Jonathan Blow interview
You're self-publishing The Witness – what do you need for it to break even?
We have a two million dollar budget, but to make that money back this game doesn't have to sell as many as Braid did. So it's not super risky. I don't think there's much competition with a game like this. But I think there's a lot of people who want to play a game like this. Even if it's ten per cent of gamers, to an indie developer that's huge. As a small developer you have certain freedoms. Embracing the possibility of not selling any games and not making any money allows you to do things that bigger developers would never be allowed to do. Even if a publisher said they would fund such a game as this, after a while they would stop you. Try and justify The Witness to a publisher who doesn't really play games!
Do you think the success of a game like Minecraft might have changed attitudes a bit?
Minecraft is amazing in a number of ways. The fact that the resolution is low and the graphics aren't pretty means they can have this massive draw distance, and that's something no other game can do. There are a lot of people who want to play that kind of game, where they can be creative. It's so successful a game that you have to take it into account when you wonder what kind of game people want to play. Although I think the Minecraft experience is very different to The Witness, because it's not a player-creativity kind of game.
Minecraft's model of being sold from a very early stage in development is becoming more and more common in the indie community. Does it interest you, too?
It wouldn't work for The Witness, but it's an interesting approach, absolutely. It would be fun to do – you get a different level of communication within the game. I would like to do that someday, but this isn't the game for it because it would spoil the whole thing. Anyone who followed it would have nothing to play when it's finished, so that's no good.
I don't know what I'm going to do after this, but certainly some of those online games that are open in terms of the experience, and less spoiler prone, and that are more amenable to releasing something early that's primitive and then revising it – I'm really interested in that. Devs who work on those games know who their customers are, and they can email players and say, 'Here's what we're doing with the game now', or whatever. I can't do that. If people on XBLA or Steam buy my game, I don't know who they are. I just know how many they are. I can't talk to them. Plus, these types of games only really work on PC and iOS platforms because consoles aren't open to constant updates.
I wonder what those console platforms are going to do when this type of development becomes more widespread, because I think it will. But we'll still have both types of games – the finished article that's perfectly tied up, and the exploratory type where you, the player, are along for the development ride. If I worked with consoles I'd be wanting to find out how we can make that more possible on my architecture.
We like 360 and PS3, but their specifications are over five years old now, and that's a lot in computer years. The kind of tricks we'd have to perform to get this game working on those platforms are such a lot of work that to port it over at this point is just not worth it for us. The budget of this game we would hope to make back through Steam and iOS, plus I would like to make a profit. But breaking even is most important as it allows me to keep making games, and I can do that without consoles. Maybe this time next year I'll be singing a different tune because I found out I was wrong, but I don't think so. By the time this game comes out in a year or more, we might be on an iPad 4. We do have to compress the game for that platform, but we don't have to do the certification stuff we would have to on consoles, so we can live with doing just one of those giant tasks. And I like this as an iPad game. It's a natural thing. But we'll see how that plays out.
What do you want from a new generation of consoles?
For this type of game, I do wish the new generation of consoles had come out by now. Even if it only meant slightly faster graphics processor and a lot more RAM. Because having more memory would make a huge difference to being able to bring a game like this to a console. It makes it much easier. When you look at the Wii U, I'm told it has a lot more RAM – that would be wonderful, although I'm unsure about that platform for other reasons, especially in light of the iPad. If that console succeeds, it would be a nicer place to bring the game than the 360, if only because it has more RAM.
Does it worry you as a developer that the consoles have such diverse interfaces now, from Kinect and Move to touchscreens?
The good thing about a console in the old days was that it was very focused. You knew the hardware, the controls – you can create a tight experience. That's all changed. The 360 dashboard is always updated, for example. If I want my game to integrate with that experience, I'm just not sure what that is now. The controller isn't standard. There's a lot more unsureness in the way you interact, which I think is a mistake. If Kinect had been its own console, it would have been much easier. There's a fuzziness to do with what a console is anymore. But we'll see where that goes in the future.
Tags: Braid, Design, iPad, Jonathan Blow, Minecraft, PC, PlayStation 3, Portal, Portal 2, Puzzle, Steam, The Witness, Wii U, XBLA, Xbox 360