The Core Gameplay Loop: Mechanics (Part I)
Updated: Aug 22, 2019
I have my next few blog posts planned out, but I realized that before I jump right in, there are some vocabulary and concepts I need to introduce first. The most important of these is the core gameplay loop. This phrase is used to describe the most core set of repeatable player mechanics; in Super Mario Bros., this would be your "move + jump" combo. In Alien Cow Farm, it was "abduct cows, return them to your base". In some games, the loop is more "loopy" than others...ACF pretty much is, as you always abduct, then return, then abduct again, but more complicated games can have large pools of actions to take at any given time. If it helps, you can think of the concept more like that instead: the player's most immediate objectives.
It follows, therefore, that the secondary or larger objectives make up larger, less-tight loops around the first. Expanding the Mario example, the secondary loop would be to clear levels, and this is a true loop because after clearing one...you clear another one. If you can ask "how do I do that?", you're likely looking at a component of an outer loop, and the answer would be a component of an inner loop.
One more tidbit about the core gameplay loop: it should be the first thing you think about when thinking about the game, which makes it a very good thing to talk about when promoting the game. Why should people play your game? The answer should always be some variation of "because the core gameplay loop is fun". And just to hammer that point home, I once had a professor who asked the hypothetical, if the best part of your game is not part of the core loop, why aren't you making a game that centers on that instead?
So...why should people play Undersea Odyssey? My core gameplay loop is "avoid obstacles, collect treasure". But are these things truly fun? That's a big question, and maybe not one I (as the game's creator) am best suited to answer. Hell, I didn't even think Flappy Bird, which UO is based on, was fun, but a lot of people did. I believe that these games fall into a specific genre which has a unique appeal: whether or not the gameplay is traditional "fun", people enjoy it because they enjoy trying to A) best the computer ("I know if I just try again, I'll get past it this time"), and B) best their peers ("I know if I just try again, I'll be able to beat the leaderboard high score"). And now that player is addicted.
Another problem I face is the lack of a true secondary loop. There are no further levels to clear, no side quests, and even the stuff you unlock with all of the treasure you collect is 90% cosmetic. If I had to define one, I'd say it's "set high scores, unlock new submarine skins". So like I said, if that idea of constantly trying to beat your own or someone else's score isn't your idea of fun, maybe this game isn't for you. However, the concept of cosmetic upgrades has merit also, because A) there will always be completionists who are going to grind until they've unlocked every single thing available, and B) because they can make that grind much more pleasant. Allowing customization, especially with whimsical options, can greatly improve the fun factor of the base game. The different levels in UO are all exactly the same in terms of function, but include different color palettes for the background or skins for the obstacles (falling icicles vs. jumping crabs, for instance). The variety should keep players from getting bored for that much longer.
The last thing to mention is that the game should be fun because the controls make it fun. You can only get so much enjoyment from mashing buttons or moving joysticks on a traditional controller, but the touch and motion controls available to the mobile medium (which gave me so much trouble last week) are still a fairly unique way of interacting with the game.
So now that I've basically gone through another list of the major selling points of the game, tune in next time for a look at how I've coded the core gameplay loop.