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GDC Europe:  Braid 's Blow Proposes A New Philosophy Of Game Design
GDC Europe: Braid's Blow Proposes A New Philosophy Of Game Design
August 16, 2011 | By Simon Parkin

August 16, 2011 | By Simon Parkin
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    21 comments
More: Console/PC, Smartphone/Tablet, Indie, Design



Video games are essentially systems that output answers to the questions that a designer feeds into them, and we need to learn to better listen to those answers. So said Jonathan Blow, creator of Braid and the forthcoming The Witness at a Gamasutra-attended lecture delivered at GDC Europe today.

"Contemporary game design is so often about dictating, rather than listening," said Blow. "Before Braid I believed the game designer's role was to have an idea and, through code and assets, seek to bring that original idea into being."

"However, Braid and The Witness have taught me something different to that," he continued. "Designing to a preconceived high concept is a process of presupposing the answers to the questions posed by a game system. We are not then letting the system do its job, or express itself to its full potential. "

Blow explained that he was "getting at a design philosophy that is rarely seen at the moment. ... Usually at events like GDC you hear about the 'Seven Steps to Design a Game,' lectures that teach how to configure games into a structure that allows you to iterate and make the design better," he said.

"I'm proposing a different way of looking at game design," he continued. "It's no longer about creating something from nothing. It's about sailing a ship on a journey of discovery. This analogy still allows for the role of authorship, as you can have captains that steer ships in very different ways. There are still many authorship decisions in this process."

Blow gave numerous examples of this metaphorical journey from his experience creating Braid, which he called "a fascinating development experience."

"It became very clear that more ideas came out of the development process than I put into it as a designer," he said. "It was more like discovering things that already exist than it was to putting themselves together arbitrarily. Which is another way of saying: this is a game that designed itself."

"I did have an authorial hand in creating the world," Blow admitted. "For example, I chose the fiction, what it looked like, the nuances of how the world behaved. But my role was knowing what questions to ask of the system."

"The question I asked right at the start of the process was: 'What happens if I gave the player the chance to rewind time in an unlimited way?' I asked that question in code and then watched what happened. There was stuff that came out of that which could not have been foreseen. The answers were not generated by me. I instead had a curator role, cleaning up the answers and presenting them in such a way that they could be enjoyed by the players of the game."

Blow explained the feeling he got by uncovering a game that, in some ways, already existed. "As I saw the rules of the game unfold, I felt like I was piecing together truth," he said. "This wasn't something I was making up or concocting. I don't know how to concoct truth."

Blow was quick to point that the techniques he was talking about are easily applied to more conventional games. "If you drill down far enough into any mechanic you will eventually strike a fundamental truth of our universe that the game designer did not create," he pointed out. "The key is to brainstorm around these basic ideas, to refuse to be satisfied with the first level of ideas and choose to dig deeper in order to find novelty and innovation."

"As games designers this is a power that people working in other mediums don't have," Blow said in conclusion. "We can build systems and then listen to those systems in order to arrive at our creation. You can become a very effective designer this way."


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Comments


Alexander Bruce
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"the forthcoming XBLA title The Witness"



I wasn't aware that a platform had been announced, especially given: http://gamasutra.com/view/news/36440/Interview_Jonathan_Blow__Xbo
x_Live_Arcade_A_Pain_In_The_Ass_For_Indies.php

Kris Graft
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That's right Alexander, no platform has been announced yet. Apologies for any confusion!

Michael DeFazio
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--removed... Alexander said it already.

Matthew Anderson
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Seems like a rewording of the waterfall vs. agile argument. Designing a system, experimenting, then identifying and iterating on what works and abandoning what does not is hardly a new philosophy of game design. I'd like to hear the whole talk though.

Chris Daniel
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I normally find the guy very interesting but yeah he is describing basically already know ideas and processes here.



"Every block of stone has a statue inside it and it is the task of the sculptor to discover it."

Michelangelo

Steven An
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Yeah. You can never foresee every problem - or opportunity - before you actually try it.

Michael van Drempt
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Yeah, it's obvious, but any really good solution usually seems obvious to the people who didn't actually think of it. You can draw parallels to Michelangelo's philosophy of how he created his art, but would you have thought to do so before you heard the idea from someone else?



This is the first time I've ever heard anyone apply the idea to game development. Intentionally setting out to discover the possibilities of your game world before deciding on what game to make is the interesting idea here.



It's very different to the way a lot of people think, which is, "I want to make game X, and I'm going make a game world that complies with my vision." Even developing a game iteratively to see what works can fall under the same mentality, where the iteration doesn't inform what game you're making, but only how to make the game that you're already determined to make.

Chris Daniel
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But isn't one of the reasons for agile development to always stay open to changes and new ideas (besides efficient production)?



And those new ideas mostly come from the nature of the thing you are working on, aren't they? (if you leave out human ego and management issues, etc.)



You suddenly discover a new route to go simply because it feels the right thing to do.

It is like when writers tell you about for example a character and you will very often hear the phrase:"I did not invent it. The character bascially wrote itself and had to go there/do this"

warren blyth
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I would love to hear more specific examples. not sure I'm getting much out of the summary.



like:

"If you drill down far enough into any mechanic you will eventually strike a fundamental truth of our universe that the game designer did not create,"



this is too vague for me to follow. could use some examples from various modern games. (did he mention examples during his talk?)

raigan burns
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“Every block of stone has a statue inside it and it is the task of the sculptor to discover it”

-Michelangelo

Keith Nemitz
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From an author's perspective, it's called "Free-writing".

Bart Stewart
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I read this more as Simulationist design -- build systems, let them interact and be creatively inspired by the surprising behaviors that emerge -- versus the old "auteur theory" where the creator is expected to be the source of all ideas.



I like Simulationist design myself. But it's easy to imagine also hearing from proponents of narrative/story-driven design, where emotion-based interactions between people are the source for solutions to design problems. And there are probably yet more approaches beyond these.



The point being, good designers can be inspired in lots of ways, can't they?

Carlo Delallana
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Electronic musicians have been dabbling in this for a while now. Generative Music is really an interesting way to create.



I would love to design a game the way I create a song in Ableton Live. Makes for a nice exploration in the tools that we designers have access to.

Ian Uniacke
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good comparison. I think you've hit the nail on the head of what Jonathon was talking about. In fact I even use that method when writing non-generative electronic music. Just put in some random notes as a 'seed' so to speak and then see where it takes you.

Carlo Delallana
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In generative music the set behaviors that are expressed in time is the catalyst for creation where we tune in realtime. What if our players were the catalysts? What if they played in realtime while we made tuning adjustments on the fly?



It's almost as if the end-user and the designer are playing together, riffing off each other. Are there ways for us to accomplish this?

Ian Uniacke
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We already do that in Dungeons And Dragons pen and paper. It would be great if someone could create a solution that works in a video game. I guess an MMO is a very coarse grain conception of what you're suggesting but obviously very primitive.

Bart Stewart
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That's basically what Jason Rohrer tried to do with his game "Sleep Is Death," isn't it?

Chris Daniel
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Is this similar to the working process of surreal artists but with computers? I am just curious...

Michael Joseph
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Several here have mentioned various art forms that utilize this sort of improv. I'm reminded of the comedy of "Who's Line is it Anyway" where the audience provides some theme and the performers try to find an angle that incorporates the theme. Sometimes it works very well, sometimes not so much... Talent plays a big factor as well. How does talent come into play with improvisational game design? If I understand what he's saying, Mr Blow suggests the only talent necessary is to recognize truth when you see it? Very confusing... somebody help me out...



Still to me this seems more useful as an initial brainstorming excercise to come up with new ideas and which compliments more traditional game design processes rather than stand alone as an alternative. But I'm still open to the later possibility as well...



EDIT: By "alternative" I mean just that, not replacement. Mr Blow nearly seems to be suggesting replacement however when he says things like "We are not then letting the system do its job, or express itself to its full potential. " I'm more inclined to think of it as just another useful process for the designer. Improv vs Structured as a debate is probably going to wind up reminding us that each has strengths and weaknesses, serve different purposes and produce different types of end results. (synthetic/man-made vibe vs natural/organic vibe)

Ian Uniacke
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I don't think he's saying the only talent necessary but just that you can take the situations that arise and use your existing designer skills to come up with solutions to those situations.

Michael Joseph
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This reminds me of those 48 (or however many) hour game design competitions. Here designers are forced to be spontaneous and to improvise yes? But I'm not sure a lot of really fun original stuff comes out of those...


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