I’ve been thinking about game design a lot over the past few months. With a new year, the promise of new ideas and meaningful experiences pervading the games that we play is exciting. One design tactic that has caught my attention recently is the way that different games incentivize continuous repetition and how that can make or break certain titles. I was led to this conclusion originally by Adam Sessler’s review of Forza Motorsport 5, where he praised the Xbox One launch title for nailing this carrot on a stick mechanic without being manipulative. Essentially, escapism is a mental escape to another world, and escape implies engrossment or pleasure. With Forza, the escapism comes from beating tracks, unlocking cars, and using those cars to beat more tracks. This is known as the gameplay loop, and it’s what I want to dissect today.
Any good psychology student can explain positive and negative feedback loops to you. Give the subject something they want, and incentivize them to keep getting it. If the subject does something wrong, punish them for it. Two recent games that I’ve played that mastered the endless gameplay loop are Spelunky and the iOS game Joe Danger: Infinity. In Spelunky, you play an explorer descending into a series of caves while looking for treasure to buy equipment to help you get to the bottom. It’s notoriously tough, but not in a remotely unfair way. Ask any seasoned Spelunky player, and they’ll tell you that it is not a hard or frustrating game. The simple reason for this is inherent in Spelunky’s design. Being a rogue-like, it’s all about dying and restarting. Missing a jump, mistiming an attack, or just plain cockiness are the most common ways to end a run quickly. But the game divulges its secrets so clearly to the player that they can’t help but blame themselves. Fell on some spike? Shouldn’t have tried to run and jump over it. Impaled by a Tiki trap? The spikes started poking out before you were anywhere near them, so it’s your own fault. These rules also apply to the enemies in the game, who frequently kill each other due to their rote, memorizable AI patterns. The two main modes in Spelunky, Adventure and Daily Challenge both master the gameplay loop. In Adventure mode, you’re trying to beat the game in one of several ways, avoiding death and buying items along the way. When you fail an Adventure run, you don’t even have to wait for a death animation or a Game Over screen. Just hit the “Quick Restart” button, and you’re in another randomly generated world from Level 1-1. The frustration is eliminated instantly when there is no time penalty for failing. The Daily Challenge mode is its own beast, mainly due to how it is structured. Every player encounters the exact same Daily Challenge “seed”, or random map, each day. You’re still descending the mines, but it becomes a performance game rather than a progression game. The leaderboards for this mode are based on money on hand when you die, and not how far you get. This leads to an interesting risk/reward system, where players who stay back and hoard all the money in the Mines world can actually be higher on the board than those who bought everything and progressed further. Also, having only one try on the Daily Challenge gives each run a special feeling, like that one run is the most important thing in your life for those fifteen or so minutes. It’s a joy to watch and play, and these two modes are perfect examples of the vicious cycle of repeating tasks over and over until they are mastered.
Joe Danger: Infinity has a much more subtle, yet brilliant gameplay loop than most iOS titles. Rather than gate your progress with difficult levels that require you to pay money to progress, it instead rewards you for finishing levels with a constant stream of more levels. That’s where the Infinity comes in. At its core, the Joe Danger series has been about perfecting your runs through a level on a stuntman’s vehicle of choice, collecting coins and landing tricks on the way. When I first installed the game, I only planned to play past the tutorial. However, the levels just kept coming without stop, and I had a feeling that this was either the longest tutorial ever, or something was wrong. What I realized was that the game was trapping me in its gameplay loop from the very first level. When finishing a track in the game, a loading icon appears on the next one in the menu. However, as a new player, by the time you realize the translucent circle is done loading, the next level is already starting. Rather than waste your time with menus and anything outside of its actual design, Joe Danger: Infinity feels like an infinite game; you never stop getting levels fed to you instantly until you’ve beaten the entire game. Even with all the ancillary unlockables like new characters and vehicles, you’re never taken away from that sweet, satisfying loop of play a level, pass or fail, retry or move on. This tiny design choice makes the game feel more intense and difficult to put down than any of its other colorful presentation and level design choices.
It’s these small choices in games that keep us going and going, while not feeling like we’re being manipulated. By respecting the player’s time and offering up new content constantly, games can be the best form of escapist media. Creating the perfect gameplay loop of reward and player instruction is difficult, but when games do them well, there’s nothing more compelling and engaging.