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Exclusive Interview: Jonathan Blow, 'Braid' Creator

sjohnson
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Posted August 7, 2008 - By Stephen Johnson

Hey, 360 owners, have you downloaded Braid from Xbox Live Arcade yet? You really should; the game just came out yesterday, and not only is it racking up a series of glowing reviews, it's also the perfect antidote to derivative big-budget titles that collapse under their own weight. Seriously, if some part of you is a little sick of playing another dark, dreary, shooter or dungeon crawler, Braid might be the tonic you're looking for.

In place of same-old same-old, this truly original platformer employs unique gameplay mechanics, allusions to classic platformers of the past, clever puzzles and painterly visuals to give you a gaming experience like nothing you've had before. Have we raved enough to convince you?

We contacted the game's creator, Jonathan Blow, and talked shop about Braid, indie games, and the state of the industry. Check out Braid in action...

Braid Gameplay »


 

...then click the cut for the interview.


The reviews for Braid have been overwhelmingly positive. You must be excited.

Yeah! Although there are a couple reviews that are not entirely positive, but I can live with those because there are some that are better than I could have hoped for.

The main complaint we keep seeing is that the game is too small.

That’s one of the interesting things--in some ways the game is designed to be as small and as short as possible, because it’s about not repeating things, ever. There are a number of puzzles in the game, but each one is different in some fundamental way.  It’s trying to take the user through a high density experience; the result is that it’s going to be short. If I’d wanted to, for the same amount of development effort, I could have made a game that had many more hours in it, but I don’t think it would have been as good.

It’s a difference in what people want. Some people want to play a game like Baldur’s Gate where there's 80 hours in the main story line and another hundred if you go off and do extra stuff. That’s not the kind of game this is. I hate to say Braid is trying to be like a movie, because it isn’t, but one thing about going to a movie is, if it’s a good movie, you go to a theater sit there for two hours and have a really dense, really interesting  experience, and even though it’s only two hours it’s worth it, and that’s what Braid is trying to do, but that’s not what a lot of people are looking for. 

That highlights an interesting division in gaming, where a lot of people equate short games with bad games.

I think a lot of that schism is divided by age. When you’re young, you have a lot of time. You come  home from school and you have nothing do for the rest of the day. And you want something interesting to fill up that time. When you get older you have kids and a job. Like for me, I’ve been working on this project every day for 3 years. You don’t want to play a 120 hour game under those conditions. Especially if you’re old enough that you’ve played a lot of games before. You might think, “I’ve played games like this before. This one is nice, and a little bit different, but it’s not worth 120 hours of my time.” If you look on message boards and find the people complaining that it’s not 40 hours, I’ll bet you’d find they’re younger people.

How many people worked on Braid?

[Other than artists commissioned for trial art] It’s really about four people. I did most of the roles in the game. Everything except drawing the art. That was done by David Hellman... He came on about a year and 8 months ago. He has been working on the game about three-quarter time since then. A friend of mine, Sean Barrett came on in the last few week  to help with some of the effect programming for the rewind effects, and a guy named Harry Mack came on in the last few weeks to help out with sound effects. Also, Edmund McMillen did a few weeks of work on the game, doing prototypes of all the character animations (which were then recolored by David Hellman to match the style of the world art).

That's a huge difference from the legions of people it takes to make a "AAA" game.

Yes. Even if you look at XDNA games, some have 7 or 8 people. The downside is it took over three years to finish the game, but the upside is that it shows in the final game. There are things that were revised and revised and improved over three  years, so the game looks much better than it did a year ago.

I could have put it out a year ago, put it out with programmer art, if I was aiming for the same level of quality you might see on say, an indei game message board. The gameplay was mostly what’s in the game now, but a little less refined. But I wanted nicer graphics and to revise a few gameplay things, and it took awhile to find someone who could do the art. And the art took longer than I wanted it, but it was always because I saw what the quality could be versus my initial expectations, so I thought, as long as I have the time and money to keep working on the game I’ll keep raising the quality level.

When I first started working on the game, my expectations were much lower than the final product. That’s the opposite of how games usually go, especially if you’re working on a large budget game. You start off with these great  ideas but half of them can’t make it because of time and budget restraints, so it’s been refreshing.

Would you ever work for big game?

I don’t think I would. I‘ve done a bunch of work as a consultant in the games industry, and it’s not an environment I like to work in. I didn’t make Braid  just because I wanted to make a game. I made it because there are certain ideas I wanted to explore, and a certain way I wanted to do it that’s different from the way games usually work.

I wouldn’t have been able to do that with a large budget, even ifindie I was making an XBLA game at a larger company, there’s no way they’d allow me to do the things I did with Braid. So in order to have the freedom to do the things that I think are aesthetically interesting, and that I think are going to push the boundaries of game play and game design, I need to be completely in charge. And part of being in charge is not delegating things out to 30 people and when you can’t see the whole thing anymore, and you’re not making the low level decisions or even aware of the decisions that are being made. I’m not sure it can be done with the kind of things I want to make yet.

What are you working on next?

I have a file of like 60 ideas I’ve had… my next game, which I haven’t really started working on yet, is a bigger game than Braid. Maybe twice the budget of Braid. It’s 3D, so it’s going to be higher budget game than Braid, but it's too early to predict by how much.

Speaking of budgets: How did you fund Braid?

I had a lot of money saved up. I was a consultant in the game business for awhile, and I got paid at an ok rate for that, and rather than buy a house or a car, I made a game.

That reminds me of indie film, where people max out their credit cards to make their movie.

My credit rating was too bad to get any credit cards, but I would have done that.

Are you going to make your money back?

I don’t actually know. People can guess at the sales of Braid buy looking at the leader board. I’ll get real sales reports later, but if you look at the leaderboard, about 15,000 people have downloaded the game so far. That’s enough to just barely pay off the debt I went into to make the game. After spending all the money I had saved up, I ran out of money and  borrowed money to finish it. Maybe by the end of today I’ll be back to zero and can start making back the savings I had.

The question then is: Is this a core appeal game and anyone who is going to buy it bought it in the first day or day and a half, or is this the kind of game that has good word of mouth and a lot more people will be interested in?

But right at this moment, I’m safe: It wasn’t a monetary disaster. I’m not going to go into debtors' prison.

Will we see Braid on any other platforms?

There will be a PC version by the end of the year. As for other platforms, I really don’t know. I was thinking of doing a handheld version maybe for the PSP, but publishers generally aren’t interested in that, and it would be a hard port to do anyway.

How about a Wii version?

There are two things about the Wii: One is that the game would have to be cut down substantially. Braid uses a lot of CPU. Maybe that could be optimized, but I’m thinking that a lot what makes the game look good would have to go away. Braid draws a huge number of pixels. Sometimes during the game it’s using almost all of the 360’s graphics power. So for the Wii, even at a lower resolution, it’s probably too much and a lot of things would have to be cut down. Plus I have a limited period of exclusivity on the 360. I would have to start a Wii version later. I don’t necessarily have that much interest in it..

Exclusive Interview: Jonathan Blow, 'Braid' Creator
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