Against Gameplay Loops

The very concept of a gameplay loop’ so fucking miserable and limiting. Conceiving of and designing videogames as pure mechanism is a truly horrible thing.

Just for writing this post, I decided to do a quick Google search for the term gameplay loop”. Doing so pulls up diagram after miserable diagram, whittling the act of playing a videogame down to repetitive, meaningless chores, typically in the format of:

  • Kill Monsters
  • Win Gold
  • Buy Stuff
  • goto 1

The idea is repeated again and again, completely uncritically in game design circles. A videogame, according to conventional wisdom, needs a loop. Admittedly this is an incredibly hard thing to disprove because as a pattern, it can be inferred into almost any game ever, purely through reductive reasoning. The same is true of almost any human activity, and invariably, rendering them as a list of repetitive, mechanical actions will represent absolutely none of the joy or meaning of performing the action itself.

As a design pattern, loops were only formalised back in the mid 2000s. I have tried to find ealier examples than Jaime Griesemer’s infamous 30 seconds of fun’ quote, and came up with nothing. And yet they have come to completely dominate conventional thinking about game design, from highly commercial AAA products specifically designed to replicate the conditions of addiction, all the way down to the indie scene.

Here’s the thing though:

Games do not need formal loops to be memorable.

Mechanically-induced compulsion is not necessary in order for a player to experience joy, or sadness, or anger, or happiness.

I don’t really have the necessary know-how or diction to seriously consider alternatives, but Anna Anthropy’s theories on verbs and objects feel like a worthwhile place to start exploring. I have some theories on why the range of expression afforded to a player is a far better touchstone for design. Many of even the best-selling videogames of all time deal with player expressivity in interesting and occasionally radical ways (lookin’ at you, Minecraft). I also haven’t even touched on things like the indie RPG / old-school roleplaying scene and the radical rethinking of mechanics and how players interact with their games there. Maybe I’ll write up something about them next. Talking of which, I’ll close out with this quote from one of my favourite RPG writers Luke Gearing:

March 2, 2021

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OSR and Negative Space I wrote a really terrible article last week about my distaste of formalised core loops in game design theory. I was honestly kind of surprised that