Tactical ludological breakdown inbound!

We’ve all been there – You’re 15 years old, your slightly knackered PS3 controller in hand, you and the boys are blowing off the stress of your GCSEs with a few hours of Kill Confirmed on your preferred flavour of Call of Duty. You’ve just cracked open your fifth can of Monster energy, your mum called you down for tea three weeks ago, and you’re still wearing a clip-on tie and blazer. Good times, to be sure.

So I think it’s safe to say I don’t have to explain how killstreaks work. Right? Right.

So, today, I wanted to have a chat about one interesting tool in the Game Designer’s toolbox – The Feedback Loop. A feedback loop is, as the name implies, some kind of looping behaviour a game offers the player to either encourage or discourage an activity. They come in two distinct flavours. First off is the Positive Feedback Loop. This is a loop which encourages and empowers a certain behaviour – The more Action A occurs, the more Action B occurs.

Our beloved killstreaks are a fantastic example of these – Killstreaks offer bonus effects and assistance in battle, and are earned by getting lots of kills in battle without dying yourself. A few kills get you a short glimpse at your enemies’ location, a lot of them let you call in something more substantial. Essentially, the game rewards you for playing well with assistance which makes you play even better until you slip up and the counter resets. The better you play, the better you become at playing, essentially… And it feels great to get a killstreak – The ping of your radar, the rattle of your hitmarker, the flood of the killfeed, it all makes you think “Yeah, I’m the shit”. But, unfortunately, what is fun for the winner, in this case, is hell for the loser.

We’ve all had that one really shitty match where one enemy player is killing it, and your entire team is pinned down inside a single building, lest the rain of helicopter guns end the match prematurely. Killstreaks give the players who evidently need a handicap more than a boost extra points to make winning even easier, whereas the team on the back foot are, in extreme cases, forced to simply wait 5 or 10 minutes or leave the lobby, both of which guarantee a loss. It wasn’t so bad back in the days of, say, ‘World at War’, where the most powerful killstreak was a swarm of dogs that could be easily dispatched with a few gunshots, but in Black Ops 4, skilled players can literally call in gigantic armed drones that are resistant to gunfire, gunships that make every outside portion of the map a death zone, and even additional AI-controlled player characters with extra armour to charge into the bunker your team is in and force you all to leave and die, or just die. I usually end up switching to a special custom class I have set aside with anti-air missiles and perks that mask me from the killstreaks somewhat, which doesn’t feel great when I’d rather be charging around the map at lightning speed that sat in the corner listening to a big tube go beep-beep-beep.

To put it shortly, while the idea of giving skilled players encouragement to go on a big streak that is lost the moment they slip up and die is a fun idea, modern call of duty games have implemented it a bit too far- leading to a snowball effect that can sometimes lead to a game feeling won at the five-minute mark, which makes the losing team feel like crap or simply encouraging them to give up and leave the game, often leaving one or two players left to be swarmed by the enemy team. Call of Duty’s short games go some way to dampening the effect of these snowballs, but it still feels bad, man.

So what’sa developer to do when players don’t need encouragement? When they’re actually being kind of naughty and not playing in a way that’s fun? Well, we students of game design have a trick for that – Flip the coin and we find our other favourite tool, the Negative Feedback Loop: the more action A occurs, the less Action B occurs.

Where one hand gives, the other takes away. A negative feedback loop makes something happen more the less something else happens, effectively discouraging a certain ability. Take my current favourite game to play on the toilet, Super Smash Bros Ultimate. Super Smash Bros has, it’s fair to say, a lot of characters, and so amongst them, there’s bound to be some that have spammy abilities that would be too powerful if you simply used them over and over and over, such as Fox’s dash ability or Ryu’s Hadouken. As such, Smash relies on a negative feedback loop to discourage spamming and therefore encourage a more varied playstyle – The more times you use an ability in quick succession, the less powerful it becomes.

This is a really simple design solution to what otherwise could have been a number of massive issues – Some abilities that are in the game simply wouldn’t be able to exist if they were equally powerful the 1st and 20th time you used them in a row – If that’s the case, we run the risk of making every character feels stale and samey thanks to this really limiting design feature. Smash Bros’ massive roster simply wouldn’t exist if it wasn’t for this one feedback loop.

Obviously, in order for a feedback loop to be effective, it has to be something you as the player care about so that it can be effective at encouraging or discouraging the behaviour it wants. It doesn’t have to be directly related to gameplay – Imagine, if you will, a small man in the corner of the screen. Every time you use a grenade, he screams. Each time a little bit louder.  That’s gonna stop you spamming the grenades, isn’t it!

So, hopefully, that’s taught you a short lesson about one of the tools game designers use that maybe you wouldn’t notice – But next time you’re playing a game, try and look for them! They’re not present in every title, but with an open eye you’ll see them all over – Try to think about why the designers created this loop, what were they trying to achieve with it?

Let me know if you’d like a deeper dive into feedback loops by leaving a comment on our facebook page or below the article!