We often describe games in terms of mechanics, functions and features.
None of these terms are adequate for explaining a game however. Two games may have the same roster of features, and yet one is amazing while the other is an eyesore. Even worse: mechanics, functions and features encourage us to think of games as linear software projects where the addition or removal of individual components has linear effects.
The reality is that games are often improved by dropping excess features, worsened by unbalancing existing ones, and defined as junk or legend by the interplay between them. Games are dynamic systems, not regular software.
Great game design is made of loops.
What Is A Loop?
The loop is the essential atom of gameplay.
Break an atom down into quarks or electrons, and you will find that observation of it becomes nearly impossible. The atom is not simply a collection of those parts, it is a structural arrangement of them. The arrangement contributes to the atom’s properties, and so we have solids, gasses and other forms of matter. It is similar for actions (mechanics, functions, features) and loops.
An example action is aiming a gun and shooting, but a loop is the ability of the game to process the action and shoot back. This might oblige the player to act again, and so again the game reacts, around and around until either a victory or a defeat condition is reached.
A loop is both opened and closed by player action, whether that results in a win or a loss. Some loops are closed nearly instantaneously, where others are hours or even days long. An open loop is the primary draw of gameplay in fact: Loops that have been opened beg to be closed, and become more prominent in our attention span until they are.
Some loops are more immediately obvious than others. A shooting game, or the orienting and dropping of a piece in Tetris, are clear. Planting and collecting crops in FarmVille is also a loop however. Even gathering and placing pieces to complete a structure in Minecraft is a loop.
Loops have different speeds.
Guitar Hero has a very small, rapidly spinning loop (pattern rolls down, push buttons in time to succeed, more pattern follows), as does a scrolling shooter like Ikaruga. Scrabble, on the other hand, has a very gentle loop. Café World has some loops that last 24 hours.
Loops are also differently arranged. In some games, like Bejeweled, loops are strictly sequential. In others they are branched or interweaved. Some (often sim) games rely on the player to initiate loops at their own pace, while others bunch them together in blocks to form formal tasks.
The Rhyme of Fun
The arrangement of action and reaction is how the qualities of fun start to emerge. Great loops have a rhyme to them, just as great poetry has a rhyme. It’s in the space between the individual components that the magic happens.
It is basically impossible to validate a game action without the adjoining sense of reaction and victory. No document or spread sheet can convey a loop, nor can any slide or diagram. It has to be physically played with, but part of the skill of a great game maker is the instinctive judgement for what might work or not.
That’s why average studios often heavily copy each other. They see a loop that works, and think that cloning it is a shortcut for all their problems. Sometimes it is, sometimes not.
However if everyone at least has the language and the idea of what a game maker actually does for his day job (which is building loops) then we can at least avoid the distractions of focusing on features and functions. To do so would make the process of game making so much easier for many studios.
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