A Conversation with Jonathan Blow: Making Games, Ambitious Design and What’s Next

3D and UX Design for Games, VR and Animation

A Conversation with Jonathan Blow: Making Games, Ambitious Design and What’s Next

November 2, 2012 Uncategorized 5

A conversation with Jonathan Blow about making his first games, the importance of ambitious design projects to the games industry and what’s next after The Witness.

I don’t know if you know this yet, but Jonathan Blow is really super cool (and probably one of the nicest people you’ll meet!).

A few weeks ago he joined me and my research partner in crime, Pepper Lancaster, for tea and bickies at Lydia’s Cafe in Petaluma.  Pepper and I want to know how great ideas get made, take on a life of their own and what contributes to their success…

…and we really like tea and bickies.

Even after a full-on week, facing a long drive home, an obviously tired but super generous and patient Jonathan sat down with us and let us ask all kinds of questions.

(Seriously, anyone who has to sit down with ME for an hour and a half has the patience of a saint!)

We get into some tricky debates around:

  • How do you know that you’re working on the right stuff?
  • Why do some games become successful when others don’t?
  • Why is it so critical to explore what really interests you (as opposed to doing what’s ‘popular’)?

And we finish with a BIG question for you, and for everyone concerned about “what to do next” after releasing a big project:

How do you find the time to experiment with new ideas, and give those ideas room to grow and develop, when you have a studio to run and a tribe of creatives to take care of?

But first…


A Disclaimer


This is the uncut and unedited audio from our interview, posted with Jonathan’s permission. As should be obvious by now, I’m not a journalist. I’m just a curious girl who asks LOTS of questions and likes to share what I learn (you can read more about WHY that is here). But if you ARE a journalist and want to use any of this as material for an article – then be cool about it, you know the rules of good journalism: Don’t misquote or take anything out of context (or people will say mean things about you on the internet), make sure you include a link to Jonathan’s current project The Witness and link back to the full interview here so people can listen to the original and check out the companion resources if they want to.


The Full Interview

You can also listen to it here.


References and Companion Resources



Finally: A Question for You


This is for you and everyone who’s concerned about what to do after releasing their next project.

How do you find the time and space for the kind of experimentation that’s so crucial at the early stages of creativity, when you have a studio to run and a tribe of creatives to take care of?

As creatives, in ANY industry, this is something we have to figure out if we’re going to keep exploring new ideas and designing new experiences sustainably!

And here’s the challenge to finding a good solution:

  • It has to build on the infrastructure (engine/tools/workflow) you’ve spent so long developing. Doing something radically different would be like going backwards.
  • It can’t stall growth or forward momentum, you have to be able to keep exploring new ideas and inventing new things (as opposed to producing permutations of what’s already been done).


What would you do?




5 Responses

  1. Boon Cotter says:

    “How do you find the time and space for the kind of experimentation that’s so crucial at the early stages of creativity, when you have a studio to run and a tribe of creatives to take care of?”

    Ok this might sound silly: catch a bus. I find if I want the psychological freedom to explore an idea creatively rather than practically, I need to eliminate practical proximity. On the bus, where I don’t have access to schedules and technical interruptions and a pile of bills distracting me with their constant whining “HOW ARE YOU GOING TO PAY US?!” that my tendency towards obsessive anxiety slips away. It’s not unusual for me to catch the wrong train, or take a ferry, or in some other way commit myself to a temporary imprisonment free from practical accessibility. No books or iDevices either. When there’s nothing to do but be creative, being creative is easy!

  2. Mick Mancuso says:

    Regarding the question about taking a chapter out of how the theater sustains itself between new works – the most obvious contrast is that in repertory theater there is a body of work that can be dusted off and performed again (and again and again and again). There simply isn’t anything equivalent to that in the game industry. The movie industry has somewhat the same problem, although they solved it by the endless remakes (every generation needs to have its own Three Musketeers) and/or formulaic movies with no intention of being considered “Aaart”.

    Perhaps that is where the industry needs to go in order to be sustainable. We all bemoan the fact that “everything looks the same, there’s nothing new to be seen on the E3 (or GDC or EGDC, etc) floor. However, that’s how companies can sustain themselves. It’s when a company jumps over the cliff and decides to create the “NEXT NEW THING” or the “WOW KILLER” or “CALL OF DUTY KILLER” that they suddenly find themselves down the rabbit hole of having to build a new engine and the same time that they’re creating the new killer app. You can’t do both at the same time.

    However, if you have talented people, they can create a new experience using the current engine, or by buying an already existing engine. This is where design calls the shots. Jonathan was right, design is easier – with one very, very large and important caveat – the design has to restrict itself to what can be accomplished using the company’s current technology. You cannot introduce new game mechanics that requires a new engine component, you cannot take advantage of that new video card capability that the technical artists are salivating to take advantage of, you cannot support that new OS that is the latest and greatest thing to hit the market.

    That really isn’t much of a restriction. There are a lot of cool games that can be built on old technology (Old being a relative term, of course). Besides, the technological improvements simply aren’t as earth-shattering as they used to be. “In the old days…” that is, during the 80s and 90s, games were most definitely technology driven – hell, games were the drivers – much of computer technology improved by leaps and bounds due to the demands of the gaming community – players and developers. Now, however, games are much more content bound – meaning that the sheer amount of time and resources needed to create the art and sound content is a bigger bite of the budget than is the development of new technology.

    Oh, that design caveat mentioned above? If you really want to capitalize on previous work restrict the amount of new art as well. Restrict it a lot. Why build entire new data sets for your new levels? Reuse everything – especially environmental art. Only add what is absolutely required by the new story.

    Jonathan himself hints at this solution when he recounts his decision to make Braid without any new, cool programming puzzles to solve. He restricted himself to what he already knew how to do. He should do the same thing

    New does not have to mean just invented. We still go to see Bond movies. The formula has pretty much stayed the same, but they don’t reinvent the tech – they exploit the tech that has already been invented in other, more cutting edge, films.

    Huh, It seems to me that this is all very, very obvious – but so many companies have failed recently due to this insistence on being cutting edge. The AAA industry especially has an abhorrence towards the reuse of code and assets for major releases. Frankly, I would be just fine with being able to play the next 20 hour installment of a favorite game experience – cough, Half Life: Episode 3, cough, cough – without having to wait for the engine to be revamped to take advantage of that shiny new tech.

    • Epona says:

      This is a situation I find myself moving into and will be facing in the very near future – so theorizing a solution to the ‘sustainable creative’ dilemma is going to be hugely helpful to me as well!

      Preface to my conundrum:

      My most productive periods of creativity occur when I get “away from it all”.

      Examples: when I was managing an incubator of many companies in Sydney I found that I could only process “here and now” tasks during the day (maintaining the flow of collaboration across creatives – but not seeing creative abstract solutions to problems). I simply did not have the capacity for abstract thinking while I was in “getting things done” mode with the people I was managing.

      To be able to switch into creativity mode (making new connections between previously unrelated concepts – generating that “ah HAH!” moment) I had to get away from the office – this lead to lots of VERY early mornings or late nights at cafes (which lead to 14 and 16 hour days that left me all zombified).

      And here I am now, totally on my own in California, and able to go weeks at a time working in that open creativity mode – it’s been AMAZING for R&D!

      My conundrum:

      Once my R&D wraps up (and it’s getting close) I’ll be getting all the moving parts lined up for pre-production – the moment that kicks off I’ll be swept up in production for…a long time.

      Fast forward three years: I have a team of creatives I’m managing cross continents, production is wrapping up and I have to get the creative brain going again to generate the next project. Only now I have a company to run and people to manage again…

      …and I know from my incubator days that I can’t be in “need to get things done” mode and an open abstract creativity mode at the same time.

      But if I disappear to do my creative thing – there’s no one at the helm of the ship.

      What would you do in that scenerio?

      (As I write this I immediately think “I would need to replace myself” – but I would need to either develop a “me” like person over 3 years or find someone like me with my same values to keep the ship afloat while I maroon myself on a creative island somewhere…)

      • Mick Mancuso says:

        Well, that’s all part of building a company – especially one in which you are simultaneously the vision holder and the day to day manager. It’s only the latter that has to be replaced.
        When I was working for Maxis, Will Wright had a separate group of people that simply came in everyday and played with ideas. Will would see the first version of his games to fruition, but then pass on the maintenance of the intellectual property off to other people – and he would allow his ideas to be expanded by others once they were out of the concept development phase and into preproduction. I’ve heard that “The Sims”, for example, started out as a doll house simulator. All of the expansion packs, and later versions of the game were developed by other people while he and his “skunk works” team went off to play with things like continental drift simulators and electronic biology sandboxes that eventually became “Spore”.

        The trick is that you have to trust the people that you hire when you build the company. Yes, you need to drive the ship while the company is getting onto its feet – but part of that building phase is not only building the process, but getting other people involved in the “vision thing” – if you’re doing it all by yourself then you aren’t doing it right.

        I submit that you will need to get yourself out of the process much earlier than the ship date – at least part time. You will want the next product ready to go into concept development, and perhaps even preproduction, immediately after the first product is shipped. Once you get close to the actual product launch, you’ll probably have to go into “day to day” mode to shepherd it out into the field. Prior to that time, however, you should plan on making yourself absent from the “office” for half-days or certain days of the week. Encourage your people to make their own decisions which, if necessary, you can review when you’re back in management mode. If the process is sound, a couple of hours, or even a day or two, is probably not going to be disastrous.

        Encouraging this decision making through-out the organization takes honesty, forgiveness, trust and not a little bit of courage. If a bad decision is made, then so-what – folks gather together and fix the problem. Blame doesn’t go into it, that just wastes energy and doesn’t get the problem solved.

        Once you are into production, if your preproduction has been thorough, and there is a strong design vision and development process in place, then most of the day to day decisions that have to be made can be done by the people that are actually doing the development. There needs to be frequent reviews, but not so frequent that you can’t step away from the process, trusting that most of the decisions would be the ones that you would make anyway.

        That all has to be factored into the scope and scheduling, if you find that you’re not getting the time that you had planned on, then you may need to go back into day-to-day to revamp the scope and process.

        Another stray thought – saying the same thing in a different way: if you’re in the day-to-day decision loop during the production phase, then you’ve put yourself into the critical path, which is a very bad idea for executives – which you will be, even if you don’t start wearing low-heels and black pant-suits.

  3. Great talk, thanks Epona!

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