Wednesday, June 19, 2024
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Column • Thank you Compulsion Loops!

Tomas Sala, solo developer of The Falconeer has something he likes to share with you:

A few weeks ago I was  introduced to the latest C-suite term by Unity CEO John Riccitiello.
‘Compulsion Loops’
I am liking these two words a whole lot more than some of the terms that came before, such as Flow design

Flow design was something that embraced the idea that the player should never encounter any bottlenecks or incongruencies that would force them away from a state of flow or even worse: away from the game. Flow design as a word brings to mind rooms of psychologists and level heat maps showing each and every bottleneck in the game design. Design as a science, because a player that is in flow is at peak enjoyment which equals peak revenue.

But compulsion loops on the other hand, we don’t need players to be in flow, we don’t need them at peak enjoyment, who needs level design heat maps, we need compulsion.The player only needs to get stuck in our loop and revenue will follow. 

Compulsion loop; two words that do away with the entire euphemism of games as a service, flow design or whatnot,  this isn’t a service, this isn’t flow, this is a prison, a loop and you will be compelled.

‘Gitting gud’

Compulsion loop: It’s that feeling you get when you enter a new location for a main quest and you feel you need to weed out all the substantial side content before you can move on, it is finding that complete armor set, it is min/maxing, gitting gud, and being willing to pay for it. In short, it is selling games as a must win scenario with a fixed outcome and your role is to find the most efficient way to get there, preferably a route that includes various different diamonds or coins. I guess as a species we aren’t lazy, we loathe a task unfinished and from that we can be compelled to keep going with activities that aren’t essentially fun, the grind.

This hasn’t gone unnoticed in the boardroom and who can blame them, the world of game development has always been esoteric with plenty of ‘Xfactor’ guessing as to what will be big. Here is a loop that works, a compulsion loop, that can be measured, designed for and implemented on a scrum task board again and again with very little change between games. If our DNA as players compels us to be completionists, the DNA of the executive is compelled to cream their pants at this much dependable consumer behavior.

Fun becomes work

But isn’t it the funniest that some things that used to be fun, turn into grind once they become quantized goals you feel compelled to do. Rushing off to find one more armor piece for that set in The Witcher is honestly the worst activity, you start counting off the tasks needed to complete the set and over time fun becomes work. There are games I play that are filled with grind and I keep up with because I want to have discovered every location, finished every quest, even though the wonders of gameplay  stopped being fun weeks ago. I am compelled to keep playing beyond fun.  

It makes me think back to how I used to play games. I used to play Chuck Yeager’s Air Combat and spend entire afternoons buzzing the dithered polygonal treetops. Also I played Dune2 and loved progressing through the map of Arrakis. But my main enjoyment was making the perfect base, row upon row of lovely missile turrets walls and perfectly aligned, little harbors of concrete to welcome the Harkonnen animals. I cannot remember feeling that free to play in recent games. I am a sucker for a compulsion loop it seems and will prioritize them over fun and to be honest It’s destroyed my enjoyment of games.

Chuck Yeager’s Air Combat and Dune II

Awesome ride

Recently I made a concerted effort to beeline Cyberpunk,I did the main quest and only the side quests from my love interest. It felt liberating, turning off all the screamy fixers and silly markers on the map. Suddenly every journey becomes part of the story, why skip a car ride? sit back, take in the epic scenery and roleplay some of the emotions being projected by the writing, you might never visit this location again (and I didn’t). It was an awesome ride. It seems I can still get lost in a game, but only If I tell the compulsion loops to get lost.

As a designer I feel there’s an ethical side to this but there is also a side to this that is destroying natural play. Play as an activity isn’t about ‘winning’ it’s about learning and progressing, but if we compel the player into a permanent progression loop, we forget that we are supposed to play and progress through acts of free experimentation.

Freedom and experimentation

Freedom and experimentation, these words are the absolute core to the gameplay moments I cherish and love. For me so many memories come to mind where I tried something on a whim in a game, and it worked, and blew my mind because of it. Freedom and experimentation I worship these terms as a player and a designer.

Now Freedom…. Compulsion…. Experimentation… Loop…..

Let it sink in for a while. A compulsion loop is the antithesis of free experimentation.  You cannot be free if you are compelled, you cannot experiment if you are stuck in a progression loop, only the maximized outcome counts and the game is telling you what that is.

I feel John Riccitiello has cleared up a fog for me, something I’m honestly grateful for. I do not wish to create compulsion loops, I do not wish to create grind, I do not wish for my player to work, I do not wish for my player to min/max or Git Gut. I wish for my player to have a moment of fun and freedom untethered and as unguided as possible. To buzz the trees of my game with complete disregard.

I think I’ve forgotten this for the longest time and it’s refreshing to have a term that is so honest about what it does. It’s made me remember what I do like, and it’s not compulsion loops.

Thank you Compulsion Loop, thank you for being honest.


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