Very Limited, Very Closed Beta

Last Wednesday night, just before Thanksgiving, we shipped our first extremely closed beta over Steam to a few limited testers.

Today we shipped an update, still to the same limited group. We have some initial tech issues to work out before we go wider (game packaging issues, graphics card incompatibilities, and the like).

Here's a desktop screenshot from one of the testers, with someone chiding him about what he's playing:

(The Witness window in this shot is artificially resized to make room on the desktop; by default we launch at 1280x720.)

I know that the impulse is to think "oh wow they are almost done!" Don't think that, it's not the case. We still have a gigantic amount of work to do and it'll be a while before the game is done.

Random Trivia Q&A

Q: How many footstep sound effects are in The Witness?

A: 1,119 so far. They sound really good! We will probably be in the Guinness Book of World Records as the game with the most footstep sounds...


  1. Oh wow, that is really cool. 1,119 footsteps sounds… amazing. The environment you are building for this game sounds just incredible. Looking forward to more teases!

  2. interesting, can’t wait to see more.. and hear one of these footsteps i keep reading so much about :]

  3. I do like footstep variety, but wouldn’t a thousand different sounds just sound jarringly different with every step? Or is that 1,119 different types of terrain sounds for footsteps? Or are the sounds so similar that they will fit with each other?

    This feels funny, asking about footsteps. :P

    • More likely a combination of both: A bunch of different terrain types, and a bunch of footstep sounds on each terrain type.

      • Yeah. If there are, say, 15 terrain types (and I’m probably low-balling it), that would be 75 recordings for each, which is only a little bit in excess of variety.

    • The combinatorics add up pretty fast.

      We have different sounds for left and right foot, always. For any given material there are 5-6 variations for each foot, to avoid mechanical-sounding repeats; let’s just say 5 is average.

      So for walking on one material, you have 10 footstep sounds minimum. Thus 1119 sound effects would be about 112 materials to walk on.

      But actually, it’s fewer materials than that, and more footsteps. We have reverb footsteps for specific locations, where we blend reverb in and out, or crossfade between two reverbs, depending on where you are in a room or hallway. We also have “texture footsteps” that are meant to be layered onto a base sound… so if you are walking on grass, but a little bit of dirt is poking through the grass, the game will play the grass footstep, but with a little bit of dirt texture overlayed on top of it. (The loudness of the dirt texture sound will be scaled by how much dirt is poking through the grass).

      The reason behind all this is: The Witness is a game about you wandering through a deserted island. You are the only active character in the game, so the sound of your own motion is hugely important for establishing setting and mood.

      The guys at Wabi Sabi sound are doing all this work. It is coming out very well!

      • This is grand. One of the reasons I instantly fell in love with Thief: The dark project were the footsteps on different surfaces.

      • (The loudness of the dirt texture sound will be scaled by how much dirt is poking through the grass).

        After reading this sentence, I felt obliged to say that I might as well be in love with you, Jonathan. There are many amazing indie game developers out there, developing interesting business models or technological advances, but to me, you’re the best of them all. You’re the person who makes great games by making each aspect of them perfect, by obsessing over every little detail, by making the game alive. You’re the one who makes it worth saying that video games are, in fact, art.

        Thank you for this, Jonathan.

      • Hello Johnathan

        Ever considered Brian Eno’s theoretical ‘generative music’ approach for making unique sounds – or indeed entire islands?

        The thing about a specific graphical aesthetic or overall look is that it has (obviously) changed over time. But then, the final result can be seen / read as arbitrary..

        Yet if that’s the case why not use Eno’s generative approach, where instead of building pixel by pixel, one sets the boundary parameters of interdependent code systems – eg. shape, scale, color, density – which then interact in unexpected / nonlinear ways.

        That is, your sublime little island looks ‘organic’ enough to have been grown / procedurally generated by a computer. So why can’t it be?

        Near-examples of this approach are regularly seen in the awesome “Demoscene”, where entire landscapes and accompanying soundtracks explode forth in realtime from a mere 4k. (The difference there is, unlike with Eno’s approach, all modular sub-systems are ‘locked down’ – the Demos and the music are the usually the same every time.)

        Basically, it would be neat to see aspects of the island Evolve in small, delightful ways.. and despite its puzzles, I think your game as a whole symbolically displays a (wonderful) lack of Telos; it appears open ended – something a lot of ‘indie’ games seem to share, unconsciously.

        Anyway.. just thinking out loud. L8ers. -Phil Raptor

      • If there are other ambient sounds (ocean, wind rustling leaves), do you have similar statistics you can share?

      • This approach to sound worked incredibly well in Riven. The sound made the mostly static images that made up the game come alive. I’ve always been surprised that more games haven’t tried to emulate what Cyan did with that game, there really hasn’t been anything like it since.

  4. Let me be among the first to congratulate the team on the release of your beta. While I’m sure you will have a lot of issues to find and fix over the coming months, a major milestone such as this is certainly worth celebrating.

    Since Cyan Worlds effectively closed their doors, The Witness has been my best hope for being able to revisit a carefully constructed, self-consistent, and ultimately fascinating world full of meaning and discovery. I sincerely wish you and the team the best of luck over the remaining course of your development cycle.

    • Hi Linus – Technically Cyan is still around, they are just working on much smaller projects these days, unfortunately. (Prior Cyan art guy here.)

      That said, you’re right… very few developers seem to be doing games with such a strong focus on environmental exploration and discovery. I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised with what we’ve been working on in The Witness.

  5. So, there won’t be any release in December this year. :(

    At least, I can play SpyParty while checker plays The Witness.

  6. “We have different sounds for left and right foot, always. ”

    I think that means the number of the footsteps should be even. Unless (SPOILER ALERT!) a hero becomes a cripple or a mutated creature at some point.

  7. I’ve been following this project for what seems like ages, and I’m excited to hear its making good progress. 1119 footstep sounds sounds like overkill, but if you’re using it to establish mood I suppose its critical to get it right. Incidentally, is there as much variety in ambient sounds around the island?

  8. Hey Jon,
    In one of your interviews (I forget which) you mentioned Brian Moriarty’s lecture “The Secret of Psalm 46”. I just wanted to thank you for sharing it, and especially for commissioning the great re-recording of it in 2010. I’ve listened to it a few times and really enjoyed it!

    Is the lecture still going to appear in The Witness? I imagine it was cut in one of the narrative reworks you mentioned a while back. It’s pretty clear to me that the game’s development has been pretty heavily influenced by the lecture. I hope you’re able to achieve everything you’re hoping to with this game. Regardless of what happens, I’m sure it’s going to be “awe”some!

    P.S. I’m sure you’ve been inundated with these, and I know I’m nowhere near qualified for this, but if you’re looking for a beta tester to provide lengthy, detailed feedback, I would love to help.

  9. Great work! I’m loving the way this is coming along.

    But now, the question must be begged:
    Who do I sleep with to get into this beta? :P

    Keep up the awesome work, people! :D

  10. *Asked, not begged.

    I shouldn’t be allowed to post comments after 10 PM…

  11. So jealous of the testers. Sadly, I don’t have time to give good beta feedback right now, or I’d be begging to test it.

    When you start selling pre-orders with access to the beta, I’m totally there.

  12. And I’m sorry for beta-testers. As they never won’t be able to get a full game experience. It’s like watching a camrip of a great movie. Or worse, like recording a camrip, taking care of a camera and techincal issues tather than a movie itself.

    • It’s not even that, because the game is not done. It is like watching the dailies of a movie all the way through the filming and production process.

  13. Jonathan Blow is one of the people who really made me appreciate the depths of game design. I really can’t wait to play The Witness, but at the same time I tell myself I must be patient, because when the game is finished, I know it’ll truly shine. A toast to perfectionism!

    Keep up the great work,

  14. Wizardry 8 had an IMMENSE amount of different footsteps sounds. Basically, the majority of the Disk#2 was all about footsteps.

  15. I’m very glad to hear so much attention is being put to footsteps. It’s one of those things a player isn’t conscious of until it’s done poorly, or at least that’s true for me.

    I’m currently playing a bit of Sleeping Dogs, and I find that running down the street sounds like a horse. It’s really quite distracting.

  16. I think I speak for everyone with an Nvidia-powered laptop when I say I’m so glad the game is compatible with Nvidia Optimus already

  17. This playtester is Spyparty’s Chris Hecker; I’ve been following him and his work for a long time, so it’s cool to encounter him here as well :).

  18. See Introversion’s Subversion for a great explanation of why generative games are a tricky feat to pull off.

  19. Jonathan,

    I’ve been meaning to ask you for a while now, but were you recently on a judges panel for some kind of videogame competition with Emily Gordon? She mentioned on her podcast that she was judging something with you, and I was curious if there was any talk of you appearing. I discovered you in the first place from her (and Kumail’s) podcast, and purchased Braid not long after.

    Was an appearance on their podcast ever discussed?

  20. This just in: The Witness actually a millipede simulator.

  21. As someone who is used to WASD so that my fingers can easily hit “Q” to cycle between an AK47 and a knife and “R” to reload, I find it interesting that a first-person game is telling me to use the arrow keys.

  22. I like how you pointed out in the title that the beta is very limited and closed, and that nobody should get their hopes up. Still, a beta is a beta, and it shows that you’re getting somewhere, even if the end is still far off.

    About those footsteps… wow, that’s pretty hard out. Multiple sounds for each foot, and for different surfaces, and even overlaying them. It reminds me a bit of the particle effects in Braid: they weren’t obvious or anything but they were there, and had a subtle but significant impact on the entire atmosphere and mood of the game. I tried making a level without them and it looked way too flat.

  23. It’s good to hear Robin Walker’s excited for the game!

  24. Loving this. Could you please tell us how long is “a while”? The anticipation is killing me. I check this page at least once a day for updates now. Other than that, this game looks like it’s going to be a-mazing. The graphics look gorgeous, as do the gameplay and story.

    I CANNOT wait to play this thing. I’ve actually playtested the very first area on XBOX at the Gaîté Lyrique last summer in Paris, and it was really good. That’s when I looked at the brochure and saw “Jonathan Blow” and got real excited (I’ve played Braid, loved it).

    Anyways, thanks for doing this development blog: as a 10th grade student and aspiring game programmer, it helps me get some insight into the dev process. Oh, and one last thing. What’s a good way to learn some C/C++? Self-teach on the internet? Wait ’til college?

    Anyway, thank you for doing what you do, Jon and the rest of the team. You guys are shaping the gaming imdustry with this. I might go so far as to say you’re making history.


  25. Yuck, he’s using Internet Explorer.

  26. Oh – of course.

    CHECKER = C Hecker

    That’s one of the puzzles solved.

  27. Tell you what, it’d be easier to not say “oh wow they are almost done!” if I was in the Beta :P

  28. I understand that the chance of anyone reading this blog entry getting any sort of beta access at this point is zero but I’m wondering if there is any possibility of taking applications for access to prerelease/beta builds at any point in the future? (at some cost if necessary, even the full price . i.e. a smaller scale version of the “minecraft model”)

    I’m very interested in your game design processes and I’ve been following this game since it was announced, so like most people reading this blog entry I would love a chance to provide any helpful feedback or testing.

    Chances are it’s way too early to make any comment on this topic, or that it would simply be unnecessary work for your company, but I can’t help asking since the future of the game is more interesting to me than anything else publicly announced.

    • We will do some kind of slightly public beta at some point, but we are still pretty far from that.

      I don’t think the Minecraft model really works for a single-player puzzle game, because what happens is, all the game’s biggest fans get to play the worst version (slightly broken / not yet tested / etc). That is backwards, I think!

      But, I am glad you are interested in the game. We will figure something out.

  29. I know this game will be a feast for the eyes and ears. Ha! I just recognized those arrow keys from Braid ;-)

    When the game is released, I’ll be sure to keep a detailed journal of what my game experience was like – just for the amusement of the development team.

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