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Time/Thought Loop

When is what? When is how?

Rami Ismail
Rami Ismail
4 min read
Time/Thought Loop
Photo by mostafa mahmoudi / Unsplash

One of the simplest but most effective design exercises is to think about the loop. Your player is continuously going through a cycle that we call a Human-Computer Interaction Loop, or HCI Loop. In case you haven’t come across it before, it goes something like this:

  • The player has an understanding the situation and context, and the options available to them, leading to an intent.
  • An input, based on that intent, and their understanding of its effect.
  • The game delta, which is the difference in state of the game based on the input of the player - for example, after moving the player character sideways, the player has expended some stamina, and an enemy AI character has “noticed” the player.
  • An output, or feedback, based on what the game communicates back to the player via visuals, audio, haptics, etc. This updates the players understanding of the situation and context, and the options available to them - which leads to a new intent.

Two things I believe are important to recognize about the HCI Loop:

  1. That the delta step is not communicating with the player. The only things communicated to the player are the output - and much more gets updated during delta than the player needs to know for their intent-forming (and thus input).
  2. That the game is taking place entirely in the players mind (ie. between the output & input) - instead of in the computer (ie. between the input & output).

Loops are one of the most critical models in all of game development. They’re critical to everything from design, to code, to marketing - and you’ll find their presence critical in almost every segment of the industry. I’m sure that we’ll continue to visit Loops as LTPF continues into the future.

One of my favourite loop models is one that I use occasionally to spar with designers to get a clearer overview of (potential issues in) their game design. I don’t know a formal name for it, but I tend to call it the Time/Thought Loop.

Draw five circles, each larger than the previous, with the far-left side of every circle touching. Write “1s” in the smallest circle, “10s” in the second one, and then “1m”, “10m”, and finally “60m” or “1h”. Choose your flavour.

The result should look something like this.

Imagine a little dot or hand going around the “1s” circle in one second of time, completing a full rotation in that time. Try to define what happens during that second in terms of:

  • Player understanding. What is the player receiving in terms of stimuli from the game in this timeframe, and how might that affect their understanding of their affordances and obstacles?
  • Player intentions. What goals can and does the players set for themselves, and can they form such intent based on their (developing) understanding in this timeframe?
  • Player actions. How does the player act on their intents? How does the player engage with the simulation or game-rules to try and achieve their desired outcome?

Write these down for the 1 second circle. In just one second, you’ll almost always be looking at immediate input. The player isn’t thinking on a complex or strategic level. The player is responding to immediate stimuli. They might be thinking they want to move in a direction, and pressing the correct button to do that. They might be responding to an enemy attack, and pressing the block button. Try to be exhaustive, without writing out every single thing the player can understand, intend, or perform. Grouping things (say, using dodging for a roll, back-step, and jump) can be very helpful here. If you find the model isn't granular enough, you can always go back and expand on it.

Now do the same for 10 seconds. Over ten of these 1 second loops, the player is probably thinking on a slightly higher level. They might be formulating a form of strategy, or thinking about where they want to go. Or maybe you’re playing a fighting game, and ten seconds actually can change everything about the game. In this loop, they’re likely defining what their priorities will be in the 10 discrete one-second long loops they’ll go through as this loop completes.

You continue this exercise for 1 minute - a loop that usually involves goal-setting and complex thinking, then for 10 minutes - a loop that might involve meta-goals or long-term strategy, and finally for 60 minutes - a loop that might include the entire play session for the day, or goals of self-improvement or narrative progress.

If the loops barely change between the 1 second loop and the 60 minutes loop, chances are that your game is boring, as the players’ thought process doesn’t evolve or grow to meet higher stakes or complexity. If your loop is wildly different at every step, chances are that your game is chaotic, as none of the steps feed into the next.

Being really honest as to whether they loops work -how they support and reinforce each other, how much they overlap, where they contradict- can really help with nailing down the way players flow between these cycles.

As always, a single model won’t help you design good games - it’s a tool in your toolbox to potentially shed a light on opportunities and problems.

Actionables

  • Draw the Time/Thought Loop and define a real-life activity (not a game!) according to it. For example: what is the T/T Loop of a visit to the supermarket? How has the supermarket optimized for this? Try to come up with an example of your own. If necessary, adjust the time steps for each circle.
  • Try and apply the Time/Thought Loop to one of your favourite games. Try and see where interesting tensions appear in the model - where is the most interesting loop? What overlaps exist? What contradictions are in subsequent time steps? How does a smaller loop support the bigger ones? Can you define how this makes the design more stable or engaging?
  • If you have a game of your own, try to predict what your findings from the Time/Thought Model exercise might be. Afterwards, complete a Time/Thought Model of your own game and see where you were right, and try and be very honest and critical of where you were wrong.

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Design

Rami Ismail

Gamedev. Exec.Director of gamedev.world & creator of presskit(). Speaker, consultant, helps devs globally. 33% of the The Habibis podcast. Traveler. Was 50% of Vlambeer. He/Him. Muslim. Dutch/Egyptian

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