... and gameplay's even more loops!

Not really interconnecting loops, but at least it’s quite pretty.

As you may be able to tell from the title of this blog, it's a direct straight-to-Netflix-because-they're-the-only-people-that'd-buy-it-as-they-buy-everything sequel. The last one covered the idea of creating a couple of general loops for loading and restarting levels, and for handling the very basics of the game.

It's that second loop I want to look further in to with this blog with Gameplay Loops. It's a concept I've probably always kind of known about (as it's hard not to if you've played games for any length of time) but I'd never really given any amount of thought into how that'd affect my own game design too much.

Granted, I'd seen Youtube videos (so, so many YouTube videos about this but as videos require your full attention and time rather than a blog that you can read at your own pace on your commute they're mainly just noise waiting for YouTube to eventually shut down and delete them all) on this concept but it didn't really click until I saw Yahtzee Croshaw's video (ok, so there are a few worth watching) on it a little while ago.

What is a gameplay loop?

Having done a lot (5, maybe 6 minutes) of reading and listening around this topic, my interpretation of gameplay loops is this; games always have multiple loops within them and you can break them down by importance. For instance, what do you need to do second-by-second, minute-by-minute, hour-by-hour, and so on.

The easy way to do this is think of the most basic action and follow up with what are you trying to accomplish with that action, and then what are you trying to accomplish with that next action, etc. Keep doing this until you reach the end state of the game. These are your gameplay loops.

Some of the videos I’ve linked to above use the phrase Core Gameplay Loop. That’s what I’d encountered before, and it’s what has held me back before as when people describe, they tend to describe it as encompassing everything about the gameplay. By breaking that Core Gameplay Loop down into simple, multiple Gameplay loops, I think it makes it easier to keep yourself on track.

This probably works better with a few examples:

Example 1: Pacman

This example’s borrowed (stolen pretty much wholesale) from Yahtzee’s video. I could have written a new one about another game from the early Arcade scene, like Space Invaders, or Pong, but it does a good job of covering the idea with a basic game that can easily be defined by 3 loops:

  1. Move around to eat pills and avoid ghosts
  2. Eat all the pills on the level to start a new level
  3. Eventually die or crash the game to get your score and then try again

The ideas may be simple but each loop has to be entertaining enough to get a player to continue playing and to retry. There may be interesting details about how the ghosts Pinky, Inky, Blinky, and Clyde move around to make the give the player a chance to get away from the while still feeling under threat, but that’s really just implementing that first game loop in a way to keep it entertaining.

Example 2: Tetris

You can also apply this concept to puzzle games. Tetris is debatably just 2 loops as it’s questionable how many people even really notice the level counter increasing, but it does increase and with that increase comes a change in difficulty level so I’m counting it.

  1. Move the falling blocks around to build a line across the screen
  2. Clear enough lines to progress levels
  3. Eventually die to get your score and try again

As with a lot of these early games, there’s no definitive end point - just dying and then trying to beat the high score. That’s not a bad thing, but it takes skill to create a truly addictive open-ended game.

Example 3: Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze

This last example’s an interesting one as it shows how a change to your gameplay loops can completely alter your game. Let’s look at the loops first:

  1. Move around and either kill or avoid enemies
  2. Get to an end barrel to end the level
  3. Complete enough levels to leave the island
  4. Complete enough islands to win the game

For the first loop, I tend to loop at what can you do with as little as possible. In DKC:TF’s case, if you were just on a single screen then the game would mainly be about kill or being killed so I’ve set the first loop on just that.

If the focus of the game was on getting to the end barrel first and killing / avoiding enemies second then you’d have an exploration game, and DKC:TF definitely isn’t that - a little bit with some hidden rooms and hidden exits to levels, but the levels are quite linear so that feels like a secondary consideration.

The other two gameplay loops are simple extensions of each other, but they’re what drive you to keep playing - by seeing those few levels left on an island the player will likely end up playing longer than they intended to, which is really the definition of good gameplay.

DKC:TF has an interesting story to it though, which is what makes it a good cases study. When re-released for the Nintendo Switch, they added a character called Funky Kong which had a much easier-to-control movement system than the previous lead, Donkey Kong.

This means that they altered how their 1st gameplay loop plays to make the game easier. Thankfully they didn’t alter the core concept of that gameplay loop as that tends to lead to unsatisfying games, but it’s interesting to see a major Developer make such a change for what’s effectively a re-release of an older game.

Why do the gameplay loops matter?

So we can break down our gameplay into multiples of loops, and our mini-games inside our main game into other multiples of loops, but why should we? Well, two main reasons I can think of:

Firstly, having our game defined by it’s loops tells us and other people what your game is really about. You can tell people about your epic, sci-fi, time-paradox idea but that’s really just the story that ties the game mechanics together. The gameplay itself is what’s really useful for describing why anyone should care about your game instead of the approximate 1.27 billion on Steam, GoG, itch.io (oh, and Epic).

Secondly, you can use those gameplay loops to focus yourself during development. If loop 1 of your game is “Eat pills and don’t get touched by Ghosts” then that should be really fun to play on it’s own. If it’s “Fight assorted waves of enemies” then doing that over and over and over should feel great on it’s own without the need for extra mechanics.

That’s not to say the extra mechanics aren’t important, but each further loop is really about keeping people entertained for longer than the loop before them, but if those early loops aren’t entertaining enough then they’ll never get to “Spend experience points and gold for extra abilities and survival time“ because they quit at the “Hit any enemies until they’re a red mist” stage.

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