What I Did on My Christmas Vacation

I apologize in advance that this posting is a rambling mess.

The Background

Way back in 2008 when I came upon the core idea of this game, the design was the exciting part. Though I started in games mainly as a technical person who was excited about technical challenges, I have shifted into a mode of thought where, when I program, it’s mainly just to get the design done in the most straightforward way.

Since Braid I have viewed programming as mostly pragmatic: I know what I want to do, and I know what kinds of things I have to type in to make it happen, but for the most part, the interesting mental challenges are in design, and programming is rote execution. Once you have enough programming experience, I think 95% of writing a big program is like this. There have been a few times during The Witness when I spent significant effort solving technical problems where I had no idea what the answer would be in advance, like with the terrain manipulation, but even in these cases I treated the technical development in a very pragmatic way: the goal was to get something that is good enough for current needs, not to design a shining jewel of an amazing technical system (back when I was a younger game programmer, I was trying to make amazing technical systems all the time, and it came at the cost of actually getting games done).

Despite the fact that I am trying to focus on design, in order to make this game a reality, I had to start a company, bring people onto the project to build the game, etc. This means that nowadays I am not just wearing the programmer and designer and business development hats, I also wear the producer hat and the (admittedly small at present) HR hat. Maybe if The Witness does well, we can expand the team a little bit so that I don’t have to do these things, but for now, that’s the reality.

We are very laid back and unstructured in the way we do things, but even so, I feel there’s a heavy subconscious load involving running the company, making sure nobody’s work is blocked, dealing with money all the time, etc. I often find it hard to do deep design thinking when I am in the office, if only because all these issues are just ambiently around. So, in terms of design, my most productive days tend to be work-from-home days (which for me includes most weekends).

All this up til now is just to explain that if I take a vacation seriously, it can be very relaxing, because that subliminal load is gone, or at least mitigated for a while. The activity of the rest of the company is mostly paused, which removes urgency from my own activities.

At first I didn’t know how I would spend vacation; at first I thought maybe I would actually treat it the way most people treat vacation, and not work. Then I thought, hmm, there is a certain sector of the game that I might like to work on, that is definitely very important, and I should get a bunch of that done while everyone is gone, so that when they come back it will be figured out. (I don’t want to go into detail about what that section of the game is, because I am avoiding spoilers).

The Vacation

But, inspiration is a funny thing. I worked a little bit on the issues I had planned to work on, but for the first bit of the vacation, up through the 25th, I found myself most motivated by cleaning up old nagging issues on my to-do list, and shipping this improved version of the game to our very few beta players. This involved stuff like improving the feel of tracing lines on the puzzle panels.

A peek at the export script, used to package the game for end-users.

A peek at the export script, used to package the game for end-users.

After shipping that beta, I found my attention most strongly drawn toward an unexpected part of the game: an optional area, one that we could completely cut from the game and nobody would know, yet at the same time, it’s an area that adds to the overall conceptual arc of the game in a strong way, and would be very rewarding for the small percentage of players who get deeply into the game. (Again, I apologize for the vagueness, but let’s avoid spoilers).

I had roughed out a version of this area a long time ago — maybe a year or two ago — and had always found the basic idea very exciting. But back then the area wasn’t done enough to prove the concept, and over time it decayed while the rest of the game was being worked on (which is natural on a big project like this). But, perhaps because it’s an area of the game that nobody else on the team really knows about or understands yet, I had a great motivation to spend vacation time on making this area good. Now that I think about this again it makes a strange kind of sense: when development is pretty much paused, it is somehow appropriate to work on something that nobody else really knows about.

At first I thought the task would just be to make the old stuff work again and then do a straightforward job of the extra functionality I needed to complete the area. Thinking about the programming I would have to do to complete the area, I saw it as a necessary bummer (“I want to be done with this game, but ugh, there is more programming I have to do that isn’t even on the mainline to all the things that really need to be done.”)

But I started programming that extra functionality, and 10 minutes into it, realized I was not so excited about the design part — it seemed like a very rote execution, like anyone could do in any game, and The Witness ought to have something better than that. Because there was no pressure, and because I was free to do whatever I wanted, my mind was open enough to instantly see an alternative that would be much truer to the essence of the game. The chance to do this better thing was very exciting. (We’ll come back to this subject of being able to see ideas, later).

So I started programming this more-exciting version of the functionality. Then I saw how I could make it even more interesting, and I would start doing that. Then I would see how to make it even more interesting, though that would introduce a lot more programming work. If I were feeling the regular pressure of the game schedule, at this time years in when it is time to be finishing the game, I might have said, “naah, we don’t have time add that extra work”. But because it was vacation the work was free, so I said screw it.

I worked in a fiercely productive way for a couple of days. New ideas would come. They would raise new issues. I would program some things, and in that way that programming often goes, new problems would come to light that I hadn’t thought of, and those problems introduced even smaller 2nd-order problems when confronted. But by this time I was fully energized and just had dogged determination and was fully enjoying the whole process. In the end I programmed at least 5 times as much functionality as I had planned, but rather than being bummed about it, I enjoyed the whole excursion.

Those who know me will tell you that I am not predisposed toward painting things in an unduly positive light — but I will tell you that these past four days or so have been amazing and wonderful. Here’s a shot from what I did (the visuals are ‘programmer art’, as usual):

shot_2012.12.29__time_20_51_n06

It is hard to tell you why this is so cool without huge spoilers.

It’s so amazing and wonderful because

it’s been a long time since I worked this hard and this effectively. Keeping in mind that memory is sometimes not as reliable as we think, I would tell you that the last time I worked this hard and this well was when starting my first, ultimately doomed, company (with a friend from college and a 3D artist we recruited from that same school and unfortunately put through years of meager-wage toil).

Here are some shots from the first professional game I ever worked on, back before we had a concept of ‘indie development’. Software rendered, subpixel-accurate texture mapping, assembly-language inner loop that commandeers ebp in order to utilize a precious extra register, a la Mike Abrash, and oh yeah, it was multiplayer-only, 32-player, over 9600 baud modems:

wulfram.2

Wulfram 2

We were working on this game from 1996 to 1999 or so. 1996 was the year I got into professional game development, and in hindsight, it appears to have been the hardest possible time in the history of video games. Indies of today, y’all have no idea how much easier it is to make games now than it was in 1996. (I hate to be an old fogey who’s all “back in my day, we had to walk to school in the snow, barefoot, uphill both ways,” but in this case it is absolutely true.)

That game was never very successful. It had design problems, but also, we didn’t really know how to talk about or promote a game; lastly, this was before many people played games over the internet, so the potential audience was pretty small. (Trivia Tidbit: There was another online game being supported by the same publishing service as our game, and this other game was more popular, despite being relatively simple in a technical sense, which annoyed the hell out of us on a subliminal level that we wouldn’t totally admit. The guys making this game were John Vechey and Brian Fiete; our producer at the publisher was Jason Kapalka, who later went off with these guys to start a company called PopCap, which last I heard had done okay.)

Back in those days I worked very hard. When we started the company I knew nothing about building 3D games; we learned very quickly. I would long hours, late into the night, intensively. At some point we all burned ourselves out, I think.

After we closed down that company, I went on to do a number of contractor things, game industry lecture things, magazine article things, and working on various independent projects that I never finished. Through that time, I was still very burned out. If you have never experienced burnout, it’s hard to explain. Burnout is not just “I don’t feel like working right now”; it is about your mind refusing to permit you to work, because it has seen what happens when it lets you work.

Eventually, I swore that I would design a very good game and finish it and release it to people, and the result is a game that was successful and that many people like:

Braid_screenshot2

A main part of the reason this game exists was that I instilled a certain discipline in myself: I wasn’t going to do this game because I was excited about a technical thing, or excited about programming; I was going to minimize the amount of programming, firstly so that the game would get finished at all (I had plenty of experience by this point at not-finishing-projects, as did many of my friends; it was an endemic problem), but also so that I could focus appropriately on the design and build something very special.

Despite the fact that I kept the game technically simple, there was still a huge amount of programming to do. But thankfully, the strategy worked and the game was completed. Eventually.

Even though I’d made a successful game, I was still burned out to some degree. In 1996-1997 I was working at full capacity and was very productive, at least inasmuch as one might expect for a programmer of that age who was first starting to get real-world large-project experience. But after being burned out at that time, I never again worked at full capacity.

What I am getting at

I am saying all these things just as a way to get around to explaining that, during this Christmas vacation, I finally recovered fully from burnout. For about 3 days, I was working at 100% capacity, which I have not done in 15 years. It felt wonderful to have that back, to not succumb to the story that maybe game design and programming are like math of physics where you peak at 25. These few days were way better than when I was 25, because now I am substantially better at programming, and I am good at design also, and games are so much easier to make than they used to be; so the design cylinders are firing and then they turn it over to the programming cylinders, etc, and very quickly a lot of high-quality work gets banged out. And it’s not just arbitrary good work, but work that helps to round out the game that I already feel is the best thing I have ever worked on, that helps put grace notes in just the right places, in the manner of exploratory game design that Marc ten Bosch and I spoke about at Indiecade 2011. So this period of intensive work was seasoned and tempered in a way that was not possible when I was 25.

It has been a wonderful time and I look forward to doing more of it. Part of what allowed it to happen this way was that lack of pressure that I have mentioned, due to being on vacation. When a design idea would come to mind, and I would see that it might be cool but would lead to a lot of work, well, this week I was able to let it happen, and I was able to enjoy the challenge of going off on a minor programming rathole in order to do something really good in the design. This is to some degree a reversal of the discipline I instilled to get Braid done; you can think of it as a correction term to the equation. The 0th order term is knowing how to program and design; the 1st order term is having discipline to be able to execute efficiently without being carried away with ideas that will scuttle production; but the 2nd order term is that it is joyful and interesting to have some wiggle room in there, sometimes eroding away a bit of the 1st order term.

There is a kind of open curiosity about programming that I haven’t had in a long time, that I allowed myself to re-discover this week in the freedom of exploring that 2nd-order term.

(Richard Feynman has an anecdote about how he was burned out on physics, and how he started to get over it, which I think bears some similarity).

I am not explaining any of this very well. But I am doing the best work of my life, right now, and it feels great, and for the first time I could see myself working in this same fashion for the rest of my life and feeling happy that I am operating at something like my full potential. So there you have it.

I mentioned earlier that I would talk further about the ability to see ideas, but I guess I was lying, because this is already too long and rambling. I’ll save that for a future post.

It’s worth pointing out that I started Braid while working on what was supposed to be a vacation. And back when I got the impulse to start the Experimental Gameplay Workshop, I was on a plane back from a vacation to Africa. So apparently vacations are good times for me, even if I don’t treat them the way Normal People do.

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57 Comments

  1. Posted December 30, 2012 at 4:50 pm | Permalink

    I think that learning to work efficiently is much more important than learning to work hard. Experience seems to help with this. In working on my current project, where raising my two daughters is my full time job, and making a game is my second part time job, I have to try and be as efficient as I as I can with my work time. It doesn’t seem to work out so well all the time. Great post!

  2. justin
    Posted December 30, 2012 at 4:56 pm | Permalink

    “I apologize in advance that this posting is a rambling mess.”

    No, not at all! Please do more like this!

    • Posted December 30, 2012 at 6:17 pm | Permalink

      I totally agree, I think this is probably the best log you have written. Primarily because it is so frank and personal. I could sense your excitement for the work you’re doing. And that is a very rare thing this late into development. So ramble on!

  3. Posted December 30, 2012 at 4:58 pm | Permalink

    Interesting read, thanks Jonathan. I wonder how this will affect the puzzle count!

  4. Ben Reilly
    Posted December 30, 2012 at 5:04 pm | Permalink

    Thanks for this post. Your discussion on design vs. programming interests me (we’ve actually exchanged a few emails on this topic). Would you say that for someone looking to design games it is good at all to focus on improving (already decent) programming skills, or should that simply be of secondary important to practicing design (assuming, perhaps, that programming skill will improve as a result of implementing the designs)? And uh…what would that look like in execution?

    I also look forward to a future post about seeing ideas, as you put it. I don’t closely follow the development of any other games—so perhaps there are others talking about similar things—but this dev blog for The Witness has been really interesting. Typically I only get to see the press and external analysis of games, rather than the underlying design decisions.

    That is to say, thanks to you and your team for writing!

    • Jonathan Blow
      Posted December 30, 2012 at 5:19 pm | Permalink

      It is easy to over-intellectualize the process … which is just one way the mind finds to procrastinate.

      Just go design stuff. Once you are designing sophisticated things, you will be in a good position to judge how to do that better. Up until that time it doesn’t really matter.

  5. Posted December 30, 2012 at 5:07 pm | Permalink

    Thank you for writing this. Is the fact you were not working at full capacity something you were very aware of all this time or did the work session illustrate it? It’s very interesting to think you could be as productive as you have been while still recovering from burnout. Anyway, glad your break was so valuable.

    • Jonathan Blow
      Posted December 30, 2012 at 5:18 pm | Permalink

      I was definitely aware of it. There has been a gradual trend of recovery — I was super-burned-out in 2001, not-so-burned-out in 2011. But this week was the first time I have had that “I am working at 100% capacity and doing the best work of my life” kind of feeling.

  6. Posted December 30, 2012 at 5:13 pm | Permalink

    This feeling is why I like game jams so much, they relieve the pressure of working on a large project, in favor of playfully exploring an “unimportant” idea. Thanks for the interesting post! Glad you’re doing well!

  7. Kristoffer
    Posted December 30, 2012 at 5:28 pm | Permalink

    This may be the most inspirational thing I’ve read in a long time. I too burned out on game development years ago. You’ve given me new hope that there can be a recovery.

    Can’t wait to see the game.

  8. Posted December 30, 2012 at 6:04 pm | Permalink

    I understand completely. Since November I’m working fulltime on my first commercial title right now with a *relatively small team (well 7 people), and the overhead and management required to keep everything moving forward steals most of the time from myself (designer, developer) working on the game. And even then I have to carefully plan what we all work on rather than having the freedom to explore and experiment as much as I would want without worry like you say.

    The holiday has been great, I’ve done lots of work. I never quite hit the 100% you describe like I have at other times but it’s been joyful nonetheless. I also spent a lot of my free time working on games, and people couldn’t understand why doing this work was such a refreshing break from work work. As you describe here, they are worlds apart.

    As a sidenote I always find the peak age question really interesting and it plays out for different disciplines. Of course the argument always seems to present it as being when you have the best balance between your ‘sharpness’, knowledge and ability to realise (eg: getting studio backing to film a major film at a young age is incredibly difficult). However I think the most important element to creating great works, and being at your most creative, is taking in enough new influences and ideas, and concetrating on it enough.

    The problem isn’t that you become slower with age, but that this is instead caused by your thinking becoming stuck in its ways and unchallenged. Look at Michael Haneke, a veteraned director at the height of his game, to paraphrase a recent S &S interview: creating something great is always very difficult. If you have found it has become easier with practice you’re simply not making something good anymore.

  9. Joel Lamotte
    Posted December 30, 2012 at 6:06 pm | Permalink

    I call this feeling the “joyful productive creativity”.

    I so want to get back there. I’ve not been burnt as much as you Jon, but the older I get, more I think it is the place I wanted to be when I decided to make games and other creative stuffs.

    I happen to, in the last years, have reached this feeling at two occasions:

    1. a self-imposed “game jam” (if you can call that this way): there was a simple game idea I had for years that I was talking about with a friend, but I didn’t found the time to try it because I was working on very technical stuffs on my “big game” (which I am working on now, with less code). My friend at the time told me to just stop the fucking big game and allocate a time to do the little idea, at least to prototype it. After some time thinking about it, I said “fuck, I’ll just do it” and did it for a week of spare time (only a few hours really). I started with too basic tools to I didn’t get far but the prototype showed there was some good potential for a bigger game. I almost got the “joyful productive creativity” but it was cut y the transition with my job at the time. After that I tried several times to do this game more seriously but was quickly stuck in always the burnt that is related to considering too much the technical thing and the code flexibility. Now that I read your experience, I think I see what was missing and how it could have been far better if I tried to do the full game in a time that was just for that.

    2. this year, I was working late in a game company, making a shitty game that didn’t get much audience anyway. I was asked to do it in a week, it took two, but that’s another long (actually short) story. Anyway the important part was that night I was still at work, most of the team was at home but I felt the game needed something a little awesome when the game end (it’s the kind of game you can’t really win, you just play as long as possible). I tried a simple idea. Then I felt it could easily be enhanced, with some simple code. Then I figured I could make it almost epic, but adding a bit more code. Then I figured it could be very impressive (at the scale of the game’s quality….) so I added some code to make it like that. That was an awesome feeling. Unfortunately it was only a few hours.

    I believe that part of the way to get there is dependent on, as you said, experience, technical skills (mostly to make working our raw material as precise as experienced hands working wood or piano or something-you get it), focus time (actually, unfocus time that let you naturally focus on something unplanned) but also tools that don’t get in the way (which is related to experience).

    It makes me think that, as often said, isolation IS the best thing that can happen to an artist; but it also makes me think that most of our social constructs are getting in the way; which makes me fear a bit the strong feeling toward wanting to get isolated to get back to that feeling, while knowing it’s also a good way to miss tons of things in life.

    Just wanted to share that too; thanks for your text, it’s very encouraging to me and I think other creative people struggling in what they are trying to create.

  10. justin
    Posted December 30, 2012 at 6:14 pm | Permalink

    Jonathan, what do you do in your vacations? You go to Africa and I think you mentioned Thailand when you first made Braid. Do you some sort of social or missionary work or do you volunteer to teach and feed people or anything like that? Or what do you do on vacations and how do you chose the places you go visit?

    • Jonathan Blow
      Posted December 30, 2012 at 6:47 pm | Permalink

      The Africa trip was to see an eclipse and otherwise see Africa. The Thailand trip was to see Thailand. I don’t have some brainy scheme about where to go on vacations! (Though the Africa and Thailand trips were both with the same friend of mine from college… who was going to Japan just about now, but I decided I didn’t want to fly a lot right now.)

  11. Doug
    Posted December 30, 2012 at 6:57 pm | Permalink

    Awesome post, the rambling was perfect for what you were saying. Glad you’re so stoaked on the new designs and I can’t wait see it!

  12. Posted December 30, 2012 at 7:01 pm | Permalink

    That’s awesome Jonathan. Thanks so much for sharing that story.

  13. sebastian
    Posted December 30, 2012 at 7:06 pm | Permalink

    This element of the game that could be removed, but a small group of people might enjoy it reminds me of stars and nukes, from that other game. I don’t think I could even describe the grin on my face when I realized the magnitude of the symbolism.

    It’s clearly too early to say what is a “jonathan blow style moment”, but it sounds to me The Witness will contain plenty of thought provoking moments as well, which excites me!

  14. MikkoP
    Posted December 30, 2012 at 8:11 pm | Permalink

    Oi! Jonny! I think you’re a cool dude.

  15. Pritchard
    Posted December 30, 2012 at 9:29 pm | Permalink

    I understand burnout all too well. I feel too young for it. 22.

    I’m glad you made this blog post. It gives me hope.

  16. Posted December 30, 2012 at 10:02 pm | Permalink

    Johnathan,

    you are truly an inspiration to me. I am currently an undergraduate mechanical engineering student very interested in design. I am at the point in my undergraduate studies where I am getting much better at the “0th” order term that you have mentioned.
    I am very quickly realizing personally the hanging variable at the end of the equation you have developed for your personal success (which you so elegantly described as eroding at our execution efficiency). I am going to be able to shape myself exactly how I want to over the next few years as I graduate and create my future.

    I feel like acknowledging and understanding fundamentally what drives us forward in this accelerated state you describe is a trait not only of developers, but of all successful people in a wide variety of fields that take pride in what they do. Thank you so much.

    Regards,
    -Brad Mello

    ~And of course, I look forward to the bright future of this game and can’t wait to experience the fruits of your labor during this exciting time.

  17. Posted December 30, 2012 at 11:13 pm | Permalink

    This is an incredibly charming? heartwarming? story, for some reason. (Possibly because it relates so closely to my own interests?)

    I’m glad that you’ve recovered and thank you for writing this!

  18. JD
    Posted December 30, 2012 at 11:18 pm | Permalink

    shockforce/wulfram2 the best game ever! wish one day a new version of that awesome game would be made! thanks for making it man! playing that game was some of the best memories i have

  19. Stuart
    Posted December 31, 2012 at 12:07 am | Permalink

    How is the rest of the team feeling about the project at this point in development? Obviously there’s some who have been on it for years now.
    Is there a strong desire in the studio yo get the game out there?

  20. Posted December 31, 2012 at 12:13 am | Permalink

    Jon,

    I had a very similar experience! My cousin and I have been working for years on a game called The Journey of Eko. It was becoming huge and resource-draining, and at a point all our effort was in getting around technical limitations. Design-relevant progress was very, very slow. Also, we were having a real hard time in getting the platformer and combat gameplay feel fluid as we wanted in a physics-based environment.

    Then there was Ludum Dare 24, in which we participated. We love it, and it’s good to be away from The Journey of Eko for a while. We made a simplistic procedural platformer in 72 hours, which was totally unrelated to Eko and didn’t end up as fun as I planned. After that I took a 3 weeks vacation. I wanted to rest like normal people do, but I kept thinking: “maybe this LD game could actually be real fun if I made some adjustments here and there…”, and then spent the 3 weeks coding a combat system into it. It felt great to be away from Eko for a while, and surprisingly enough, the improved Ludum Dare game actually became very fun! With more than a few butterflies in the stomach, we decided to drop almost everything that had been completed before in terms of programming, and port the entire The Journey of Eko into the former Ludum Dare game! No more real physics and hi-res, but also no more time spent on things that weren’t making the game more fun. Four months later, I’m really glad we had the guts.

    All this to say that, indeed, a time off where you can code whatever you want without being seen as ‘unproductive’ by your peers and even yourself, is freaking great! I could code with such speed and confidence as I couldn’t in years, it was fun, and almost as a side-effect, it was the most relevant thing we did for Eko in a long time!

    Cheers from Brazil! Look forward for The Witness!

    Gabriel – @pixel_cows

    ps: if you care to see the progress of a random guy’s game, it’s here! :)
    http://www.pixelcows.com/p/the-journey-of-eko.html

  21. Posted December 31, 2012 at 1:51 am | Permalink

    That’s how we learn: by doing. The shoe never fits, at first — but it’s getting a little more comfortable for you now, yes?

  22. Evan
    Posted December 31, 2012 at 1:57 am | Permalink

    Ever since Braid’s release, I have spent a good amount of time in my life finding ways to achieve the same level of brilliance in my own art form that you have achieved in yours. I study classical voice at the Eastman School of Music, and the more I read your blogs and replay your game, the more I realize I have set myself on an un-winding, un-forking road. I have made countless reconsiderations as to what I do with my life due to what you have laid out in front of all of us, and as a stubborn kid, I find this powerfully unsettling. I am inevitably headed towards a life of music, and I had never had such an unbridled problem with it until you graced me with your game.

    I appreciate the standards you have set for me, whether they be as simple as your complex vocabulary, or as complex as your simple anecdotal blogs. Thank you for your games and the desire you instill in me to achieve things for once in my life.

    -Evan

  23. Devin Raposo
    Posted December 31, 2012 at 2:13 am | Permalink

    Do you ever listen to music while you work? For some people it keeps people glued to a sort of deep concentration state which helps vastly with productivity, and for others it seems merely to distract. I find that instrumental music helps push me into the former, but anything else just distracts me.

    • Pritchard
      Posted December 31, 2012 at 9:11 am | Permalink

      If you don’t mind, I’d like to share my thoughts on listening to music while working. I’d appreciate anyone here’s feedback. This might just be the right crowd for this kind of thing:

      Music has a tendency to pull your thoughts in the direction it is composed in. Deep, critical thinking can be demanding enough that the brain power required to process sound becomes a distraction.

      I’ve known people who claim they “can’t live” without music. More specifically, people imply they cannot function without music or that they function better with it.

      I can imagine two effects of music assisting with work that is overly stressful or involves rote tasks. Respectively, music can distract thoughts and distort time perception.

      However, working hard is not the same as thinking hard. Memorization is not the same as learning. Being a bystander is not the same as observing. Having a feeling is not the same as deducing a proof. When tackling deep, critical tasks, I find the requirements and effects of music to be a distraction. That is why I almost never listen to it.

      In fact, I don’t view music much differently than drugs since it affects discernment. I am not saying music is bad, but only that it has its place. Hard work, yes. Hard problems, probably not. Know when to use and don’t abuse.

      • sebastian
        Posted December 31, 2012 at 10:11 am | Permalink

        Pritchard, I’m a graphic designer, and I find that music with no lyrics helps when I’m trying to do something creative, and I find podcasts help more when I’m trying to do something mechanical and rote.

        I think it’s to do with distracting the parts of your brain not used in whatever task is being done, for me anyway.

        • Pritchard
          Posted December 31, 2012 at 12:55 pm | Permalink

          sebastion,

          About listening to music while performing creative work, I’ve heard similar sentiments from others in artistic fields. I can definitely imagine music assisting the creative process – particularly with divergent thinking.

          Podcasts? Maybe that explains this – a co-worker at my former job used to listen to those while working. I found them distracting, especially since they were about marketing and I wanted more experience in it. Sales was his full-time job, though, so maybe they blended in with his work.

          From my experience, thoughts compete with one another. Humans can multi-task, but we’re not very good at it. Focusing on two tasks – more on one than the other – often leads to nothing more than doing a poor job on the primary task and getting nothing done on the other.

          … So I wonder what stage of game production Jon prefers music during, if at all? Design? Development? Prototyping? … Support and Maintenance? :)

  24. Matt
    Posted December 31, 2012 at 4:33 am | Permalink

    Very inspiring– glad you overcame that dreadful burnout. (So the morale of the story is we all need more vacations, right!?)

    I’m already having fun just trying to read the message behind these puzzles–and I’ve yet to even play it! Thanks again and good luck with the rest of production!

  25. Tom W.
    Posted December 31, 2012 at 4:38 am | Permalink

    >Here are some shots from the first professional game I ever worked on

    Very sophisticated and first online game I played. Most rewarding thing was destroying other team starships once you got your ground base and supply of energy cells (attackers took these along for faster shield regen) running. Also remember vividly, I believe what were called Thumper missiles (upon hitting enemy base turrets or enemies it made them spin uncontrollably), “peeking” enemy base turrets, very neat flares that fooled long range Hunter? missiles and small but friendly community. This game needs to be open-sourced and ported to modern engine that makes use of gpu.

  26. Posted December 31, 2012 at 4:48 am | Permalink

    Great post, and definitely rings true with me. I can count the number of times I’ve worked at fully capacity on one hand. I’d love to know whether these occasions could be reproduced artificially for the benefit of projects. The conditions seem to be roughly:

    – Limited time, and therefore a deadline. Deadlines always conduce productivity!
    – Freedom. True freedom. Not “work on a project, and do something cool in a week, or else” freedom, but “do anything, sleep if you like” freedom!
    – Distraction free block(s) of time
    – A well-defined challenge. Ideally, self-imposed, since that also fits with the freedom requirement.
    – (Optionally) a change of scenery?

    It makes me realise why companies like Google do their 20% time thing, which provides several of those points. Creative and passionate employees will be productive, non-creative employees will at least be well rested!

    Another example: My brother was mentioning that his most productive times are on the train commute to and from work. Limited time, freedom (he doesn’t have to work on his commute, but he chooses to), more distraction free than the office, a self-imposed 1-hour challenge, and lots of change of scenery!

  27. Justin
    Posted December 31, 2012 at 9:33 am | Permalink

    I wish you would spend more time writing stuff like this, and less time arguing with idiots on Twitter.

    • sebastian
      Posted December 31, 2012 at 10:13 am | Permalink

      I’m sure both have their own reward :D

  28. Posted December 31, 2012 at 12:56 pm | Permalink

    Wow. Very inspirational, and I can’t wait to play your game. Keep sharing your experiences, it helps a lot!

  29. Juuso
    Posted December 31, 2012 at 1:12 pm | Permalink

    I didn’t see anything ranty here. Good, inspiring post actually. Thanks for sharing.

  30. Alex
    Posted December 31, 2012 at 9:23 pm | Permalink

    Do you really use cmd.exe? You can just install Git to get a no-mess bash shell on Windows (and then use something like this for a console interface — http://sourceforge.net/projects/console/)

  31. Sami
    Posted January 1, 2013 at 4:03 am | Permalink

    It’s just awesome to read about you enjoying it so much. I may or may not have experienced something like it myself (I don’t have enough experience yet to compare), but working hard, efficiently, and being productive all at the same time sounds really cool, and I can imagine how it would feel.

    Once the game is released I’ll see if I can find the bit where this week of 100% productivity was put into ;)

  32. Med
    Posted January 1, 2013 at 9:16 am | Permalink

    First I want to thank you for this great post!
    Now that I realize it,the first time I got the idea of game programing was for the sake of the challenge that game programing seemed to offer,at that time I was very technical (you could say),I wasn’t interested in the game as an experience! But, the time I played Braid and finished it, I realize that game making is BIG. The feeling that I got while playing it (trying to solve the puzzles) were deep, and meant a lot for me; So thank you for Braid.
    I think doing something big require discipline,determination and courage.The problem is that discipline tends to sufocate your brain..So here’s the question: do you want to make something big,or something good , or the two maybe?
    So I want to ask you:What’s the best way to achieve something good? Without discipline you’re risking not finishing it,and with it you’re risking quality.

    • Jonathan Blow
      Posted January 1, 2013 at 4:24 pm | Permalink

      I think that before you really can go for quality in a serious way, you have to get good at the actual craft of making games, which means building a lot of things.

      I did that without much discipline for many years, and it resulted in me never finishing/releasing anything (but I still learned). I might have learned faster given the discipline to finish and release things.

      Then again, I might have got stuck releasing not-so-interesting projects. It’s hard to say. I think you have to figure this out for yourself.

      I think once you know how to get games done, then you are in the position to make a choice about how much to engage that skill versus how much to let calendar time go by so that you see better ideas (and whatnot). And in fact, on a given budget of time/money/etc, the better your game-finishing skills are, the more room that buys you for mind-in-the-clouds thinking (because if you are bad at finishing, it is going to take a lot of work, so you had better start now! If you are very efficient at programming, it’s okay to start building production-quality things later…)

      • Med
        Posted January 1, 2013 at 5:45 pm | Permalink

        Thank you for your reply…It helped me a lot!

  33. Posted January 1, 2013 at 5:34 pm | Permalink

    Jonathan

    It might have sounded like rambling to you, but it definitely struck a chord with me (and many other readers).

    One quick question (without spoilers) …

    Presuming we persist and go deep with The Witness, will we know when we hit the location/scenario you are talking about in this post?

    Will it be obvious, like: “Oh right! That’s what Jonathan’s vacation post was about!”

    I’d love to re-read the post after discovering this new area.

    Many thanks for your posts – have a great 2013.

  34. one_he_loves
    Posted January 2, 2013 at 2:35 am | Permalink

    That sounds incredibly life-giving, I’m happy for you. Take more vacations. ;) (I’m serious.)

  35. Michael Yacavone
    Posted January 4, 2013 at 7:44 am | Permalink

    Great writeup. I have had similar experiences. Reminds me of Paul Graham’s “Maker’s Schedule, Manager’s Schedule” (http://www.paulgraham.com/makersschedule.html), which makes me think a small, progressive, thoughtful company might want to experiment with a new sort of “vacation,” where two or three weeks a year are “pre-designated” vacation weeks – everyone is required to take them off. Then key people can get work done at home without the subliminal overhead of managing. These would be in addition to the regular vacation schedule – the “company vacations” would have benefits to the company, so they would be like bonus vacation weeks.

  36. Nat
    Posted January 4, 2013 at 11:47 am | Permalink

    Thank you for sharing such an insightful and personal glimpse into your game development challenges and triumphs. This post, and other material I’ve seen you publish is very inspirational and I deeply appreciate your willingness to share and give to the game community so openly.

    I have one question for you, regarding your statement “…It had design problems, but also, we didn’t really know how to talk about or promote a game” in your post. Of all aspects involved in game development, the one to me that seems most daunting and elusive is ‘promoting and talking about your game’. Do you have any insights (or references to material online) for approaching this – specifically what kind of activities are most valuable in this aspect of being an indie game developer (being active on forums? starting a blog? starting a twitter account? entering into game contests? all of the above?!).

    I’d consider myself a semi-introverted type, so this aspect of things does not come naturally to me and I’d like to focus my initial energies in this area on something small but achievable at first. Any advice would be much appreciated, and thanks for your time.

  37. Posted January 4, 2013 at 6:24 pm | Permalink

    Congratulations!

  38. AlexC
    Posted January 5, 2013 at 3:15 pm | Permalink

    I think the reason you, in game development, don’t peak at age 25 is because though math, logic, etc. are used, it seems like the most important aspects of game development are the benchmark traits of authors, filmmakers, etc., which often don’t peak until well in their 50′s or 60′s (Tarantino maintains that filmmakers peak after their 40′s, but what does he know?).

  39. bv728
    Posted January 6, 2013 at 3:04 pm | Permalink

    I was once dating a girl who was, at the time, working for Firaxis Games. At the time, they were just shipping SimGolf, which, the anecdote goes, came from Sid Meier taking a week off. He was looking at plans for golf courses and they reminded him of City plans from other games, and he sat down with his laptop and decades of libraries, and made most of the game in a weekend. They had to replace the sound engine, because he’d re-used some code from Alpha Centauri that even he didn’t understand and didn’t work on modern OSes, and the programmer art, but this is not the only Firaxis project that came about like that. Absent the management levels, the creative spark kicks in.

  40. Posted January 8, 2013 at 1:25 am | Permalink

    My 5years old son now plays Braid and likes it very much. Thanks for your efficient work )

  41. Posted January 12, 2013 at 2:58 pm | Permalink

    Sounds incredibly exciting, Jon! I really can’t wait to see what happens with this project. It’s people like you who have inspired me massively to approach and learn videogame development/design in hopes of being able to one day create such masterpieces like you have. For that, thank you, and good luck! :)

  42. Martijn
    Posted January 13, 2013 at 6:13 am | Permalink

    Jonathan, I’m very happy for you you finally got over your burn-out. That matters a lot more than any other thing.

  43. Karin Skoog
    Posted August 14, 2013 at 12:19 pm | Permalink

    I’d imagine there are a number of people who find freedom in exploring their work’s unbounded potential during “off times” because they aren’t burdened by the continuous pressure to ‘operate effectively’…which is, in a way, contradictory, particularly for people who are able to work more efficiently on vacations or on the weekends. Perhaps that’s part of the reason many people feel they work best late at night or early in the morning – little to no interruptions, coupled with the feeling of having all the time in the world (not necessarily true but this feeling is often iterated by people working during late hours, “It’s already __a.m., I might as well keep going, since I’m on a roll,” or something to that effect).

    Giving yourself the time and opportunity to imagine and explore is sometimes the best thing you can do for your creative mind. My best ideas typically come from exploring loosely-related subject matter, which often forms unintentional connections between that and my own work. This does help me think more creatively than if I were to “force myself into productivity” a set number of hours per day (often a counterproductive practice).

    I’ve actually been curious about how your trip to Thailand impacted (or perhaps propelled?) your work on Braid. I recently came back from a 2 month solo trip (a combination of work and pleasure). Even though I was working a fair amount, the trip did wonders for clearing my mind and allowing the space to consider game design in a more focused yet exploratory way (particularly visions for future projects). That trip actually spurred productivity on personal work that I didn’t expect to touch while “on vacation,” but that is typically the best time to do that kind of work. Creative inspiration seems to flow naturally when embracing new environments and giving your mind a break (or a reboot), allowing ideas (and “work”!) to come uninhibited, while removing the dampening effects of scheduling constraints and the distraction of other people. Anyway, thanks for the post. I’m stumbling upon it rather late, but it seems to have resonated with a number of readers.

  44. Sean Seefried
    Posted May 27, 2014 at 4:07 am | Permalink

    I recently saw your talk “Attempting Deep Work”. I enjoyed the whole talk but I was completely rapt during the section on managing the human animal. Googling “Jonathan Blow burnout” brought me to this blog post. I’ve now read through all of your replies but I’m still left with questions. You say that you knew you had recovered on your Christmas vacation. How did you know this? Was it a feeling? Or was it because you were able to see what you had accomplished in a short time? You said you were incredibly burned out in 2001. How did that manifest itself? Did it mean you could only work a few hours a day? Did it mean that you procrastinated a lot? Did you spend a lot of time away from your computer, or spend a lot of time on it just not doing anything productive? You also said in your talk that meditation helped a lot, and you mentioned that sometimes you force yourself to spend time with friends. Do you schedule time for seeing friends? How do you know when you’ve socialised enough?

    Your post has a lot of personal relevance. I don’t think I’ve worked at anything close to full capacity for years, and I’m not even sure if I ever have. I want to see how I can better manage the human animal.

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