’m not sure if richness of experience is equal to meaning. Breadth and depth of experience I guess… Haha, I really don’t know what meaning is. Maybe it is just to experience. Or to find a certain resonance. I can’t say much of use about that.. It’s probably more fun for each of us to find the
    answer for ourselves anyway.

    So good luck! ^_^

  34. Hi,

    great presentation and I thoroughly agree with many of the comments. Though I felt this way, you articulated it all in a way I haven’t been able to do, even in my own mind.

    I was actually posting to ask if you mind if I play around with this and sample your voice for a tune?

    Stay funky and thanks for sharing.

  35. Pingback: Braid | MetaFilter
  36. Awsome,

    I really agree with what you said, game developers and designers influence the mind of their cosumers as much as film makers and book writers, maybe even more if you consider the amount of time spent in a game and in a book or movie.
    And as a Developer-wanna-be I’ve heard what you had to say, and I’ll keep this ideas deep in my mind, and I’ll try my best not to “dump another load of radioactive garbage in the mind environment”.

    thank you a lot.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *