In 2008, a puzzle platformer game called Braid hit Xbox Live Arcade.
It was made by an American developer called Jonathan Blow, and was one of the first commercial smash hits from the then-burgeoning indie scene.
Now, after a seven-year development period and blowing through a budget that’s close to $6m (£4.1m), Blow has released his second independent game – The Witness.
And, so far, the title has seen its fair share of critical and commercial acclaim, selling 100,000 units in its first week and generating $5m (£3.4m) in gross revenue. That’s more sales than Braid made in its first year.
But this is not an indie title in the same way that Braid was back in 2008. Its close-to-$6m budget is a sure sign of that. Another indication is its £30 price point - a fact that provoked the ire of the online masses.
“I’m not too surprised because people on the internet like to complain about prices, that’s just a known thing,” Blow laughs.
“When Braid came out, there was a similar price kerfuffle there. I had been expecting it to be $10 like most XBLA games and Microsoft decided to make everything in that Summer of Arcade $15 because they wanted a tier for higher-quality games. Everyone started complaining about that.
“If people think about The Witness as an indie game, and picture it alongside a lot of other perceived indie games, you might think: ‘yeah, why does this have such a high price point?’, but I don’t think it fits very well into that category. I don’t talk about it as an indie game that much because it’s got a really high budget, in part because we worked on it for seven years.
"It’s a large game with a lot of stuff in it and people who are surprised at the price don’t maybe have an accurate picture of how big it is and how much stuff is in it. Then they feel that the price is too high. There are plenty of people who play the game and say they would have paid much more for it. I feel that the price is well chosen. If some people don’t complain it’s probably too low; if you don’t sell at all it’s probably too high. We’re selling it alright and people are complaining so it’s probably a good price.”
"There are plenty of people who play the game
and say they would have paid much more for it.
I feel that the price is well chosen."
Jonathan Blow, Thekla
But though The Witness is selling well and drawing in plaudits from the games media, it isn’t all good news for the puzzle game. Blow has complained on Twitter about piracy. At one point it was the most-downloaded title on ‘a certain popular torrent site’. And this wasn’t something that surprised Blow.
“What surprised me more was the internet’s reaction to those tweets,” he says.
“Everyone who likes to pirate gets really mad any time you say that piracy might be bad in anyway. Or there’s this weird reaction where they feel threatened when I say: ‘Maybe we won’t make more games’. They get mad. How do you expect me to make more games if I don’t get money for making them? It’s a weird psychology for pirates.
“People inferred things from those tweets that were not said. A news site will post something and someone will repost it but put their own spin on it so the message gets distorted very fast. People started getting the impression that maybe the game wasn’t selling well because it was pirated so much. That’s, in part, why I released some financial info, and to show that the game is in fact doing fine. It is a bummer that it’s being pirated because maybe it would do even better, maybe we could make more games or do even bigger scope games or something like that.”
Blow released The Witness through his own company, Thekla (that’s ‘tech-lah’). And though he might team up with a publisher for a physical release (more about that in Boxing Clever), the developer didn’t believe he needed a publisher to release the game digitally.
“There are a few things a digital partner would offer,” Blow says. “Maybe you need someone to fund the game but I didn’t need that because we had money from Braid. So that part was not necessary for us. Obviously, physical manufacturing is not necessary because we just upload a thing to the platform. PSN or Steam takes the place of that whole physical distribution component. So we just work directly with them. Then we don’t have to pay someone else to do that, we just do it. The bonus to that is that we can also get things done more effectively. If we have to change something on PSN or put up on a patch, giving that to a partner so that he can give it to Sony just takes longer. It’s annoying – why should we do that?
“The third part is marketing support, which is one of the main things that this sort of new-wave digital publisher claims to offer. I have not seen it be effective in most cases – either they don’t know how to do that better than most indie developers or they simply don’t really commit the resources that they say they will. Publishers aren’t really stepping up in doing any of those effectively I don’t think.”
And, looking to the future, is Blow’s next game going to be another ambitious, 3D title like The Witness, or something like Braid?
“It would have been nice to make something smaller I think, after a big project like this,” he says.
“But, we took a long time to make The Witness and spent a lot of money on it, too. There’s investments in both how many years people on the team spent putting in to the project, and how much money went in. It’s a good idea to do something that we can turnaround with the same engine, which would mean a game that’s similar in certain superficial aspects. The fact that it’s 3D and you are walking around in first person is something we do pretty well now. If we make another game like that, we can turn it around a lot faster than The Witness.
“It can be a completely different game – I don’t think we’re making The Witness 2 – but it makes sense to make a first person game in a 3D world. It is likely we will do that, but I’m not 100 per cent sure.“
The Witness was launched in a January as a digital-only product, but it was nearly released in a box day-for-day. And Jonathan Blow’s game could yet come to physical retail.
“Actually, we would like to do a boxed release soon,” Jonathan Blow says.
“We were in talks to do a physical release on the digital release date. The reason we didn’t do it was it took us long enough to finish the game that to meet the release date we had to work on it up until the day. If you’re going to put a disc out in stores, you need a fairly advanced amount of time to manufacture the discs and make sure that they are placed well in stores. Now that there is time to do that, we hope to do it.”
THE SILVER SCREEN
Jonathan Blow was one of the stars of the award-winning documentary Indie Game: The Movie, which followed three independent games projects – Blow’s Braid, Phil Fish’s Fez and Edmund McMillen and Tommy Refenes’ Super Meat Boy.
And though the film hasn’t changed Blow’s life in any huge way, it has made it easier for Blow to communicate what he does to people.
“It’s definitely nice to be in a movie that more mainstream people can watch and understand,” Blow says.
“If I try and talk to somebody in the wider world about what I do, it starts to become difficult because I’ll say: ‘Well, it’s like a video game but it’s not exactly like these games that you know’ whereas I’ve run into people who don’t really play games but have seen that movie. Now they have all this context of what it’s like. And that’s really been really nice.”