The Tug of War in Content vs. Gameplay

I’ve started holding a particular mindset in regards to game design a little while after I started working on iPhone games, but I could never really articulate what I was feeling without sounding like a lazy game developer or religious nut. Danc’s article over at lostgarden reflects a lot of what I think about games as a medium, and what they can do, and where they are heading (good or bad). I’ve had this strange aversion to creating a gameplay ‘space’ where the amount of time spent playing a game almost directly correlates to the exact number of levels the game has.

Of course, any outsider looking in would probably see the flawed logic in that when you have the poster children of mobile games being heavily content driven. Danc argues that content heavy games aren’t the way to go and are inefficient game design. But just looking at the iPhone market, what he’s saying seems at odds with what is garnering consumer attention.  But then again, games like Angry Birds and Cut the Rope may simply be outliers. A glance at the top of the charts reveals Fruit Ninja, Bejeweled 2 (most likely due to Bejeweled 3’s release), and the ever present Doodle Jump. All of these games very light on ‘content’ and steeped deep in core mechanics. So maybe hope isn’t lost :).

The reason I was feeling a bit of concern is there seems to be an influx of games trying to replicate the Angry Birds formula. Tons of levels, quick to go through, and a simple mechanic to play with. This may be playing a dangerous game, especially if you’re an indie. An indie’s time is extremely limited, and getting on that ‘endless treadmill’ to churn out levels is definitely not something you want to find yourself in if you wish to move on from a game and pursue something new.

There is something to be said for content-driven games created by indies though. They can work, but the path is extremely long and grueling. And in the end, you’re creating an experience that borders more on a book, or movie, rather than a game. I loved Braid and Limbo to death as they were amazing experiences and I’m glad they exist. But in all honesty, it’ll be a very long time before I ever revisit either. Their memory is more like a movie in my mind, not a game. I recall scenes, imagery, atmosphere, and mood. Oddly, I barely recall the puzzles in either and the platforming mechanics are forgettable. The very things that differentiate them as games versus other mediums are the things I recall the least about them.

Despite thinking ‘static levels’ are bad, the market can and will reward a game that has a decently fun mechanic and just pumps out content for it, very much like a season on a TV show. So as an indie, the market won’t punish you for it. Although you may soon find you’re punishing yourself :). Another way to look at it is a meter of progress. Some players prefers games with discrete levels because it gives them a sense of progress and direction. High score games have little direction in their minds because the ‘end goal’ is to get #1 on the leaderboards, which in most cases is impossible so the game loses value and becomes more of a toy. It’s purely a mindset and expectation those players enter the game with and something a less ‘content’ driven game has to deal with.

Disposable Games

One of the lines in the article that hit home the hardest for me was:

“As a designer, I feel like I’m wasting my life when I create a disposable game.”

What’s interesting is that above thought is far less pronounced in my mind when I think about developing for say…The DS, Xbox 360, PC, Mac, etc. In the App Store there are literally thousands of games that can probably qualify as ‘disposable games’. I’ve played plenty of them, my friends have played plenty. And it’s not that they are bad games by any means, as we tend to get enjoyment out of them. It’s just that the amount of time we enjoy them is for but a fleeting second and then we move on. Gone are the months of hard work that designer/developer has put into that experience. Is it worth it? Why does this feel more relevant in the App Store? Is it because it’s harder to swallow that a $60 dollar game is disposable? Do those other platforms promote ‘deeper’ gameplay in general vs the more diverse App Store?

It’s not lost on me the context in which these games are played. Most are played a couple of minutes at a time, often times while the player is outside their home. So any long term investment needs to come from several play sessions over a very long time period as opposed to a more traditional game where investment usually comes in blocks of hours. Just because you’ll only have a few spare moments to entertain the player when they open the game doesn’t mean they also have to be the last. Words with Friends is an amazing example of this very concept, but I don’t think asynchronous play is the only answer to this, and beyond turn-based games isn’t a very good one.

Games like Angry Birds and Cut the Rope thrive on that concept by creating “tons” of static content that is consumable in very small time periods. Guess what? Once the player is done with all the levels, there’s little incentive to come back beyond the pure ‘fun’ of the mechanics. The question is, would players play the same puzzle again knowing the solution just for the sake of playing it? They seem to be in the content business now, which I guess isn’t a bad thing when business is good.

Some of the warmest comments I’ve received about Tilt to Live have been from players that begin their e-mails saying they’ve been playing this game since release. That’s 10 months and counting. If people are still playing it today, maybe we’ve created a game that isn’t disposable? I think Danc said it best about creating a deep game versus a content heavy game:

At a certain level of depth, a game transcends being a disposable blip and turns into a life-long hobby

That’s definitely a goal to keep in mind when I’m trying to create a meaningful game.


  1. Nice post.

    Tilt to Live has been worthwhile and great since release.

    I think it’s pretty true that content will continue to be a theme for ios gaming.

    That being said, the more seriously it gets taken, the more wonderful mixes like TTL we will see.

  2. I take your point about content based games, but I’m not sure that I would classify Angry Birds or Cut the Rope as “content based” games.

    Creating a level for those games is not very difficult compared to creating a new level for types of games.

    I am sure they have a level editor and could put together new levels in a few minutes. Of course, I am sure they take longer than that to polish them and make sure they are playable.

    Compared to creating all new art assets, story content, new 3D models, etc. that other games might have though, I think both Angry Birds and Cut the Rope are pretty simple by comparison.

    I do think that part of the reason for their success is that you can play a level in a short period of time and feel successful. With hundreds of levels, lather, rinse and repeat, and people are happy.

    1. Hi All, been busy around here as of late 🙂

      @Ken I do see your point. Making sure your content pipeline is short and fast helps keep one’s head above the water. And there certainly is a spectrum from an ‘angry birds level’ to a whole new map in Halo Reach. But regardless of where something lies on that spectrum I still think the amount of time a player can spend on new content is short compared to development time.

      For instance, using angry birds again, adding a gravity or ‘weather’ setting suddenly makes all the previous levels interesting again. The same time spent making a level pack vs adding a gamechanging mechanic is probably similar, but the gravity/weather adds an interesting new choice to the player. A new mechanic is a lot of new gameplay possibilites for a small amount of content. That is what I was getting at with the level-based games.

  3. Thanks for posting this, it’s exactly what I need to start thinking about. One of my next projects could very well end up being content-driven in this way (multiple short levels). While “short digestible chunks” seems like a good formula for iOS dev, it’s good to realize how endless that can become. Though I imagine it would only be endless if sufficient sales were supporting that effort, so it can’t be all bad. 🙂

    1. @MikeBerg Glad it was useful! And yes, even I still like making content-based games but it’s something I have to keep in balance. The only issue I see with the “only go on if successful” mentality is that, for me, it’s hard to gauge that success unless you utterly fail, or explode overnight. If you’re doing “ok” or “pretty well” would you be doing “Great” if you had just moved on instead to a new game that may do just as well or better?

      It’s something I’ve struggled with on Tilt to Live as well, because despite having decent sales numbers throughout and adding more gameplay to it as a result I wonder if we’d be better off financially releasing a brand new game?

      It’s the same mentality with advertising. You can spend a lot of $$ on ads and get a bump in sales, so you spend more $$ thinking it’s working when it’s really not cost effective.

  4. Thought-provoking read! My first two games were gameplay-driven and didn’t end until the player lost. My third game, LandFormer, was content-driven with discrete, completable levels. Creating content for it was definitely a lot more work. My inclusion of a level editor and level sharing as an attempt to let players extend the game beyond the levels I included with it.

    However, what I struggle with as a designer is how to create a narrative experience for the player in a gameplay-driven game. It’s not impossible, but it’s much more difficult. Content-driven games lend themselves to creating stories more readily than a gameplay-driven game. I would love to be able to create a gameplay-driven game that also has a narrative progression to it somehow…that’s the dream. 😉

    1. @OwenGoss including the level editor in LandFormer I thought was a brilliant idea. Especially when levels could be shared by a simple URL :D. Has that helped in creating new content for your players in any way?

      Yes, creating narrative in a gameplay-driven game is at odds at a lot of times. Some games that come to mind that seem to do it well, or at least are on the right track are puzzle quest and bookworm adventures. Both very gameplay driven and the story links the progression together, but both are pretty ambitious projects :o.

      It is interesting that whenever I think up a game idea and try to add some sort of narrative/story to it, the scope of the game goes from ‘doable’ to ‘ambitious’. Hmmm….

  5. Great post and very interesting analysis. We’re actually building a content-based game now and definitely find it to be quite labour intensive.

    Like Ken mentioned, I assumed we’d be able to crank out the levels quite quickly once we had a nice level editor but found out pretty early that it takes more than just slapping a few elements together and BOOM you have a level.

    We found that each level has to have its own narrative or objective, if you will. Once you’ve defined that, you can start drafting a layout and then start placing elements. Then you have to play that level over and over again to make sure it is actually playing out as you planned it. Then you need to polish, polish, polish and add parallel objectives and then you play test it over and over again. On top of that, your level needs to fit into the overall theme of the chapter and even into the narrative that you’re trying to achieve for the entire game.

    Very time consuming and not quite as easy as some may think.

    1. @Garry you bring up a lot of things that I never consider when looking at how hard it is to create a level. All those seemingly little things eat up time even for the simplest of levels.

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