Zynga’s most successful games are built around a solid and repeatable core loop. Leaving nothing to chance, they hold the players hand step-by-step through the tutorial. Zynga teaches players how to play, and how they want them to play. And to their credit, they effectively teach learning by doing. But without the right motivation this core loop can become overly repetitious, mechanical and unfulfilling.
Good designers are experts at instructional design. Early engagement is built around an effective core loop. The learning, empowerment and rewards gained from core loops serve to intrinsically and extrinsically motivate players to take on deeper challenges.
Some game designers argue that the best core loops are based on real-world activities. I couldn’t disagree more. Real-world activities like farming may be intuitive to understand, but they lack mystery and discovery. Don’t underestimate the value of “aha moments,” where players feel they discover a skill or trick that other players might not know. For many classic games, a large portion of the fun was in the learning. You had to fail to learn.
Learning secret “tricks” at one time fueled the sales of gaming magazines. Today the Internet is where the public shares knowledge, so there’s very little anyone can keep secret. But timing and dexterity can’t simply be read and mastered. And it requires frequent practice. The best hitters in baseball need practice to stay sharp. Even then, failing two out of three times is better than average. The simple design of Flappy Bird (2014) succeeded on this premise and it’s “easy to learn, hard to master” nature. As often is the case with endless runners, the core loop was the game. And without depth, players soon lost interest.
Games with abstract core loops like Pac Man (Namco), Donkey Kong (Nintendo) Tempest (Atari), Frogger (Konami), Q-Bert (Gottlieb) and Super Mario (Nintendo) are timeless in their ability to engage players.
The F2P business model of today prioritizes key performance indicators (KPIs) that measure engagement (time on game), retention (lifetime on game) and conversion (in-app purchase). The thought is that engaging players for extended periods of time will eventually drive players to spend money. By this definition players could be bored out of their skull, but if still playing they are thought to be engaged.
In 2001, PopCap released Bejeweled, the original “match three” game. It’s core loop: move tiles to create rows of 3. It’s simple to learn and play, but hard to master. Especially against a clock. For more than a decade it was hugely popular because anyone could play it.
In late 2012, King introduced Candy Crush Saga. Taking the same core loop and creatively injecting depth and variety, it revived what had become a stale genre. Candy Crush Saga became one of the highest revenue generating franchises ever.
Another example of a simple yet effective core loop is Rovio’s Angry Birds. The core mechanic is to fling birds from a slingshot towards a structure. The goal is to knockdown the structure. It’s as basic as throwing softballs at bowling pins at a carnival. So basic and intuitive, even young children can play.
Designing virality and monetization mechanics into the core loop are also key to them being effective. It’s important that they feel like extensions of the core loop and not like afterthoughts only to separate money from players.
Good Core Loops Go a Long Way
Think of a favorite game of yours. Read the game instructions and/or press materials. How successful is the writer at explaining the game and how to play? For the sake of argument, assume it’s well written. The point of this exercise is to evaluate how easy the game is to explain and if the reader can comprehend it. A game that’s hard to explain and understand may lack a core loop or a solid structure around it. Every good game will pass this test.
Hopefully, I’ve made you a believer in how important core loops are to video games. In your design or next game you play, think about the core loop and its ability to engage and motivate you.
I’d like to hear what you have to say on the subject. Please share your favorite core loop with other readers. Thanks for visiting!
Want to learn more about core loops?
Adrian Crook – notes of Ali Sulemon’s (co-founder/CEO of Tiny Co.), “Designing Core Loops” at Casual Connect talk (2012)
Henric Suuronen – on Gamasutra, Studio Head at Wooga, “How to Make Killer Game Loops”
Gamasutra – Michail Katkoff, 10/13, “Mid-core Success Part 1: Core Loops