Nov 26 2022

7 min read

Let's talk about the game loop

The term "game loop" has at least two different meanings. Though similar, distinct differences make it worth isolating specifics. For a programmer, the "game loop" would be refering to the central orchestration logic. While for a gamer, the term instead refers to a limited set of tasks and feedback cycles.

From a player's perspective

We'll be focusing on the latter "game loop" concept as understood by gamers. It is arguably the more important one since it really has more to do with the "game design". Boiling it down to a set of repetitive actions a designer forces upon a player may seem to remove some of the magic... However! It is this mundane realization that opens up the magical gateways of fun. Frequently taking a step back to look at the bland activities to see if they are fun or worthwhile is at the heart of iterative design. Ultimately the goal of this sort of examination aims to ensure future SteelPinion players get a sense of accomplishment or other positive feels.

Why does it matter?

Being a 90s kid, my childhood was filled with "fatalities", "finish hims", rings, coins, and all manor of crunchy jingly 16 bit sound effects. Somewhere in there I got it in my head that games were merely a way to beat someone else up without getting into trouble. At some point, I thought their utility was limited to blowing off violent steam.

The German Gamer

I then met someone (~20 years later) whom I've dubbed "The German Gamer". I didn't know all that much about this guy really. How much can you know about the people you randomly meet via RNG match making? Regardless of this fact, we were both playing Pulsar: Lost Colony for about 4 hours together. In Pulsar, you get to live out your fantasy of running an interstellar star ship. Star Trek fans get, what I think, is the best replication of the Star Trek ship management experience as seen on T.V.

The thing about the German gamer was he was severely disabled. He told me so himself as we were surveying a planet via simple first person WASD + Mouse controls. For him, it was extremely difficult to both jump and move forward simultaneously (to press-n-hold both spacebar +W keys).

Overcoming obstacles builds confidence?

With agitation he asked me to come over to his position planetside (I was on the ship stashing loot). He had wanted me to jump across this small gap in the ground and nab the precious loot on the otherside which was visible, yet just out of reach without the regular forward jump maneuver. I made the long trek to his location, but before I arrived he shouted so loudly $&#^%%!! (in Deutsch).

He was audibly over the moon excited. "I did it! I really did it!" he said. At the time this puzzled me, then he promptly explained his condition. We had a really great multiplayer session, and I was immediately more grateful of my fully functioning faculties; still I haven't forgotten the interaction with this guy.

Lessons from a GOOD game loop

Though the devs of Pulsar may have never intended such a trivial obstacle to be a challenge and powerful moment, it became a powerful experience for us players. Intentionally or not, game devs reach out beyond their code and touch the lives of the gamers on the other side. I think happy accidents can happen and wonderful experiences that shape healthy attitudes can occur randomly.

However, I also think it is much more likely that these wonderful experiences coincide with excellent gameplay. Too many compromises in the gaming industry at large often produce the opposite emotional experiences. Many times would-be-good-games are seemingly ruined as they try to reach into your wallet instead of your soul; Using regret or "you-missed-out" to force an impulse buy.

The dream is...

To make a game loop that is really fun, challenging, and flexible. That is the dream. We will make a game that has some favored aspects of several tactics games, yet with modern features of software platforms. This wouldn't make everyone happy, nor is that the goal. Only a niche set of turn based strategy people may really love this game. First-person-shooter fanatics would likely completely ignore this game, and that would be totally cool.

All men dream: but not equally. Those who dream by night in the dusty recesses of their minds wake in the day to find that it was vanity: but the dreamers of the day are dangerous men, for they may act their dreams with open eyes, to make it possible.

~T.E. Lawrence

If it ain't broke, dont' fix it

Lets face the fact that inputs into a tactical game loop shouldn't be changed that much. Overhead strategy games through time have discovered many quality-of-life enhancements to user interfaces and controls. Delivering clear, fair, and useful intelligence on enemy units is perhaps my favorite quality. Yet there are others like managing unit's many abilities, and the subtle camera controls which can easily make or break polish vs grime.

Where to innovate

So then the primary objective of figuring out what tasks to design gets simpler. We no longer have to worry about "how" a player will do things, because the user interface is mostly made for us by historic progress. This allows us to focus on innovating the pure battle tactics and unit customization within SteelPinion. It is these activity cycles (customization, battle) that we'll be isolating and honed into. For other facets of the genre, we will do our best to stay away from them (for now) in the interest of perfecting the aforementioned.

Next month, we'll look over the game loops of other great tactical games. My all time favorites; XCOM 2, Divinity Original Sin 2, Triangle Strategy, Invisible Inc, Fire Emblem Three Houses, Final Fantasy Tactics, Advanced Wars 2.

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