Compulsion Loops in Social Games – Devil’s Advocate?

Before you jump the gun and assume I’ll answer the question above with ‘yes’ give it a rest; the answer’s not so simple.

Yes, like a lot of other lovers of AAA titles (big budget console and PC games) I initially saw compulsion loops and thought they were junior-rodeo mechanics, things that were meant to please the lemming-like masses. However, also no because I was completely wrong. Compulsion loops as social game mechanics are stripped down versions of any mechanics you can find in any AAA title.

As someone who hasn’t professionally worked with compulsion loops, at least in terms of social games, there’s obviously a large and well watered seed of doubt in my mind about them. There is no doubt however in their importance and that’s something everyone can agree on. What I’m not sure about is what piece of their design is the most important. In any mechanic there’s a piece of it that shines on the outside and one that shines on the inside. With jumping mechanics it’s the animation and the height of the jump on the outside while the rise and fall time shine on the inside. Ask any designer about Mario and at some point they’ll talk about the fall time of Mario’s jump – same with Megaman.

There’s two pieces of compulsion loops that I’m aware of – making the repetitive nature of the mechanic enjoyable and making the lack of it a living hell for the player.

(From here on I’ll make references to ‘crops’ as content, referring to the Farmville series)

The first part is a lot of surface-level enjoyment – flashy visuals and a great *ping* noise when you click on your crop. This is pretty damn important but it’s importance falls into the hands of the artists of the project and not quite into the hands of the designers. The trick for designers is making sure that you’re clicking for a reason and that comes down to theme and the general purpose of the game. In this sense can the first part of a compulsion loop not just be derived from the rest of the game that’s already been designed? Is this piece of the most integral mechanic to social games not just an obvious deduction and no longer a piece of design in it’s own right?

Right now you’re thinking like every AAA designer in the world who hasn’t yet looked at the other side of the coin – making people upset when they’re not clicking.

The idea is simple and well-known – make people hate to not be playing your game. If they’re not clicking crops they’re wasting their time on something less-important than your game. However making this actually happen is the real piece of design in compulsion loops, and something I haven’t quite figured out yet. Not understanding mechanics and knowing they’re around is what keeps people interested in them – at least it does that for me. Last question: does that also apply to the mechanics themselves? If people see a seemingly never-ending mechanic in front of them and don’t understand where the next step in the process is, would they keep on trucking and feel like a waste if they’re not still trucking?

Well that’s something I have yet to completely figure out, I’m sure I’ll write it here once I do.

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3 thoughts on “Compulsion Loops in Social Games – Devil’s Advocate?

  1. Christian says:

    I think what you’re describing here falls more into the category of a positive feedback loop, and monetization gating in social games. E.g. rewarding the player with big shiny stars for performing a basic action, and then forcing them to either wait or pay to keep getting big shiny things. When talking about compulsion loops it pertains to the design structure of your core gameplay systems, and how you can use it to reinforce a repetitive behavior in the users mind. In Farmville (I haven’t played it very much) I think the compulsion loop would go as following: Plant your crop, Harvest your crop, Receive rewards for performing the last two actions, unlock new crops/level up, and repeat. Now within this loop we have several underlying to systems to re-enforce it, such as the positive feedback loop, and monetization gate. I believe that the compulsion loop at its core is creating an addictive gameplay system that can easily be understood, and repeated.

    Just my two bits 🙂

    Nice write-up!

    • Kramer Solinsky says:

      Good call on that. I was under the assumption that compulsion loops applied to singular actions and not a series of them. Regardless of how many actions are in a loop the same factor still applies though that it needs to leave the player with a longing to complete that loop again while away from the game.

      Not saying at all that I know what that might be, just that it exists and that it’s a more interesting design component than a lot of people give it credit for.

      Thanks for the two bits! 🙂

  2. Zeb Reynolds says:

    Kramer! 😀 How’s it going man?
    Love the post — I agree that compulsion loops aren’t just found in social/casual games. They’re re-skinned, simplified and magnified because that’s proven to be the most effective way to hook the casual audience… but a satisfying loop is a satisfying loop — whether it’s planting and harvesting crops, or reloading and firing an M16 😀

    I think what you’re talking about here largely comes down to effective UX… the SFX, animations, and yes timing, feedback, interface design, etc. But that’s much easier said than done. So many little brainhacks to consider — dat evolutionary psychology 😉

    Fwiw, I recently wrote a post on this too! Check it out:

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