Game Designer: Jonathan Blow

Seemingly over night, Jonathan Blow has become a household name. Well, at least in households that consist of all gamers. But the truth is, Jonathan Blow has been making noise in gaming circles for some time now. In fact, he’s been on Wikipedia since February of 2006 so that must mean something.

For those who don’t know, Jonathan Blow is the man behind the recent Xbox Live Arcade (XBLA) hit Braid. Braid is a two-dimensional puzzle/platformer game with watercolor-esque graphics where the goal is to control time to solve puzzles. It’s one of those games that needs to be seen to fully understand.

The point of this post is not to talk about Braid though—I want to talk about Blow, the designer.

He is a very opinionated person who seems to have given thought to a lot of game related issues and has interesting things to say. And the best part is he is not afraid to say them. Briefly, I want to go over a few of his somewhat controversial comments and briefly analyze them.

“They removed some of the requirements for XBLA games, but there are still a lot of requirements, and I believe that, at least for a single-player game like my game, the vast majority of these requirements are unnecessary.” -Jonathan Blow, Gamasutra Interview

He says this after having just published Braid on XBLA. It can be considered a slap in the face in Microsoft’s eyes for such a popular designer to say such a thing. A designer such as Blow can easily deter potential XBLA game developers from releasing games on their platform. Blow does clarify that the requirements are not horrible, and even give some suggestions as to how Microsoft could make things better and easier for designers. With the requirements how they are now, however, Blow feels game quality suffers: “I put in a tremendous amount of work meeting all these requirements, when I could have put that work into the actual game, and made it even a little more polished, little bit better.”

While it’s bad PR for Microsoft, I respect Blow for speaking his mind. Hopefully, Blow speaking up will pressure Microsoft to change their requirements.

“It’s obvious — of course games are art! The entire argument just seems ridiculous to me. But it doesn’t seem ridiculous if you don’t have a certain kind of mental model about what a game is, and about the role of the creators’ vision in that. If you think a game is “Madden 2008,” then hey, games probably aren’t art.” -Jonathan Blow, MTV’s Multiplayer Blog Interview

I definitely feel games are art, and that is what I want to aim for when I eventually get into the game industry. Of course, Blow is saying more than “games are art”. He is saying modern games such as Madden are not art. “When you’re gunning for the big bucks, you pursue craft, not art,” he adds.

It’s not a perfect metaphor, but I think this conflict is a lot like some artist and record labels in the music industry and their relationship with consumers. Often, an artist first album is great, as they love the music medium and want to share there passion for it with the world. But their second and third time around they start focusing more on making money. Thus, as Blow says, they began to pursue craft as opposed to art. The solution to this is not only up to the music industry, but also consumers. If consumers began to show a huge desire to hear great art, then the music industry will eventually have to listen to them if they want to make money still.

“I feel like unearned rewards are false and meaningless, yet so many people spend their lives chasing easy/unearned rewards… It’s not like “Mario” and every other game since then, when there are gold coins sprinkled everywhere, and you get them just by walking along a path or jumping up to some blocks, and that satisfies your reward-seeking reflex for now and pacifies you into continuing to play the game. I actually think that Skinnerian reward scheduling in general (which you see in most modern game design, MMOs being the canonical example) is unethical and games should not do it… scheduled rewards, to keep the player playing, are a sure sign that the core gameplay itself is not actually rewarding enough to keep them playing, and thus you are deceiving your players into wasting their lives playing your game.” -Jonathan Blow, MTV’s Multiplayer Blog Interview

This is one thing I’ve never thought about. Many of us highly regard addictive games, and often, it is said the reason some games are addictive is because of it constantly rewarding gamers. Calling it unethical is an interesting claim, but a valid one. Gamers should want to come back to a game every day because of how amazing the gameplay is and because they want to know what happens next. They should not be coming back just because if they get ten more points they will level up and other things of that nature.

These types of games will always be around though, as most of us enjoy games that constantly and easily gratify and reward us. I do hope though that designers start branch away from this, and that innovation takes us to areas games like Braid aim for.

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This entry was posted on Thursday, August 21st, 2008 at 5:50 pm and is filed under Video Games. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

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