Gaming Reality

Exploring game design

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?

 

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  1. Manic Roper Said,

    Terrific article, your site is a gem that I’m glad I’ve found. Thankyou so much!

  2. pcollier Said,

    That is very kind of you to say, thank you.

  3. The Sunday Papers | Rock, Paper, Shotgun Said,

    […] in game analysis news, Pete Collier on “compulsion loops” goes like this: “My definition of a compulsion loop is that it is a construct designed to […]

  4. Biscuitry Said,

    Someone should point the makers of Glitch to this. It manages short and medium term, but falls down on the nebulous long term loop. As a result, players stick around for a while but eventually get bored and leave once the world’s served up everything it can to them.

  5. Jeremy Friesen Said,

    Excellent article. Have you taken a look at Burning Wheel? It encodes the three compulsion loops. First there is the immediate satisfaction of a test; Not only do I succeed or fail, but I am working at advancing a single skill. There is the trait votes which happen intermittently and mechanically modify your character based on play. And there is the shade-shifting of long-term play; If you carefully muster your Artha (XP), you can dramatically improve your character’s skill…it is a long-term goal in which you tally your progress.

    There is more going on in regards to the various compulsion loops, but this at least gives you a sense of what is happening. Burning Wheel rewards the lizard brain and the mathematicians brain.

  6. pcollier Said,

    Thank you for both your comments.

    Biscuitry: yes, the long-term loop is actually by far the most crucial if a game is ever to be considered as a truly worthwhile experience by the player. If players don’t feel they have sufficient returns from all the effort they’ve put in over the short and medium-term it’ll manifest as an empty experience coupled with a sense of remorse for the time they’ve wasted.

    Our long-term memory is very disdainful of any short-term gratification we may have felt, all that matters is how the experience has shaped you over time and if the game doesn’t reflect this, it’s toast.

    Jeremy: Thanks for pointing me in the direction of Burning Wheel. I wasn’t aware of it, but if it is as good as your analysis promises then I’ll definitely be taking a look. I’m always very impressed by game developers who manage to execute a great understanding of compulsion. It’s one thing for me to write about it, but quite another to be able to put it into practice well.

  7. Dr. L Said,

    There’s already a name for it. It’s not a, “compulsion loop”, it’s called a variable-ratio positive reinforcement schedule and is a basic of learning theory in human psychology. It also happens to be the strongest type of schedule to reinforce behavior. An example would be the loot system in MMOs. You engage in an activity (grinding/raiding) which results in special loot (reward) but the number of trials is never set (variable). At some point you will be rewarded, but you don’t know when.

    The level system is a fixed-ratio schedule. You do an activity X number of times and you are rewarded.

    It’s all really pretty simple.

  8. pcollier Said,

    Thanks for the information Dr L. I would have been surprised if this had not been in many a psychology text book to be honest. It’s quite another thing to be able to design for it well in a game design though. I think compulsion loop is catchier than ‘variable-ratio positive reinforcement schedule’ though ;-)

  9. Ocelot Said,

    Thank you for sharing – there is a related issue that may be interesting to examine. Having a definite end to the experience is key, I think. Games, by their very nature, are pursuits in a fake, mirrored reality. They cannot be ongoing or indefinite, because, over time they show themselves as being ultimately fake. Having a definite ending allows games to “close the long term compulsion loop” and provide an opportunity for the player to critically look back on and evaluate the game – to judge if it was worthwhile and if the experiences added to and enriched their “real world life.” Perhaps the game told a compelling story, offered an interesting challenge or touched on an important point.

    It seems that in today’s world of game development, games are often driven by revenue generation models that seek to artificially extend the longevity of a game. Expansions, DLC and the very nature of MMORPGs seem to run dangerously close to extending the life of games beyond “the end.” As this happens, it causes players to look back on the experience and realize that, instead of adding to their life, the game has somehow crept in and taken more than it’s fair share. It’s outstayed it’s welcome. It’s turned into a mockery of reality, rather than a fictional experience with a definite end capable of closing the long term compulsion loop.

  10. pcollier Said,

    Ocelot I think you’ve made an incredibly valuable point. It truly can become a burden to never gain closure, even from a positive experience. You make the point very eloquently that true reflection can only derive from the experience coming to an end. The saying: “You don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone” seems particularly apt.

    Regarding your further point regarding revenue generation models, again, well put. For me your most poignant point was about the game taking more than its fair share. It’s curious how blinkered we can be over the long-term. All of us are susceptible to thinking something is good for us for long periods of time and only discover its harmful aspects when a break is taken. Only then do we realise it has taken up too much of our lives and the returns have been diminishing for a while.

  11. Death_Bastard Said,

    Excellent article, thanks a lot for putting this up.

  12. pcollier Said,

    @Death_Bastard – very kind of you to say, thank you.

  13. mei Said,

    i think the same concept applies in movie making/script writing as well…how do you to an opening that’s interesting enough and then some suspense mid-way to draw people in further to sit for 2-hr long and finish the whole thing?

  14. pcollier Said,

    I’ve no doubt this is the case, compulsion loops are everywhere!

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