Interview: Jonathan Blow & Chris Hecker

Interview: Jonathan Blow & Chris Hecker

Five years ago, the independent gaming scene as we know it today didn’t exist. Accessible only via a network of aggregation websites and specialist forums, with the odd morsel picked up for low-key mainstream distribution, it was essentially a hermetically sealed community, not far removed from the demo scene of the late ’80s. Then came Steam, console digital distribution services, social networking and smartphone app stores – a previously unimaginable distribution and communications network. Suddenly, small-scale development studios were given access to a global gaming audience. The floodgates had been opened.

The standard bearer for the digital distribution era was Braid, a time-shifting 2D platformer more concerned with abstract reasoning and the nature of causality than double-jumps and Easter eggs. Its author, Jonathan Blow, is now working on a similarly idiosyncratic 3D adventure game named The Witness. Meanwhile, veteran coder Chris Hecker – a one-time member of Will Wright’s Spore team – has become an opinionated mouthpiece for the indie community. His new project SpyParty sets out to explore hardcore gaming skills within an espionage context that revolves around people-watching.

Where do these two titans of indie development see the sector going, and what is it that’s still holding it back? We sat down with both of them at GameCity 5 to find out.

A lot of people are referring to this as a golden age for indie development. Would you agree?
Chris Hecker: Well, I hope it’s still a golden age! It certainly was when the likes of Braid and Castle Crashers shipped. The business end of things is clearly huge – the fact that we have XBL, PSN, Steam, Facebook, yada, yada. But also, hardware is fast and cheap – SpyParty just throws polygons at the screen and doesn’t care; I couldn’t have made that game ten years ago, because you had to sweat over every poly. I mean, 30 animated characters? On a laptop? Come on!
Jonathan Blow: There are definitely creative games happening, but they’re a minority of what gets done. That’s not a bad thing – you never expect the majority to be awesome. But, yes, it does still feel like we’re in a boom time.

Blow's The Witness, due out on 360 and PS3 next year, is an exploration-based puzzle game

What about the financial side of things?
CH: People who do awesome stuff don’t usually do it for money reasons, but at least indie game development is now financially viable. There’s a difference between thinking ‘I’m going to get rich’ and ‘I’m going to be able to eat’. It’s great that you can produce games like SpyParty or The Witness, which are experimental and weird and kind of pushing in different directions, and then actually have a prayer of paying your mortgage. In fact, it’s more than a prayer: if you develop a quality product you will probably be able to sell it now.
JB: Yeah, even if you just sell it on the PC, even if Steam won’t take it, you can still shift copies if you do a decent job of getting the word out, and it’s a good enough game.
CH: And you keep your expenses down.
JB: Look at the Humble Indie Bundle guys – they’ve made almost $200,000 per game, plus a bunch of money for charity. That was not backed by anybody, that was them putting up a webpage, and saying: ‘Hey, we’ve got this idea’.
CH: And being able to have virtual money, with Paypal and micropayments – it’s an interesting time. What Jon and I talk about a lot, though, is, now that we’re working on big projects, will it be a golden age by the time we’re done?
JB: There are reasons to believe that it won’t be.
CH: Right. I mean, you can’t ignore things like a console transition, which is terrifying. If that happens, what does it mean for XBLA and PSN? XBLA goes through these cycles – in the year Braid shipped there were some huge games.
JB: That was through their summer promotion, and it lasted all the way through to the next one, when Trials HD and Shadow Complex came out. That was a big time of optimism. But if you look at the majority of games released on XBLA recently, most of them tank, they lose money. Why is that? Is it the quality of the games? Has the market changed? Is it that there was novelty to Live Arcade at first? It’s unclear. I’m not going to attempt to predict what will happen. The way I’m doing it is, I’ve not signed any business deals for The Witness. I’d like to have funding for it, but in two years’ time, I don’t know what the business climate is going to be like, so I’m not going to commit to something now. I need to stay agile. Also, I don’t want anyone telling me what to do.
CH: People are constantly telling me I’m insane to spend two or three years on this game. Some friends who are successful businessmen are like, “Ship now and iterate!” It’s the Facebook model – do something smaller and get it done. And with a console transition coming, people say: “You’ll be totally screwed if you’re caught in the middle of that!” But it’s like the weather – it’s a fool’s errand to try and predict it. I don’t know when the console transition is coming. I mean, if they’re not telling John Carmack and Tim Sweeney, they’re not going to tell me! If you start sweating the logistics of it, you can dive under a mountain of that stuff and still get screwed up. I’m just going to try to make the best possible game, a game that’s so awesome that Xbox and PSN are begging me for it!
JB: And, by the way, Minecraft has made a crapload of money – you don’t need to be on a console.
CH: You’ve just got to do your thing. You can’t sweat the business stuff – it’s a variable you can’t control. The variable within your control is the quality of the game, so focus on that.