Game Design: Part Two – The Core Loop

Welcome back! In this portion of my process I will be describing how I go about designing the core loop, that is, the main body of the game. I should mention that compared to many people I am still fairly new to the business and by no means am attempting to convey that my process is the perfect solution to defining a core loop. My process is just that, my approach at creating a gameplay loop that is fun and engaging designed for mobile devices. With that in mind let’s begin!

What is a core loop?

My initiation into a game design career path was a bit odd and very fast. I began as an animator working in Adobe Flash which the company I worked for then converted into something usable by our game engine. I created characters and props, environments and enemies all with many states of animation. From there I was tasked with setting up the enemies, characters and props to interact with events and triggers, and from there I began level designing. Sprinkled throughout this time I was giving gameplay tips to my direct supervisor, who was the game designer.

After the launch of our first game we began work on our second title and after a month or two of going nowhere the project was nearly dropped. We had a small lull in production and myself and one of the programmers took it upon ourselves to play with this newly created game engine. We added segments and weapons, tweaked the game mechanics and flow and eventually we released a new test build. Fortunately our bosses really enjoyed the work that we did and work on our game continued. That was my first taste of game design from the ground up.

The original designer was not much of a gamer which is why, although the concept of the game was original and extremely creative, it just wasn’t that much fun to play. So, how did we take a dud and turn it into a fun game? Here is my process:

Name the Components

There are a few questions that need to be answered at this first stage of core loop design. It is important to name each of the components that will play a part in your game whether large or small. Which of these things does the player interact with? Does the player interact with these things directly, or through an avatar of some kind? Is it static or does it move? Is there a story, who tells it? Are there props? Where does the game take place? When in time does the story take place? It helps me to create a list of everything that I would like to see in my game. It may turn out that I eventually discard half of my list, but that’s ok.

Define the Mechanics

Once the components of the game are clearly defined it’s time to determine how they all interact with one another. Which parts does the player control, and which parts are taken care of through behind the curtain magic? What actions are the players taking every time they open the app? This is the crux of the loop. We want the player’s actions to have an effect on the artificial world we have created and for them to feel rewarded for doing so. Action, effect, reward. This is how I define a loop. The player taps these buttons, the characters and props on screen perform these actions and the player feels great about what they have accomplished. Sounds easy, right? Believe me, it is much harder than it sounds.

Create a goal to be achieved and some way of measuring that goal so that player can clearly see that they are making progress. Every time they perform an action it should in some way get them closer to achieving their goal. Many games make this goal so unreachable, but only just beyond the player’s grip that it is difficult to realize. Games that cannot be ‘beaten’ are excellent examples of this. Much of the mobile industry plays to this trick. I prefer creating a goal that is clearly achievable but that is probably best left for another post.

Trim the Fat

Boil the player’s actions down to their bare minimum, just a few actions that start the loop over again. Can you clearly write the core loop down? If it is more that just a few simple actions then it is too complicated, remove pieces until you have only the bare bones left. Some games need layers, but those come later. Now is the time to strip those layers away and define the absolute core mechanics that will make or break your game. Write your core gameplay down in 5 words or less around a circle.

Once you have everything peeled away and the core loop defined in words it is time to create a basic prototype. Now is not the time for pretty graphics, use ugly placeholders. Please. So much time can easily be wasted during this step if you focus on making final in-game artwork. Don’t do that yet because chances are very high that the artwork will have to change. Placeholders allow you all of the freedom to make mistakes and changes without needing pixel perfect graphics. Create a functional model then ask yourself the final question,

Is It Fun?

Play your game a whole awful lot, are you having fun? This is a tough step in the process because for me the pure act of creating a game from nothing is the most enjoyable thing there is. I have to strip my feelings of that process away and focus on the actual gameplay and try to imagine myself not knowing anything about it’s inception. If I truly am enjoying myself then I need to ask a friend who knows nothing about my game to play it. Do they have fun? If so, then I need to dress things up a bit and present my prototype to a few more strangers and if everyone really is enjoying themselves then I have a winner and should continue down this path.

Rarely though, does this happen the first go around. Typically the first, second, third or more drafts are not so fun. The concept may be there, but the mechanics may be off, or the balance. We usually have to go back and change something many times over before the core loop hits that sweet spot. Once it’s there though you’ll know it, and everyone who plays your game will to. This is the most important step in the process, getting this right is paramount.

It is important to note that this process must be completed outside of being aware of your monetization model. Trying to shove monetization into this part of the game design process has ruined many games to date and many developers are seeing the effects, whether they realize what is causing them is another issue. Create your core loop first, make it fun and then begin the process of determining the best way to monetize it.

This obviously is not an all encompassing ‘how to’ on creating a core loop, it is simply a basic run down of how I go about my process. I hope that it was insightful and helpful for you in your game designs. Next time around I will talk about fleshing out the game and what all that entails. Until then, game on.

~ Jeff Dehut

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