Jonathan Blow talks Braid
Braid is widely being heralded as one of the most impressive Xbox Live Arcade titles to date, the home-grown release being hailed as the reemergence of the homebrew game coder. Despite huge review scores and critical appraisals brimming with artistic pomp, we don't actually know too much about Jonathan Blow, the man behind this most-celebrated of creations. We sat down for a chat to see what we could discover.
Hi Jonathan, can you tell us which previous games influenced your Braid concept?
There are a lot of obvious influences; for example, Super Mario Bros. provided the template for the platforming gameplay, and there are obvious references to related games, like the Donkey Kong level, and some subtler references too, such as to Yoshi's Island.
There are also many references to games that didn't directly influence Braid, but that I enjoyed and may have had indirect impacts on the game's design philosophy. Among them are Jumpman, Elevator Action, Ico, Sid Meier's Alpha Centauri, Dino Eggs, and Brian Moriarty's text adventure Trinity.
How does the 'time' story theme fit in with the time-twisting gameplay mechanics, and why did you opt for a story about a lost Princess?
It is hard for me to give answers to these questions. If I could just say what the game was about, then I wouldn't have had to make the game. I could have just written a couple of paragraphs and distributed them to people over the Internet, and saved myself a lot of time and effort. I am just hoping that when people play the game they get something good out of it.
The game is presently riding high with the critics, to what do you attribute the game's success? Did you expect such a warm reception?
I expected some people to really appreciate the game, but what I didn't expect was the near-universal acclaim from mainstream game reviewers. Braid is very indie and has a different structure from mainstream games, intentionally - so I figured that would lead to at least some percentage of heavily negative reviews. But that hasn't been the case. I'm not going to complain!
How closely did the end product follow your original conceptualization? Did anything major change during development?
The way most people make non-sequel games these days, it's not as though you start out with a design document that 100% specifies what the game is. You start with an idea, and as you push forward and start making the game, you are simultaneously trying to realize that idea, while at the same time figure out exactly what the idea is and where it goes and what its consequences are.
The development of Braid was like that. The end result is actually much better (both in terms of production quality and quality of the gameplay) than I would have hoped for when I started. And it's a straightforward evolution of the original idea. But it's not the same as the original idea. I started with that idea and then followed the path that led me to the best result from there.
I gather you developed Braid almost entirely by yourself. Was self-motivation a challenge?
I did the design, programming, writing, production, musical scoring, high-level art direction, and business development. David Hellman worked on the game for a long time as the main visual artist - he drew a whole lot of graphics in a way that I just didn't have the skill to do, and so added a lot to the way the final game has been received. A few other folks helped with other things, a few weeks' worth each: additional graphics programming, sound effect additions and touch-ups, and first-draft character animation.
How many copies do you expect Braid to sell on the Arcade?
I have no way to predict this, even now that the game has been out for almost two weeks (it is more than this now, of course - Ed). Braid is not really fitting the sales patterns of previous Arcade games, so it's hard to predict. But the game has very good word of mouth, with people telling their friends to go try the free demo, so I am hoping the sales remain strong. Unfortunately my contract with Microsoft prevents me from revealing sales numbers, but the numbers generated by vgchartz.com so far have consistently been pretty close. Braid is definitely a profitable game now, which is good, as it means I'll be able to focus on the next game and make it good.
Will the new PC version of Braid be different from the Xbox 360 edition?
The PC version will have some minor changes to help the game operate better on the PC, but in terms of the actual puzzles and graphics and music and sound, all of that will be the same.
Do you fear the threat of piracy on the format?
Not really. We'll see what happens with piracy. The positive effect of piracy is that I get an even bigger audience for Braid, which is a pretty good thing.
You've already said you have no sequel plans - what will you craft next, following the success of Braid? Any new ideas in the offing; new genres, etc?
Yes, I know what the next project is that I'll be working on. There's not much to say about it right now except that, mechanically and visually, it is nothing at all like Braid (but at a deeper level, it may be similar, and may even serve as a spiritual sequel to the game, even though it has no time manipulation in it at all).
Braid's success must have sparked the interest of other developers and publishers, any positive feedback so far?
Yeah, any time you make a successful game that is clearly making money, people start calling you up. "Hey, buddy, how do we make sure your next game is on our console?" (from someone who could barely spend 2 minutes to talk to you last week). Right now there are very concrete plans with PC online publishers to release the game. Beyond that, I have no specific plans.
Lastly, what would you like to see Microsoft do with the Arcade in the future, and how do you think digital distribution will evolve in years to come?
The future of digital distribution is way too hard to predict. I am not even going to try. As for Microsoft, their philosophy of how Arcade should go is very different from mine. If I were to start listing what I think should be different, I would have to mention pretty much everything. It would take days.
I just hope they focus on improving game quality and making it easier for a lot of people to get the games. If you ask them, they will say that those are primary goals of theirs too. But the way that they choose to pursue these goals seems counterproductive to me.
Thanks for your time, Jonathan.