Games are built on repetition. It is easy to forget this, as we often talk of boring games being “repetitive”.F
Still, if you want to see what the bulk of a game consists off, look at what it repeats, not what it saves for isolated thrills.
This is an idea that I want to dive deeper into, because I often find that its easy to lose sight of the mundane repeating patterns of a game — just like its easy to do in real life. We define yourself by outliers in our life instead of the repeating cycles that really shape us.
The goal of this post is to define a framework for looking at games as a system of repetition — as a series of loops.
A loop can begin in any number of ways. It’s ending, likewise, can have many forms. A a loop is still recognizable by its re-start at the same initial point, no matter where it ends. It goes back to start at the beginning of the circle, even if it did not make a full lap.
Basically, all game mechanics work this way. They start, often initiated by the player, or by some state of the game itself. The player jumps rises and falls back, at contact with the ground the loop is complete and can begin again.
I prefer to talk about loops, rather than just game mechanics, because I find that loops reveal a fundamental aspect of how games and the mind of our players work. Repetition is a fundamental cornerstone of any game and how we interact with them. Loops also show how mechanics work together and it reveals how a game can be in complex motion without anything really changing and how there are moments of change, were loops are closed or becomes open.
It also allows us of talking about layers, of macro loops that encompass the entire game, to micro-loops that are as simple as the jump mechanic or the reload mechanic.
This first example — about the jumping — is for a simple loop, a micro loop, one where the player can choose to initiate it, but the game itself drive the rest of the events.
We can call these “Game driven loops”. The player might initiate them, but has limited influence over them. Rules of the game decide when the loop ends and the pace of events within the loop.
Game driven loops can be initiated by the game itself, reacting to the player, or to other events in the game. Platforms rise and fall, doors open and close. Enemies patrol, find, engages, lose sight of the player and returns to patrol.
AI is the most complex of the game driven loop. Their transition between loops makes it seem like they react intelligently to the world around them.
When AI seems the dumbest, its because they do not adjust their loops to react to something obvious, like running against a wall, or not reacting to all their friends being gunned down as they reach the same spot like a line of ducks.
Unlike players, AI does not re-evaluate and define their own loop.
Players are people and are therefore unpredictable, dynamic and adaptable. Trying to guess exactly how a player will interact with your game is hard, if not impossible. However, we humans tend to respond very well to repetition, falling into patterns easily. We shape our own loops and try them out, adapting them as needed. Some of us are much better at this process than others, but all of us have the ability to at least apply proven patterns we learn from other situations.
It is these, “Player defined loops” that are the most interesting because it is here the designer has to subtly guide and teach the player to interact with the game and there is a lot of opportunities for error.
The player will define their own loops through one of three ways:
1. Applying already learned loops from other games, or situations.
2. Learn loops from the designers. Through text, tutorials and the like.
3. Experiment and adapt their own loops from scratch, or by taking pieces from the other 2 options above.
Unfortunately for us designers, I have a suspicion that most players will take the first options — fewer will follow the second, and a rare few will do the third in any greater capacity.
Further, many players will have the attitude that the first option: applying what they already learned in other games, should allow them to thrive within this new game as well. If they encounter problems with these loops not achieving the expected result, they will most likely think it is an error in the game itself — rather then their own thinking.
We must, therefore, expect this in our audience and plan accordingly. One way is to lead the player into creating the new loops, through creating and repeating situations where only the new loops will allow them to progress. By priming them into repeating these new behaviors, we can then trust that they will apply this even when the game has expanded its scope of possible actions.
I have encountered this problem in my own work on the game Diluvian. As a first-person shooter, the game follows a lot of tropes from the genre, inviting the players to assume that their standard loops should suffice. The problem is that in Diluvian, the combat loop is different from other shooters. Most weapons do not kill, rather they build up a damage pool that is only converted to lethal damage by certain attacks. The proper loop as designed is to use weapons to increase the damage pool on an enemy until the damage is equal to the health of the enemy and then trigger the conversion to lethal damage with a close combat attack.
This combat loop interferes with an already well tried and trusted loop learned in many other games. So, how to make players unlearn and relearn a new one? I think the best solution is to show each piece of the loop for the player and have them repeat it in a controlled environment until it has formed a new habit.
I also think that we have to consider how our design can make it appear like learned loops functions — but some subtle difference in our game invalidates them. A common such feature is when reloading a weapon “wastes” the ammo still in the magazine that is being replaced. Having ammo transfer over seems to be the most common design, so many players have the act of reloading at every opportunity as learned part of most of their combat loops. This can cause a problem for the player if the design is different without them realizing it.
Once again, I think we will find that most of our audience will not just adapt to this new loop, but rather feel like their old one is superior and should take precedence over your design. You could call me pessimistic for thinking this though.
That’s all for today. But I still have plenty of thoughts on this subject. I would love to hear rebuttals or feedback!