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Remember the last time you were totally engrossed in a game? You just couldn’t put it down—the challenges kept you coming back, you wanted to learn what happened next in the story, or you were excited to earn your bragging rights.

Kids playing an arcade game
Photo Credit: Sklathill via Compfight

The next time you’re up until 4am with your eyes glued to a screen, you can thank a game designer. But did you know that if you understand how to make a game catchy, you can get people interested in all sorts of things, from getting people to buy something to getting kids to do chores?

Read on to learn how game designers keep you playing and how you can apply these principles to keep people coming back for more.

What is a game designer?

A game designer creates memorable, catchy game experiences by developing a narrative and applying game mechanics to it. In other words, game designers make games fun to play.

You don’t need to have a college education to think like a game designer. In fact, if you plan on making a career of game design, college and university programs are more likely to admit you if you can demonstrate a basic understanding beyond “I love playing video games”.

But thinking like a game designer isn’t just for those who want to want to make games. Having a solid understanding in game mechanics can help anyone:

  • Teachers getting their students interested in a lesson
  • Salespeople hooking customers on a product
  • Parents motivating their kids to do chores

At its heart, game design is experience design: it’s finding a way to get players through a game (or a course, or a purchase) from start to finish because they want to.

Want to motivate others? Want to design a game? Accomplished game designer Chris Bennett is back with key concepts in thinking like he does when planning games. A long-time game designer and founder of the Stanford Game Design Thinking Research Group, Chris is passionate about improving people’s lives through play and understanding how to make games that draw players in. (Chris has collaborated on other helpful Big Fish Games articles about game design such as emotion design, changing bad habits, and gaming on smartwatches.)

Here’s a jumpstart on understanding game design with one of the most important principles to getting players hooked.

Core Loops: A Game Designer’s Best Friend

Getting people to do what you want them to do is simpler than you might think. In fact, it’s just a few steps repeated over and over again.

Great game designers get you hooked with a core loop. A core loop is a short series of steps that are done over and over by the player because they want to do them.

Core loops keep people (or players, or students, or customers) coming back for more in the most efficient way. It’s what keeps you binge-watching Netflix shows, checking your Facebook notifications, and buying the same brand of toilet paper.


How to keep players playing

Photo Credit: jsmjr via Compfight cc
Photo Credit: jsmjr via Compfight

The best core loops keep players engaged and always progressing forward with just enough challenge to keep them hungry. If you stop in the middle of the loop, you’re less likely to continue. They give quick feedback to the player so they can take action and move forward.

Rewards are presented quickly, too: take the right action and get a dopamine rush from a reward. They help counteract and move past frustration which, if not overcome in enough time, could stop the player from staying in the core loop and give up on a game.

Look to the news for examples of core loops that help and harm. Eighteen-time Olympic gold medalist Michael Phelps could have retired when we was at the top of the world by shattering swimming records. Instead, he has participated in over five Olympics and continues to challenge himself for more rewards while he struggles with other less-healthy addictions.


Four simple steps

So what are these steps that get people hooked? One popular core loop is so simple, it could make game designers of us all:

  1. Assess
  2. Choose
  3. Act
  4. Reward

That’s it. You’re a game design expert! Just kidding. Here’s where the challenge comes in: how do you use each of these steps to give just enough challenge and the right rewards to keep them entertained?

Game design challenge
Photo Credit: via Compfight cc


Assess is the most important step of them all. We don’t want to waste our time on something that isn’t achievable, so we collect information about the game before starting and at the start of every new challenge.

“Will this be fun?” “Can I beat it?” “Will this make me learn more about the story?” “What bragging rights will I have that I can overcome this challenge?” “Do I want to continue this challenge?”

These questions are asked and answered in split seconds as the player decides if she wants to continue so she doesn’t waste her time trying to complete and impossible challenge.


Should the player continue, the next step is to choose. People like having choices to feel in control of their own destiny. Give players a choice for how they want to proceed so they are invested in the next step.


Next the player will act on that choice. This keeps the story moving forward and the player at the center of it. Their critical role as actor will reinforce why they need to stay engaged.


Surprise and delight the player with rewards. Rewards are essential to keeping the player returning and staying in the core loop.

Two components combine here to make a bigger impact: brain chemicals and random rewards. Dopamine is released in the brain when a player receives a reward. (Think about how you feel when you get a good text from a friend.) Random rewards will surprise the player and keep them playing to get the next dopamine rush. (Think about how you feel when that good text was unexpected.)


An example of a core loop

Let’s use a real-life example to illustrate the concept of the core loop. Chris Bennett was a lead designer on the Diner Dash game series. In the game, the player (acting as the waitress at a busy diner) can queue up several tasks at once such as distributing menus and ringing up checks.

Diner Dash screenshot

Bennett used the core loop Assess, Choose, Act, and Reward to move the players through the levels. The players could assess what actions to queue up, choose the actions to queue, and act on the tasks. These first three steps ran in a loop a few times before the player was rewarded with a random gift.

The queue feature was especially critical to playability as the levels increased in difficulty—they gave the player an opportunity to “breathe” and choose what to queue before acting on them.

How to keep players in the loop

Now that we’ve learned about core loops, let’s consider how to keep that player in it so they can continue to the end of the game.

BJ Fogg’s Behavior Model

A player needs to be an active participant in a game to keep them playing. That is, they need to take action and not simply watch the world pass them by. Even continuous binge-watching Netflix requires some engagement, even if it’s just to click the button “Yes, I’m still watching” when it pops up.

So how do game designers keep players taking action? Here’s a simple equation that comes from Behavior Design expert Dr. BJ Fogg:

Motivation + Ability + Trigger = Action

BJ Fogg's Behavior Model graph
Image via BJ Fogg’s Behavior Model

The player must have the motivation to fight through challenges and keep playing. They must have the ability to overcome the challenges. And those players must have a trigger to guide them along and prompt them to take action. If any of these components are missing, the player will stop playing the game.


Positive messaging

Positive reinforcement is key to keeping players happy with their choices. Classic arcade games were known for their “game over” screen. This translated to “you lose” for the player, a discouraging message that might make them feel bad.

Game design rewards
Photo Credit: Shenghung Lin via Compfight

Over the years, game designers have learned that if you put a positive suggestion in place of “game over” such as “try again”, you’re more likely to keep them playing. This might be one reason why casual games tend to attract a wider audience: they focus on classic core loops that keep players returning with positive messages. This is essential to the games’ survival because casual games are defined by their simple rules and low commitment level—making them naturally easier to drop in favor of other games without positive reinforcement and a solid core loop.

Hardcore games are more complex: they’re designed for a specific type of player who creates an “identity” through high-commitment challenges. In other words, despite a higher likelihood for negative messaging, hardcore games can harder to drop because they’re part of how the player identifies herself publicly.


Find where players are giving up

Photo Credit: G A R N E T via Compfight
Photo Credit: G A R N E T via Compfight

In game design, finding where players are dropping out of the core loop and giving up is essential to a game’s success. Here are a few questions to ask that will help game designers target the problem area:

  • Are negative messages killing motivation? Reevaluate the text and signals at key places in the game that could benefit from a more encouraging tone.
  • Is there a challenge that is too difficult? This challenge is above the player’s ability and should be simplified just enough to provide a winnable challenge.
  • Is the reward not enough to keep them interested? The reward is a trigger that keeps players fighting through challenges. If the reward doesn’t match the effort they put in to get it, the player will eventually give up.

Use data analysis to target and diagnose the problem spot in a game’s design. Focus groups, questionnaires to past and current players, and online logs of game progress can reveal key areas that need a little work to become more interesting to the player.

Start thinking like a game designer

Now you, aspiring game designers (and salespeople and teachers and parents), have a few new tools in your toolbelt to help you create catchy experiences!

Think about your core loop: what are the few simple steps your player will take to keep playing?

Where might players be dropping out of the core loop? Use BJ Fogg’s Behavior Model to find where they’re falling through the cracks.

When you play games think about what the core loop might be. Consider if the rewards are sufficient enough for the challenges you overcome, and if the game has prepared to to overcome those challenges through tutorials and increasing difficulty.

Now is the time to make the leap from merely playing video games to learning their inner workings. This article has given you a few ideas to chew on as you analyze your own gaming experiences.

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