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The Most Dangerous Gamer (theatlantic.com)
161 points by TDL on Apr 13, 2012 | hide | past | web | favorite | 65 comments

Blow gave a talk once that I remember vivdly where he described the greatest challenge facing indie developers (applies to all products, not just games): going too slow. The average programmer can write maybe 10k lines of production ready code in a year, but a modest game the likes of Braid took ~100k LOC. In order to get it done in a reasonable amount of time you can't spend all day optimizing or constructing beautiful algorithms - you have to plow through as quickly as possible.

Here's the talk in question:


In a course I took junior year of college, my project partner (now cofounder) and I worked on a zombie outbreak simulation game. Towards the height of the project, we were probably tearing up and laying down a thousand lines of code a day, keeping in touch over the phone and fixing build errors and weird behavior.

Years later, I can't look at that code without wanting to gouge out my eyes. It makes me physically sick. That said, it worked and worked well for the task at hand.

Game programming is weird like that, and Blow's talk has a section where he talks about the relative merits of dumb structures and algorithms for developers that just have to get the thing to work. It's an interesting perspective.

With games like Braid you can afford to do that because as cool as the game is, it's just a platformer.

Big production games don't have the same luxury as most reviews will focus on graphics/sound etc. If it runs like crap and looks average no one is going to accept that no matter how much fun it is.

I think you may have taken this too far. Graphics and sound can contribute to or detract from fun, but in the end it is fun that keeps people buying a game. A game that looks great, but plays poorly will not survive, but a game that plays fantastically might be around for years later.

I played Planescape Torment many years after it was released because I kept hearing about it. Comparing it to graphics in other games that I played at the time the graphics were poor. But it had a tremendous story and was a lot of fun, so I played it through and still recommend it to others even though it is now even more dated.

Heck take a look at Dwarf Fortress for that matter. The latest update alone (and now the upcoming minecart and hauling patch) are adding enough content, for most sequels. Never mind the new content arising from the interactions between all the modules.

But the game still looks like you are staring at the matrix


The looks vs function seems to arise often as a video game related discussion. Its not though - it applies to many other systems - take the Bloomberg terminals that your average IB kiddie has to pore over.

There are so many different commands that people have to get used to - eqs, bnd, eco, nws, MA, etc. But after the learning curve, people do adapt.

In certain cases, it is possible to get away with a tough interface, which has its own internal consistencies. OF course you won't survive the mass market, but in niche markets with a user base advanced enough, you have decent amounts of wriggle room.

I agree with you but I think with big studio games it isn't always the case. The graphics can carry a mediocre game very far. On the other extreme they can crush a really fun game if it doesn't look "current generation" or has other technical issues.

Planescape Torment is fantastic. I still play Fallout2 these days. I love that game :)

My experience matches the previous poster. I used to abhor video games of any kind. Then I was given an XBox for good work or something, and started checking them out.

Project Gotham Racing looked awesome, and played well. Same for Gears. Chromehounds looked crap, but played insanely well. I've spent more time playing Chromehounds than I have any other game, and I play CoD a lot these days.

I loved Planescape! I remember how excited I was the first time I got to an absolute dead end and died. I was getting ready to restore from a save when I woke up on a table... "wait.. this is how you advance?!?!?" So cool, I've still not played an RPG that threw as many curveballs as that one.

Planescape Torment was a great game but it also lost money.

You'd be surprised at the work that it takes to make a well-running platformer. 2D games can use tons of texture memory, and often end up with long loading times. Making a game 2D with really diverse visuals and good animated sprites without being laggy or having long loading times does require some attention to optimization and architecture.

Hm. Tell me more about Unreal script and its interpreter. Tell me more about the Source and Gold Source engine. Tell me more about Flash & Scaleform.

The fact is, if it ships and runs reasonably well, nobody gives a damn if you are running bogosort every frame. That's the great (and terrible!) thing about game programming.

And, really, on the PC at least, the hardware is so stupidly overpowered for most things that you can get away with heinous algorithms and overengineered/underspecced systems.

I know this, because web developers do it every day. :)

Counterpoint: Bethesda.

I cannot count how many times Fallout x has crashed or bugged out on me, but I still have poured more hours into those games than pretty much any other.

I'm not sure Bethesda is exactly a counterpoint. I would take issue with the phrase "just a platformer." I think you could also say that Bethesda games are "just RPGs." The point is that in both cases the games have unique game mechanics that make them good. Games that need really high-quality code to be worthwhile are very ordinary genre titles. No one is going to care about a shooter that has mediocre graphics, there have been hundreds of them over the past couple decades.

I'd say if it's really a good game, the code quality isn't that big an issue. If I'm pissed off when the game crashes, that says good things about the quality of the game. If it's just sort of addictive, I'll probably be relieved when it crashes.

I really meant to say technically just a platformer. Braid is much more than that as a game but in terms of technical complexity it isn't all that complex. Even the creator says they had the actual gameplay/mechanics sorted out very quickly.

The thing about game programming is as best I can tell, traditionally you ship it and you are done. Enterprise software, on the other hand, has required update cycles, maintenance and support for a long time now.

This is changing, of course, with the growing presence of services like Steam and Battle.net, but it isn't the mode yet.

The life cycle is definitely much shorter compared to average enterprise software, but it's never just been "ship and you are done". Even before the internet, patches and updates were distributed on game magazine cd's and support telephone numbers were listed in the back of the game manuals. Support and maintenance for your average game is a couple of years, typically.

He also wrote a nice piece in 2004, back when he still worked in the AAA part of the game industry, on what makes modern games hard to engineer cleanly and with small teams: http://queue.acm.org/detail.cfm?id=971590

Are those really the figures he cited? Working only weekdays, and only eight hours per day, that comes out to five lines of production code per hour. Even with the overhead of testing and occasional widespread refactoring, that seems incredibly low.

In any case, Braid was just okay. The level where the flow of time depended on the direction that your character was traveling was great, but the rest of the game was forgettable. There was about as much gameplay/story integration as a Final Fantasy game, and the story itself was mostly overwrought. But considering that the game cost me one dollar to purchase, I'd say it was worth it. :)

> Are those really the figures he cited? Working only weekdays, and only eight hours per day, that comes out to five lines of production code per hour. Even with the overhead of testing and occasional widespread refactoring, that seems incredibly low.

Fred Brooks cited 10-12 lines of code per day, constant across languages and projects he surveyed. As far as I know, it's not been shown to have changed since then.

I agree with most of Blow's supposedly controversial points (on Zynga, social games, and the juvenile nature of most games...), but I just can't get excited about his games. Who wants to spend 30 hours speculating on the psychology of an alienated prude with a bunch of pseudo-philosophical garbage about the meaning of life slapped on as affect? Maybe if he was really good at it, I'd give it a shot. But he's not Ingmar Bergman, he's not even close.

>Who wants to spend 30 hours speculating on the psychology of an alienated prude with a bunch of pseudo-philosophical garbage about the meaning of life slapped on as affect?

How can you even make that claim when the game isn't out yet? I seriously have no idea what to make of your comment.

I was going off the description of Blow's aims and goals for The Witness from the article:

Blow’s decision to bare his soul in The Witness springs from this same drive to live up to the full potential of his artistic medium; a meaningful game, he believes, must be an honest one. The Witnesss narrator, he freely admits, is a thinly veiled version of his own psyche. When the narrator speaks of his guilt over spending millions to create an island filled with puzzles instead of using that money for worthier causes, this is Blow’s real spiritual dilemma. When the narrator reflects on his feelings of empty vanity, on his alienation from others, on his “yearning for truth and deep understanding,” these are Blow’s pains and desires.

Honesty and truth in storytelling is certainly important, but the kind of honesty he is talking about there is a boring truth. It reminds me of the same kind of thinking that produced Cinema Verite, and what Werner Herzog had to say about that philosophy:

"By dint of declaration the so-called Cinema Verité is devoid of verité. It reaches a merely superficial truth, the truth of accountants."

Even if I am not interested in Blow's pains and desires, I do respect the fact that he is deliberating on them, and hopefully encouraging other game developers to do so. However, the potential product of his process as described in that article just bores me to tears.

Going further - how many great (or at least enjoyable) books or films are the ruminations and self-analysis of a lone individual? Camus' L'Etranger almost qualifies, except it depicts events involving multiple people, even if it never speculates on the motivations of the other characters.

Honesty is not enough. I think Blow is more naive than he, or indeed this reporter, realizes.

Personally I disagree with him on those points. He may view games as an art form, and some certainly are. The problem is I don't have time to invest into deep and philosophical games anymore. I use to spend hundreds of hours playing/investigating/researching games. Now I just want to boot up a game and blow some shit up and get back to work.

Seeing as the average age of gamers is over 30 (someone correct me if I am wrong please), I bet there are lots more in my position.

...you haven't even played the game yet.

Have you tried Braid?


I would like to buy and play that game, or better to say experience that story.

Blow himself is the most pretentious jerkoff in the world. He makes good games though.

His game is about a stalker whether he wants it to be or not. Authorial intent is irrelevant.

edit: Also, I hate how this article is written. It's not journalism when you turn the subjects into characters in a short story.

OF COURSE that's what it's about, maybe Blow doesn't want to bother to say it because it's so freaking obvious that he doesn't feel he needs to bother. If we're going to get games like Braid, he can be as pretentious as he wants. John Romero was totally full of crap and all that we ended up with was Daikatana.

I personally love the fact that Blow is borderline antisocial and that he hates the industry. Someone needs be that. Most companies are just out there making Call of Duty 12 or awful freemium "casual" games. It's not like there aren't large numbers of artists and so-called creatives throughout history that have shared this sort of personality. I don't need to be his friend and I don't care about being his fan. I just admire and enjoy his work.

Alone on a mysterious island... So maybe less ground breaking and more a spiritual successor to Myst? I'm not saying don't do or play it, maybe just that it's not as uniquely original as the article author breathlessly makes it out to be.

The setting is explicitly stated to have been inspired by Myst.

Still shots look awesome, there's clearly some radiosity rendering involved. Yay. I've been waiting for ages for a beautifully designed world exploration game. Hopefully this will be the one.

Blow himself is the most pretentious jerkoff in the world.

I'm curious, care to elaborate?

In a nutshell: Blow's a rich guy and GP is jealous.

What's really going on, though, is that mainstream engineering and development CS types don't understand auteurs the way Hollywood and Greenwich Village does. Blow is no more pretentious or jerkoffy than Quentin Tarantino, Damien Hirst, or Banksy. He's an incredibly intellectual guy and a great game designer.

Now, the Fez developer, it could be argued, is a bit of a jerkoff. Telling people to "suck his dick" on twitter because he won IGF award in two separate years (4 years apart) for the SAME GAME still in development, or when he says Japanese games "suck". Now there is where you could direct your hate if you were so inclined.

If Braid had failed and Blow was getting interviewed at Gamasutra rather than The Atlantic, I'd still say he's an incredibly pretentious jerkoff. I'll admit that I wish I had the freedom to build whatever I'd like, but I can assure you that jealousy has nothing to do with his wealth. Actually, the part of the article that quotes him I most agree with is how meaningless the numbers just changing in your bank account seem. Wealth is so far removed from value that it's kind of scary.

Phil Fish is an asshole, but I haven't read enough of his thinking on art, design and life to say whether he's a jerkoff or not.

Let me give you an example of what I'm talking about: "He loathes watching sports, because they yield few tangible returns on the hours you invest in them."

Now, I mean, I'm not someone who particularly enjoys sports, but if the article is paraphrasing him accurately, then that's such a boorish way of dismissing a hobby, especially from someone who is in entertainment. Some people like watching sport because they see the performance of the athletes as an art, the culmination of thousands of hours of effort played out upon a grand stage. Others see it as the drama between competing forces, with players and coaches as the actors in an improvised play. Some people just enjoy analyzing the tactics and strategy employed and attempting to know what the outcome would be. And the really weird people (in my opinion) just wanna crunch the numbers.

Personally, I just don't care for the rules of many sports and would rather be doing something less passive. I mean, I'm not gonna tell him that he should like sports, but that's such a strange way for him, in his position, to say that he doesn't like them. I watch lots and lots of movies. How many of them do I get anything out of after the film is over besides in-jokes? Vanishingly few. How much of the music that I listen to really makes me feel something? A handful of songs.

What he so out of hand dismisses in general is the umwelt of experience, the notion of being in the moment. Fully engaged. Blow doesn't seem to be happy with the idea that people like to be immersed. He wants to make people rationally grind through games, to never be in the moment, to always have their mind on and trying to analyze. He characterizes everything else as evil or wrong or garbage.

And then he goes and practices Tai Chi.

It's nice how you've written him off entirely because he likes one thing and not another! You completely disregard the possibility that some people are only ever fully engaged and in the moment when their mind is on and they are performing analysis. There's so little to what you're saying, you can mad libs your whole rant to paint you as the asshole.

The article certainly paints him as pretentious.

> “I think the mainstream game industry is a fucked-up den of mediocrity,” he told me. “There are some smart people wallowing in there, but the environment discourages creativity and strength and rigor, so what you get is mostly atrophy.”

Most people and things are mediocre, by definition, so Blow's comments are obvious and unnecessary. Further, it is incredibly graceless to bang on about how terrible your chosen field is. One should simply prove one's point by producing great work, not by disparaging others.

> he plans to do nothing less than establish the video game as an art form

I'm pretty sure this has already been achieved, and not by Blow.

Braid is a great game, but its greatness is oversold by this article and, it seems, by Blow himself. Since the early days of video games there have been "artistic" video games. (Although the idea that you must draw some kind of line is nonsensical.)

> “If the video game is going to be used for art purposes, then it has to take advantage of its form in some way particular to that medium, right?” he told me.

"Art purposes"!! The preposterousness of the concept astounds me. Yeah, I'll go on record that this guy is spectacularly pretentious.

Did you play Braid? Did you read the plot-bits? It was a little pretentious.

Yep, and it was one of the greatest platformers of all time IMO. The "story", while at times verbose and overwrought, imbued the character a sense of urgency and personality compared to the classic "Princess is in another castle", which is the point of the article: The artization of video games.

If we can't think of things like Braid, or Infinite Jest, or Downton Abbey without thinking pretentious, then all games should simply be derivatives of The Jersey Shore or just long fart noises and rubber-band physics. But, obviously, that's not what all people want, or else the aforementioned "pretentious" content wouldn't be so popular.

It was nowhere near one of the greatest platformers of all time. Nowhere near Super Mario Bros. 3, not even close. I got bored of its puzzles after about 40 minutes. The mechanics: cute and novel. The story: pretentious. The gameplay: meh.

The story was one of the weaker parts. The puzzles and gameplay were great. I don't see how you could get bored of them unless you genuinely got stuck and weren't able to solve them. They were varied and creative, and forced you to think in different ways.

Puzzle-based gameplay doesn't usually absorb me much. I tend to prefer much more open gameplay where there are many different ways of achieving ends. The "aha!" dopamine rush that puzzle type games are supposed to run on isn't very strong with me; the payoff is so weak that I lose interest whether I'm making progress or not. And it's not just games either, it follows through into programming and debugging.

Closest thing to puzzle games that I enjoy are stealth territory navigation games like Thief series, Deus Ex, Far Cry 1 & 2 (at least the way I play them), etc. But the rush comes from a plan coming together in execution; in much the same way that I best enjoy programming when designing a bunch of data structures that solve a problem nicely.

not OP but being blase about being rich makes you a fucking asshole full stop.

oh come on. the article is dripping in journalese. you can hardly make any judgments about his character based on it alone (it even features the Beautiful Mind-esque cliche of "doesn't understand the social conventions of how to act around women"). you can't really tell if it's an off-hand remark about how his life hasn't changed by being rich or whether he actually went into long tirades on the banality of being rich.

Just a heads up for people who haven't played Braid (or you have played it but still want to dig deeper into the game's meaning), don't read Page 2 of the article. The author gives away too much! I've played the game and know that it's just his interpretation, but I still wish I haven't read it...

It appears Mr. Blow has never heard of the likes of Portal or Minecraft, two of my favorite games that also happen to be tremendously popular. Neither features the testosterone-laden warrior-men or buxom bikini babes that he claims have the industry in a death grip, neither can be slotted into the "money-grubbing sequel" category, and neither is immediately understandable "on an elementary level" as Clark says. While it's true that games like Call of Duty are tailored towards a certain audience, Blow and the Clark are blatantly disregarding evidence that contradicts their damning critiques of the industry.

Only one of them was developed within the industry, and that one (portal) was actually drafted in school. Finding only two examples is actually pretty damning too.

Interesting. I've avoided video games for quite some time for the same reason Mr. Blow avoids watching sports. Perhaps I'll check out this new game of his when it is released.

Slightly off topic: The setting for his game is apparently inspired by Myst. I never got the appeal of Myst, I know it was very popular but to me it just seemed to be not mush more than a slideshow. It had the reputation of being the most popular game for people who didn't like games. At the time I was an avid gamer, maybe that's why I couldn't get into it.

The game was created in hypercard, so technically it was exactly zero more than a slideshow. Probably the most atmospheric game I've ever played though; there was something intensely creepy about wandering around a beautiful empty island full of strange gadgets.

Such a great read, very interesting person. I love reading about people who life societal expectations and focus on spiritual and existential questions.

The game looks pretty interesting, and while I thought it was only for Windows / xbox, it's also for mac!


After seeing some early videos, I had mixed thoughts. I was impressed with the idea of the game, but thought for all the time he spent on it, it might be over the heads of 85% of the gamers out there.

I'm still wondering if he's just putting this game out there, or if he actually has a target audience he's aiming at.

Because this story was already posted a couple days ago and never really received much attention I'm going to repost my comment from that story.

It was in responce to someone comparing his new "innovative" game to myst and how Blow is much more derivative than he lets on. It was also a response to the article implying he was the only person working on truly artistic video games.

"and don't forget the much more recent Dear Esther. Which is a first person exploration game based on an island.

Oh and don't forget that other 'cerebral' game that is yet another source mod (which Dear Esther originally was). The Stanley Parable.[2]

Personally I think this developer is stuck up his own arse. Talking about how the industry is full of dross for cretins whilst ignoring these games. His biggest game, Braid, revolves wholly around the twist at the end along with an interesting gameplay gimmick. He may be an artist within the industry. But by far isn't the only one, nor is he the best by a long shot.

Comparing the video game industry to literature and movies and saying "Oh, look at how mindless we are in comparison." Is missing the entire point. A lot of books, movies and games are mindless. But to then stand up because of that and say that the industry as a whole is mindless and that your brainchild is going to revolutionise it and fix all that is wrong is not only egotistical and ignorant but disrespectful of incredible artists like those who made the Stanley Parable. (Which was the first video game I played that really made me think. It is the game that I point to when I need to point out a video game that is art.)

[1] http://dear-esther.com/

[2] http://www.moddb.com/mods/the-stanley-parable

Dear Esther was funded by the Indie Fund. One of the founders of the Indie Fund is Jonathan Blow.


Thanks for noticing!

Some posters here have very weird perspectives. Yes, if someone wants to extrapolate some straw man, based not on statements in the article or evidence from the real world, but built from whatever feels easy to criticize thoughtlessly, then sure, it is easy to knock that straw man down. Whatever.

For what it's worth, I liked The Stanley Parable and had a nice chat with the author of the game at PAX last year. Why would anyone assume that something like this is not the case?

You guys do know that the subjects of articles you read on the internet are other real people also on the internet, right? Why would a poster here assume that I am some kind of inert punching bag rather than, you know, someone who's been on HN for a couple of years and involved in discussions?

My reasoning for ranting was less directed at you and more at the idea that the article held up as you. I never thought about it and hence never realised that my disagreement was misdirected. I regret not thinking before posting...

Braid's purpose has nothing to do with the twist at the end, that's just a cool conclusion. The story, visuals, and music is not what makes Braid a good work of art. It's that it takes full advantage of the medium games - that is, interactivity - and uses in a way that imparts a genuine learning and growing experience for the player, and in a way that's thematically consistent wit the game. Think about that - the theme of the game's mechanics (time manipulation) works consistently with it's aesthetic theme (memories, regret). That's an excellent first step to helping transform the medium of games into a bit more of an artistic one.

So I though video games werent generating money because of piracy and that even big titles had troubles. They'd have lied to me?!

There is a lot of money in them still. Perhaps even more than ever. Top titles, in both indie and AAA spaces, are pulling in revenues that would've seemed absurd a few years ago. Modern Warfare 3 grossed $400 million in its first 24 hours. By comparison, the top-grossing opening weekend for a film in 2011 was the Harry Potter film, which grossed $169 million.

And in the indie space, if you're one of the handful-per-year breakout successes, you can make millions, perhaps double-digit millions, on typically much lower production+marketing costs. Super Meat Boy grossed somewhere above $10 million, Minecraft about $80 million, Bastion somewhere in the single-digit millions. The trick is being one of the few breakouts...

"in the first few hours" isn't the same for games as for other media. The shelf life of most big names is incredibly short - enough that DRM is often seen as a way to just survive piracy for the release period.

I think he's going about his goals incorrectly. We wants to elevate games to a critically and mainstream accepted Art, so he creates a game that declares itself Art. Such an approach will have immense push-back from the 'main stream' (game) industry and even more from the general public. It actually does not matter what industry we're talking about - an industry that has not mainstream publicly accepted expressions of itself as High Art worthy of the equivalent of an Oscar/Emmy/Hugo/Literary-Nobel expression of the human condition will have virtually no chance of convincing the public one of their own has broken through into this level of communication.

Think about what Clint Eastwood did with "The Unforgiven": before that film, the Western was considered a tired, spent, comical film genre. I remember reading pre-release critics saying Clint had wasted his time on that over used genre: "what could he possibly say that has not already been said 1,000 times?" they wrote...

What did Clint do? He started the film as a more-or-less classically serious western. However, as the film progresses, it acknowledges itself through the presence of dime store outlaw novellas causing kids to idolize the criminal aspects of the western experience. Then our heroes go about demonstrating the fallacy of this attitude, and the film ends with the audience being spoon fed the horror this idolization creates.

I suggest Mr. Blow and others attempting to elevate games to High Art need to begin with the traditionally insipid game style so popular today. (I can say this as a former 15 veteran of the games industry. I left specifically because of all the "pretentious" reasons Jonathan cites.) As the game's traditional fight-puzzle-fight mechanics play out, the character becomes exposed to the game engine simulation itself, and the gamer becomes exposed to the existential dilemma of wanting to continue their suspended disbelief while the game itself taunts them with the fact they are playing a game. Through such a careful balance of crossed signal communications, the gamer is left to question their own existence and the potential of our world merely being a simulation for the amusement and enrichment of others - at their expense.

No, Matrix fans/critics, I'm not saying "make the Matrix". What I'm pointing out is how "The Unforgiven" elevated itself by acknowledging the disjoint between the fiction and the reality, and spoon fed that to the film viewer. Sure, many a western and plain film fan missed Clint's higher message. Such is the diverse nature of how Art communicates. Much of what is considered "Art" today is simply artfully ambiguous. Jonathan can not afford such ambitiousness if he wants to achieve his goal.

Jonathan's goal of elevating games needs to include all the insipid game cliches to draw the traditional fan in, and then pull the floor out from under them, leaving them literally afraid to continue the game because it risks wreaking their appreciation for game playing thereafter. It's not a success to simply engage. It's not a success to merely cause consideration and wonder. Jonathan Blow's goal is to end games as they are today and reboot the entire industry, reborn as the 21st century's equivalent to the 20th century Film.

Why does this article make 178 HTTP requests and load Javascript from 24 different domains over a duration of 16 seconds, before even the basic loading is done?

After that it starts on its three realtime services: Disqus, Chartbeat and Tubemogul (whatever that is) all keep track of how long you stay on the page. Not to mention how the site manages to slow down the entire browser during loading, and has many simple syntax errors. Not cross-browser stuff (like webkit-only css rules), also simply misspelled CSS.

Worst of all, the font is too small. I'm not going to read kilobytes of text like this.

This kind of website makes me want to disable Javascript by default...

If you are using Firefox, RequestPolicy[1] is really nice: allows you to block all those useless requests (and selectively activate ones that are required).

[1]: https://addons.mozilla.org/en-US/firefox/addon/requestpolicy...

Yeah, "analytics" are like a cancer on the web. This is getting out of hand.

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