Archive for the ‘Design’ Category

Compulsion loops in the short, medium and long-term, if visualised, would resemble helm chain

Introduction:

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.

Bee a sticky flower

 

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.

Frame the contribution toward a greater structure.

 

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.

What does the player leave behind?

 

Conclusion:

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?

 

Alice tumbling down the rabbit hole

Game development can become an increasingly tricky proposition as it progresses and losing objectivity is often the culprit. It is a hazard of the job that dogs us all. As with any labour of love we get tangled up in detail and can lose sight of the bigger picture. Retaining objectivity is important because it helps keep your game steered in the right direction.

One of the functions of a game director, or whoever is in overall creative control of the project, is to retain objectivity. The best achieve this by avoiding getting bogged down in detail and effectively delegating. The very best, in addition, have a handle of every detail but only with a view to how it contributes to the bigger picture. They have an ability to zoom in and out without getting stuck.

Whatever your breadth of influence on the project having a handle on how the details of your specific contribution add up is crucial to keeping objectivity. This is why being given a clear brief is effective because it help you ask the right questions in the context of the overall project. Part of remaining objective is the ability to ask questions of what you’re doing.

So what other things can you do to help prevent losing your objectivity? Here is my guide:

  • Talk to others about your work – explaining what you’re doing to another person forces you to approach it from an outside perspective and with a more conclusive eye. Another person is objectivity, so use it.
  • Leave your work and then come back to it – the further down the rabbit hole you’ve tumbled the longer you should leave it before returning.  It’s a simple and classic strategy but one of the most effective. However it takes self-awareness to recognise that you’ve lapsed and fallen into crazy-land. Taking action can sometimes just mean having a cup of tea or in more serious cases a longer break, like a vacation. The amount of times I’ve come back to my work and muttered “What was I thinking?!” is plenty. Artists; how many times have you overly tweaked detail that no one will ever notice but you? Coders; overly engineered a piece of code for its intended purpose? You get the picture.
  • Know your goals – It’s hard to look at things with an objective eye without an objective! Pretty simple, but I’m sure, like me, you’ve seen your fair share of developers, or even entire teams, getting caught up in needless details and tangents because their objectives weren’t clear.
  • How is your contribution relevant? Without a sense of purpose we can all stray. Refuse to take on work until you’re absolutely clear why what you’re doing is important and how it fits into the bigger picture. You can’t be expected to remain objective without knowing this. This ties a lot into effectively motivating your team.

  • Be passionate about your work, but leave your emotions at the door – emotional attachment prevents objectification. Any Pimp will tell you that one for free. We all need to be able to cut our losses and get rid if something isn’t fulfilling its purpose. Being sentimental, emotional and overly attached can be your biggest enemy here. So grab a flamboyant hat and a lovely big fur coat and your fellow developers will know you mean business.

  • Present your work to the team – A more extreme version of talking to just one person; this can be a really useful exercise. Fear of talking to a large group of people forces you to consider your audience and demonstrate a very clear grasp of your work. Succinctly summarising your work is impossible to do without looking at things objectively. Just simply out of respect for your audience you’re perspective has to be a wider one.

On the flip side to all of this, it shouldn’t be condemned as a wholly negative thing to lose objectivity and get lost in your work. It is the natural tendency of a curious mind to go off and explore. It should just always be tempered with an awareness of your end goal. It’s a skill to recognise when you’re straying too far and to redirect yourself. It’s a matter of self-awareness and discipline to maintain a firm grasp of the bigger picture. Good luck keeping that grip!

What other methods do you employ in keeping your objectivity? Have you any examples of how badly things have gone when objectivity was lost? I’d love to hear them.

Light filtering through trees

Teaching the player how to play your game is incredibly important. Under no circumstances should this area of game design be overlooked because getting it wrong means players may never see all the hard work you’ve put into the rest of the game. So the following is a list of what I’ve learnt about how to get it right…mostly from getting it wrong myself…but hey…that’s the best way right! So without further ado here it is:

  • Don’t teach too much too soon: No one likes to feel overwhelmed, even less so when they are playing your game to have fun. People have saturation points, throw too much at them and the information overflow will go unheard. Keep things bite-sized.
  • Don’t be remorseless: Once you have taught something new allow time for the information to set in. Remorselessly moving on from one tutorial to another will makes players feel uncomfortable and not able to cope. Learning something new is a challenge and mentally taxing, so allow players time to feel good about doing it.
  • Reinforce: Demonstrate to the player the benefits of what you’ve taught. People are fairly efficient at marginalising seemingly redundant information. Reinforcing the benefits of a new piece of knowledge or skill will raise its relevance making it much more likely to be retained.
  • Nothing is worse than teaching something when the lesson has already been learnt: So for quick learners or inquisitive players who’ve already figured out what you’re about to teach them, allow them to opt out or at the very least shut you up.
  • Self-discovery and self-realisation are worth so much more to a player than anything you have to say: Make it as easy as possible for this to happen, that’s part of the skill of being a good teacher. Designing your tutorial in a restrictive way that only allows for the game to play according to your lesson plan is dumb, don’t do it.

  • Don’t try to be a teacher: People don’t like having that psychological inferiority of having to be taught something. So the less you rub it in their faces the better. Aim to be more of companion helping to guide them and no I don’t mean a ^@#!*#% Microsoft paperclip.

  • Don’t give the answers before the questions: Sounds simple doesn’t it, but if people haven’t asked the questions then they won’t see the relevance of your answers. In other words present them with the problem before giving them the solution.

  • Finally here is my number one tip, if you go away with anything from this then let it be this, and it’ll sound obvious, but here goes…Don’t be a bastard: There you go I said it. Any hint of you revelling in the players’ lack of understanding by mocking or teasing etc is incredibly naughty and a bit silly because this more than anything else will make the player hate you and your stupid game. They are doing YOU the favour by wanting to learn how to play YOUR game, so show them some respect.

So there it is, it’s a pretty simple list but comprises everything I’ve learnt and stands me in good stead. Do you have any more tips that you can add? Have I missed something? Please do add them on the comments below. Finally good luck with tackling this part of your game, it’s a fascinating and challenging area of design, let me know how you get on.