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The Core Loop: a motor of retention

By on May 28, 2019

When I first developed the Pyramid, I used the phrase Base Game, Retention Game and Superfan Game. (And other people used the terms Meta Game and Elder Game).

I avoid those terms now because there is only one game. When talking to my clients, I discovered that they assumed that the Base, Retention and Superfan Games were three distinct experiences that needed to be designed. Teams would triple the amount of work they were trying to do to design all three.

That is not the point. There is one game with multiple layers. The Retention Layer aims to drive people through the Base Layer, creating the Core Loop. The Superfan Layer gives players more reason to repeat the Core Loop to achieve their long-term goals. You are building one game. Build it in layers.

The Pyramid

Types of Core Loop

There are three basic types of Core Loop:

  • A linear Core Loop, common to narrative games
  • A strategic Core Loop, where choices made in both the Base and Retention Layers matter, common to strategy games and some action games
  • A replayable Core Loop, common to service games such as endless runners or collectible card games

Linear Core Loops

A linear Core Loop consists of completing unique missions or levels to make progress through the narrative and to unlock new chapters. It can be seen in mission-based games like Call of Duty or X-Wing and in narrative games like Uncharted. The player has little or no agency in the Retention Layer. The design objective is to draw players through the levels, replaying difficult ones multiple times until they beat them. In this case, the Base Layer is rarely procedural or random. It is more likely to be scripted to deliver a specific experience. This approach is more often seen in product games than service games, largely because it is expensive to implement.

Strategic Core Loops

The strategic Core Loop gives players agency in the Base Layer, in the Retention Layer and in the resources or objectives that they bring between the two. The strategic map in Total War offers a different style of gameplay to the individual battles. A player can choose when, where and why they fight on the strategic layer. She can prepare huge armies to crush her foes in huge battles or use tactical skill to fight free of an ambush. She can choose to minimise fighting by focusing on trading, diplomacy and espionage. She can also influence the Retention Layer from within the Base Layer: destroying an army by chasing down its fleeing troops with light cavalry removes a threat from the strategic map.

Replayable Core Loops

A replayable Core Loop encourages the player to replay the Base Layer over and over again. In this case, the Base Layer is often procedural, or involves interactions with another human player. In Temple Run, the player plays as an Indiana Jones/Lara Croft character, running at a constant speed along a path through an untamed jungle. He swipes left or right to make turns on the path, and up or down to jump over or duck under hazards. The Base Layer is not a scripted, crafted experience: it is procedurally generated and full of random turns, hazards, coins and power-ups. The player can replay it many times, earning coins to make progression through the Retention Layer of unlocking all the power-ups and characters.

This is an extract from Nicholas’s new book, The Pyramid of Game Design – get your copy here!

About Nicholas Lovell

Nicholas is the founder of Gamesbrief, a blog dedicated to the business of games. It aims to be informative, authoritative and above all helpful to developers grappling with business strategy. He is the author of a growing list of books about making money in the games industry and other digital media, including How to Publish a Game and Design Rules for Free-to-Play Games, and Penguin-published title The Curve: