Forget about Gamification - It is All about the Gameplay Loop!

Two years ago, I stepped into the mobile games market when I joined Planeto in Malmö, Sweden. With more than 5 million downloads, Planeto is a leader in knowledge-based mobile gaming. The experience at Planeto has changed me as a product creator and marketer.

Like many of my Scandinavian tech colleagues, I come from the planet where they build mobile phones. One step up the software stack to apps did not seem like a huge leap, especially as Planeto develops knowledge-oriented games for smartphones. As it turns out, one of the most talented game designers in Southern Scandinavia took me to a planet that was significantly different.

This part one of a three part series on battle insights by a mobile game CEO.

The Magical Gameplay Loop

Having built products with some of the best people in their field, I claim to have a good understanding of how to approach a new product idea. In simple terms, the process involves a deep dive into the needs of the particular user, understanding what technical approach might deliver a product that caters to those needs, creating a first version (1.0), shipping it to the users, learning from the users, and then building an even better version 2.0. Each step has a number of tools you can use to deliver as much “bang for the bucks” as possible. You aim to capture as many facts as possible to keep learning and testing assumptions. Although user experience design and prototyping can make up significant parts, the overall creation process resembles a deductive science project where uncovering the truth is the overarching aim.

The magical gameplay loop makes mobile game creation a very different process. The magical gameplay loop builds on the fundamental premise that delivering entertainment is hard, but when you get there, it is obvious that you have arrived. You will see it in the smile, in the clenched fist raised in the air, or a loud “damn it!” – quite magical, when it happens. 🙂

Endless Iteration of the Loop

[tweetable]The gameplay loop is what the player does over and over again[/tweetable]. In a First Person Shooter (FPS) game, the gameplay loop goes like this:

  1. a target appears
  2. you aim at the target
  3. you pull the trigger
  4. the projectile moves towards the target
  5. you hit the target
  6. the target loses life

You will do this over and over again, so this loop has to work to perfection – because if not, the player will immediately notice a glitch in one of the steps. Sounds easy, but as soon as you start adding depth to the gameplay, you start challenging the loop: different targets (speed, size, life, etc.), different weapons (power, range, accuracy, etc.), different environments (complexity, dynamics, etc.), and so on.

[caption id="attachment_15942" align="alignnone" width="660"]Screen shots from Battlefield 4: Gameplay loop takes less than 3 secs from target spotted to kill confirmed, but type of enemy, weapon type, and environment adds depth to the loop, which is repeated over and over again! Screen shots from Battlefield 4: Gameplay loop takes less than 3 secs from target spotted to kill confirmed, but type of enemy, weapon type, and environment adds depth to the loop, which is repeated over and over again![/caption]

[tweetable]The process of developing a mobile game starts with the gameplay loop[/tweetable]. You iterate the gameplay loop many times. Planeto is on more than 20 iterations of the next game. Forget about graphics. Forget about login. Forget about high score. It is all about getting the gameplay loop nailed down, testing it with real people, and observing whether you get a fist in the air or the “one more time!” that you are looking for.

It is an inductive process, in which you start with the gut feel and experience of the game designer, observe the reaction from the players, and then iterate until you get to something that is highly entertaining. Although you can access courses and tools, like “F2P Toolbox” creating great gameplay requires experience and a lot of patience. The development of the gameplay loop deals with human beings at a very fundamental level of basic needs, like happiness, competition, and the urge to progress.

Only when the gameplay loop is truly magical do you begin the “normal” development process.

Looking for the Loop

Once you realize the significance of the gameplay loop, you start playing games in a completely new way. You appreciate the beauty of the loop in good games and you become much better at looking beyond beautiful graphics and distilling the essence of a game. You also start benchmarking games against each other on a detailed level.

This brings out a number of interesting perspectives. First, can you find a gameplay loop in other types of products than games? Is there something that the user does repeatedly and therefore needs special attention and many development iterations? I have looked back at products that I have been involved in and I can point to the core loop in most of them. Some of the core loops were brilliant, but some of them were average to poor, as the features and general infrastructure detracted from the essence of what the product was supposed to deliver. My first take-away: look for the loop and make it perfect!

Gamification – a Contradiction in Terms?

My second take-away is about the inherent contradiction in the popular notion “gamification.” If the essence of a game is the gameplay loop, then you cannot gamify something that has an entirely different user experience loop and purpose.

Let’s take CRM as an example. The purpose of a CRM system is to improve the relationship with the customer. In other words, a CRM system offers a set of mechanisms that remind/drive the sales person to interact with the customer. A gamification project might introduce badges for different activities, high score lists for the best performing sales people, or other elements you might find in a game. Gamification does not, however, change the core user experience loop in a CRM system, which is: 1) enter data to qualify the relationship with the customer, 2) create a profile of the relationship with the customer, and 3) get notified about needs for actions/next steps, which in turn creates qualification data. This set of user actions is not a game. You might get a fist in the air when a deal is won, but sales people will still hate updating the account in the CRM system – even, if they get a nice “Sales Person of the Month” badge 🙂

Games Can be Much More than Fun

This does not mean a game cannot deliver more than just fun. As I will explore in my upcoming blog post “Mobile Gaming as a Business,” I am a firm believer that business model innovation is one of the biggest opportunities in the mobile games industry. At Planeto, games are used for lead generation. Games can also tell stories or educate. It is, however, essential that the starting point is the magical gameplay loop. If you do not get that right, then you cannot deliver on anything else.


Morten Grauballe

Morten Grauballe is an entrepreneur with a passion for building products. He has more than 20 years of experience in the mobile solutions industry and most recently served as CEO at Planeto, a knowledge-oriented gaming company. Prior to joining Planeto, Grauballe was EVP for Marketing & Corparate Development at Red Bend Software - acquired by Harman Inc. for its software management solutions and IP for smartphones and IoT. During the early smartphone boom, Morten was vice president of product management for Symbian Ltd., where he helped establish the company as a leading provider of mobile smartphone software. Due to his language skills, he was instrumental in the company’s success in the Japanese mobile market. Prior to joining Symbian, Grauballe was a senior member of Ericsson’s marketing team in Tokyo and helped launch several handsets for NTT DOCOMO. Grauballe is a frequent speaker on emerging trends in mobile software and consumer services.

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