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Putting The Fun In Funding: Jon Blow On Indie Fund

Witnessing Change

Games backed by the collective of successful, experienced, indie developers funding game projects that they believe in, Indie Fund, have started to release to great success. What better time to catch up with one of the fund's partners, Braid designer Jonathan Blow, to find out more about where they're at, and get an insight into their process for funding games. Here he is sharing about some of what goes on behind the scenes, what it takes to get their money, and what direction the fund might be heading in the future.

RPS: You've released a couple of games through Indie Fund now.

Blow: Yeah, two so far, and hopefully more soon. We just signed another one, but I don't know if it's announced. I think the statistics, and this might be off by one, we've signed six games, and released two so far.

RPS: And the first two have made the money back pretty quickly.

Blow: Pretty quickly, yeah. In the case of Dear Esther, much more quickly than we expected. Like Q.U.B.E., you can sort of see how that falls into the category of games that people buy and play on Steam, but Dear Esther we weren't sure. It's a very beautiful game, there's a free version that was available a few years ago though, which you mostly will have played on Steam, so it wasn't clear. But there was huge demand for that game, people loved it, so that was great.

RPS: So apart from making your money back, what are you looking for games to do, how would you measure whether they've been successful for the fund?

Blow: Part of that happens before we accept a game for funding. We have certain criteria for funding which are a little bit subjective. But it just has to do with do we feel that this is a high quality game that brings something new to gaming in someway, that we call the specialness criteria. So as long as a game has the specialness, and gets released, then even if it didn't make all its money back, we'd feel OK about it. That's still a success because we helped get something out into the world.

It's not a total success though, because the thing that we really want to make possible is that the developer who releases the game then makes enough money that they can stay independent for their next game. They can develop the whole thing, and release it, and not go to anyone else for funding, including us. So that clearly seems to be true for Dear Esther, and that seems to be true for Q.U.B.E., I've not looked at the numbers recently. Given how well it did, and that games on Steam come along and do sales later where they make lots more, it's probably true there as well, so that's good.

RPS: Most games that you're backing seem to be on PC, or PC first. Do you think that without the PC market, what you're doing would be more difficult?

Blow: I don't think that's strictly true. I can't talk about this too much, because right now I'm not sure what details have been announced, like I don't want to announce something that one of our developers wanted to keep secret. At least one of the games may be coming to PC a little later than console.

But yeah, the thing is, I personally, when I talk to people about this stuff, I actually shuttle people towards Steam more than anything else these days. It's where you have the most control over what you're doing as a developer. You can probably get your game on there if it's good, you get just as good a royalty cut as anywhere else (or better), they won't screw with your game, unlike everyone else who will try to get you to do things, and there's no worries about exclusivity or anything like that. It's a win all the way around right now. If you want to put a game on the PS3 or 360, they will want to mess with it possibly, or even if they don't, it's just a huge amount of work to put the thing on there. Right now we seem to be in the phase where Steam is really good. I don't know if that will be true very far into the future, but you always adapt to the times.

RPS: It seems like you're trying to mitigate some of the clash between commercial and creative requirements when making games. Is there anything else than can be done to help designers not have to worry about money, and just focus on the creative side?

Blow: Well we've thought about things like this once in a while. You could imagine an organisation that was like an indie talent pool or something, where you can say "I need a programmer to help me finish up", or "I need an art guy to come and do this thing", you could imagine an organisation like that with high quality people, the thing about that is, that would be very expensive to maintain.

It's hard to see something like that being a reality, but if you had that, it would be awesome. You could just turn around and help whatever game needs help now. Really I don't know. Apart from funding, we do give people additional help in the form of advice, which they are free to ignore. Part of what makes us different from a publisher that funds a game is that we don't require people to do what we say at all. But we do tell them what we think is best, and often that will be financial advice, or it'll be how to run your team advice, or whatever.

RPS: Has anyone chose to ignore any advice you've given yet?

Blow: Sometimes. I think there's been one or two cases where what we were saying didn't really match what they wanted to do, and that's all good. I think what usually happens is: If you have a lot of experience, and you try to give advice to someone that doesn't have as much experience, then it's very difficult for them to absorb the advice in a useful way. You can say "Do this, and not that", but if the this that you want them to do is something simple, like you should wait to do a 25% off sale on Steam before you go in a bundle or something, those are simple instructions
to follow, and it's easy to comply.

But if you say something like "Well, this and this part of your game need to be feel polished, I think, or else you're selling yourself short, you won't have as good an initial impression" but if we say something like that, in order to fix that sort of thing they need to know what feels polished, what it should feel like. Which if you don't have that experience is difficult. Because they have to do the work, we're not going to step in and take over their game. So if you don't feel it, or don't see what we're talking about, it can be really hard to fix that. Even if you want to. Things are complicated and messy sometimes, but even so they've been very successful.

RPS: In terms of selecting games. If someone wanted to make a game, and they wanted to get involved with indie fund, how should they go about it.

Blow: Well all of what we do now requires a prototype first thing. We need to see a running game before we will talk to someone seriously about giving them money. The reason for that is that it weeds out people who have no ability to make a game whatsoever but want money, which is most people who want money. I guarantee you half of the people in the room at the panel I was on at GDC about funding smaller games have no ability to make a game, and don't know it. There's many reasons we require that, it's the most effective way of communicating to us what the idea is, and it shows us the ability to execute on the idea.

I think with most game designs, you ought to be able to build a really small, really simple prototype, that didn't take that much effort, with really low production values, but really shows what the game is about. If you can do that, it shows a minimal level of development skill, and it makes us feel good about your ability to complete the game. Even so, that turns out to not always be true. We can be convinced by something, and it be wrong, but it's a good way to keep our attention on things that actually could be made, rather than just "I have this idea". We're not that interested in talking to people that just have an idea, because everyone has an idea, I have a hundred ideas that I can't make right now.

RPS: Where do you see the future of indie fund, is this going to be a project that lasts long into the future.

Blow: Well I think we're all having fun with it. We're happy that we've helped these couple of games come out, and there's going to be at least two more that will be released later this year. That just feels good, it feels nice that people get their game out, and have them be good games. We like that. We're talking about ways to grow the fund, because there's all different types of ranges of independent games. Some people come to us and say "Well I'm making a little game, a mobile game, and it's not got high production values. I've got like 3 months left, could you give me
$10,000 for my living expenses", that's the low end of what we do. The high end is between $100,000 and $200,000. These are vastly different things.

If something is over $200,000, we don't have a mechanism to deal with it, but now a lot of indie games are being made that are at that budget level, so we have these conversations about "Should we grow the fund to try to handle things of that size?", like one million dollars, two million dollars. Do we want to be in that business? Or should we say just that if you're doing that, we're not the right people to talk about, except maybe as an equal peer if you go find a bunch of angel investors or whatever. Because a business becomes different.

If you're going to fund a one million dollar or two million dollar game, that can't be the majority of your fund, because it's a horrible risk. The maker of the game could get hit by car, and it just won't get made. You probably need to be able to fund four or five different games at whatever that budget level is. So say you need ten million dollars in the fund to do that, you're probably not going to raise ten million from a very small number of individuals. You might, but if the individuals are indie developers for example, like we are, then in terms of disposable income that people wouldn't mind losing, you probably need a much larger number of people in the fund. Part of the thing that makes it easier and more fun right now is that we're small, so it's easy to have discussions, and it's easy to vote. If you start having like thirty or forty or fifty people in the fund, it's just a different thing.

RPS: Off the back of the successes you've had with the fund, do you think people would be more likely to trust you with their money?

Blow: We've talked about that too, you could have people that are basically silent money, they put money in, and expect a return, and we manage it. We've talked about that, but the idea of managing other people's money is maybe not that appealing, at least not to some of us. I kind of am not that interested in that. I don't find money management fun. But if what it does is help us address a bunch of games that we don't have the ability to address right now, maybe that would be cool. I don't know.

We're still having these discussions, and we're undecided what we're going to do, we still have more money than games to fund. We expected that it was a danger that pretty early we might commit all our money to games, and then exciting games would come along and we had allocated all our funding, and that would be very sad. We had the opposite problem, where we have to search long and hard to find things that we think are even plausibly fundable, and even then we turn down a lot of those.

I think it's a standards problems, people don't usually understand what it takes to make a game that a large number of people are going to buy. There's a huge cliff between like a game jam game, or an indie game you'll see on IndieGames.com or on TIGsource or somewhere. There's a big gap between that and an XBLA game, or a Steam game lots of people will buy. Not always, sometimes you have a small game on Steam, but often there's just a cliff, and usually people don't understand the nature of that cliff, or they just don't really try to scale it.

RPS: I guess it's hard to make those sorts of games.

Blow: It's harder. It's more work, sure.

RPS: I can't let you go without asking about The Witness as well. How's that going?

Blow: It's going great, it's a lot of work. It's a much bigger game than Braid was, it's going to be done in about the same amount of time I think, three and a half to four years I think. That's about the same amount of time as Braid, maybe a little longer. For a much bigger game that's not bad. We were showing it off a little bit at GDC, just for one day, and people really appreciate it, they think it's an interesting game. I've had some really interesting conversations.

I'm finally getting to the point where the design is more or less finalised, there's one or two puzzles I want to revamp heavily, they probably won't resemble what they do now. But now the game is more or less there, it's just a matter of pushing the production button, and cranking out all the stuff. Before we can actually push that button, we need to have a few discussions. We're still iterating on the art style, finding something that won't be super labour intensive, but will be nicely stylised, will look good, and will be at least a little bit timeless. Like four years from now it won't look terrible. I think we've made good progress there, as soon as we figure that out, we'll just be building all these assets, and putting them in the game.

Because it's a game that doesn't have a lot of instancing: You're on this island and there's all these different locations, and each location has it's very unique identity, it's not like you can copy and paste structures from this side of the island to the other side, it just doesn't make sense. We're being very careful to give each location its own character, and that takes more work than otherwise. It's mostly just a matter of doing that, then finishing up writing the story, and recording it, because it's voice acted. I did a bunch of experiments starting last year, it took a lot of attempts to get the tone of the story right, but I finally got it. It's just a matter of writing the final version of that, which will probably take six months, not solid, but doing it going away and coming back. Then the story ought to be done. I'm just iterating on the design, making it good, but I'm already very happy with it. Without prompting, friends of mind that have been playtesting it have said it's a better game than Braid, already, before all that polish stuff has happened. That's really all you can ask for, to do better than your last thing.

RPS: Well Braid was a pretty good game.

Blow: For some people. If you believe some people on the internet, it sucks and it's horrible. But no, it was well received generally. So when I made the ending for Braid, I had one of those moments. That's one of the things that people really respond to about the game, and when I made it I was just super excited about the game. And I had that feeling again when I made the ending for The Witness a few weeks ago. It's a totally different kind of an ending, it's a very different game, you don't have an equivalent situation even. I made it, and I felt "This is the best thing I have ever designed", so we'll see if anyone else feels that way. That was sort of the last little end cap for me on how good of a game this is going to be, because I hadn't finished up the ending. There was some ideas for the ending, that all put together weren't special enough, but when I did this final thing, I nailed it. I feel like I nailed it.

I'm starting to think about what will be the next game after this. I have a lot of vague ideas, but it could be anything.

RPS: Thank you for your time.

Photo from the GDC photovault.

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