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My Email from Jonathan Blow

January 23, 2012

Friday was an indescribably exciting day: I received an email from my role model and inspiration, Jonathan Blow, creator of Braid and (soon) The Witness. It wasn’t out of the blue—I had emailed him first—but it was unbelievably exciting, and perhaps a bit unexpected (I couldn’t be sure he’d even respond).

So why did I email him? Well, as I mentioned, he’s my biggest influence in game design, owing to two things: first, he holds games to be valuable things that can positively affect a player’s quality of life, and second, his design methods are really fascinating to me, and they are really in tune with the way I think. But I’ll get back to those two things in a minute. I emailed him because I wanted his advice on how to start off as a game designer: I figured that if he’s my primary inspiration in game design, I should just go straight to the source for advice.

I wrote him a very brief email and, as suggested by another one of my mentors, only asked one question:

Is it better to just start creating games of any quality and with whatever tools I can find, or to more fully design a complete (albeit small) game to get started?

I was hoping to get some direction about how to start making my first games: design them completely first, or start even smaller and just Get Them Done?

So there I was, typing a fresh game idea into my iPhone, the day after emailing him, when the email notification bar slid down at the top of the screen: “Jonathan Blow”. I was overjoyed: he actually responded!

And his answer was this:

It’s important to build the skill of game creation, because good games are very hard to make.  So I would recommend just starting by making small things with whatever tools seem appropriate.  Over time you can raise your ambition about what you’re making as you have succeeded at smaller things.

And that’s my starting point. Previously, I had dismissed Flash as a viable platform because of its poor performance and probably with some amount of snobbery, given my background in “real” programming. But maybe it’ll be useful to start out. After all, it seems that game creation itself is the more important thing here.

Needless to say, receiving this reply from Jonathan Blow was really motivating. I’ve only been toying around with game design and tools these past few months, but this week I’m starting a small project. I have a few ideas about where to begin, but I’ll also dig around the net for inspiration from game jams (which are typically very small projects).

About Jonathan Blow’s Ideas

Before I wrap this up, I’ll do my best here to summarize why I like what Jonathan Blow is doing in game design. Regarding that, I would recommend you read this article on Kotaku. I think it’ll do a better job of explaining what he’s up to. As for his game design ideas, I recommend this video, in which Jonathan Blow and Mark ten Bosch (of the upcoming Miegakure). Given that it’s an hour long, though, I don’t expect everyone to immediately start watching it (though I do recommend doing so at some point), so I’ve tried to capture the important ideas here.

The gist of it is that as a game designer, you have the opportunity to create a universe: not just in the “matter and physics” sense, but also in the things you allow the player to do. That is, the universe you create is a sum of the world itself and the ways that you allow the player to interact with it. As the designer, you have ultimate control over what rules exist, and the ones you decide to use together form a “space” in which the player can move. This is very similar to the field of abstract algebra, in which mathematicians create an object, define rules for manipulating that object, then explore what can be done with them.

It’s up to you—the universe’s creator—to discover these consequences, then carve out a game that reveals these Truths to the player. And it’s this idea that really appeals to me, which also helps to explain why I really liked Group Theory back in my undergrad. In some of my initial game ideas (before hearing this talk), I had taken a similar approach: create rules, then figure out what’s possible. So this talk gave me guidance about what the follow-ups to that are: what should I include, and how do I present them to the player?

What’s Next?

Since I’m taking my first real steps this week toward becoming a game designer, I expect it to be rough. I don’t think I’ll have the most brilliant of games right off the bat. Like any skill, learning how to create a good game will take time. But it’s time to start. Along the way, I’ll hopefully be posting updates about what’s going on.

And if you yourself are a game designer, perhaps you can pitch in and answer these questions for me:

Who or what got you into game design?

When you first started it off, what did you find was good or bad to do?

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