Commandment #9: Systems Over Content

This post is part of a series of articles detailing the BrainGoodGames Design Commandments. You can see the full list here.

I adore Super Mario World. It’s one of my favorite games ever. However, there is a point in the game that is very bittersweet!


Ah, the credit sequence! Triumph plus the end of the fun.

For much of human history, games never were considered to have endings. They didn’t have content you could consume. They didn’t follow the pattern of other linear media like books, movies, etc. Even in the early scratchings of arcade games, single players relied on scaling mathematical systems to provide longer arcs for players to continue engaging in their games. But somewhere along the line (perhaps MOST notably with the advent of Super Mario Bros) the foundations were laid for a linear, content-driven type of game with distinct authored content that is by its nature finite.

This isn’t to say that authored content isn’t a valid way to create games, or satisfying to play or anything of the sort, but gimmicky Mario Maker stages aside, I have no way to play more Super Mario World, even though I’d like to! I’ve developed a fair amount of skill and comfort in this game system, and enjoy interacting with it, and I think it’s a shame that it has to end in an arbitrary way! Enter roguelikes and procedurally driven single player “content” with no limit! To compare and contrast:

Content Games:
-Have tightly designed game experiences with fewer “rough edges”
-Players can directly relate their game experiences to each other
-Are much better at delivering narratives
-Are effectively “puzzles” that have one or more correct solutions, and are therefore susceptible to “guides” or “brute-force” solutions.

Procedural Games:
-Are susceptible to problems with generations the designer did not foresee (overly high difficulty variance, tutorialization problems, etc)
-Are able to theoretically be played and returned to indefinitely
-Because each board setup is different, you cannot look up definitive guides or employ “brute-force” solutions.

These last two points are especially important to me. These characteristics are the de-facto standard in multiplayer match-based game designs, but are very rarely employed in a single-player context, and I think that’s a shame. I like to return to games over the course of time, like taking a favorite old board game off the shelf, without having to re-trod over solved game situations that present little new value to me. I like to develop rules of thumb, generalized skill and make inferences about the game system, not look up a guide or brute force a solution to a give problem set. These characteristics are far too rare in single-player games, and I am committed to looking for new ways to create them.