Jonathan Blow interviewed by Jeff Lindsay over at Gamehelper.

This email interview of Jonathan Blow was conducted by Jeff Lindsay a few weeks ago. Please disregard the excessive personality-glorifcation at the beginning.

This was a good interview to do, because I managed to clarify several points in my thinking about game development.  Here’s an excerpt:

Marketing is not, in fact, a need.  Getting enough people to buy your game such that you make money is not a need, if you really care about the integrity of what you are making.  That integrity is the primary need; earning enough money through selling that thing, such that you can make more without taking up another job or whatever, is a luxury. People bend to this luxury all the time.  There are lots of ways to rationalize it.  But I think it is usually due to weakness — or rather, lack of commitment to principles.

Among indies there is some kind of desire to be more like bigger companies, to be “professional” about making games.  Owning a business and making money and having business cards is all part of that.  But if you really care about games, it’s a huge mistake, and being “professional” will only hurt your work and cause it to be mediocre. Business is, inherently, a corruptive influence on everything that is non-business.

24 thoughts on “Jonathan Blow interviewed by Jeff Lindsay over at Gamehelper.”

  1. Funny bit about explaining your work to the uninformed. I’m sure many can relate. Funnily enough, there does seem to be a greater sense of the game industry “growing up” one way or another in the popular perception. There just seem to be more articles about how much money the industry is raking in, more young people going through game-focused curricula, and more diverse groups playing Wii and things like that.

    Still, even when I get good reactions, most of the time I’m still a little uneasy because “video games” just doesn’t sound like it could be serious. At best, it’s like saying “I design variations on the Reese’s peanut butter cup. Yeah, those white chocolate ones were my idea.”

    Something else — when people want to confer a bit more respectability on the profession, sometimes you hear them say “interactive games” instead of “video games.” And I want to say “thank you for going out of your way to construct this redundant expression to spare me association with something which you obviously consider childish.”

  2. You say, “Furthermore, games that are flattened out like this are not allowed to really expect anything of the player — to require the player to do anything difficult or interesting. Because a large percentage of players would not be able to do that…”

    I can sympathize with frustration at the proliferation of “faux challenges,” but how do you feel about a game like Portal? Solving the puzzles in the game proper is not that challenging–I doubt many players get stuck for very long on any of them–but is still rewarding for what I would like to believe are good reasons. It still feels, while you are playing, as though the game is actually expecting creativity and a lot of thought, even though it is expecting less than most players can deliver. So is it just particularly good at duping the player, is there something more important and hard to define than just the level of difficulty, or is there some more relevant measure of difficulty than how long it takes and how many people can do it?

  3. I actually had a relatively positive Cute Girl Experience this Friday. So maybe things are in fact improving, there.

    Portal is an interesting case. I think it is a lot like Braid in the sense that the fundamental game mechanic is new, so most things you design for the player are going to engage their minds in an interesting way. The puzzles in Portal didn’t have to be hard in order to be interesting, which is ideal.

    But project yourself a decade into the future and Portal 4 is coming out. It’s hard for me to imagine that this would be the case. If it’s got the same puzzles as in Portal 1, then it would be boring, so they would need to make them more intricate, or harder, or else come up with new mechanics to keep things fresh, while ensuring those aren’t difficult. This is certainly possible, but it’s hard, and becomes harder every time you try to expand a game.

    So, Portal managed to pull a new nugget out of the mineshaft of game mechanics, and exploit it effectively. Which is not something we can realistically expect from every game (though it’s great when it happens).

  4. It’s funny, I came to the same exact phrase, “innovation is more of a means than an end” independently after seeing the “Innovation in Indie Games” IGS panel with Jon, Jenova et al. But the rest of the thought in my mind went “… a means to the end of artistic expression.”, rather than the profit motive of EA.

    So I think there’s multiple facets to it, not all of which are incompatible with doing something meaningful and beautiful. If you care more about novelty than expression (of anything, anything at all that’s important to you) that makes you a very shallow artist in a way. It’s more reacting than creating. The way to innovate is, paradoxically, to not care explicitly about innovation.

    Is that kind of like the wisdom that goes “the best way to get into a good relationship is to stop actively trying to get into one”? May be relevant to the explaining-to-cute-girls issue.

  5. Crap, Jon, between this and the Molly Rocket thing now you’ve got me wondering if I even SHOULD be trying to make money making games.

  6. What is this malarkey? Marketing is not a need? Marketing hurts your integrity?? What?!

    Sometimes the lack of proper marketing campaigns seriously make me question indie devs passion for their games. I mean, you just poured your heart & soul into this. All that work! Blood, sweat, and tears! This is your baby. Your life. How could you not want to tell the whole world about it? You should be so proud and passionate about your game that you should stop at nothing to tell everyone you can about it. You owe it to your game. It deserves it. It wants to be played. By everybody. It makes it happy.

    Don’t you want your game to be happy?

    Seriously though, this statement of “marketing is not a need” is exaggerated foolish talk. Especially if you have a multiplayer game.

  7. Sean, I don’t think Casey is anti-money… he’s just anti-compromise-to-make-money (as I understand it) which is pretty much my stance too.

    jeremy, from looking at the description of your game-in-progress on your web site, I can see that we come from very different ideological places: The game is a top-down shooter with the exterior of a fighting game. It boasts the most diverse character line-up of all time. Picture this: a modern soldier, a robot centipede, a ninja made of sand & glass, a spider-vampire hybrid, a ball-n-chain wielding samurai, a living black hole, an evil wizard, a super hero flower man, monster aliens, giant bugs, stampeding wildebeests, and zombies…all in the same game. If that doesn’t sound like the best game ever, then maybe you should just stop playing games right now.

    Given this, I am not too surprised that you don’t understand where I am coming from.

    The most important thing is not the game itself, but rather, what the game stands for. The game itself is just an implementation of that, but if the implementation corrupts the original ideals, then I have failed as a designer. Braid is about respecting the player and treating his time and attention as precious, and working really hard to give the player something good in return for the gift of his attention. Marketing is the opposite of that. The more effective marketing becomes, the more it is the opposite of that.

    I’m not saying that I won’t market Braid — I definitely will. But I will try to do it in the most respectful way possible.

    The second problem is that if you allow marketing to become a priority then it affects your game, thus dragging your game away from what you really wanted it to be. Some games are just a lot more marketable than others. But I want to make my design decisions without worrying about said marketability, because I believe that such worries lead to mediocrity most of the time.

  8. Don’t you want your game to be happy?

    To continue your anthropomorphic device, that’s sort of like accusing a parent of not loving their child because they don’t dote on them, buy them everything they want, etc. It’s a straw man, while there are dozens of specific cases I could cite on the flip side.

    Call me a pessimist or a cynic, but I’m guessing most game developers, however well-meaning, are much closer to falling into the “marketing as distraction” trap than the “too much emphasis on the game itself, not enough on marketing” trap. It’s just so easy to add all sorts of garbage to a game just because you’re terrified it won’t sell.

  9. “The puzzles in Portal didn’t have to be hard in order to be interesting, which is ideal.”

    Yeah, but speaking of the actual levels and gameplay in Portal, I already found the level where the solution can’t be found in the same room to be quite difficult. Difficult isn’t exactly the right term, because once you know you should literally think outside the box it’s quite easy. But it ís one of the (little) things Portal actually could have done better. They probably should have suggested in earlier puzzles that the solution sometimes can be partly outside of the room in which you need to solve a problem.

    On the other hand I think the relatively small amount of levels Portal has does sort of represent the difficulties the level design team must have had of coming up with new and obviously not too difficult levels in the first place, so for that I do applaud them. I think it will be hard to come up with enough entirely new and not too difficult puzzles for Braid 2 for the same reason.

    “So is it just particularly good at duping the player, is there something more important and hard to define than just the level of difficulty, or is there some more relevant measure of difficulty than how long it takes and how many people can do it?”

    Yes I think it is good at duping the player with faux challenges actually and in the level I was talking about (I think it’s 17 or so) it sort of strays away from it’s formula but I don’t think it was on purpose. Overall the difficulty in the game is extremely well balanced when you look at each puzzle individually. There were some puzzles that I found easier than some puzzles early on, but it might be simply because of getting used to the gameplay concept.

    With the exception of that one time I did not have any problems with the puzzles whatsoever. Still I do think quite a lot of people must have had the same problem I encountered and it’s not because the puzzle itself doesn’t make sense or because it’s too difficult. It’s simply because the solution, although not difficult in practice, just is a step too far when a game didn’t suggest before that solutions like that one can exist.

    So, my point of all this is that it sort of shows how this game successfully fools us all, until a ‘real’ puzzle came. Games that make you feel the best often are the ones in which you have to do seemingly complex things that aren’t actually complex at all, a bit like most of the fancy Tomb Raider puzzles. Most of the puzzles are pretty linear and each discovery of new areas usually provides you with a new piece of the puzzle.

    “Furthermore, games that are flattened out like this are not allowed to really expect anything of the player — to require the player to do anything difficult or interesting. ”

    True, but if puzzles aren’t at least a bit straight forward in terms of difficulty, regardless of the design and good intentions it will ruin the fun. I think fun should come before complexity, interestingness and so on, because it should still be entertainment, right? Perhaps I am simply spoiled with too much ‘easy’ games, hence why I didn’t expect Portal to have a puzzle where you needed to really think a bit outside of the box, but part of me thinks it would be the same as seeing a movie about a serial killer where you never get to see the investigators solve the case. For a puzzle to be fun it should be solvable. So unless the movie gives away enough clues that suggest the actual killer is the bad guy such an ending spoils the fun (if solving the puzzle is your goal obviously, I have no doubt that such a scenario would actually still make a very interesting movie if done right.) I’m not sure if I’ve been successful at explaining what I meant here…

  10. Jon/Sean: I’m certainly not anti-money. I’m just anti-compromise. I can make money in a lot of ways, so making a game that sells lots of copies isn’t necessary. If I need money I’ll go make money. But when I’m making a game all by myself, then it’s a personal process, and I want to make what I think is good, not what will sell the most copies.

    – Casey

  11. Yes, that’s my attitude too.

    And what I meant in the interview is that a lot of people take a slightly different attitude, which is that they would *like* to make game X but in order to ensure they are financially viable they need to change it just a little bit into game Y… but that’s a hugely slippery slope, and eventually they end up just like every other developer making market-determined games.

  12. Right, you’re both talking about what I meant, though. I have no problem accepting money for games, I meant the idiom “making money” as in the sense of it being one’s primary source of income.

    My rule of thumb has been that if I can’t get one of my current iterations of indie games to the point where it has a reasonable potential to become a sustainable source of income, I should probably just go back to the game industry and make “real” games. Now I’m wondering if I would be better off accepting that the indie games are not the source of income but continue making them anyway.

    Jon: “they would *like* to make game X but in order to ensure they are financially viable they need to change it just a little bit into game Y… but that’s a hugely slippery slope”

    Right, and that’s the part of the interview that I recognized has always been a pressure underlying almost everything I’ve worked on (except the totally free stuff).

    Casey: “If I need money I’ll go make money. But when I’m making a game all by myself, then it’s a personal process, and I want to make what I think is good, not what will sell the most copies.”

    Right, see, the thing is “go make money” kind of sucks. There’s theoretically a middle ground here where you don’t necessarily target what will sell the most copies, but what will sell *enough* copies. And I’ve always assumed this was a reasonable compromise to make, but I’m not sure. (And this was what I meant by my prior post.) The alternative is to accept “wasting” a certain fraction of your life to make the money, and then spend the rest making the uncompromised games. Which sounds good except for the “wasting” part.

  13. I agree that “go make money” sucks, but at least it is a clear and honest kind of sucking. Whereas lying to myself about what games I am making, trying to convince myself that the compromises I’d be making aren’t really that bad, is a murky and dishonest kind of sucking.

    I’d put it this way: if I have to spend a lot of time working to make money, and only a little time making the games I want, then maybe I can’t create many games in the end, but at least all of them are the games I wanted to make, and maybe they will be really great, if I am a good artist.

    If instead I make all money through my games, via compromise, then maybe I never make a single game that I really wanted to make, at all. Maybe I have lost that shot at greatness, or at least the inner peace of knowing I did my thing.

  14. I am still hung up on “expecting more” from the player. This is maybe not as important to others as to me, but meh.

    I think meaningful games have to challenge players, in the same sense that other media present challenges. Obviously the sort of challenge presented by a gunfight is much different than the type provided by a morally unfamiliar situation. The challenge of the gunfight in a game as you point out is generally not a real challenge, but it is also often not a meaningful challenge even if it is difficult. The challenge of a puzzle in general is no more meaningful: solving an instance of 3SAT is if anything more meaningless, regardless of NP-hardness or whatever. So I think it is erroneous to put the blame on difficulty.

    The interest of the puzzles in games like Mr. Heart Loves You are obviously not derived from difficulty. The challenge of the game is really only incidentally related to the fact that you need to complete the puzzles to proceed. You could make “beating” such a game arbitrarily easy without affecting the relevant challenge. The point of gating the player’s progress is to enhance the real challenge not by making the game “harder” but by changing the way the player views the puzzles.

    So I agree that the typical notion of “challenge” in a game is very flawed, but I think I have a different reason (or at least different than what you have articulated here). Mainstream games represent a bad way of challenging the player not because they are easy, but because the challenge in the game is progression itself. Progression can line up nicely with a more meaningful challenge, for example in a puzzle game where every puzzle forces the player to learn something new, but it is essentially never meaningful on its own.

    In general, I think disentangling progression in a game from the substantive challenge is a good way to reconcile the conflict between challenge and accessibility. A hard game need not be such that getting to the end is difficult, any more than it is difficult to get to the end of a hard novel. I guess games without progression are common, but such games in my perception tend to try to avoid being challenging. Passage is a good example (although did not enjoy it for a variety of reasons) of a game which tries to present a challenge without gated progression. Even the mechanics of a game like DMC could be the basis of a challenging experience, but instead they are imposed somewhat arbitrarily on a gated progression which for most players replaces rather than enhances the potentially interesting underlying challenge. I have not played Space Giraffe, but it looks as though its format gets more directly at the same general type of challenge (I do not mean at all to compare merit or depth by that comment; I have no idea).

    Sorry for such a tangential, long post which amounts mostly to getting my thoughts in order…

  15. Paul — I actually agree with most of what you said. For example, Braid is a hard game in a lot of ways, but it does not block the player’s progress until the very endgame. You can just walk through most of the levels with minimal difficulty. I think if players do that without at least trying the puzzles they are robbing themselves of a good play experience, but I wanted that to be an option. It is also good game design, because you don’t have the players getting blocked and frustrated just because they don’t “get” one particular puzzle yet.

    When I talk about “expecting more from the player”, I don’t necessarily mean difficulty. It can be anything — expecting thoughtfulness, curiosity, creativity. But, expecting *something*.

  16. About the moral/ethics/motivation behind making game.

    I think we should keep in mind that Jon is primarily sharing his personal opinions with us. He’s looking for answers, so are we. On his path so far he has found some really interesting things. But what is right for him does not necessarily have to be the right for me, or my games, nor is it some absolute truth. I find Jon’s idea very inspiring, but at the end I have to find my own way, right? I feel he’s helping me in my own search by questioning old concepts and proposing new ones, even though some thoughts he’s provoking are painful.

    Anyway, this is probably obvious to most of us when reading/listening to Jon, but I have to regularly remind myself.

    Great work, Jon. Keep going.

  17. Who needs marketing when the interviewer talks you up so well at the outset? I’m kidding, of course. Regarding marketing I agree with you for the most part. Pandering might gain you some initial sales but in the long run if you lie to the audience about what you have, or worse make something watered down that you think they want, it will hurt you. However, ignoring marketing completely would be a mistake. Unless you prefer to only let friends and family play your game, I guess.

  18. “Marketing is not, in fact, a need. Getting enough people to buy your game such that you make money is not a need, if you really care about the integrity of what you are making. ”

    What if a designer creates a game precisely the way he wanted from the outset, and completes it in a form that satisfies the design. At this point, with completed game, he then decides he wants to increase the probability of making money off it, so he decides to market it, buying add space, doing interviews and what have you (I’m really not sure what goes into marketing your average game).

    Is the integrity of the game compromised in this scenario? If so, in what way? Or is your point merely that the common marketing practices in the games industry are, in and of themselves, a negative item?

  19. I think in the scenario you describe it is possible for the game not to be compromised. Yet it still can be. For example, a big part of Braid is respecting the player; so even after it’s done, if I advertise it in a way that does not respect the people I am advertising to, then I am betraying the nature of the game. If I sign a deal to put little Braid Flower Bunny toys in Happy Meals, that is pretty bad too.

    But I have no problem with the basic idea of buying ad space and doing interviews (I am already doing interviews, and will be buying what little ad space I can afford). It just has to be done in a way that doesn’t betray the game.

  20. “For example, a big part of Braid is respecting the player; so even after it’s done, if I advertise it in a way that does not respect the people I am advertising to, then I am betraying the nature of the game. ”

    Thanks, that clears it up for me.

    This brings to mind Charles Schulz and his Peanuts strip. Some in the cartooning and comics field feel that his allowing Snoopy and Charlie Brown and the other characters to be used in Met Life commercials, toys, plush dolls, bedding, and so on has diminished what they feel is otherwise a great achievement and legacy. The specific argument I read used Bill Watterson in contrast for the way he handled Calvin and Hobbes.

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