Jonathan Blow on game design

Jonathan Blow is a video game developer who created Braid and The Witness. I have taken the following notes for two of his lectures on game design.

Contents

“Video Games and the Human Condition”

A 2011 lecture.

  • Difficulty that rises than then stays constant is boring. Difficulty should oscillate a little. It is what creates the drama of the game.
  • Boredom is a healthy response to unproductive situations.
  • Boredom, very roughly, is like adding simulated annealing to a hill-climbing process. It lets you get out when you’re stuck in a local maximum.
  • Slots, RPGs are boring without the flavoring.
  • Engineering a way through others’ defenses to profit off them makes you a parasite.
    • But we circumvent human defenses for good reasons, like in medicine.
      • The difference is in whether the process benefits you.
      • Even if it is voluntary and makes you happy for a while it can be a con trick.
        • The watch con trick.
      • Even if you live out your whole life and die happy if you could have been happier it could still be a con trick.
  • Social games where you waste your move or where “your crops wither” are deliberately designed to game your worry.
    • World of Warcraft is at least a bit more innocent.
  • “How do we get people to buy a large amount of things that give them a minimum amount of utility?”
    • If they get a lot of utility out of it they get satiated.
  • All of biology is about creatures treating creatures as resources.
  • Manipulation is not a sign of respect.
  • Game designers manipulate people all the time.
  • You probably need some degree of it for your game to sell.
  • How Jonathan Blow does it:
    • Assume the player is an intelligent person with rich life;
    • However, the idea of respecting the player is full of contradictions;
    • Minimize the use of manipulative tactics;
      • Traditionally acknowledged good design tactics!
    • Don’t try to make the most fun game or the game that would sell most;
    • Trying to optimize the game for interest would imply approaching the player with a kind of scientific scrutiny that isn’t respectful.
    • Alternative approaches:
      • Personal games;
      • Games about subjects;
      • Impact the player’s lives the way you want while still making a good amount of money.
  • Science shows us the value of being serious about the objective world.
  • We might be overemphasizing science in game design.
    • Games are about subjective experiences.
  • Competent vs. respectable game designer.
  • “Fun” is a catch-all.
    • Are FPSs joyous?
  • Alan Moore on artists:

[...] In latter times I think that artists and writers have allowed themselves to be sold down the river. They have accepted the prevailing belief that art and writing are merely forms of entertainment. They’re not seen as transformative forces that can change a human being; that can change a society. They are seen as simple entertainment; things with which we can fill 20 minutes, half an hour, while we’re waiting to die. It’s not the job of the artist to give the audience what the audience wants. If the audience knew what they needed, then they wouldn’t be the audience. They would be the artists. It is the job of artists to give the audience what they need.

  • Language is linear. Games let you explore space.
  • DLC isn’t very profitable. It’s mainly for prolonging your interest in the game so that you don’t sell it to GameStop as a used game.
  • (Audience member) Parallels between the above and what David Foster Wallace wrote about, including dissatisfaction with language (as building a world from discrete images for DFW). Postmodern tricks are either to entertain the reader or to show off how smart the author is.
  • The act of playing video games is a bit socially hostile.

“Game design: the medium is the message”

A 2013 lecture.

  • In the 1970s television was different than today. Today’s is better.
    • Narrative designed to keep people there through the commercials.
      • Cliffhangers.
    • Syndication.
      • The world can’t really change.
  • TV shows were more like an engineering problem.
    • When you meet the constraints there is not much room for expression.
  • In movies, you get your money upfront and can then concentrate on trying to entertain the audience the best you can. There is something pure about that.
  • In television, there’s more manipulation.
    • Fake “dramas”.
      • No change => no stakes.
  • HBO.
    • No commercial breaks.
    • No syndication.
    • Not subject to government and industry regulations on profanity, sexuality, and violence.
  • Constraints invasive to the work.
  • In games.
    • Arcade cabinets.
      • Expensive to build.
      • Commercial constraints in terms of quarters per minute.
      • Games were quick action challenges.
    • Home machines.
      • Longer-form games.
        • Text adventures.
        • High-verisimilitude flight simulators.
      • “When are games going to go mainstream? When will society start to appreciate it?”
    • Social games.
      • Find players who already are on Facebook for other reasons.
        • Free-to-play.
        • Virality.
    • Mobile devices.
      • Find players who already own the devices for other reasons.
  • Downsides.
    • F2P is a lot more like TV than cinema.
    • The audience is like a TV audience, not a movie audience.
      • Low expectations.
      • Little experience.
    • The games end up designed around micropayments.
      • Try to ensnare people for as long as possible (build an infinite treadmill).
        • Meaningless rewards.
      • Interrupt the players life as often as possible.
      • Train players to spend fake currency (through the tutorial).
      • Get people to bug their friends.
      • Make the game about waiting; let the player pay to not wait.
      • Give a reward; threaten to take it away.
        • Loss aversion.
  • Designers’ excuses.
    • “All games are going to be this way!”
      • TV didn’t kill movies, etc.
    • “It doesn’t change the nature of good design.”
      • Can’t have a personal story.
        • Gone Home.
          • Buying a bubble gum solvent to read your sister’s letter on paper stuck together with bubble gum.
      • Can’t have difficult decisions.
        • Papers Please.
          • Buying X-ray plates for scans.
      • Lack of discovery.
        • The Binding of Isaac.
  • In other areas of life there is no confusion about quality.
    • McDonald’s is not considered really good food.
  • F2P games are the new Six Million Dollar Man, except worse.
  • Awe.
    • Awe is the most powerful emotion.
    • Awesome things a rich and generous.
    • Can you make a game that inspires awe if you spend your days learning how to nickel and dime people?

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Tags: ethics, game design, notes, person, video games.