May 15, 2020
Originally made for Ludum Dare 47, Loop is a satirical critique of achievement hunting and 100%-ing. Players are tasked with completing laps around a circular test track while a narrator promises them additional content for continuing to play.
Loop recieved 1st place in theme, and 3rd place in comedy, and has sold over 1,500 copies on Steam, with an 80% positive rating
What motivates players to continue playing?
Coming into Ludum Dare 47, I spent a lot of time reflecting on the strengths and weaknesses of my previous game jam submissions. Since I had often competed in these jams as an independent developer, it always felt like I was fighting an uphill battle trying to put more content into my games. I was afraid that with too few features players would get bored, and not finish the rest of the game. Yet, trying to fill my submissions to the brim with content often lead to bugs and unclear gameplay loops. This lead me to my core design question for Loop: what creates intrique in games? Or, in other words: why do players continue to play?
Initial design brainstorming
The Stanley Parable’s Room 430 Achievement
When brainstorming ideas and trying to find an answer to my design questions, I found myself frequently returning to The Stanley Parable.
Launched in 2013, The Stanley Parable works because of players desire to rebel and explore. Players are rewarded with interesting content based on their decision to follow or disobey orders.
But this gameplay loop is not unique to The Stanley Parable. In reality, it's the basis of many narrative focused games. Yet, what makes The Stanley Parable stand out is the type of interactions you get after making choices. A great example of this is the Door 430 Achievement, whose description on Steam reads: "Clicking on Door 430 five times".
Since The Stanley Parable takes place in an office, Players pass by hundreds of locked doors during their playthroughs of the game. Paired with the fact that Door 430 has nothing remarkable to make it stand out, it becomes clear that this achievement would almost never be earned accidentally. In other words, Door 430 is specifically designed for players attempting to 100% the game.
Therefore, when a player goes to click on Door 430, The Stanley Parable already knows their motivation. Players who go to Door 430 have self-selected themselves as achievement-hunters attempting to check off another achievement from their list.
The Stanley Parable uses this information to subvert expectations and surprise players. Instead of simply giving players the achievement, The Stanley parable launches them into a whole mini-adventure specifically designed for achievement hunters.
Not only is this interaction exciting in itself, but it leaves the player questioning their fundemental assumptions about the structure of the game. They are left wondering, which just further emphasizes the unknown nature of branching narrative games.
The Countdown Timer & Subversion of Expectations
Taking the lessons I learned from previous game jams, and from The Stanley Parable, I designed Loop specifically with achievement hunters and 100%-ers in mind.
Intrepreting the jam theme of “Stuck in a Loop” hyper-literarlly, I made Loop’s primary gameplay consist of walking around a circle.
While at first glance this gameplay loop (pun intended) may seem incredibly lacking, this lack of gameplay made players start wondering if there was more to Loop than meet the eye.
Every design choice in Loop is then made to further promote this curiosity. Every dialogue line and event is brimming with suggestions of additional content, but refuses to capitalize on any of it. In this sense, Loop uses the hidden-content conventions of modern games against players.
My favorite example of this is the timer I added towards the end of the project. After writing the core gameplay of Loop, I was afraid that players wouldn’t be motivated to continue beyond the first initial gags. As such, I added a timer that is spawned roughly three loops into the game. Accompanied by it's own spotlight, the timer appears on a portion of the inner loop wall without any acknowledgment of it by the narrator. It starts at a time of 60 minutes, and begins counting down from there.
This timer, while quite simple, left players wondering about what it was counting down towards. They understood that if the timer was added to the game, there must be a good reason behind it. It gave them a concrete goal to achieve in an otherwise objective-less game.
Yet, where Loop gained it’s notorious and polarizing reputation was how it capitalized on these promises. It didn’t. It intentionally teased at content that would never come, the joke is that there is no secret content. The promises for extra content is all the content the game contains.
Player’s responses to Loop were very polarized, and rightfully so. Those who felt like the game‘s achievements were too difficult to get, or didn’t enjoy the types of jokes often felt like playing was an utter waste of time. I personally equate this response with not knowing the genre of a movie before you see it. Loop is intentionally designed to test how much time players will waste for additional content, if you're unaware of this, the game feels incomplete.
Yet, despite the intentionality of this response, I do wish I had capitalized on some of the promises I made to players. One original variation of Loop actually
contained puzzles with absurd or unconventional solutions. Looking back on the project, I wish I could've incorporated a bit of this into the final version. The puzzles would’ve given players more interactivity while giving me more space to subvert expectations.