All games by definition have some version of gameplay and a lot of gameplay is configured into loops – i.e. actions you must perform several times, again and again, to complete the game. Some are small focused actions, like “aim – shoot – reload” or “sneak – hide – backstab”, while others are bigger and consist of many actions, like “travel to the lost temple – solve all the puzzles – defeat the boss” and some are overall game encompassing like saving the world by doing all the other loops in multiple locations. And while saving the world is a fine overall goal for the game, the journey, and actions you perform to complete the goal, must be enjoyable as well.
Some games have fast gameplay loops, like single player FPS’s, in which each action is high stakes and vital to perform quickly and precisely but often lacks the longer satisfaction. There needs to be a bigger goal or the game will get boring – that is where multiplayer and ranked play sets in. Other games have long gameplay loops, like management type games, where the satisfaction is seeing the game and your choices unfold, while the minor actions themselves might feel boring to some players.
The “best” games have several medium long gameplay loops, supplemented by shorter and longer loops. The immediate core loop of what actions you do must be fun, e.g. fighting or looting, but there have to be bigger goals as well, like exploring the whole world, destroying it or saving it.
Zelda: Breath of the Wild is a good example, where the Sheikah Towers and Shrines serve as medium loops. If they were not there, the world might just have been too big to grasp, but exploring the world one tower at a time gives the player short term goals and a purpose. There are smaller loops of fighting and climbing, medium loops of getting Towers and Shrines and bigger loops like defeating the Divine Beasts and the final boss Ganon. A total open world might just have players getting lost, but dividing it into sub-areas provides the player with areas they can manage to explore and complete, within a reasonable time.
When developing a game it’s important to figure out how long a gameplay session should be early in the process, and then design gameplay loops to fit this. Doing this helps the players feel like they can fulfill the current quest or session in time and get full satisfaction every time they play.
PC MOBA’s like League of Legends or Dota2 can be played in a session of 30-45 min and gives the full level-up experience. The session time is predictable and the player starts up the game with an expectation of being able to complete at least one full session, possibly several in a row. Of course there is still a bigger loop of leveling up your profile and smaller loops of casting spells and taking towers.
Casual mobile games played while commuting or on a break must have short sessions of a couple of minutes, while PC/Console games can have much longer sessions.
Make sure to design some version of these gameplay loops from the beginning of pre-production. Design the loops based on the type of game you’re making and the target audience, and take care to make both small, medium and long loops enjoyable. This can even be taken to the extreme like Nintendo often does, by making a core mechanic that drives the whole game and making sure that it is perfectly crafted. Like Mario’s versatile jump or hat throw.
Carefully managing the design of your gameplay loops will give your players the best possibility of enjoying playing your game all the way from their first action and to the very end.