This article was published on: 19/12/2011
Compulsion loop is a very fancy term isn’t it? It’s a recently coined term, perhaps a couple of years old, I’m unsure of its exact origin. However, there is no official definition of it, so as a result it’s often bandied around with slight nervousness lest someone asks you what it actually is. This of course is the point at which you run away screaming, mumbling crazily something about Zynga and the horrors of manipulation, death and pestilence or whatever.
My definition of a compulsion loop is that it is a construct designed to keep someone engaged by marrying their action/s with an appropriate level of reward. But in essence it has been around forever, we just didn’t have a name for it. The greatest creators of entertainment have had an innate understanding of it since we all sat around the fire scratching our heads as Neanderthals. It’s nothing new. Different mediums achieve it in their own way, but all essentially reward for attention and effort and when this equilibrium falters the loop dissipates.
Here is the rub though; reward for effort in the short-term is very different to what we want in the long-term. Whack-a-mole forever would be hell on earth right? At some point we want a deeper sense of reward from an activity beyond the short-term thrills and if we don’t get it, we move on. It is diminishing returns.
So we need to examine what keeps people compelled beyond the here and now. To this end I believe there needs to be three compulsion loops engaging us at the same time, tapping into our desire for different kinds of gratification in the short, medium and long-term. The most compelling experiences keep on giving through all these timeframes allowing people to form a deep and lasting attachment, which is of course a quality that society and all of us individually cherish in an experience.
So how do we aim to achieve this with our games? To answer this I think we need to look at what drives us in each of these timeframes, then ask how that can help inform the way we structure our games. Of course there have been special games we all hold dear that have already demonstrated a masterful understanding of this topic and I don my hat to them. Hopefully then, these examples may pop into your head as you read further.
Short-term: Preoccupation and instant gratification
This is, of course, familiar territory to us all; we live it moment to moment. It is this glorious realm in which instant gratification rules supreme and we revel in our actions having direct consequence and reward.
Of all the timeframes this is perhaps the easiest to reduce the human being to monkey-mash-button-for-banana (I’m not going to mention the games guilty of this!). It’s here where the player’s actions should have a tangible effect on the game world and be sufficient as to preoccupy the player.
Preoccupation is important in the short-term because it is also the point at which us humans are most likely to take flight and find the next pretty flower to buzz to. Your grip on the player is at its most vulnerable so you need to be sticky and your compulsion loops tight to keep the player occupied.
The aim here is for the player to form a sense of attachment. Preoccupying the player can achieve this because it means the player will sink time into the experience. This is significant because investment inevitably seeks a return and the player will naturally develop a growing curiosity on what form this may take.
The point at which the player begins to care is crucial as it ushers in the opportunity to loosen the compulsion loops a bit and build toward something with a bit more substance in the longer term.
Medium-term: Construction and deferred gratification
People are constantly looking for reasons to give up on something. If we don’t feel we’re getting back what we put in, we’ve become very adept at recognising the signals and moving on.
Our lives are now crammed with many opportunities promising instant reward and yes many of them are false and empty, but their potential for distraction is very real. You could indeed argue many people are permanently distracted by this chase (I’m looking at you western culture).
Now more than ever your game needs to give compelling reasons for the player to return. This needs to involve long-term attachment because short-term compulsion has such a weak hold, even when done well. A deeper hook is needed to keep the player caught.
The transition point between the short and long-term is therefore a critical juncture. The fragile attachment developed by players in the short-term can easily shatter and curiosity wane. That deeper hook needs to be alluded to in the medium-term by giving context to the player’s actions. Framing short-term activity as building blocks contributing toward a greater structure should be a key goal for the designer.
It is the job of compulsion loops in the medium-term to convert the player from folly and a dazed state of preoccupation to a sense of clear purpose. Action needs to be rewarded with a sense of contribution toward something, rather than being disparate, unconnected and meaningless.
If you still have the player in the medium-term you are afforded more leeway with your compulsion loops but it is crucial that they are leveraged as much as possible. The medium-term is about deferred gratification because the action here is not about offering a direct reward but the promise of a greater one if you continue building.
Long-term: Legacy and reflective gratification
As in life, players want their short and medium term activities to amount to something in the long-term. We all seek meaning, if the short-term can be the worst of us; the long-term can be the most noble in our pursuit of it.
Building toward something is therefore a hugely compelling force. Through leaving something behind we add definition to the universe and therefore meaning to others. Perhaps legacy is too lofty a concept for games to achieve or indeed for game designers to dare talk about in those terms. But actually, it is through play that we express our understanding of this world and our part in it. Games more than deserve their seat at that particular hallowed table.
So in practical terms what do we need to achieve in this timeframe? What can repay the player devotion exercised up to this point? The answer actually is that the journey repays itself, it is the reward; the long-term structures we allow the player to build toward are simple reflections and distillations of this. Yes it is corny, yes it’s a platitude uttered in many a Disney film but dammit it’s true!
Long-term compulsion loops then, are afforded the greatest size but it is imperative that the structure reflects accomplishment, allows for demonstration of mastery and serves as a meaningful embodiment of the player’s journey. In an ironic final twist the long-term compulsion loop is but a mere apparition. It never fulfils its loop, but it doesn’t matter.
We are compelled to draw more from life, as we are in a game, the more we’re engaged by it. It is our conviction of purpose in the short and medium-term that ultimately justify our achievements in the long-term and keep us motivated to keep pushing forward. It’s when we lose this that things stagnate and we seek change.
Compulsion loops are often cited as the worst of game development, that it is somehow bringing too much science and manipulation into the art of making games. In my opinion it is actually the opposite and quite beautiful. It lies at the very beating heart of human nature and what we want from our experiences. I say, what better way is there, in fact, to frame how we should approach the way in which we make our games?