For Further Comment: Loops and Arcs

I would hope that none of you are surprised that I’m a geek about game design and related topics. I mean, you do read the blog, right? Many of the people I follow on Twitter are similar, so I pick up various articles about game design and the like in my feed. All of this preface is really to say that I don’t remember who originally posted the link to the article I’m going to discuss.

So, without further ado, Loops and Arcs.

This article prompted a bunch of ideas, but I’m going to keep it focused to just one. (You’re welcome.) But first, a summary.

In the article, a loop is a repeating sequence of learning in the game. To quote the article:

*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 and starts the loop all over again. Or kicks off a new loop.

So, as I proceed through a loop, I start with my understanding of the world, which leads to action, which leads to feedback on my action, which leads to learning on my part. Those of you who know your continuous quality improvement probably recognize PDSA (Plan, Do, Study, Act) here. This is a very common construct. And, as the article notes, the loop is a good model for the building of wisdom. I iterate over a series of experiences, improving my understanding each time. Or, at least, we hope so, right?

The article also defines an arc:

‘Arcs’ have similar elements to a loop, but are not built for repeated usage. The player still 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.

(Emphasis in original.)

I might quibble a bit on this–I do rewatch movies and reread books–but the basic point stands. After all, I don’t immediately reread a book once I’ve finished it. That particular reading has done all the work it’s going to do, and time will need to pass, allowing external factors to operate on my mental model, before I will be able to profitably re-engage.

So, loops and arcs. Who cares, right?

Well, the article goes on to discuss a couple of interesting implications of designing with loops and arcs, including a brief but fascinating excursus into evaluating religion through this lens. But what earned this article a blog post was the article’s discussion of how loops and arcs impact the economics of game design.

Hey, you! I see you edging out the back door! Hang on a sec. If you’re a creator of any kind, this applies to you.

See, from one perspective, economics is how we answer the question “How can I do what I’d like to do and still be able to eat?” For all that we laud the nobility of the starving artist, the fact still remains that the artist is starving.

So, how can you make games (or whatever) and be able to get paid enough to eat?

As the article notes, the classic boardgames are all loops. You don’t “finish” Chess or “beat” Go. Each instance of playing the game becomes part of the larger loop of ongoing mastery of the game. I’ll note that early videogames were also loops. Again, there’s no way to “beat” Asteroids or Space Invaders. Over time, though, computer games became more arc-focused. Consider most of the AAA games that are released. There’s a story line that you play through and, eventually, you beat the game–if you’re any good, at any rate.

Why is this? Why the change? One answer is economic. How did the makers of Asteroids make their money? The player paid 25 cents per game instance. Thus the loop makes sense. The player continues to return to the game to develop mastery and therefore continues to fund the game maker. This is why the leaderboard was such an important part of the design of these games. Those high scores represented milestones of mastery, providing aspirational goals to drive consumption. Your skill would be publicly acknowledged by the community of play that formed around a particular game cabinet.

With the advent of the home computer and game console, the economic model changes from paying per instance to paying for the entire game. Now, instead of having to pump quarters into a game cabinet, you could pay once for a game and play it as much as you wanted! Pretty awesome for the players, but how did the game makers make their money?

Thus, the rise of games that could be beaten. Games move away from being loops of mastery to being consumable arcs of content. This leads quickly into the place of the sequel in game design. If I’ve beaten Dragon Warrior and am now casting about for another game to consume, Dragon Warrior II seems like a safe bet. So now, the game makers have to be thinking about franchises and game series and staying out in front of the players enough so that new content can be released to feed the consumption habits of the audience.

The advent of the Internet provided another possible tool to solve the economic problem: the DLC. Rather than having to make an entirely new game, you just release little expansions of downloadable content (DLC) that provide additional content. Maybe a new character class or a special level or even a new mini-campaign that can work within the context of the current game. Handled correctly, this strategy of expansion could allow you to milk a given game release for a long time.

Now, where I get interested is how these economic forces act on the hobby game market, both in boardgames and roleplaying games. As I’ve been thinking about all of this, I’ve arrived at some interesting preliminary conclusions.

I think that boardgame makers are finding themselves in the place of selling loops while marketing them as arcs. Let me explain. The buying pattern of boardgamers seems to be driven by a lot of novelty. What’s the newest game? I must have it! There doesn’t seem to be a lot of exploration of the game space or the establishing of communities of play around specific games in the same way that there is around games like Poker, Bridge, Chess, or Go.

Yes, I’m aware that the hobby boardgame market isn’t as old as these games. But there are enough games that have a measure of age to them. For example, Tigris & Euphrates is generally considered to be one of Reiner Knizia’s greatest games, it is about 18 years old, and it certainly has a comparable depth to Bridge or Poker. But I do not see advanced level strategy discussions about T&E. Instead, it’s generally passed over as being an “older” game, pushed out by the flood of new games pouring into the market.

I think that this is the result of economics. The market for a game like Tigris & Euphrates is only so large. A company can’t sustain itself on sales of just that game. Eventually, it will need new revenue streams.

Another solution to this problem is the expansion, which is similar to the DLC approach in videogames. This approach has its own problems (e.g. your market is automatically smaller, because having the original game is a requirement), but it can be functional.

This all becomes particularly fascinating when coming to roleplaying games. A genre of game that is based on player creativity has additional complications when it comes to selling new product. How do I make money, if I’m selling you a toolkit for your imagination?

Again, the normal solution has been expansions in the form of new rules, pre-made adventures, and the like. But these approaches can sometimes reduce the approachability of a game, simply because there is too much material to take in. Are there other solutions?

Here’s one weird thought that has emerged in my thinking from reading this article. What if you designed a game that was intended to be a consumable? What if we embraced the arc-like nature of player engagement with these games and actually make some games that are intended for a one-shot use and then be done? System mastery wouldn’t be the point. Rather, it would be the creation of a particular experience in a particular moment. And when it’s done, then you’re done with the game.

I know that this could sound shocking and cynical, but isn’t that how we engage with most media? How many movies do you watch once and never view again? Why should games be different?

If you think about it, I just described those murder mystery dinner kits. If you consider the popularity of these dinners as opposed to the rest of the hobby…let’s just say there’s food for thought there.

Here’s a completely different approach: what if we approached game design as a fine art? What if we could decouple the economics from the game design? This would essentially require patronage, as those with money support not a product but a designer, freeing him or her to make games that are beautiful and well-crafted without also having to be economically viable.

So it’s not surprising that we see the growth of crowdfunding sites like Kickstarter and Patreon. In fact, Patreon requires a little more attention, as it has this creator focus versus the product focus of Kickstarter.

I’ll be honest. When I design games, I don’t usually think about the economic impact of my design. I’m approaching it all as an artiste…and it shows in my economic success as a designer. But I’m starting to think about possibilities for the future. And, now, hopefully, so are you.


6 responses to “For Further Comment: Loops and Arcs

  • Art versus Product | A Dark and Quiet Room

    […] since I wrote my post on the economics of games, I’ve been thinking about the issues I raised. (Yes, apparently my writing is so good that […]

  • gsanders

    Followed a link from story gamer here, thanks for an interesting article. Sorry for not looking up the designer, I’m on my phone, but Risk Legacy may be a good example of an arc game. It’s admittedly designed for a set number of repeat playthroughs, but the board changes over time and there’s components that are disposed of. It also has a sea based sequel coming out. Might be the shape of things to come.

    Side note, i have T&E and played a few games, but ended up liking the theme less as i gained more system mastery. I had at first thought that a more building oriented approach may be viable if not always optimal, but there does seem to be a more aggressive approach is highly encouraged by the systems. Which is fine and great for some people, but not the game i was as interested in.

  • JB

    Good food for thought…thanks, Seth!

  • Kyle Varneke

    Have you played Lady Blackbird or similar? Those games feel very much of the one-shot variety that you’re discussing, where the game almost BECOMES the story.

    • Seth Ben-Ezra

      Yes, I’ve played Lady Blackbird once. And you’re right, that does seem like it’s in the vicinity of a game as arc. Maybe that’s part of why it’s so popular on the convention circuit. Hmm.

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