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Jonathan Blow on The Witness, Teamwork, and Tai Chi [Interview]

Game developer Jonathan Blow is a busy man. So we found ourselves scrambling about in a panic when we were given the chance to get an update on what’s going on these days with his hotly anticipated adventure title The Witness, and the team behind it, straight from the horse’s mouth. Weeks were spent attempting to scratch out a few decent questions regarding his upcoming game, development style, and some habitual leisure activities (weeks may have also been spent on holiday break as well), and now you can find those inquiries below, along (happily) with his responses.

I know well enough by now not to prod about specific dates, but how is everything coming along with The Witness? As far as your development style goes: what stage is the title’s gameplay currently in?

Jonathan Blow: Yeah, the release date really is “When it’s done”. Things are coming along. We have now staffed up (which is kind of scary!) and we are cranking on production kinds of things (location design, modeling and texturing, audio).

As for what stage the gameplay is in, well, this is a really big and complicated project so it is not traveling linear through those kinds of phases. It is more that different parts of the game are in different phases at any one time. Most of the game has been figured out, in a basic way, in terms of what the puzzles are and how they work, such that I would be happy shipping the game as such. But there is a lot of benefit to be gained after things are done to this first-pass level, just letting things simmer and looking for opportunities to make the design better.

I think this is a difference that a lot of the more successful indie games have with the ones that languish and you only hear about on tigsource or whatever. With the really successful ones, usually they didn’t just ship the first thing they got together that was playable. Things have really been refined and thought about, and there’s been a lot of attention to detail — not just in terms of obvious things like graphical polish, but also relatively intangible gameplay details. So that’s what we are doing right now.

That said, though, the game is not playable right now; it’d be a substantial amount of work just to tie it up and ship exactly what we have. So the rest of development will be a sort of managed chaos where we keep things loose enough that we can make opportunistic improvements, but also ensure that the game is solidifying such that it will really ship.

From what I’ve read and seen so far, the game carries themes of exploration, isolation, and perhaps even some otherworldly stuff. Without giving too much away, can you talk on these or any other themes, motifs, or basic concepts included in the game?

JB: The theme is heavily inspired by Myst: you are alone, on an island, the island is a bit surreal, and you are learning about your situation as you explore. I would say that identity is a big question: who are you, and who are the people who stuck you here? The game is grounded in a certain kind of existentialism: what is the point of being here, in a place, walking around and seeing things and thinking about them?

What are some of the differences/similarities you have encountered in the general design/development process going from a 2D puzzle platformer like Braid to a 3D exploration-puzzler that maybe surprised you or you didn’t anticipate?

JB: There aren’t too many fundamental differences that I didn’t anticipate. I have done 3D stuff before (almost everything I have done since 1996 has been 3D) so the tech, art, etc are not a surprise. However, I have never done a very detail-oriented 3D game like this before, with as big a team. So there were a few surprises. At the beginning I figured, “hey, I should get a concept artist to design the locations and buildings and stuff, because that is just how stuff is done in the game industry on bigger games,” and for the first year we did that and it was very helpful. It helped us get on track in terms of thinking about the look of the game, but at the same time, I eventually felt that in order to really get what we wanted, we needed to bring in some people with domain knowledge. That’s how we ended up bringing on architects to design the buildings and landscape in the specific areas.

How did you form your way of game development? Was it something that happened naturally, or have you had to sort of tweak and improve the process over time? For instance: At what point did you conclude that fully exploring a mechanic is beneficial but using everything you find is not because it lacks truth?

JB: It happened naturally as I developed game after game learning from each game; but also, I think I made a lucky choice when making Braid, in terms of choosing to follow the way the game wanted to go, rather than imposing my original top-down ideas. That allowed me to learn in a high-density way.

Some folks may still carry the notion that you’re a one-man operation, but that isn’t at all the case. What’s the team member count currently?

JB: It’s a lot! Right now we have 5 full-time people who are actually employees (soon to be 6). There are another 8 people working on the game as contractors or external companies we are working with (such as the architects). Maybe I am forgetting someone in there, so it’s about 14 or 15 individual people right now.

Can you tell us about some of the differences, challenges, and benefits of working with a team on The Witness after taking on the development of Braid (except for the art) entirely on your own?

JB: It’s just a bigger team, with a lot more to organize, but I knew that going into it so it’s not that big a deal. The good part of this is there’s more momentum, things get done without you having to do them personally. The bad part is that there’s more momentum, so it is harder to change tactics or respond to small opportunities, and it requires substantial effort to keep everything that everyone builds tied together and feeling like a coherent, personal work. (AAA games tend not to have this problem because they don’t care about being personal or about being tightly-tied-together in the same way).

You’ve been working on The Witness for quite a while now and have already expressed to me your hope to see this game launch in 2012. Understanding your thoughts are still on your current project, I have to ask: what (if anything) you have lined up once the game has been released? Immediately a well earned break I should hope, but after that where do you see yourself? Hoping back into development of your next project, getting further involved with IndieFund, caving to Braid 2 demands…Well probably not the last one, but anything in mind?

JB: I have a lot of ideas for what we could do next, but right now our focus is entirely on completing The Witness and making it as good as possible. Braid 2 is extremely unlikely. More than that I really can’t say; there are about 10 different games that I could plausibly see us doing next.

Anybody who has followed along with your efforts in the industry the past few years can see the passion you have for what you do. What other passions or interests do you have outside of your work?

JB: I go out dancing a lot! I do tai chi as well.

Thanks to Jonathan for taking time out of his schedule and responding to our questions. The Witness is currently slated for a 2012 release for PC and other platforms.

[Photo taken at IndieCade 2011 by Kevin Harland. In-game screens taken from this Witness devblog update (with higher resolution shots).]