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Incomplete thoughts on Loops and Arcs

The 'game' aspect of this beast we call a computer game always involves 'loops'. The player starts with a mental model that prompts them to, apply an action to the game system and in return receives feedback that updates their mental model. These loops are fractal and occur at multiple levels and frequencies throughout a game. They are almost always exercised multiple times, either within a game or by playing the game multiple times. This yields complex feedback loops and unexpected dynamics.

Those elements that forms 'arcs' have similar elements, but are not built for repeated usage. The player starts with a mental model, they apply an action to a system and receive feedback. This arc of interaction could be reading a book or watching a movie. However, the mental model that is updated rarely results in the player returning to the same interaction. The movie is watched. The book consumed. An arc is a broken loop you exit immediately.

(A minority turn arcs into loops. In the case of the Bible, we call this religion and it is one of the grander games that humankind has ever played. In other cases of 'deep reading of texts' we call the invented game 'criticism'.)

Instances of arcs are almost never critical game elements. You can remove them and still have a playable game.
- Puzzles
- Missions
- Narrative sequences that are not specifically a type of feedback within a loop.

To take this one step further, the elements of a computer game that you can 'beat' so that it renders the game boring or meaningless upon repeated play are the least game-like elements.

Evergreen games tend to have a predominance of loops and far less emphasis on arcs. Sports, Politics, Economics and other long running social games also tend to emphasize loops.

To critique modern computer games: Too many arcs. Not enough focus on great repeatable loops.
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Interesting. This helps explain why I like Braid & Limbo: the puzzles are repetitions on a theme, where each one builds on what you've learned previously but adds a twist or two. They are still puzzles, but the mental model gets updated after each one.

I think it also explains why I lost a month to transport tycoon a little while back: that game has a very deep stack of loops.
 
Let's play, "Is this game mostly Loops or Arcs?"
Super Mario Brothers
Contra
Quake (Single Player)
TF2 (Multiplayer)
Baldur's Gate
Bejeweled
Civilization I
Civilization V
Myst
Farmville
Angry Birds
Steambirds
Halo 8
 
What if you apply "goals" or missions to an evergreen game, like in Tripletown? Does that make them arcs? Or does that just provide motivation to complete these "loops" in certain ways?

Also, if there is a level, that somebody beats (which you'd define as an arc), but the player has motivation to play it a different way, or master it in a different manner (focusing on speed, exploration, etc.) does that make it a loop? Or just an arc?

Does the loop or arc distinction depend on the player's "boredom" and lack of desire to return to that activity? Or is it a matter of how much variation is involved in the repeating of that activity. Evergreen games like Bejeweled sometimes increase difficulty and call them different "levels", when in fact the core gameplay is the same. While a physics-based puzzle game or action-game might also keep the same core mechanics, but increase the speed or complexity of the obstacles/challenges involved. How do you distinguish the two when it comes to "arcs" or "loops"?
 
This explains why I love nethack so much :)
 
Interesting read. Just for clarification: So loops add to the replay value of games, while arcs don't? And evergreens are games with high replay value?
 
As with so much that is purported to be about games, what you're discussing here cuts much more widely. You're talking not just about games, but about behaviour - which can be rendered functionally as a series of loops, or as discrete problems/experiences (your 'arcs'). Loops have the benefit of resulting in skills, which are inherently satisfying to acquire; arcs have the benefit (or potential) for more immediate reward. Arcs can also form loops, but at a much wider 'scale'.

Some minor criticisms...
- Other representative art forms like books and films are also capable of offering loops - you hint at this in your quip about 'criticism'. This is more significant than you perhaps want to admit. If films and books were not capable of supporting loops, people would not watch/read them multiple times - but of course, those that are worth "looping" are significantly better crafted than those which are more suited to being "arced"!
- Religion was always already loops, not arcs, since its concern has been metaphysics and ethics, both of which are loop-like not arc-like. The Bible (or the Koran, or the Bhagavad Gita or...) is only a vessel for transmitting the elements of those loops; don't confuse the messenger for the message. ;)

"To take this one step further, the elements of a computer game that you can 'beat' so that it renders the game boring or meaningless upon repeated play are the least game-like elements."

This can only possibly be true if you constrain your meaning of "game" to a particularly subset of play activities i.e. if you express a particular game aesthetic with normative force. Adventure game fans, who enjoy games constructed primarily out of your "arcs", are unlikely to accept your conclusion that these games are not "game-like".

"To critique modern computer games: Too many arcs. Not enough focus on great repeatable loops."

If I were to constrain my focus to just my own taste in games, I would wholeheartedly agree with you. But I don't think our predilection for this form of play goes beyond an aesthetic preference. I have always strived to produce games with "great repeatable loops" - but have often been in tension with people who (presumably) have an "arc-oriented" aesthetic. Ghost Master shows this strongly: I only ever wanted the haunting mechanics to work as a dynamic play-space (which it does), but Gregg, the game director, wanted discrete puzzles (hence the embedded puzzles). On the basis of feedback from players who love the game, the confluence of the two elements was appreciated - the puzzles focus play initially, but the systems are there for engaging repeat play. (Incidentally, I still think Ghost Master is the best game I've designed, and perhaps ever will... the "loop" aspect of this design is so much more expressive than anything else I'm likely to get a chance to help build).

I like your model here, but I think you're slamming arcs primarily because you don't like them and perhaps neglecting to recognise the popularity of the arc experience.

All the best!
 
From my point of view arcs are not bad: arcs are problems i can solve; i'm a nerd/geek, so i like to order, i love to solve problems and call them closed. Probably because of this, i love story driven games where you can start and stop a complete experience that makes you gain something; and probably it is why i don't love casual games.
So, while i think your way of classifying games is worth a discussion, I wouldn't claim so quickly that "loops are great, down with the arcs". But probably we'r not understanding each other's model, because in my FSM-like vision, a bunch of states and some arcs are the only way to implement a loop. Probably what you want to say is that a book/story/movie/game is interesting whenever its topology is interesting.
 
I personally prefer arcs to loops simply because arcs feel so much less like behavioural hacking. Feedback loop dynamics are the core of things like FarmVille etc. I prefer the single-use model of resolution-reward that comes from resolving a single quest etc.

edit: I realise that that viewpoint is very much the product of a designer viewpoint, and from a regular gamer's perspective most loop-based games probably feel a lot less exploitative.
 
I'll comment this off the top of my head:

· Some people like arcs for the feel of accomplishment they give. I don't think they can be removed so happily.

· Also, loops at some levels can feel boring or extenuating. I love Transport Tycoon or Minecraft but every time I stop playing those games the cause is either boredom or extenuation. Isn't the most outer layer of Triple Town an arc, which let's me finish the game? (which I find brilliant). Or maybe am I misinterpreting what you mean?

· What's perceived by someone as a loop may be perceived by others as an arc. The opposite is also true. If it's only a minority, that's something I can't realistically tell :)

· Loops are by far more convenient for developers than arcs
 
+Raimon Zamora I agree with you that the appeal of arcs is often based on the sense of accomplishment. These then build into reward structures that can be either loops (RPGs) or arcs (Achievements). But the latter, with its sense of an end point, has an appeal that a loop can't necessarily attain.

I'm not sure if loops are more convenient for developers, though - it depends on the specific instance. Some static content is quicker and easier to develop that a robust loop. Swings and roundabouts...
 
+Chris Bateman Your comment about films being designed to be re-watched reminded me of a chapter from the book Everything Bad is Good for You about how with the rise of syndication, VCRs and DVDs, TV shows are intentionally designed for multiple viewings. One of his examples was the Sienfeld "backwards" episode where all the jokes are told in reverse. The episode tends to be funnier on repeat viewings.
 
I think I feel more entrapped by arcs than loops. Knowing the length of a TV series or long RPG I shy away, knowing it will take too much time to resolve. Small loops like Zuma Blitz are more appealing, because I feel I can leave at any point. But I don't - I end up playing much longer than that RPG - but I felt in control. I think where people fall on this spectrum is relative to how important "achievement" related feelings are.

When I usually think of arcs, the "arc" is the dramatic arc, which I think is important for all types of games. It more represents tension in the game system building to a climax where you are going to lose or win. These are also are fractal.
 
Great point Tim. Knowing that I can resolve the loop at any time and walk away with accomplishment(s) versus not knowing if I'll be "paid for my time" so to speak when I sit down in front of an RPG or similar game is definitely a motivating factor for people when choosing what to play I think, especially with the casual audience.
 
+Tim Fowers It is possible to give arcs a bit more staying power by stringing them together in a serial fashion. This is a pretty proven technique and is at the base of the majority of commercial attempts to give content arcs longer retention.

+Mark Ivey Layering information that is only understandable on later views is another method of encouraging repeat viewing. Another common technique is the use of ambiguity so that not all elements of the arc are immediately resolved. Modern art (if you can manage to separate it from the art-industrial complex) involves this method pushed to an extreme. Again, these are well studied techniques with stacks of books describing their workings in painful detail.

+Chris Bateman I think I'm personally less interested in arcs because they are so well studied and so incredibly prevalent. It is hard not to recognize the their popularity, but honestly they bore me. As a game designer, there's nothing particularly game-like about arc other than the thin overlap when you stick them in the middle of game loops. Arcs are a default design choice in modern, risk averse computer game development. Play any console game and the arcs are always in your face. They eliminate dynamics, reduce risk, and discourage player ownership...for many forms of media, all these things are fine. However, I want those attributes in my games.

The loops in the console (and social games) market are generally recycled and contain little innovation or thought and the variation is expected to come from content arcs. Is there an audience for such products? Absolutely. We've spent billions in marketing assuring that there will be and we've built our entire business around the key idea of consumable content. Consider 'gamers' the audience that made it through that specific funnel.

Loops, interestingly, are the default choice in all other classes of games, be it sports, card games, playground games or board games. However, due to the odd focus by computer gamer industry, loops are in general far less studied, discussed publicly or given all that much time and resources during development. We don't have a lot of theory. Nor do we understand how to invent interesting variations without a lot of blind experimentation. It is good to give them a little love and thought.
 
Forgive me if this is all obvious or obviously wrong.

The feedback that we can receive can be composed variously of emotional content and "factual" content. If you press a button and see Mario jump, there's no emotional content intrinsic to the feedback you have received. You impose your own valuation of the jump after you notice that it is getting you into (or out of) a tight spot*. If you get to the flagpole and see the fireworks, there is some emotional content. If you grab a star, you get a visual effect that factually informs you that your state has changed, but you also get a rockin' sound effect that has some emotional content.

*But how did you know to evaluate that tight spot as a bad thing that you wanted to avoid or get out of?

Imagine chess. If you are playing normally, you like it when you win and you dislike losing. There are states (checkmates or stalemates) that are rather trivially associated with a sentiment (like or dislike), and this association is more or less built into the game. As you learn how the pieces move, and what kinds of positions lead to what other kinds of positions, the sentiments associated with ending positions percolate back into earlier states of the game that might lead to (or remind you of) them. It doesn't take long to realize that losing your queen stinks- but that is a sentiment that you impose on the game; it is not built into the game.

Now, this process of attaching sentiments to chess positions (or events) is not merely a mechanical process of exploring the graph of possible games; if it were, we'd all play like computers, and we don't. The process of attaching sentiments involves the use of heuristics- some learned from others, some derived on an individual basis- that help you roughly determine how closely associated a particular circumstance or event should be with a win, loss, or tie.

If your heuristics are really good, they are effectively equivalent to traversing the graph of possible games, and the game (or opponents) can't surprise you in interesting ways. You've "beaten" the game, in a sense.

There are a couple interesting things about chess. One is that no one has good enough heuristics that they can claim to have "beaten" chess. The other is that the emotional feedback you get is reserved for the very end of the game. The rest of the feedback you get is factual, and the sentiments you feel in the middle of the game are your own appraisals.

Most of the games we make have emotional feedback at intermediate points throughout the game. I think +Will Robinson 's issue is not necessarily with loops themselves, but with certain uses/methods of intermediate emotional feedback.

There is a difference between wanting and liking. Addicts (among other things) want without necessarily liking. Is it the case that liking a game experience is associated with sentiments arrived at through a subjective appraisal via heuristics, whereas wanting to play a game is more associated with sentiments induced by emotional feedback? Those ideas may be amenable to empirical investigation.
 
+Mark Ivey Author Michael Moorcock once suggested that it's a sign of a great novel that you don't read it front to back in a linear sequence, but flip backwards periodically to reread some of the earlier content (or, if you're re-reading, that you flip about internally within the narrative). This suggests another loop-like way of dealing with arc-like material. I have a feeling there are some novels - Joyce's Ulysses, for instance - that might only be tackled in this way.
 
I was pointed to this by a tutor who did a little digging around for me and my group as we are looking at loops specifically and how to measure and manipulate their effects, in the contexts of "repetition" rather than loops. One thing I found interesting when reading this, is that given the name repetition it sounds more harmful to a game than calling it a loop, or series of loops. Simply reading this, it makes everything we've looked into sound more systematically sound and structured, there is a very broad set of emotion behind the idea of repetition, but called loops it sounds almost much more preferable. I may have to get back to you if we find anything of reasonable interest and see what you think about it.

I know exactly what you mean when saying that loops are not studied into all as well as they should be, be it story arcs or just a linear game where you're stuck playing practically on a rail (or simply interactive movies as I prefer to call them.) When looking for some support material in our research, we managed to get a few short blogs and 3 books with brief discussion into the topic scattered about out of an entire library, so my plan is to help fix that issue by at least trying to make more people see the importance. Maybe eventually the resources and study will be given more thought soon enough, it just needs a push.
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