Tuesday, August 13, 2019

Loops, Journeys, and Single-Player Gaming

So, I've been thinking lately about "loops" in gaming. Not in terms of the "core loop" of a game, but in another sense. I've been looking at my gameplay habits, thinking about what it means to "complete" a game, thinking about my large backlog of games that I own but haven't finished, and thinking about where the bulk of my playtime goes. I pour a lot of hours into multiplayer games. A lot of hours. Hundreds of hours. It's got me thinking about how I spend my time, and about what I get out of that time. So, I've been thinking lately about "loops" in gaming.

Getting in the Loop

Loops are about what it means to "play through the game". You start things out, you go through ups and downs, and eventually you wrap things up. In a fantasy roleplaying game, the "loop" starts when you create a new character, keeps going as you level your character up, facing enemies and challenges, and ends when you defeat the final boss and get an ending to the game. In a puzzle game, the "loop" starts when you first open the game, and it ends when you finish the final puzzle before the ending. At this point, you have the opportunity to replay the game, because you've closed the loop. It's a clean narrative arc.

In a multiplayer game, a single "loop" is pretty short. In fact, a single match of a multiplayer game is a complete experience, so I'm counting it as a loop. In a single match, you have a starting point, some sort of buildup, one or more pivotal, dramatic moments and reversals of fortune, and a conclusion. They might look different for different games, but it's all there, the basic elements of a story. These loops take mere minutes, with an occasional game offering loops that approach or exceed a single hour in duration. In a game of Overwatch, a single loop can take 5 minutes! These loops are so short that you frequently feel like you want to immediately re-enter another loop, and some games helpfully facilitate this, e.g., how Overwatch helpfully automatically queues you into a follow-up game shortly after your current game concludes.

Here's the thing about short loops: when you play a lot of loops in a row, they start to blur together. Instead of remembering each one in careful detail, most people will extract highlights of each loop, and then fill in the rest. Because you've played the loop so many times, you have a feeling for how the game usually goes, sometimes down to the exact timings! It's a structure that you build around, because the better you understand the structure, the clearer the game is. In competition, it's an advantage to be able to chunk processes of the game, so that you aren't directly processing all of the data being thrown at you. So you blur the loops together, although sometimes you talk about those highlights later--but the more you play, the harder it is to remember just when those highlights happened. Try it sometime: spin up your favorite multiplayer game, get into it, play a bunch of rounds, and then write down the highlights you remember. How specific can you get? If there's a replay system, you can even try to see how right you got it.

Making the Journey

Things are different in many single-player games. A loop might be 5 hours, 12 hours, or even a whopping 51 hours for a basic playthrough of The Witcher 3, but all of these times are still usually long enough that you have to take more than one session of play to finish them. ...usually. Look, I'm going to count those 8-hour marathon sessions as ill-advised anomalies. And, while devotees of a long game might play it through three, four, five, or more times, it still takes time, and most people won't immediately rush to replay a game right after they beat it. All of these small differences add up to big differences. We don't experience these single-player games in the same way.

Whenever I beat a "long loop" game, I don't usually replay it. And even when I do, I wait before replaying the game. Each loop feels like a fresh experience, and I can pinpoint different beats, remembering the flow of the entire loop in high detail. It also feels like I accomplished something, because it was a complete arc that took a considerable amount of time. In a sense, I feel freed to go and play other things, although maybe that's just me. I think it's a feeling shared by many people, though--that sense of investment builds a sort of importance around the game. When you sink 15 hours into a game to finish the story, you feel like you've completed a journey, and you're done. You might never come back to it. If you're sinking 15 minutes into the arc of a game, that makes you want to play again.

A key difference between these "long loop" games and the shorter loops of multiplayer games is that "long loop" games are finite. You play it, you beat it, you move on, sometimes you revisit it. Multiplayer games are "endless": you keep playing it until you eventually get tired of it, but there's always a lack of finality. You don't really "beat" the game, ever. Of course, this is an incentive to keep playing the game, which (intentionally or not) serves the interests of the game company, since they can entice more people to buy the game or to invest in cosmetic content within the game. It's harder to get someone to do that for a game they'll play once and then put away. Looking at my own Steam library, out of the five games I've put the most time into, only two have a significant single-player mode (Stellaris and Civilization 5), and even those two are ones I've played multiplayer a large number of times. They're also procedurally-built games that are designed to be played over and over. You have to go all the way down to game #9 (Freedom Force) to find a "long loop" game that you can play through once and beat. Your own collection might look different (because I play a lot of multiplayer), but have a look anyhow, see where you invest your time.

What's Wrong With Loops?

Like I said at the start of my post, I've been thinking about how I play games, and where most of my time goes. And the answer is, most of it's spent in short loops, experiences that repeat over and over and over again. They're engaging, but they're also time-filling experiences. I get a lot of momentary fun out of them, but playing yet another round of Mystery Heroes in Overwatch isn't really building anything. Instead of going on a journey, starting somewhere and ending somewhere else, it's more of a hamster wheel of entertainment. Which, in itself, isn't always bad, but I think it is a problem the more you lean into it. Getting stuck in a rut of momentary gameplay means that the games aren't satisfying much of a need for you, even while they take up your time. You're building a monotony of experience for yourself, and turning games into a way to burn time, instead of meaningfully engaging them.

However, it doesn't have to be that way, even with multiplayer games. You can still have a journey in a multiplayer game, one that forms a very long loop. Most multiplayer games have a competitive mode, and this is where the long loop begins to kick in. You find that all of those short loops are actually steps in a much longer journey--sometimes the journey of a lifetime. Through dedication, commitment, practice, and a conscious attention to effort, you can improve your skill in a game, accomplishing things you thought were impossible. However, while you'll naturally accrue small gains in skill over time, substantial growth requires intention and discipline. In order to get something out of that journey of self-improvement and competition, you have to be putting something in and engaging the game. Until that point, you're mostly just diverting yourself.

It's also worth keeping in mind that these journeys can be, well, journeys that last a very long time. They'll ask you to commit to them. If you're not up to it, there's nothing wrong with dropping a game for a while instead of committing it, especially because it'll free up time for you to pursue other journeys. Maybe journeys that you can knock out in 20 hours or less. At the end of the day, you can figure out for yourself what to do. Just consider the habits you have. Ask yourself why you do what you do. A little thinking never hurt anyone.

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