Brandon Boyer

12 Replies

Braid creator Jonathan Blow’s session at the 2007 Montreal International Games Festival (one given before his game had been released, and one I covered for Gamasutra) was somewhat of a minor landmark for the industry — a lecture specifically designed to incite both developers and the public at large to think differently about the subtle messages games were sending to the average consumer, and an invitation to give people more ‘nutrition’ than the ‘cheap drugs’ they were more often being fed.

Amongst many other things, as you’ll hear above, Blow singled out games like World of Warcraft, arguing that exceptional action is meaningless in it and games of its ilk — that the true lesson it was teaching is that “running the same treadmill” as the everyone else would net you success and reward enough.

To spread awareness about the lecture (the full audio of which Blow posted to his site soon afterward), Toronto designer Craig ‘superbrothers‘ Adams (recently covered for his work on art/games blog the 1console) has posted DESIGN REBOOT HD, an animation inspired by the talk, created “just in time for GDC.”

More than a simple tribute, though, Adams hopes bringing the lecture back to light will inspire further discussion: he’s posted his own lengthy summary of and reaction to the talk, and called on a few select people to comment publicly (myself included, which I intend to do shortly after the frenetic whirlwind of GDC itself, when I’ve had time to re-parse and re-think the myriad issues Blow raised) — the results of which will continue and evolve via the DESIGN REBOOT site.

DESIGN REBOOT HD [Superbrothers, music for the video by the formerly-Momus-hyped duo Super Madrigal Bros.]

The 1console future: Toronto designer Superbrothers goes games …
Xbox Live Arcade hit puzzler Braid coming to PC in March – Offworld

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  1. DiomedesTydeus

    I really find his analysis of World of Warcraft a bit lacking. Perhaps it’s because I’m only getting snippets in the video segment, but his criticism (that it’s a meaningless treadmill with no drive for being exceptional) is at best dated. In the last expansion the arena system was introduced where the best players in the world were (in fact) singled out. The top x% got special mounts, titles, weapons, etc. It was a very competitive environment where people were driven to (and demonstrated) their ability and skill as opposed to running a treadmill. Likewise in the current expansion an achievement system has been added that rewards difficult strategies. At last estimate, something like 1% had the raiding achievements. At the same time, the “grindy” aspects that people dislike continue to be narrowed (although I’ll admit not removed). Hence I’m finding his comments out of date at best, and misinformation at worst.

    So I guess animating it in an effort to “spread the message” strikes me as strange since it’s spreading a fairly skewed look at the game.

  2. ‘I really find his analysis of World of Warcraft a bit lacking.’

    Yeah, I think this a totally understandable response to the film clip, and it points to the clip’s real weakness – it’s currently too meagre and too narrowly focused on a specific videogame to articulate much of anything about the depth and breadth of Blow’s thoughts on this complex subject. For what it’s worth, the film certainly isn’t intended to replace the lecture. Think of it like a promotional trailer, with the lecture being the real thing.

    As Blow said on his site at the time of the lecture’s publication online:

    “A number of news sites have written stories about it and people have started commenting on what they feel is the validity or the invalidity of the arguments. However, I don’t think this really works, because the news sites are only reporting about 2% of the lecture; the rest of the lecture is very important in terms of providing context and setting examples. So if you are interested in this kind of subject, I recommend you get the full lecture.”
    > > >

    In any case, should you chose to take the time to consider the film clip in context with the lecture you may also be interested in contributing your own comments & suggestions at THE 1 CONSOLE’s newest ITEM:

    > > >

  3. This animation sort of leaves out the most important part. Well, second most important. The most important part, Diomedestydeus, is that Blow is about the smartest guy in the industry. Obviously that doesn’t mean that we have to bow before the might of every one of his merest opinion, but him calling out Blizzard was more important than the billions of forum posters and (no offence Boyer) bloggers that have already done it. And they were criticising it from a kind of… quality level. Blow’s objection was more philosophical.

    He was making the point that in game design we do not yet have a set of ethics. We just try and make a game that feels as nice and meaningful to the player as possible, which does not necessitate that it actually _is_ meaningful. Which leads to the second most important point: that the form that WoW’s mechanics take is a consequence of their business model. The amount of money Blizzard make is tied how long you play the game (in months). It thus becomes a game designed to keep you playing. There’s a pretention to giving you a compelling experience, because it helps advertise them. But really it is about time.

    Also can I recommend Blow’s other lectures, all of which may be found here: and here:

  4. Is he really the smartest man in the industry?

    I haven’t listened to the lecture, but I’ve listened to him give a few interviews, and he doesn’t strike me as being particularly brilliant. To his credit, there is nobody else bringing these arguments to more people, but he seems a bit taken by a desire to bring a lacking element of game design to the fore at the expense of other methods that haven’t yet succeeded. Maybe it takes a sort of purist to want to evangelize the way he does, and I’m glad somebody is doing it, but I don’t think we would be in an ideal place if he could start dictating game design philosophy.

    I think I will check out the lecture at some point. I thought I had heard that he spends some time talking about the relationship between telling a story and offering an interactive experience. That sounds a lot more interesting then a rant about communist Azaroth.

  5. He makes one game and suddenly he’s the smartest man in the industry?

    He doesn’t work in even remotely the same genre of games and it doesn’t seem that he even plays MMOs, so I fail to see why he’d be an expert at the subject. Maybe if he was speaking about the evils of platform games i’d care.

  6. Jonathan Blow is not the smartest man in the industry. He is a kooky kook. He supported Ron Paul! Kooky. 9/10 of his theories on game design are silly as spit – the other ones are thoughtful and interesting. Like Ron Paul!

  7. Inverse Square

    (This is Inverse Square, commenting anonymously because I can’t seem to log in)

    I can definately see why people might think him kooky and not all that impressive, but look at some of his other lectures, and you’ll basically realise that he is about the best there is.

    And he has made more than one game. This is one of the great things about him: he’s made about a thousand games and about a million prototype games, it’s just that Braid is the first game he’s felt was good enough to go all the way with. He’s experimented an absolutely VAST amount, and not everyone does this: a part of one of his lectures was about knowing very well when to hold them and when to fold them.

    He’s done RPG kind of things, though personally I don’t care. You don’t have to know much about them to see how exploitative WoW is. And I didn’t know about that Ron Paul thing, but again, I couldn’t care less and neither should anyone.

  8. Inverse Square

    (me again)

    Actually let me add that not all of his ideas are good ideas, but they’re all worth considering. He is going to go down in history for the invention of the term “dynamical meaning”: what it means is what the rules mean to you as a player. When playing chess, you know that a queen is more powerful than a pawn. It’s not quite because of the names, it’s because the rules permit different things from them.

    The way he extends this though… it’s still interesting, but it’s a bit silly. It’s more complicated than this, but one thing he extrapolates is conflicts between story and dynamical meaning. Imagine if there was a story about a game of chess you were playing and the pieces were characters. You’d take turns, but independantly of the gameplay you’d see a story unfold, like a modern video game. You’d be annoyed if the queen was some swooning little bimbo and that the King was a big macho bruiser who looks after her, right? It’s inconsistent with the gameplay.

    Blow has more practical examples than me, but his point is that games do this all the time: all games that have stories have conflicts like this. And this is a cool observation, but he takes from this and a few other things that story driven games are probably a futile thing to pursue, and that this is THE most important deficit facing most game makers. Personally I think it’s a clever observation he’s made, but it’s not the best way of making games compelling.

  9. See? That’s one of his non-kooky ideas. Not that he was the first person to point it out. Or that he did it best. Erik Wolpaw, formerly of Old Man Murray and currently of Valve, has made similar comments. And he did it better. Because he is smarter. And has more hair. Plus, he has worked on more and better games, such as Portal, Psychonauts and Final Fight Tactics.

  10. Inverse Square

    All old man murray ever did was point out that it was nigh on impossible to make a perfectly responsive story, and that it was hard to truly combine gameplay and story. Blow isolated what gameplay actually means to us, and the plain on which that conflict really _is_. What’s his kookiest view then? Pushing? Inverse conveyance? Again, I disagree with him on a lot of things, like on how all game designers should also be programmers. But even the things I find absurd are really really fucking clever.

    And yes, Wolpaw is a clever man. Alyx Vance’s character, though he did not invent it, is one of the biggest achievements in characterisation ever, and Psychonauts has made me laugh in ways nothing else has (“Final Fight Tactics” doesn’t exist though). But Braid is the best game ever made. The intricacy and creativity are unrivalled. Portal comes a close second, but it’s not there. Portal and Psychonauts make amazing use of setting, but a lot of their quality comes from outside the gameplay. Braid is far cleverer.

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