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11.02.23 - system and content

Understanding how games work doesn’t really help you to make your own. The creative process always overpowers abstract dichotomies and boiled-down observations. Actual action washes endless reflection away without effort.

However, I can’t stop myself from thinking and theorising, coming up with neat little dividers, happily pretending to compartmentalise the medium. Filling the idle time in between actual work.

The most inhabitable of these personal sandcastles deals with the sharp divide between systems and content.

It’s simple, really.

Systems repeat. Content disappears.

A system will spit out endless game states. They’re all unique.

System-driven games embrace these small differences. Incremental changes to limited variables. Infinite replayability. Technically.

The difference between gamestate 1.51725 and gamestate 1.51728 is negligible. It has very little impact on your actual experience, because the differences always boil down into binaries:

Sure, systems allow you to ask a large amount of questions at the same time, but the total amount of them is finite. Because, while the exact specifics of WHAT YOU DO are always slightly different, the things YOU ARE ALLOWED TO DO never fundamentally change.

This is because, no matter how dynamic, everything in videogames was handmade. Sure, you can remove and place blocks anywhere in the world, but you can only remove and place.

The game only has a specific number of sprites and only a specific number of positions and configurations to spawn them in. Technically infinite, yes, but practically similar, even functionally identical over a long enough period of time.

Knowing how a system works doesn’t make it less appealing to interact with, it just marks a switch in how you engage with it. Instead of exploring and learning, you are now executing, strategising and looking for larger-scale goals and challenges.

While systems remains the same over the course of the game, content constantly disappears.

Since content doesn’t have to show up again, it can be carefully handcrafted to fit its unique position in the game.

Since the parts of the game are allowed to disappear, since they don’t have to show up again in a slightly different combination, they can be much more precise. There is a higher level of control, allowing for more traditional narrative, pacing and development.

It’s the promise of finality, of conclusion, that is at the heart of content-driven games. They will not only end, they will conclude spectacularly. Whether that happens mechanically or emotionally doesn’t matter as much as the fact that it really does end.

Your relationship with the game doesn’t stop at the credits, of course. After experiencing the content, you think about it. You look back, reflecting on larger themes and implications only made tangible by the finite nature of the whole experience, by the fact that you lean back and let go.

Systems repeat. Content disappears.

In theory, at least. In practice, everything is chaos and tension and connection, a boiling soup where push and pull are indistinguishable.

Every content-driven game contains systems. You always interact with the game through a limited set of verbs. You always run and jump and pull or select options from a menu or press dozens of contextual button prompts. You are interfacing with the content through a system, just like how you use the system of reading to suck the story out of a book.

Every system-driven game is made up of content. It’s just small, jumbled and randomised, hidden behind seemingly infinite combinations of game states. Over a long enough period of time, however, the larger motifs emerge. You will find recurring moments of high and low tension, a consistent emergence of resolution, an emergent order of play. There is a pacing and rhythm inherent in each round of endless repetition, driven by abstract rules that, in the end, always converge back into the binary.

And I didn’t even mention the culture that happens around the games!

Speedrunning takes any content driven game and turns it into a systemic competition. It’s now the inherent variable of time that produces success or failure, forever.

Let’s-players take any system driven game and turn it into a linear narrative. It’s now the dramatic tension and release of the video that engages the audience, for a while.

The harder you pull two things apart, the more clearly you can see their connective tissue. So, like all dichotomies, my artificial divide between system and content only helps to shore up their symbiosis, their inevitable coexistence.

Nevertheless, it’s interesting. I want to pretend that it will help me to make games.

Systems are hard to create. They need to work in any possible situation, so you need to know which situations you allow to happen in your game before you start writing code. This kind of precognition is easier if you work from existing formulas and genres. You keep the hard rules and only tweak the numbers.

This is why the largest companies only keep iterating over their previous work. Switching style radically would be too expensive.

But this is also why small developers tend to work with platformers a lot. The tools and knowledge for creating systems of running and jumping are easy to access and understand. Creating a complex economy that doesn’t spiral out of control after 5 hours of playing is a completely different matter.

Content is fairly cheap to create in comparison. Sure, you can spend millions of dollars on your cinematics, but a simple black screen that says “you have to reach the end of the level” fulfills the same function. Content disappears behind you, it can be janky and weird. You can just hardcode your way around it, you can be imprecise and poetic. Initially, it’s easier to make.

This is why most small developers make short, linear games, but content doesn’t scale. The recent wave of slot-machine-idle games shows the true power of raw systems. They pull you in. They don’t let you go. And people love it. They want systems.

In the same way, you might believe that a single youtube video has had a big impact on you, but youtube itself, the system that distributes the content, served it up to you. Owning the road is more profitable than owning the vegetables inside of a truck.

Economically, repetition rules. Code is made of loops, computers run in circles.

And so, for all the connections between system and content, for all the symbiosis and dependency, it are the systems that come out on top. Content driven games are brushing the medium against the grain.

Maybe that’s why I like them so much.

thanks to David T. Marchard and HerpDerpity Purple for fixing my atrocious spelling

06.2.23 - changes on the blogroll

Originally conceived to help with development of PRODUCER, the weekly blogposts have been somewhat pointless since release.

People enjoyed the posts. They asked for more and so I kept going, evem though I had nothing concrete to write about. Lacking a specific project to iterate on, the blog quickly turned into a lesser version of my personal diary.

The tango I danced with an argentinian stomach bug is important to me, but, frankly, nobody else gives a shit.

Last friday I just straight up didn’t feel like writing something about my week and just skipped it, completely free from shame or guilt.

Today, I’m changing the purpose of the blogroll.

Instead of weekly updates on my life, I’ll post infrequent but interesting reflections on games and their development.

These thoughts are raw, specific and weird. They never survive the doubts thrown up by rigorous research. And so, instead of dying as half-finished articles or videos, they’ll live on the blogroll from now on.

Hope you enjoy.


27.1.23 - the week of unmentionable liquids

Going on a workation is pretty nice. Especially if you don’t actually work. Especially if you eat a lot of food and drink a lot of drinks that you’re not used to. Oh oh. What’s this?

Endless Sweat?

The inability to keep anything down?

A stomach bug?

Oh oh.

20.1.23 - the week of envy and sweat

The backpain is gone, mostly. Certain movements hurt, but, compared to last week, the pain is laughable. Just in time as well, because I just spent 13 hours on a plane to argentinia, sitting and sweating and watching adam sandler movies.

I’ll spend the next month on a workaction, alternating between sightseeing, getting used to new locations and working on various projects.

Finally, the digital nomad life-style has manifested itself.

The digital nomad life-style seems to consist mainly of sweating a lot. It’s fucking summer in argentinia. I’ve perspirated my way through like 5 shirts already and it’s only been 2 days.

Showering is only a brief window of time between high tides of salty water. There are fruit salads with cold, sweet water in little plastic cups for 25 cents though. Worth it.

But other than the sweat, my ability to just do something like this, pack up my stuff and leave for another country, has produced a lot of directly expressed envy in the people I hang out with.

Understandably so. This is pretty cool.

Is this the reward for living below the poverty line for half a decade, of buying no nice things and never going on vacations and now splurging on this one? The result of me working really hard, being supported by family and patrons to then get lucky? Or is it more a function of me never having really set down roots anywhere, not owning any furniture, not knowing how to decorate a living room and just embracing that and running away from it?

As always, it’s a bit of everything.

I limply respond to expressions of envy by saying that I, in return, envy other people’s ability to have a home, to really make a space their own. On the one hand this is extremely sincere and on the same hand I’m an extreme cliché.

A sweating cliché. So be it.

The other things I’d hoped to come together down the line seem to all work out as well, enabeling me to avoid facing the domestic, collected and responsible version of myself for the next six months.

Six months?



13.01.23 - the week of pain

As a dear friend would say:

“It’s a shit.”

Stop moving for mere 7 years and you get backpain. Pretty fucked up. The only way to get rid of that backpain? Start hiking and stretching and moving. Okay, so let’s say that you really enjoy that and start doing it way too much. Without the proper buildup. Now let’s assume that the weather is suspiciously nice for january and you often don’t even need a jacket, even if it then ends up being kinda cold, which causes the muscles in your lower back to pull together. Now let’s also assume that last sunday, you’re running late for lunch and your train has just pulled into the station but you’re all the way down at the bottom of the stairs leading up to the platform. Now, finally, let’s assume one last time: You start to run up the stairs to catch the train but the something in your lower back kind of clamps shut and starts to hurt.

Not so much at first, but, like, this really isn’t pleseant.

Now let’s assume that the pain doesn’t stop.

It gets more and more intense and 4 hours later you’re lying on the floor of a friend’s appartement and you want to cry because you can’t stand up. But let’s say that your parents gave you a chinese heating plaster with tiger balsam and (after getting the highest score ever in Sherlock Holmes: Consulting Detective, hell yeah) another friend slaps that plaster onto your back and you manage to stumble home.

Then, on monday, you roll around on the floor with tears in your eyes, unable to get up, but for real this time. It will take you one hour to finally claw your way to a standing position and then you can’t bend back down and you go to the doctor in untied shoes and without socks.

The injections really help. The painkillers do to.

You can’t sit down for the whole week. It hurts too much. You wait for as long as possible and then drink a lot of coffee, so that you only have to go to the toilet once.

You walk and walk and walk. Slowly, indoors, in tight circles, reading children’s literature and with a thermophor tied to your back. At some point the covering slips and you get blisters from the heat, but fuck, it’s worth it.

Anything is better than to be back there, on the floor, teeth clenched and unable to see, only checking if the latest movement made the pain increase or if it made it increase a lot. Like a punished neural network, wriggling and falling and clenching your way to a position that is the least unbearable.

Then, slowly, you start to feel human again. You start to eat again and enjoy the clouds from the safety of the inside. It wasn’t that bad, you think. Sure, it still hurts like hell if I sit wrong, but I mean, come on, don’t exaggerate. The memory of the pain fades quickly, but the fear of pain remains in your muscles and sometimes you freeze, unable to continue the motion because it might bring you back down to the floor.

But then you push through and it doesn’t kill you and come on, it wasn’t that bad, there’s probably no need to ACTUALLY start doing yoga, oh I dropped my pen let’s just bend down real quic

06.01.23 - the week of 3D

I’d made two new years resolutions:

The idea was to not attempt something specific, but to create as many opportunities for reflection as possible. Then, if I want to do something specific, I can spend all the videogame-less weekends and late night writing sessions to think about it. That worked pretty well for Producer and so far it also seems to work for real life.

Not that I actually got anything done. I now just have a detailed record of a week full of semi-failure.

Two projects I’d planned on starting this week got pushed back, leaving me antsy and weird. Unable to focus and confused, I caught up on all the screen time I’d missed on the weekend, playing through SIGNALIS twice.

Luckily, the deadline for a submission was also pushed back, so while my lackluster effort on it wasn’t rewarded, it also wasn’t punished. Yay?

Thanks to the steam sale, PRODUCER has sold more than 1000 units! Yay!

The main event of the week, however, was intense and sudden backpain. Not inexplicable, but unexpected. Why now? I’d been going… oh, yeah. I’d stopped going on walks.

Back to that, then.

And wow. Why did I ever stop? I guess it was a slow process, a gradual erosion, like always when habits die. But how could this happen? I love going on walks. It’s weirdly warm right now and sometimes I don’t even need a jacket.

I climb up through a path of tight trees and emerge into a wide panorama, tall blue clouds parralaxing like distant mountains above rolling hills of orange reeds.

The sunsets are glorious red and blue and purple and sometimes yellow, bright and surreal in the afternoon.

There is thick fog at night and I can’t even see 3 meters ahead of me. The trees are black silhouettes and hikers rotate their phones like lighthouses. A car cuts through the white soup only to dissolve in it a short time later.

I hike and wander and think of 3D level design. How rich and dense. How many possibilities for amazing vistas and winding passages. If only I could work with that.

I can’t, so I close off this wildly unproductive week with a little private game jam. The result is quite nice. Maybe I’ll get some shit done next week. I really have to. There’s not much time left.

Cheers, josh

30.12.22 - the year of productivity

Last friday of the year. Time to look back.

In 20222 I learned how to work. Like, really work. Not the fitful start and stop, nor the desperate sprinting of previous projects but real, hard, continous work.

The naked power of routine. Get up, work, walk, cook, sleep. Meet friends on the weekends. Don’t get too drunk. Don’t stay up too late. Focus. Externally boring, internally explosive.

Going over PRODUCER again and again, always cutting, always boiling it down into the thickest possible stew of itself.

The goal now is to get back there. Back into the longterm flow, which, of course, requires a certain amount of headless chicken time to accumulate fresh ideas and theories.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

The year actually started with a certain disrespect toward work and it’s processes. I’d already thaught a class that was very well received, so surely I’d be able to do it again without preparing too much!

Wrong. The first 6 months of 2022 were a slow trainwreck. Unable to get my course back on track completely and equally unable to work on PRODUCER, I instead fled forward into a new project.

GEBALLER is a pretty nice game, considering how much I fucked up the development cycle. We developed amazing tools early on and then, scared and unable to make decisions, I never really used them. At least the few people that bought the game seemed to enjoy it.

We had some updates planned, but the programmer has dissapeared from the face of the earth. Felix, for fucks sake, call me.

With both the course and GEBALLER wrapped up I was able to escape from all of my problems for 2 weeks to spain. It was that break, that first vacation in many years, that kept me from folding in on myself after all of these failures. Mucho Gracias.

Then, bed-bound with corona for a week, deliriously dreaming I was a 3D tetris piece. Then, a whole summer of extensive physical activity in a desperate attempt to to balance out the long term dmg. Swimming is the best.

This is when the work really started. I realised how much there was to do and started cutting. One month later I started to summarise my work in blogposts. I needed to become more effective to finish the game. The weekly reflections helped me to come up with procecesses and identify bottle-necks like never before. I worked consistently, but rarely more than 5 hours per day. It grew more stressful with autuum. The swimming stopped. The game got done.

Then, of course, the inevitable breakdown after release. The hat hurts, no matter how old.

A kind of loose phase of playing a whole bunch of games. Preparing the next steps by exploring in 400 directions at once. Finding a few really interesting things. Getting within reach of recouping the cost of making PRODUCER with to heavy discounts. Deciding to return to the road and being surprised with a whole boat-load of opportunities. Hoping to be able to get back to work soon. To that beautiful place of purpose and progress.

Cheers, josh

23.12.22 - the week of starting to leave

This last week has been marked by a committed avoidance of working on Producer yet again. At least I didn’t work on anything else either, so it balances out.

I did do a lot of thinking and deciding though!

The explosive prototyping energy has ebbed, leaving me with four pretty well defined ideas. Each of them would be worth pursuing in their own right, but only two have commercial potential. Both of those contain writing, but approach it from two completely different perspectives.

One uses variables from game-y gameplay to determine branching, while the other requires you to take real-life notes to solve a detective case. Deciding between them would’ve been impossible if not for some outside influence:

I got a small & very part-time freelance job! Again! This time I won’t fuck it up though! I hope? Yay! It’s about developing complicated level design patterns. Funnily enough, that’s also what I’ll be doing for an as-of-yet secret collaboration with another game developer that I’ve been wanting to work with for years!

My pensum for traditional game-y game design being thusly filled quite to the brim, I can safely discard the former prototype in favour of the latter. Decisionmaking! Hurray!

The other big decision that was made was to move out of my current, extremely low-rent, habitat. I’ve spent the pandemic (which is not over but you know what I mean) in a former air-bnb, out in the semi-country side. While it’s been quite nice and beautiful and full of trees, I feel like I need to return to urban society. Or at least move closer to other people my age.

Falling perfectly in line with this desire, a couple of opportunities for low/free rent have presented themselves to me on the international stage. If everything goes well I’ll spend the next 6 months on the road, scurrying from couch to couch like a belaptopped roach.

And so this week has been spent on getting ready to leave. Tying up loose ends, sorting through unkept books and generally preparing to bananabox the majority of my belongings.

As part of these preparations, I’ve also gotten a fully functioning smartphone for the first time in forever. There’s now a very strict “no screens in bed” policy to protect me from this pocket demon.

It’s been a stressful & expensive week, but it’s extremely nice to be moving again.

I’ve spent the last years mainly in this one room, alone in front of the computer, working on qomp, Geballer, Producer and all the essays. I learned to cook and went on a lot of hikes and met up with friends on the weekends for some more hikes and boardgames. It’s been extremely nice. A kind of very comfortable halfway house between the nerveous breakdown of three years ago and the hopefully normal-human-shaped future.

Let’s see what happens.


17.12.22 - the week of various meadows

Work work, time for some more work! But it’s all pretty relaxed, really. It’s more of a tentative exploring of various avenues. There’s that flowery kind of spring in the step as one frolicks across beautiful meadows.

This is not the time of hunched shoulders. No bunkering down, no incresingly creased furrows. The deadlines aren’t even written into the sand yet. All is easy. Mostly.

I’m having trouble writing words, so I’ll just create some systems and setups to display words instead. It’s technically productive. The gifs get likes on twitter.

There are a couple of situations floating around in my head, but I can’t commit to just putting one of them down onto the interactive paper. It’s going to be horrible garbage in the beginning and I don’t have the strenght to sift through that right now, so off we go, to some other project. Only for now, I hope.

There’s producer, sitting there and waiting for an update and an page and a steamdeck compatability check and a soundtrack and probably some other stuff. It’s been patient so far, why not let it simmer just a bit longer?

Because, look, there’s this cool little game I made some months ago, but it’s being held back by it’s obscure control scheme! So, I’m going to rework the controls and add a difficulty curve and also make all of these fun tools and oh my, two days have passed!

Well, better get back on track by recreating Disco Elysium’s dialogue system in my own weird framework! Once I got the tech down, I’ll be able to create, like, a couple of cool short stories using passive skillchecks and stats and all of that cool stuff. Like, once the tech is done, it’s going to be amazing and I will finally start to actually write. I’m sure of it. For real. Trust me.

But then again, do I really need to start writing? Isn’t it a bit soon? Shouldn’t I relax a bit more? Shouldn’t I read some nice and easy books? Shouldn’t I be buying christmas presents for my family?

Oh shit gtg