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The Golden Circle: A different perspective on game design.

I transpose Simon Sinek's idea of the golden circle into game design language in order to figure out how the parts of a game concept influence each other from a replay value perspective.

Maxime Babin, Blogger

June 28, 2016

12 Min Read

        It is most likely that once in your lifetime you wondered “how much time will this game last for?”. Whether it is as a customer wanting to get something worth the money or from a developer point of view wanting his or her game to give a good amount of entertainment. The thing is, as a developer, there is only a handful of techniques one can use to increase a game’s lifetime without spreading it too thin. The purpose of this article, however, is not to enumerate or even to try to come up with new techniques to increase longevity, but to offer a different way to approach a game’s content in order to find where player free-will can directly affect a game’s entertainment value.

        First and foremost, this article has been greatly inspired by Simon Sinek’s idea of the three-layered golden circle. Even if his TED talk is more about leadership and marketing, the idea that people don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it stuck with me. It amazes me how someone, myself included, can willingly sacrifice countless hours of their life running the same dungeon, breaking thousands of blocks or fighting the same enemies over and over. The only reasoning I could make of it is that, in a game, players do not care what they do, they care why they do it.

The golden circle

        Sinek’s golden circle is separated into three layers going from the outside-in: what, how and why. The “What” is simply what you do on a day to day basis. For a company, it’s the manufactured product, for a game player it is the moment to moment action. The “what” is the answer you get when you ask someone “what do you do in this game?”. In World of Warcraft, a likely answer could be “I fight monsters” while in Minecraft you are most likely going to get “I break blocks” as a common answer. One thing is for sure, the answer is going to change based on the situation and the time in the game.

The “how”, for a company, is the recipe or the guidelines, it is what makes the product special and different. In a game, what makes you special as a player is not the puzzle itself but how you solve it. The avenue of approach that the player takes to solve the situation, “do I use a sword or a bow?”.

The “why” is the fuzzy one; the one that not everyone gets. For both the company and a game; the “why” is the purpose, it’s the driving force behind why you even participate. It is important not to confuse purpose with a result, gaining XP is not a purpose. Liberating the world of a great enemy by becoming the strongest warrior, now that’s a purpose

Just like how Sinek uses the golden circle to demonstrate that any communication that comes from the inside-out of the circle instead of the outside-in has much more reaching potential. When talking about gameplay layers, or wheels, it is the wheel’s influence over the others that goes from the inside out.

  • Why: This is the wheel of purpose. It is the purpose that makes us willing to come up with new plans and do repetitive and seemingly boring actions over and over. This is the center of the golden circle and if this layer spins all the wheels’ spin.

  • How: This is the wheel of strategy. The strategy is made in order to bring the purpose to a tangible state in which the player knows what actions needs to be done to succeed. This is the middle of the circle and if that wheel spins, the action wheel spins too.

  • What: The wheel of actions, this is the moment to moment gameplay. This is where the player spends is actual time. Even though this wheel can only spin if the other two are spinning, it is also the one that if it stops spinning, it is game over. If the player does not want to do actions anymore, there is no game. This is the outside wheel of the circle and if it spins the game is alive.

        In brief, the wheels of the golden circle are “spun” from the inside out. This means that coming up with new strategies can make the action wheel spin for a while, but it also means that no matter how great the moment to moment action of the game is, if the player does not ultimately find a purpose, all the wheels will stop spinning and the game will die.

Free will

        Even if I like how the golden circle could be used as a different way to review or communicate a game’s macro gameplay loop, for me its most valuable use is to help figure out how we can add more replay value into the game simply by making sure the wheels’ spin for as long as possible or as often as possible.

For example, if a game’s purpose is propelled by a good story. The wheel of purpose will spin, making all the other wheel spin for as long as the story last. This means that the game’s lifetime is ultimately based on the length of the story. Pretty easy calculation.

It is fair to say that any game concept that only provides a single choice, whether it is of purpose or of strategy, the wheel will spin once and the duration of the spin is entirely based on the duration of the content. But as soon as the game provides more than one meaningful choices, the wheels can be spun multiple times, the game duration becomes based on the number of meaningful choices as well as the duration of the content.

        Now I don’t think that saying things like “a game’s duration is influenced by the duration of its content” would help anyone. However, when we talk about making the wheel spin multiple times, now that is interesting. By injecting multiple meaningful choices inside one of the circle’s wheel, we allow it to spin multiple time. Using the golden circle, we can figure out where and how to inject free to make sure some parts of our game will be enjoyed multiple time without adding new content.


Free will in action

        This one is fairly easy, liberty of action is pretty much the definition of a video game. If you are making a game that features no liberty of action whatsoever, I’m sorry to break it to you but your game is in fact, a movie.

However, a game that only gives liberty of action and does not provide any meaningful purpose is likely to last only for the duration of its “novelty” factor.

A good example of that would be skilled based mobile games like Flappy Bird; the game will only last until the purpose of “trying something new” is over. The only remaining purpose would be to be better than other people but it is safe to assume that a good chunk of player will leave at that point.

A good way to improve flappy birds replay value would have been to add some more free will into the strategy wheel.


Free will in strategy

        This middle wheel is the most common area to inject player free will. Giving the player meaningful choices of strategy will help to make the action wheel spin twice for the same content.

A good example is how a game like the new Far Cry has a static story arc with a definite end, but the game lets the player choose between a multitude of ways to reach the story-driven goals. In this case, the purpose is pretty much always the same, but there are so many possible strategies that wanting to revisit the same content with a different approach is very plausible.

Features like having an array of different loadout before a mission, having different strategic approaches to an objective or even multiple dialogue choices with different outcome are all possible ways of making sure the wheel of strategy spins multiple times for the same general content.

Even though it might not be the goal of the experience, the remaining way to add more replay value into Far Cry would be to give the player some free will in purpose


Free will in purpose

        This is the center of the circle; this is where any control given to the player will have a great effect. It is the best way to make sure the player finds something interesting and go after it, considering that the world is interesting in itself which might not be the easiest task. Giving the player controls over the purpose also means that a new purpose will most likely replace the old one when it is complete, thus making all the other wheels’ spin again.

A game like World of Warcraft will have a definite amount of content but also have systems in place to allow the player to give himself a specific purpose. The game features multiple possibilities of purpose; leading a successful guild, getting all the achievements, reaching the top of the arena ladders, etc. The player can potentially reach the end of the content but even if the content is over, the player finds another purpose that suits his needs and makes all the other wheels spin again.    

On the opposite front, story-driven games take care of the “why” for you. The game gives you the purpose by exposing a situation that you, as a player, might want to partake in. For example, in Uncharted, the purpose is to live the great adventure of Nathan Drake, a professional treasure hunter. This is a game-given purpose because the player only has a binary control over the purpose, whether to play it or not.

Now this will be pretty obvious but in a story driven game, the game tends to end when the story ends. Even though the game is still playable when the story has been consumed, most player will consider the game “finished” when the story is over. This is because, in a story-driven game, the purpose, the driving force behind the game is the story. The game ends when the story ends.

While having no liberty of purpose has its advantages like allowing for a more controlled and narrative experience, it is also the least effective from a strict replay value standpoint.

  • Limited liberty of purpose: gives the developer control to make a great narrative experience, but limits the replay value to the amount of content.

  • Full Liberty of purpose: needs an interesting world, which might not be as easy as it sounds. Limits narrative control from the developer, but has almost an infinite replay value.


        For me, the best example of a game that reaches near infinite replay value by surrendering control over almost every layers of the golden circle to the player would be Minecraft. I know it is cliché but please bear with me.

Alone, the features of Minecraft, mining, and crafting that is, do not really sound appealing. Who would accept to dig around for hours without a purpose? But the magic of Minecraft is that players are willing to do tedious tasks for hours for the sake of their own self-given purpose.

Let’s consider a typical Minecraft experience instead. First, the player is confronted with the vast world. At this point, the player is already free to find his purpose, but let’s assume that the first self-given purpose is simply to survive the night. Secondly, the player also has control over the “how”. In order to survive the night, the player can build a dirt house, gather some materials for weapons, or simply bury himself in the ground for a while. Based on his own plan, the player will then start to actually use the two main features of the game, the big difference is that now mining and crafting that were tedious task earlier are now simply a mean to a greater end.

Anytime a purpose ends because it either has been completed or the player has become bored of it, the player can find another purpose for himself without the developer needing to add more content. Because the player has complete free will over the purpose and the strategy, he can decide when and what wheel to spin an almost infinite amount of time thus generating an immense replay value.


Players don’t care what they do, they care why they do it.


        In general, my observations pretty much stay in a more “macro” scope, but I’m confident that the golden circle can be used to inject a bit of player free will inside more micro gameplay loops like a combat system for example.

        I hope the idea of the golden circle as a game design tool is as relevant for you as it has been for me. Nothing in here is revolutionary but I believe that gaining a new perspective on our work is always welcome and can sometimes lead to a wonderful thing. Remember, if you want to improve the replay value of your game, you can always ask yourself this question: Is there a meaningful decision that my game makes that the player could make instead?


Thank you for reading. 




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