lightning quick game loops and their replay value

There’s a quote in showbiz, sometimes ascribed to P.T. Barnum, sometimes to Walt Disney:

Always leave them wanting more.

Whoever said this was probably not thinking about games, but about entertainment experiences as a whole.  The Barnum and Bailey Circus (which just closed in May) and Disneyland (still open, still going strong) are examples of live entertainment that relies on repeat visits.  Whether a show or an amusement park, the return visitor is an important source of revenue, engagement and word of mouth to new patrons.  It’s why going to the circus when it’s in town is established as a long time family tradition, and why Disney has a Vacation Club to reward returning guests.

Disney Vacation Club is a timeshare program that rewards repeat visitors to their theme parks and entertainment locations around the world.

“Wanting more” demands different things from medium to medium, facing the limitations of cost and time.  In location-based entertainment, it is often satisfied by repeat visits, since opening a new amusement park area or a new ride is costly and time-consuming.  On the other hand, where it’s relatively cheaper and quicker to produce more new content, such as in music, film and literature, this desire can be satisfied by a new album or a sequel.  Even so, creating good new content takes time, and in the lulls when there is nothing new available, it is not uncommon for us to revert to listening to the same song on repeat, or watching a favourite movie again, just to satisfy that want for more of the same thing.

Games face the same problem as other entertainment media.  When there is a demand for more, there is a choice between two courses of action for the game developers:

  1. Create more content, or
  2. Encourage replays of existing content

To continuously create more content is expensive, and usually requires additional work or support on the game post-release, such as periodic releases, purchasable in-game items, downloadable content and sequels.  Thus, the second approach is more appealing to me, as it affects the design of the game itself without additional overhead.  Games’ one distinguishing factor from other media is that they are interactive, which gives designers the unique challenge of crafting game mechanics, which make playthroughs dependent on player involvement, that encourage players to play the same game again and again.  Replayability is so important because many games nowadays rely on continued engagement, probably more than other forms of entertainment.  While the buck stops at the purchase of a novel, or a ticket, or an album (without worrying that the purchaser actually reads, attends or listens, given that they’ve already spent their money on the product), games generate much of their revenue from the longevity of their player base.

In fact, the shorter the game time of one playthrough, or a game loop, the more important it is to make players want to play it again.

A highly scientific diagram outlining some of my thoughts on replay value and length of game loop.

Long, standalone games like Destiny can rely on the single purchase model to make a profit, with its sequel Destiny 2 arriving this fall for the hefty price of $59.99, three years after the first game.  Big budget studios can afford investments in longer games with years in between installments, and don’t have to rely on replays to make a profit, because of the up-front purchase cost.

In the middle are games like League of Legends, running 20-30 minutes per game, which need to encourage players to play the same maps again, because what would multiplayer matchmaking be without other players online?  League balances the content creation of new skins, maps and champions with game design techniques to encourage replays of its existing content, be it tournaments, ranked play, or the simple fact that maps and champions are designed such that there’s a guaranteed variety of gameplay and strategy from game to game.

On the other end of the spectrum, short games like Clash Royale rely mostly on replays of its 3 minute game loop, because that is how they make their money, through micro-purchases.  While new content is introduced once in a while, Clash‘s model is based on designing for replayability – everything, from the leveling system through different arenas to the variety of mechanics in character cards, serves to make each playthrough different and interesting, though players do virtually the same thing each time around.

Short game loops teach us about what makes games replayable

So what about short games makes players want more, so much so they will replay the same game loop multiple times?  Other than the lower barrier to entry, in investing less money and a lot less time in the experience, I think there’s a few design principles, evident in shorter games, that improve replay value.  Stripping away the ability to add additional content, I looked at game design for replayability in games with incredibly short game loops, to try and understand what game designers can do within the game as it is to get players to press the replay button.  I hope that the insights of what appeals to us quick games, and why we replay different types of games, can be applied to game design for longer experiences.

1. Story: Queers in Love at the End of the World

I thought I’d start with story, since it seems to be the least suited to a short game loop. Certainly, narrative-based games like Telltale’s The Walking Dead span hours of continued gameplay.  Then, there’s BioWare’s Dragon Age series, which includes convoluted plot lines and ample player choice to determine how the story plays out, a way of encouraging replays that involves creating more content.  But both these games require a large time commitment to see alternative endings or experience additional downloadable content, so how about story games that run much shorter than that?

Queers in Love at the End of the World is a 10-second hypertext game focused on story.  It’s an interactive piece of fiction where you decide what to do in your last 10 seconds with your lover before the impending apocalypse.  When I first played it, the timer ran out when I was reading the paragraph on the first page, and I didn’t get to make any choices.  Startled, I clicked “Restart” on the end screen almost instinctively.  Each time I played, I got a little further, or advanced along another path, or reached a natural ending within the game.  And each time I played, I clicked “Restart” because I wanted to know what would happen if I had chosen to do something else, or if I had read a little faster and gotten a little further in the story.

Story games in tight time constraints reveal what makes us replay them: the question of, “what happens if…”.  Not even what happens next, but what happens if, because games give us the power to turn back time and unmake our decisions, then choose new ones.  The 10-second limit on Queers also showed me that stories don’t have to be complete in the span of a single, complete playthrough.  The fragments of what could have happened in the time limit fit in with the theme of the game, while the desire for resolution, for “completion”, made me want to play it again.

Reasons to replay story games Design suggestions
  • “What happens if…”
  • Implement alternative storylines that are affected by player choice
  • Allow players to interpret and act on
  • Include elements of surprise or easter eggs that reward players for exploration and experimentation
  • Resolution and conclusion of a narrative
  • Force players into a game loop that is too short to complete the story
  • Provide a level of ambiguity so players are uncomfortable

2. Action: TowerFall; 10 Second Ninja X

When I think of quick action games, TowerFall comes to mind.  This 2D platformer battle royale is best in multiplayer mode, where you try and shoot down the other archers to be the last one standing.  When I first played TowerFall, I was impressed by how quickly I could pick up the game and become competitive immediately with other players who had played it before.  With each round, I got better at controlling my character, and developed new strategies to pick off other players.  Game sessions lasted usually no more than 30 seconds to a minute, and had the fast game loops that automatically advanced to the next one until someone won.  TowerFall in particular has a really fast learning curve, and the speediness of its multiplayer rounds brings a level of excitement and competition between players.

This gameplay sequence from TowerFall Ascension showcases its rapid pace of multiplayer action and competition.

I thought TowerFall was fast, then discovered 10 Second Ninja X.  This action sidescroller challenges players to complete each level in 10 seconds, playing as a ninja who has to destroy robots in an action-packed sequence of map levels.  While this is single player mode, it has many of the same strengths as TowerFall: the adrenaline-fueled pace of each level, and the ability to improve skills to do better if a level ends, are trademarks of replayable action games that shine through in these short game loops.

Reasons to replay action games Design suggestions
  • Developing and honing skills
  • Design an appropriate learning curve (based on length of game) for improving on game-specific skills and controls from round to round
  • Smooth level design that allows players to progress further when they get better at playing
  • A rush of adrenaline and competition, especially in a short time frame
  • Provide easy to learn multiplayer mechanics where players can quickly be competitive regardless of skill level
  • Fast-paced movement and panic-inducing UI like a timer or the stress-causing sounds of a ticking clock that reminds the player that there’s limited time

3. Puzzle: Cut the Rope

Most games have puzzle elements, but to focus on puzzle gameplay in short game loops, I looked at Cut the Rope.  The singular goal of dropping a piece of candy into a tiny monster named Om Nom’s mouth makes the game simple to understand, but as the levels progress, interaction with the puzzle elements makes achieving the goal more and more complex.  While thinking about how to solve each puzzle can take a long time, the best method to figure out how things work is by trial and error, since each level requires minimal interactions, cutting some rope and maybe interacting with other elements like bellows and floating bubbles.  This means that each level lasts at most a few seconds, and players can quickly receive feedback on how they did, allowing them to learn from their mistakes and immediately apply that learning on playing the level again.

The tutorial displays a simple level, simply cut the rope and allow the candy to fall into Om Nom’s mouth.

Later, more complicated levels require some strategy, in this case allowing bubbles to float the candy upwards.  Players can change the direction of gravity, pop the bubbles, or use the bellows to blow the bubble containing the candy to Om Nom.

Short puzzles like the ones in Cut the Rope provide players with bite-sized chances at learning, which I think is the most appealing quality of quick puzzle game levels.  Encouraging replay in puzzles is linked to compelling level design, and providing helpful feedback on a player’s choices and actions.

Reasons to replay puzzle games Design suggestions
  • Ability to learn from mistakes and through experimentation
  • Level design that makes learning inevitable and helpful to completing either the current level or future levels
  • Useful feedback that shows how the player’s choices and actions were incorrect, and how they can be improved
  • Immediate sense of accomplishment at having solved a puzzle
  • Lots of celebration animations and meters like 1, 2, or 3 stars that allow players to get a sense of how well they solved a puzzle
  • An idea that puzzles in a set are building upon each other, using previous knowledge and getting more difficult

An analysis of quick, replayable game loops: Multibowl

I saw a demo of Multibowl at the Experimental Gameplay Workshop session at GDC1 conducted by its developers Bennett Foddy and AP Thomson, and the gameplay seemed quite compelling and fun.  Described as the “world’s first video game collage”, Multibowl pits two players against one another in quick fire game loops, roughly 30 seconds each, of random game selections from the 1980s and 1990s.  From a pool of more than 300 games spanning 11 consoles, 8 computers, many arcade machines and over 13 countries, the developers selected an exciting portion of a game, included quick one-line rules for that section and threw them together in rapid succession, presenting them to players with no description or detailed instructions from the original game.

Each round, worth 1 point, is won by one player outwitting or outplaying the other player at some arbitrary rule, which may not even be related to the mechanics of the original game.  For example in Outlaw, the winner is the player who gets the first point shooting, which is pretty simple and intuitive.  However, in Timber, the point for cutting down a tree goes to the player who does the last cut, so players have to strategise and time their moves.  Games span puzzle to action and everything in between.  The first player to earn 10 points wins.

The main challenge of Multibowl is figuring out your goal and the game controls, and acting on them, faster than the other player.  Because the games are vastly different in genre, art and play style, each time a new round begins, there’s a rush of adrenaline to fuel quick thinking and/or muscle memory because time is of the essence in Multibowl‘s quick game loops.

Here is an analysis of Multibowl based on the reasons to replay story, action and puzzle games I outlined above.

Reasons to replay Design of Multibowl
  • “What happens if…”
  • There is too little time in a competitive round of Multibowl to wonder what would happen if you did something, but where “what happens if…” comes into play is how it triggers our memories of games that we already know, hitting on the nostalgia of gamers who remember playing certain games or using certain controllers as a kid.  More familiar retro games like Tetris and Pac-Man force players to immediately recall and bring their own narratives to their mind that could help them in the short round.
  • Resolution and conclusion of a narrative
  • As one game round flows immediately into another, it is not hugely relevant to think about resolution or conclusion.  In-game story is not hugely important in a fast-paced mashup of retro games, since they are only short snippets of vastly different games, in random order.  Maybe the lack of one in to Multibowl‘s design keeps players on their toes as they are rushed into the next experience.
  • Developing and honing skills
  • It’s difficult to develop and hone gameplay skills for game rounds that are so different, but there are other skills that can emerge from repeated rounds of Multibowl, such as the ability to pick up mechanics quickly from the title screen’s line of instructions and increased familiarity with the game’s pace and setup.
  • A rush of adrenaline and competition, especially in a short time frame
  • Fast-paced competition is Multibowl‘s greatest strength, and the frantic rush to pick up control schemes and outwit your opponent add to the excitement of the gameplay.
  • Ability to learn from mistakes and through experimentation
  • During the GDC talk, the developers claimed that Multibowl starts out as a game about video game skills, and then turns into one about video game memory.  This implies that more playthroughs allow players to remember more rounds where they could have done better, and use that knowledge to improve their game if the same round shows up again in another match.  Additionally, without a tutorial, the only way to find out what’s going on is to immediately start experimenting with the controls.
  • Immediate sense of accomplishment at having solved a puzzle
  • Each round of Multibowl, though it seems like a mini action level, is in fact more importantly a puzzle.  Immediately, players have to solve the puzzle of what to do, how to do it, and how to do it faster or better than their opponent.  Solving this puzzle faster or better than the other player counts tangibly as one point, so there’s immediate satisfaction and a boost of confidence as you are launched immediately into the next game loop.

Multibowl hits on many of the reasons players want to replay games.  While the game is not scheduled for release due to copyright issues, I think it serves as a good example of designing for replayability by taking advantage of short game loops.  With these lessons, it will be interesting to see how games can be improved to encourage players to play them over and over again.

References Cited

  1. GDC. “Experimental gameplay workshop.” GDC Vault. GDC Vault, 3 March 2017. Web. 2 August 2017.

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