Accelerating Early Product

with Amy Jo Kim

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Core Loop

Building a core loop that delights and engages

Amy Jo Kim

Game Designer, Social Architect, Startup coach

Lessons Learned

Operant conditioning is about shaping behavior.

Game design is about creating a great experience that is making someone more awesome in some way.

Your core loop should create a delightful experience using habit building behaviors.


Lesson: Accelerating Early Product with Amy Jo Kim

Step #5 Core Loop: Building a core coop that delights and engages

Core Loop Core loop is a gaming term. Sometimes that same thing is called a compulsion loop, an addiction loop, a gaming loop, an activity loop, those are other words. A core loop is the activity and experience and feedback systems and skill building systems that a player would experience during a game session, okay. When game designers create a core loop, they often create interlocking loops that if I showed them to you would look quite complex, because games are interlocking complex systems with emergent properties, at least interesting ones.

They all have a few key elements in them, gaming core loops. They have an engaging activity, meaning there's some bit of fun, some bit of engagement that's an activity. It might running and jumping, it might be exploring if you're a Mario game. It might be shooting enemies, it might be match three if it's a puzzle game, solving the puzzle. If you think about Facebook or Instagram, it's browsing your feed, posting a picture. There's this engaging activity, fun, that's pleasurable. It doesn't have to be fun but it's pleasurable. Browsing on Amazon, okay.

Then there's feedback and progress that lets the person who's doing the activity that guides them, that lets them know if they're on the right track, that builds their skills. That's what feedback does, it helps you build up your skills, right? Feedback and progress are framed in that way.

Again, if it's in a Mario game there's feedback that kind of lights your path, that tells you where to go. You know, the trees rustle and things light up and you get instructions, etc. If you're doing a puzzle game, there's feedback and progress that encourages you to level up, tells you if you're better than your friends, that the first time you ever get a match four makes a big deal out of it, all those things.

Then there's investment systems, anything that drives investment, that gets you to create an avatar, or customize your background, or it customizes itself to you so you see that by giving the system information, you now have a different and better experience. All of that is investment, all of that is systems that drive investment.

If you put all that together with triggers, internal, situational, and external, which are all very different, then you have a core loop and you can fancy it up and make it a gaming core loop, but you can also make it a core loop that applies to any product. One of the things that I do is I can diagram the Minecraft core loop and the Kickstarter core loop and the Instagram core loop and the Facebook core loop, and then some products don't really have a core loop. They don't really have the weight or the oomph.

If you're product is really trivial, you're not really going to have a core loop but you might have an arc. Gamers deal in loops and arcs. There's also arcs of experience that are a little more linear. A narrative game is much more about arcs and less about this loop, but most popular games that drive a habit have some loop at the center.

You might be thinking, “Okay, how is this different?” Like the Power of Habit, if you read the Power of Habit or Hooked by Nir Eyal, either of those books, breat books by the way, full of wonderful stuff, but both of those are basically describing an operant conditioning loop, and a lot of people think that's the same as a core loop. The way you can tell it's not the same as a core loop is by looking actually at Zynga's stock.

Zynga built games that were based on skinner boxes, which is our gamer nickname for operant conditioning loops. My BA is in psych, my PhD is in behavioral neuroscience but I did pigeon lab, I know what operant conditioning is, and that's an operant conditioning loop. Here's how you can tell the difference. Operant conditioning is about shaping behavior. Game design is about creating a great experience that makes somebody more awesome in some way. It builds their skill or their knowledge or their reflexes or their relationships. That's a different focus.

If you're doing an operant conditioning loop, you would look at it as a behaviorist which, again, these books do that and it's very useful stuff. You'd say, "Okay, what's the trigger? What's the thing that's going to happen?" and then what, to use Nir's terminology, what's the very tiniest behavior that could happen that you can then shape with a reward. That's how you do operant conditioning, that's how I shaped the pigeons.

Then you use rewards to shape behavior and then you use investment to get people to come back, like do a little bit of work specifically so you can get them to come back. You don't really think about skill building or personal empowerment or making it an awesome experience, you're really shaping behavior. A lot of people that do healthcare design and compliance, very interested in shaping behavior.

If you do that, you get what happens with the Zynga games, which is a lot of short term engagement but you won't ever get long term engagement or player delight. That doesn't give you an experience that's delightful, that approach. The pigeons who I'm shaping in the lab aren't delighted. What the core loop is designed to do is incorporate this idea of creating a delightful experience with a lot of the habit building properties we've all learned, but putting it into a framework that's not about manipulating behavior. It's about creating a lot of value.

Minecraft's version of feedback progress is a visual simulation environment. In creative mode there's, check it out, no points, no levels, no badges, none of that stuff? And yet these people are addicted long term. What does that tell you? Maybe it's not all about the points and the badges and the levels after all. Maybe it's about delivering a compelling experience and meeting a need. So you might say, "What's the emotional need Minecraft meets?" Free form play. Minecraft can be played lots of different ways, just like Facebook can be used lots of different ways. People can play it competitively, collaboratively, solo, it's very flexible because of the shared servers and the mods. So Minecraft's architecture is part of why it's so successful.

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