The Critical Core Gameplay Loop

Design lessons learned from BioWare’s Anthem experience

Recently, Kotaku published a major exposé regarding the six-plus years of development on BioWare’s Anthem. One of the industry’s most celebrated studios has now published two critical failures (the other being Mass Effect Andromeda). There were many issues uncovered in Kotaku’s piece, but from a game design perspective, one of them stands out above all others — not figuring out what your game is about.

Core gameplay loop

In game design terms, the core gameplay loop (or CGL for this piece) is the primary game system or mechanic that defines your title. This is what you build your entire game around, and it’s often the qualifier that determines what genre your game belongs to.

While this may sound simple from the outside, many developers large and small have failed because they couldn’t figure this out.

From the indie side, we often see developers focus on one cool mechanic or game system, but they struggle to figure out how to turn that into a game. This can lead to titles that quickly wear out their welcome. On the other hand, we see developers that forget — or unable to settle on — their core gameplay loop, and try to fit as many game systems as they can into the title. The “kitchen sink approach” may lead to a large game, but it’s often one that feels more like a Frankenstein’s monster than a completed game design.

The challenge when discussing the CGL is that it’s not something consumers — and sometimes even developers — identify as the main problem. Often, people will fixate on more specific issues (like technical problems), specific quality of life issues, or simply a game not being finished — all without understanding the root cause. As a consumer, you’re generally only seeing the final product and, by definition, you’re not seeing the many hours of struggle involved in developing the game.

In order to know how I came to this perspective, I want to share with you a tale of a studio that chased their CGL for over for years and, in the process, they ended up closing down.

Clockwork failure

You may or may not have heard of the studio Gaslamp Games. They were an indie developer who earned a lot of fans for their hit rogue-like Dungeons of Dredmor. Following the success, they went all-in with the game Clockwork Empires — a 3D dwarf fortress-like with steampunk and Lovecraftian elements.

Their first description of the game instantly made me fall in love with it, and I played it on and off for the years it was on early access. The problem Gaslamp Games had with Clockwork Empires was that they never figured out how they wanted their CGL to develop. They had multiple systems for civilians, buildings, and progress, but none of it was coalescing into a defined game.

Was the game supposed to be about dealing with your people, or was it a resource management game built on busywork? There were many months when they would redo game systems and try something else, to then change them a few months later. The Lovecraftian elements that were supposed to be integrated into the city management system never materialized.

By the end of the early access period, they were finally starting to show some concrete process, but they ran out of money and were forced to release the game unfinished. Following the release, the studio was shut down.

The fate of Clockwork Empires is the perfect example of how not figuring out your CGL escalates fast.

How problems escalate

Video game creation is an iterative process, and no designer knows exactly how a game is going to turn out on day one. However, the CGL is your foundation and blueprint going forward when building a game, and when you don’t understand what that is, it can lead to massive problems.

Without knowing your CGL, you’re not going to be able to answer the question: “What is my game about?” That means you’re going to need to spend time making different versions of your game with various CGLs. For each build or system you throw out, that’s time and money you will never get back. Any additional work you do on your game while still figuring out the CGL is at risk of being thrown out as well.

This can lead to management problems; especially at larger studios with departments of people working on a single game. If you don’t have a key vision for how your game works, how are you supposed to manage people to build the game?

Another point is that without being able to settle on a CGL, it leaves your game susceptible to scope creep. The ever popular phrase of “let’s just add X because it worked in this game,” can easily overwhelm a team.

When a game goes wrong, it can look like a mismanaged mess, but when it goes right, it can seem almost like the game had no problems.

When it goes right

As the perfect counterexample, I’m going to briefly touch on Prison Architect — the most successful game from Introversion Studios. Similar to Clockwork Empires, the game spent its entire development on early access, but with one big difference.

The developers knew very early on what they wanted their CGL to be, and after about 7 iterations (or 7 monthly updates) the game was already showing progress. By the time the updates hit the teens; the CGL was firmly established and enjoyed by fans. After that, the rest of the game came together as one of the best examples of an early access title.

By figuring out early on what they wanted their game to be, the rest of the time was spent expanding that CGL, but never losing sight of it.

With all that said, let’s return to Anthem and take a closer look at the core problem with a clearer perspective.

Anthem’s core problem

From the Kotaku piece linked above, there were so many issues that appeared over the course of making Anthem: Leadership problems, team management, publisher interference, and more that we just don’t have the space to delve into here.

But reading through the whole piece, I can trace all these issues back to one simple fact — no one at BioWare knew what game they were making.

From the beginning, when Anthem was originally code-named “Dylan”, there was a lot of speculation about the game’s design:

”You are the bottom of the food chain, and everything is significantly more powerful than you,” said one person who worked on the game. When describing these early iterations of Anthem, developers have made comparisons to Dark Souls, Darkest Dungeon, even Shadow of the Colossus. There would be big, scary creatures out in the world, and your job would be to see how long you could survive. One prototype allowed the player to attach themselves to a giant monster; others centered on the atmosphere, the weather, and environmental effects.”

That description sounds amazing to me, and I bet it sounded great to everyone at BioWare. As development went on however, no one could figure out how to take that description and turn it into a game.

“They never seemed to settle on anything,” added that person. “They were always looking for something more, something new.” Said another: “I think most people on the team felt like we didn’t know exactly what the game was or what it was supposed to be because it kept changing so much.”

BioWare had the same problem that many indie developers have struggled with: Taking a cool idea and actually doing something with it. Anyone who has studied game design knows that the real success of making a game comes down to implementation. In short, it doesn’t matter how great your game idea is if you can’t build it in the first place.

The more time spent trying to figure out what Anthem was meant more resources being wasted. Compounding matters was the EA mandate to make use of the Frostbite engine — EA’s company-owned game engine that they require all their games to be made from.

Combine an engine that the team wasn’t familiar with, and a game that no one knew what it was and you have the perfect recipe for disaster.

Between BioWare having to scale their concepts down, and EA demanding more, Anthem’s design remained in flux for many years. I don’t want to keep pasting quotes from the article, but there is one more that was the whole reason for the accompanying video and this feature:

“ They talk a lot about the six-year development time, but really the core gameplay loop, the story, and all the missions in the game were made in the last 12 to 16 months because of that lack of vision and total lack of leadership across the board,” said the developer.”

The mistake here is an elementary one. You do not spend years trying to figure out your CGL — you either make a choice or you don’t make that game.

I’ve spoken to indie developers who within days of prototyping their game figure out their CGL. The more I think about this, the angrier I feel about the waste of time from one the game industry’s premiere developers and the harsh lesson that everyone now knows.

No silver bullet

Many games have had either underdog stories of succeeding, or horror stories of everything failing, but at the end of the day there is one absolute truth of game development: there is no amount of clout, money, or talent that will fix a game that has no CGL or horrible gameplay.

Some of the best games I’ve played out of early access are the ones that figure out and refine their CGL as early in development as possible. These games start out good, and only get better from there — with some examples being Dead Cells and Slay the Spire.

The only reason why I’m talking about Anthem is the very fact that it comes from BioWare (making it the most prominent example of this kind missing-CGL issue), but for me, it’s just another story of how to not build a game. While it may seem cynical to think like this, video games are not magic — they’re not something that should be coming together at the 11th hour after everyone is fried from overworking.

Being able to take a step back and say that a game is not working is just as important as doing what you can to try to make something work. But when all things are said and done, if you can’t answer what your game is after working on it for more than a year — let alone six — then it’s time to pull the plug.

This conversation is happening in the midst of growing discussions around video game unions, and giving a greater voice to the people who actually make games. I truly hope that stories like the Anthem one will provide extra motivation for developers to acquire greater workplace protections so that they really have the room to succeed as much as possible.