This is the second post in a series of posts that are intended to describe a bit more about UX design and how I personally work with UX design. Out of necessity 1 I’ll have to keep it generic, and the games I use as examples should not be seen as good or bad, they’re just illustrations.
Okay, so most of my job is all about figuring out intent and how that intent can be translated and highlighted into UIs and the experience around the game loop.
So what’s a game loop? If you’re a programmer, what I’m about to describe is not a game loop. There’s this unfortunate use of the same terms for two similar but not interchangeable concepts. If you’re a game designer, a game loop or core game loop describes the moment to moment gameplay and how the player experiences it. For me, though, the game loop and moment to moment gameplay is only the beginning. I have to take into account not only the moment to moment gameplay (which is important), but I also have to look at the game loop from a progression perspective. How is this loop going to feel when I’ve done the same thing 10 times, 100 times, 1000 times? Is it still fun? Or at least not annoying?
I’m going to break this down into pieces and describe how I would tackle at least the moment to moment game loop and how deceptively simple it might seem. Here’s the thing: it’s almost never as simple as you think it is.
Let’s take a look at loot pickups. By loot pickups I mean non-player characters, enemies, creatures or containers that drop items or resources that the player character can pick up. It’s a fairly straightforward mechanic, right? So what does a loot pickup loop look like in game?
Well, first of all, loot pickups may or may not exist. If the game is a first person shooter, the loot items or resources may be replaced with power ups and ammo. Then again, it may not. It all depends on the type of game that’s being made.
For the sake of not having to write down every iteration of the user experience around loot, let’s assume that the game is a multiplayer 3rd person game and that yes, the player characters can pick up loot. What follows, for me, is a number of questions that all impact both gameplay and user experience. It’s a multiplayer game, so is the loot instanced per player character, or is it shared among them? This of course is affected by if it’s a PvP2 or PvE3 game. In a PvP game instanced loot is less likely – you’re fighting other players after all.
If the game is PvE, instanced loot makes more sense unless there’s a point to sharing loot. If the loot is to be shared, how does the game ensure that the division of loot is fair? Do you roll a die for it? Is it first come first served? Is the loot restricted to certain players? Does the loot pickup cycle among the players? In short – what does the loot experience feel like and what is it supposed to feel like? If you as a designer want to encourage competition within the group, the loot might be one drop, first come first served. If you want to show players what’s available but still promote fairness and some covetousness, make the pickup a die roll. As a player, I can join or abstain from the roll. Doing that also creates a social context. A player abstaining from rolls a lot will seem generous and may gain social favour.
In other words, just the act of picking up loot is a user experience worth considering depending on the effect the game designer and UX designer wants the loot to have. Taking a step back, though, how does rolling for loot feel after the first 10 times? After a 100 times? After a 1000? The more cumbersome a mechanic is, the less likely it is that the mechanic will feel good as the player progresses. As an example, in Assassin’s Creed Odyssey, there’s a default message asking the player to use Ikaros when scouting a mission location. There’s nothing subtle about the message. It’s front and center. The first 10 times this message is shown, it’s useful, because the player is still learning the ropes. By the 20th time, it’s a nuisance and by the 50th you want to strangle someone. Fortunately, the message can be turned off in the settings of the game.
Now translate this to rolling for loot. The first time it’s probably exciting. The 100th time you just want it to be over. With that perspective in mind, make it optional, or assign loot randomly until there’s a loot item worth rolling for. If you do the latter, the players will know that the item picked up is a special one.
Another thing to keep in mind that’s really important is the pacing of the game. If loot pickups happen “on the fly” as the game is happening, loot pickups can’t disrupt gameplay. For instance, you’re in the middle of play, an enemy is almost killing you and all of a sudden you get a pop up on screen asking if you want to roll for a legendary piece of loot.
If the game works as many other games, at this point your control of the game is taken from you and diverted to the pop up. I’m hoping you’ll agree that this is probably not a good experience. It can also lead to negative social patterns with selfish players picking up loot while the others are busy killing a boss monster.
A sequence like that would however work in a game where the loot is distributed during calm moments of play.
In addition to the pacing and context of loot pickups, there are also a few other things to consider. One of them is inventory management. Just as in the “pick up on the fly” example, having a limited inventory in a game where the pacing is high is probably not a good idea. You don’t want the player to have to take time outs to clear the inventory with enemies breathing down their necks. Or if you do, you need to have a good reason for it, an experience that you’re trying to create.
On the other hand, having an inventory can create a feeling of accomplishment in the player when they open their inventory and view all the pickups. The most important thing is to keep the experience in line with the context, however that’s the next instalment in this series of texts.
I’ll cover a quick example of how the process looked when we created loot pickups in the game Mad Max. Mad Max is a single player game in an open world, but the world is desolate and resources are scarce. To reflect that, there are a number of systems in place. Food is scarce. Water is scarce. Both food and water regulate Max’s health, so it’s important that the player find these things in the world. However, it’ll get super boring having to raid a camp every time you as a player need water, so there are backup systems in place to deal with that, i.e. the fact that you can create both water and food projects in the different strongholds you encounter during the progression of the game. Since the projects still require the player to expend some effort, they don’t feel frivolous, but a part of the progression. Resources such as items are also scarce, and that’s the process I’ll dive into.
Our initial intent in Mad Max was to create a deep crafting system. We had the idea that anything Max came across in the wasteland would be possible to break down and reuse, basically turn everything into crafting resources. To reflect this in game, we created a unique inventory system, divided into Max’s jacket, pockets and consumables. In other words, every time Max came across a loot opportunity, there’d be a ton of things to loot and a specific inventory to put it in. Does this sound insane? Yes. Yes it does. These are a few of the wireframes created to illustrate the madness of the loot system. As you can see, we also discussed having traps to disarm on the bodies.
After prototyping this mess, I think most of us agreed that we had to simplify the loot loop, so we did and ended up with this.
The process to simplify this system was triggered by two realisations. First, picking up loot and crafting wasn’t as important as another system, which was customizing Max’s car. Second, crafting on the fly sounds good but it plays badly. By reducing complexity we improved the game. Sometimes I think there are quite a few games that could use some of that simplification. This process was not something that was limited to just me, or just a game designer. The whole team was invested and involved in the process to make things better and to improve the game.
A few closing words on the game loop subject.
- What’s the intent with the loop?
- How is it supposed to feel?
- Does the player understand what’s going on?
- Which additional systems tie into it and how?
- Can you bear doing it 10 times? 100 times? 1000 times? If not, simplify.