As game designs evolved over the last 20 years, so has the length of time to play them. Titles like The Witcher 3 have easily a hundred hours of content, and games like Factorio and Dwarf Fortress could be played for many times that. Developers have chased this idea of creating a game that has “limitless replayability” and live service titles are built to do just that. Many designers, especially in the AAA space, look at an experience as dozens of hours, but I want to talk about how the best games give players something far smaller than that.
The Long and Short of it
A long time ago I wrote a piece about the macro and microelements of AAA games. Micro being what the player is doing over the course of minutes, and the macro are the major goals or objectives. For a lot of titles that go for open-world gameplay, microelements are kept very basic, or only involve going from one macro event to the next.
The same can be said of RPGs that are designed for hours of questing and storylines, with the travel and combat secondary to those major points. For these games, the focus on the player is in keeping them invested with long-term goals and not with short-term progress.
While this approach can work for the fans who already invested in the game, these titles tend to not be motivating for new players who can be put off by the amount of time needed to play them. It’s a common thought for developers that the more there is to a game it becomes automatically better. However, in today’s market with dozens of games released daily, consumers don’t have the time to “find the fun” of a title.
This is why for me, the games I gravitate towards aren’t interested in giving me a hundred-hour playthrough but providing me with the means of playing the game for a hundred hours, and that requires having a different viewpoint on your core gameplay loop.
The Core Gameplay Loop
The core gameplay loop is the primary system or set of mechanics that someone is going to spend doing in your game. Whether that’s base building, fighting, growing crops, whatever, this is the moment-to-moment gameplay that makes up the microlayer of a title.
For me, this is why I tend to gravitate towards indie games these days compared to AAA, as they tend to focus on the core gameplay loop because they don’t have the budget to go all out with production values and game space.
The important aspect of the CGL is that it’s not something that should ever be measured in hoursâ€Š—â€Šsomeone should know what your game is like within minutes of playing it. If a game’s CGL is hooking me within minutes of playing it, chances are I’m going to stick around for the long haul.
When the CGL of a game is strong, it creates these “sprints” of gameplay that become enjoyable to repeat again and again. No one goes into a game expecting to play it for hundreds of hours, but if they’re enjoying the game, that time begins to add up.
One of the best examples of this is competitive titles. A match in a game like Mortal Kombat, Counterstrike, and even lengthier ones like LOL, aren’t meant to be played for 10+ hours. Instead, a match is built on a usually short timeframe that gets repeated with each new play.
If you can understand what your CGL is and compartmentalize that gameplay into something that is engaging each time you play it, you’re going to have a better game for it. With that said, everyone should know what example we’re going to talk about next.
Besides competitive games, roguelikes are another strong example of games that have done well with compartmentalizing their CGL while still providing long-term value. The best roguelikes deliver minutes of entertainment that can then be repeated with variance and new challenges again and again. The beauty of roguelike design is that developers can focus on supplemental content: content that adds variance instead of length to keep expanding a game. There is no roguelike ever designed that takes hours to reveal its CGL to the player, and the genre is all the more better for it.
The focus of a single run in a roguelike give them a great pick-up-and-play feel to them; something that a lot of games tend to struggle with. If I start up Slay the Spire, Spelunky, Binding of Isaac, and etc, I have a reasonably good idea of how long that individual run is going to take. Going back to the main point of this post, there are people who have hundreds, if not thousands, of hours in games like the Binding of Isaac; played in 30–60 minute chunks.
With that said, having the only advice for this piece be “make a roguelike” doesn’t help anyone. It’s now time to talk about how you can approach designing a game that can keep people invested.
A Slice of Gameplay
Whether your game is 2 or 200 hours long, it’s important to think about what the player is doing on a moment-by-moment basis. This is how you begin to compartmentalize your design and nail down what the CGL of your game is going to be.
For games built on tasks or objectives, you can turn these into mini segments of gameplay that focus the player’s attention. Open world design specializes in this kind of gameplay: giving the player a huge game space and multiple points of interest and sections to achieve.
We can also point to any game that makes use of stages to define progress: giving the player an easy to understand segment of gameplay. The 3D Mario games despite moving away from sections in Galaxy, still make use of individualized sections to denote progress.
In Super Mario Odyssey, progress is defined by the power moons, and they can be found either throughout the worlds or after specific challenges. A player can chart their progress by the number of power moons they’ve found, or by unlocking the next world in the game.
In order for the player to see the CGL in action, they need to be able to understand what’s happening.
How to Measure Progress
To compartmentalize a playthrough, the player needs to be able to see four things:
- What is the immediate goal?
- What tasks need to be achieved?
- How long will this take?
- What kind of permanent progress has been achieved?
The player should at all times be able to understand these points. This is often the misleading point in open world or sandbox-focused games that toss the player in and say “just start exploring.” Without a point of reference and a goal to focus on, a new player is not going to be motivated to wander around confused.
One of the best examples of these points is the start of every MMOG. The player begins with a simple goal, the task can be done quickly, and the player gets experience points and unlocks the next quest chain. This is also what separated the best and worse examples of leveling curves in MMOG and RPG titles: it doesn’t matter how great the endgame is if people lose interest hours before they reach it.
As we talked about, games that tend to hold the player’s attention focus on the microlayer or gameplay loop as opposed to the macro. The player should have a rough idea of how long a task is going to take, and more importantly, be able to know if they can finish it in a single session.
Finally, there must be something permanently gained for their troubles. This is often why for many MMO-styled games that quest lists and achievement challenges are so enthralling. Being able to see a list fill up with progress done, or go from 0% to 100% completion is a strong motivator. The player should never be at risk of losing progress and be forced to repeat the same exact content again.
When done properly, you can create a CGL that works both in the short and long term experience. Ultimately as a developer, you should be focusing on the short-term play first; without it, players aren’t going to be invested enough to keep playing.
While I may be an extreme example, I’ve said that a game has between 15–30 minutes to convince me that I should keep playing. If people aren’t even giving your game that amount of time, then you need to look at the onboarding and general play.
To end on: Can you think of games that featured an engaging CGL that kept you playing for hours on end?
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