Joystiq interview: Blow unravels Braid in postmortem

With the release of Braid, Jonathan Blow became not only the creator of one of the highest-rated Xbox 360 games of all time, but a household name, at least among gamers. Infatuated as we are with his game, we sent Blow a stack of questions that he was kind enough to answer -- everything from why there aren't many games he enjoys these days to why Space Giraffe is the best action game on XBLA.

Read on.

It seems like such a personal game and personal story, I'm curious how you felt the day before the game released to the public. Terrified? Excited?

I was interested to see how the game would be received, but I can't say that I was super-emotional about anything. In terms of public reception -- if that turned out badly, well, I thought that it was a pretty good game for my own tastes, so that would just mean that my tastes differ pretty widely from the market's. Which isn't necessarily so bad if your goal is not to make money. (At the same time, I am pretty glad that the critical reception was highly positive, much better than I could have expected).

I was definitely relieved that the game was done and was finally getting out there to an audience, though. I had been working on it for a long time.

What's been the most surprising thing to you about the critical and public response?

That the critical response was so unanimously positive. I expected some critics might strongly dislike the game -- the same way Space Giraffe got some scores in the 2-6 range. (Space Giraffe is an excellent game, by the way -- certainly the best action game on XBLA).

In the public, reading forums and such, you find some people who don't like Braid and are vocal about it, but that's to be expected -- you just can't please everyone, and in fact my design goal was not necessarily about pleasing people anyway. But the conversion rate is very high (that's the ratio of the number of copies sold to the number of times the demo was downloaded) which means that they like the game for the most part.

It's a challenging game that really forces the player to think and be engaged. With this being your first wide release, was there a temptation to make it more accessible?

Well, it is definitely more accessible than my previous publicly-released game, which used every key on the keyboard (plus shift, ctrl, and alt- modifiers) in order to play. With Braid I wanted to make a game that was maximally rich and deep, coming from a minimal set of game rules and controls. You can think of that as a certain kind of accessibility -- you don't need the entire Xbox 360 controller to play, you could do almost everything with just a stick and two buttons (and the game could be made to play entirely with just the stick and two buttons, with a few design changes).

But I didn't want to dumb the game down, or anything like that. I like games that are interesting, that give me something to think about or to be well-engaged in, that give me the benefit of the doubt as being an intelligent person. Fewer games like that are being made these days -- an awful lot of games are just about ushering the player through a fake experience, letting him win, making him feel like he is clever and strong without actually requiring him to be anything but a couch potato. I'm not interested in playing those games, and as a result of that (and other long-term design trends) these days there aren't many games that I enjoy. With Braid, I was making a game that I would like to play, and just having faith that there would be a reasonable number of people out there who would also like it.

I know your stance on a PS3 or Wii release of Braid, but have you ever considered putting it on a portable console?

I have thought about it, but there are a lot of technical and design challenges and maybe it's not worth it. For the DS the game would have to be completely re-created from the ground up, and I won't do that (I would rather be working on my next game), and I don't know anyone I would trust to do a high-quality job on that. So it is probably not going to happen. PSP might be more feasible if it's a downloadable game (so that it doesn't have to run off the UMD, because the music streaming stuff in Braid would not work off a UMD), but the direct-download-to-PSP market isn't really there yet, and again there would be a substantial investment in making the game run at a high quality level there, and I'm not sure who I trust to do it (though it would probably be easier to find someone to do a good job there than on the DS). The iPhone is capable of doing Braid well, both in terms of graphics and storage, but there is no way to control the game -- the touchscreen just won't work for Braid.

I am hoping that next year someone announces a next-generation handheld that is a better fit -- but I don't know what the chances of that are.

If it was released on a different platform, is there anything you'd change do differently?

Nothing major. If it's a handheld platform, there might need to be some adjustments to the way the story text is drawn, or to the level layouts if the screen aspect ratio is not close to 16:9 (this is one of the big problems with the DS; all the levels in the game would have to be completely redesigned, and then, is it really the same game any more?)

I feel like in part due to the distribution method and the size of your team, and in part due to the game's unique tone and presentation, you've joined the small club of video game auteurs, and a public image of you has really just been created over the past month. I'm curious how your reaction to that has been.

I'm trying not to get too caught up in it; I don't like the public persona thing very much, especially because the public image that forms tends to be heavily distorted, not much like me at all. On the positive side, when I do a lecture or something like that, it helps the information get out to more people; on the negative side, that information is usually in heavily-distorted form, liveblogs or write-ups claiming I said things that I would never actually say, latching onto some small statement and blowing it way out of proportion and trying to create some controversy in order to generate web hits, while ignoring the core idea that the statement was there to illustrate. This happens with interviews too, pretty often. Then you get to the next level of indirection, when people actually read the piece, and often they barely skim the write-up or transcript, or else just read someone else's summary about it on an aggregator blog somewhere and didn't even follow the link; so ultimately the understanding that builds in peoples' heads has little to do with the actual reality.

Then I look at all this and think, hmm, there is nothing special about my situation -- this must be true for most public discourse most of the time. It's pretty sucky.

In terms of the ending: Did it evolve from the mechanic? Or were the two simultaneous creations?

I first came up with the ending about eight months into development, after the rest of the game was well-established. Prior to that I had a lot of ideas for how things could end, but wasn't satisfied with them. This one, though, I felt did the rest of the game justice.

When you see people trying to piece together the narrative of the game from the fragments you provided, is it tempting for you to just wade in and lay it all out for them?

Not really, because I would not be capable of doing that. The narrative in Braid is not being obscure just for obscurity's sake. It's that way because it was the only way I knew how to get at the central idea, which is something big and subtle and resists being looked at directly. If I were to make some kind of statement about what the game is about -- even a very long, elaborate and well-considered statement -- it would miss. It's like trying to clutch a handful of water very tightly; the water runs through your fingers and you end up with almost none. But if you cup an open hand, instead of clutching, you can hold a little more. And then if you don't try to contain the water at all, if you instead just point to where it is, you can point at a whole lake. Or at least a small river leading into the lake. Someday, far in the future, the ocean, maybe.

The reason I made Braid is because it was the only way to express those particular ideas. If I could write a 5-paragraph essay telling you what Braid is about, then why wouldn't I just write that essay and post it on my web page? Then I wouldn't have needed to spend 3 years making the game! That would have been a lot easier.

Now that you've seen the game from inception to release, is there anything you'll change about your process next time? Or did it change during Braid's development?

It's too early to tell. My next game is going to be very different from Braid (it's a 3D game, for starters), and that means that the process will have to be different somehow. I am definitely going to try and keep the next game personal, with only a few people helping me make it. We'll see how that goes.

This might be kind of odd question, but Braid has such a specific atmosphere and tone I'm curious what your development atmosphere was like. Was there any certain music you listened to? Anything you had to have on hand?

I did have a few early musical influences, which live in the same emotional neighborhood as the things I was doing in Braid. The first of these is the music of the Dirty Three (especially the album Horse Stories). The second is the music of Lisa Gerrard (including Dead Can Dance stuff). Lastly, there's the soundtrack to Dead Man, by Neil Young. All this is very different from the music in the final game, and there are a lot of different reasons for that, some of them purely functional (what kind of music works as a game, as opposed to being listened to directly with all your attention focused on it?).

With little exception, once you have the solution to a puzzle in Braid, there's not a whole lot of challenge in performing or repeating it. How difficult was it to balance the difficulty of something like that?

Balancing difficulty was not a major concern. Braid doesn't follow the design conventions that a lot of other games use. It's not trying to present puzzles that are hard; it's trying to present puzzles that are interesting, which is a different thing. Some puzzles in Braid are pretty easy, but still interesting. Some are hard. I did try to pace the puzzles so that you get spots of easy or intermediate difficulty in between the hard parts (which is something most games don't seem to do -- designers still have this idea that games ought to ramp up monotonically in terms of difficulty or complexity, and I think that is an inflexible mindset that misses out on a lot of opportunity). But I was limited in how effectively I could pace things, because there's no telling which of these puzzles someone will find difficult. There are some trends, but that's all they are: trends. So at another level I just had to know that this wasn't the kind of game where I should be trying to control the player experience that tightly, because it wouldn't be possible without turning Braid into a hand-holding game, which I didn't want to do. There are more than enough hand-holding games out there.

Do you regret bringing up the financial end of Braid development and sales? Do you think it distracted from the game's content or helped to get it a bit more buzz?

This is one of those areas where a lot of people on the Internet were somehow raising a stink while simultaneously demonstrating that they have no idea what they are talking about. So there was a lot of negativity out there (a lot of it on Joystiq), but it was all baseless, so it would be silly for me to care. For example, some people were reacting as though $180k were a tremendously high cost for a 2D game and that I must be some kind of terrible business person for needing that much money. Well, before posting they could have looked up how long the game was in development, and who worked on it, and done some mental computations on the cost. That information is out there and it only takes 10 minutes to look up. Maybe they could have gone and read the N+ postmortem from earlier this year, where the authors estimated that $125k is the absolute minimum cost for an XBLA game, and it would be a tremendous stretch to even hit that. That would be a pretty quick read and might be very informative. Oh dear, this postmortem says N+ cost $214k! What does that mean? At one point some people were complaining that it didn't make sense that I was saying I hadn't yet made back my investment; but they didn't stop and make a simple model of the transactions involved and realize that if I am trying to replace money back into my savings that I spent on development, then I have to pay taxes first, and taxes are pretty high for self-employed people. They could estimate those taxes fairly accurately by looking at publicly-available information on the Internet!

But of course nobody did all that research; none of the forum posters thought about Braid's financials that carefully. Why would they? They don't care that much. They just wanted to gripe about something, and Braid and its development cost estimates are what happened to be in front of them that day. On a different day, it would be something else. It doesn't take much effort to be grumpy.

I am glad to have made this data public, and I will continue to do so in the future, in as much detail as my contractual agreements allow. This kind of information is very useful for other indie developers and for hobbyists trying to get into the industry. If they want to release a game on XBLA, how much money do they need? If they don't have it, how do they get funding? Can they point at any performance estimates for Braid or N+ or other XBLA games in order to help them get funding, or build a business plan?

If gamers want to see more games that are imaginative or different or aesthetically bold, well, most of those games are going to come from indies. So a thriving indie scene is in the best interest of all gamers, even people who just play mainstream games (because the good ideas in indie games will eventually get cherry-picked and used in bigger games). So I hope that when I publicly release information like this, forum posters and other enthusiasts out there realize that it is part of my attempt to contribute to this process of creating a healthy indie community, one that is viable in the long term and helps to produce quality games.

What are you working on next? How are you filling your days now?

I am working on the Braid patch for XBLA, and the PC version, and talking to some folks about ports to other platforms. I am also spending some time relaxing, and a little bit of time working on my next game.

Finally, and most importantly, where are all the bikini clad babes and mutants?

Duke Nukem 3D was just released on XBLA [Wednesday]!

We'd like to thank Mr. Blow for putting the time in to answer all our questions, even if he didn't take our mutant babes suggestion seriously enough.