The Rule of the Loop (Part 1)

For my first post on Game Design, I want to talk about what I feel is the single most important concept in designing games: the Rule of the Loop. This rule is what (ideally) governs our design and development process at Balangay. It’s important because it describes the process of game design and it also sheds light on the mindset of a game designer.

Since I had so much to say on the topic, I broke it into two parts. Part 1 will discuss the basic concepts about the Rule of the Loop while Part 2 will be about how to apply it and how we use it at Balangay Entertainment™.

Game Design, how does it even work?

When I first started making games, I was part of a team of programmers. We were given a game concept to work with so we started brainstorming and imagining what the game would be like. I didn’t realize back then how naive we were. None of us had any deep experience in game design (being mostly programmers) and yet we threw ourselves straight at the problem without reading up and researching what game design was. I felt my lifetime experience of playing games was enough- and boy was I wrong.

Months into the project, progress was slow and uninspiring. The game was boring. We had the skills to code and create a good game but why wasn’t anything getting done? It was during this period when I discovered the book “The Art of Game Design” by Jesse Schell. The Rule of the Loop was in one of the early chapters and it explained everything we were doing wrong.

Photo on 26-05-2016 at 4.37 PM #2
I am fan, I has hardcopy! Probably one of a few in the Philippines

Just a note before I continue, though I’m heavily influenced by Jesse Schell’s writings, I’ll be explaining the Rule of the Loop with my own spin.

The Core Assumption

Before I go into the Rule of the Loop, I have to first define the core assumption behind the Rule of the Loop. Here it is, are you ready?

*drum roll*

You cannot tell if a game is fun until you have tested it.

Sounds obvious, doesn’t it? Well, it is! But you’d be surprised how many designers forget the core assumption. I’ve been guilty of it myself (especially when I’m lazy). It’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking your design on paper is going to be fun when implemented. It’s our job as game designers to know better. A lot of bad project management decisions can come from thinking your game is fun only to find out it isn’t.

The reason behind the core assumption is you cannot predict the random human element that the players introduce to your game. Also, fun is a tricky subjective concept. It’s one of those “I know it when I see it” things that can only be validated through playtests.

The Rule of the Loop

Now that you know the core assumption, here is the Rule of the Loop:

  1. Games are made through incremental changes.
  2. Incremental changes are added to the game through iterations.
  3. Tackle well-defined problems per iteration.
  4. The faster you complete iterations, the more iterations you will be able to do. The more iterations you do, the better your game will be.

In summary:

“The more times you test and improve your design, the better your game will be.” -Jesse Schell, Art of Game Design

(I can’t say it any clearer than that.)

The great challenge of game design is how to squeeze as many effective and substantial loops out of your game development timeline.

Increments and Iterations

Designing games through incremental iterations is the best way to deal with the core assumption. Every time you change the game, you have to test if it’s still fun and if it works the way you want it to. I suppose it’s possible to plan out a game completely from start to finish without testing, and suddenly find you’ve created a masterpiece but it would be very unlikely unless you are a master predictor of human psychology and behavior. (If you were, you should probably quit game design and join the U.N. instead).

Well-defined Problems and Goals

To make sure your game is getting better with each iteration, define the problems you’re trying to solve per iteration. If you don’t do this, you could lose the “big picture” of your project and end up just nitpicking little problems that don’t really push your design forward to completion.

Efficient and Effective Iterations

It’s also important to work through your iterations as quickly as you can without compromising quality, even if you’re just doing it for fun. More iterations means more improvements means a better game (assuming each iteration improves your game). Also, designing games is fun but energy-draining. If you don’t work efficiently, you’ll end up burned out with little to show for your efforts.

So, how do you make sure your iterations are both efficient and effective? You’ll have to wait for Part 2 for that.

The Simple Loop

Generally, each iteration goes something like this:

Simple Game Design Loop
  • Design
    • Plan out the changes you want to try based on the current issues of your design.
  • Prototype
    • Implement the changes so you can test them.
  • Test
    • Test the changes.
  • Assess
    • Reflect on the results of the test. Did you changes make the game better? What are the new problems?

The problem with the simple loop is that it doesn’t give clear guidelines on how to go about the game development cycle. There are dozens and dozens of ways you can implement the loop above. The simple loop may be fine if you’re a solitary hobbyist but if you are a game design project manager, you’d want to have a well-defined process that your whole team can rally behind.

In Part 2, I will be go into detail on how we implement the Rule of the Loop at Balangay Entertainment™. I also have some horror stories to share about what happens when you don’t follow the RotL.

See you in the next blog post and don’t forget to follow me if you like what you read. 🙂 Let me know too if you have any questions, suggestions, violent reactions, and comments so that I can make this blog better. 🙂

‘Til next time, MAKE more games! *rips off Wil Wheaton*

Follow Nico Valdez:

Game Designer

Nico is a game designer, programmer, songwriter, ex-audio engineer, amateur fiction writer, and president of Balangay Entertainment®. One of the less competitive members of Balangay, Nico only wins against 2k, Marx, and Aya when he's played the game before and they haven't. Nico always wins against Aa. He'll play almost anything as long as it's not loud. He likes euro games for their strategy and thematic games for their roleplaying. He doesn't like party games that much because they get too noisy for his ear disability.

7 Responses

  1. jcysison

    Nice first Game Desing post, Niko! (That is with a “K”, right?) I’ve had an ebook version of Schell’s book for over a year now and haven’t managed to finish it yet. I’m tempted to order a hard copy as I think it’ll “help” me read it. Haha!

    • nicanorrr

      oh it’s Nico with a ‘C’ 🙂 Actually I haven’t finished it either 🙂 I’ve probably read maybe 85% of it. A lot of it isn’t super relevant yet to our designs since he primarily talks about video games 🙂 I go through the chapters every once in a while when it’s relevant to what I’m working on 🙂 Try mong mag-order, may second ed na 🙂

      • jcysison

        Yeah, I just saw it go for $69 over on and am thinking of getting it. Did you know there is an app for it as well?

        • nicanorrr

          Yep 🙂 I actually have the physical cards too :)) Let me know how it goes if you buy it. There are a couple of other books I’m looking for as well 🙂

  2. The Rule of the Loop (Part 2) – Nico Valdez

    […] Hi! As promised, here’s part 2 of the Rule of the Loop. In Part 1, I discussed the basics of the rule. Now, I’ll go into the specifics like how we use it in Balangay Entertainment™.  If you didn’t catch Part 1, you can do so here. […]

  3. Frixion Pen: The Game Designer’s new Best Friend – Nico Valdez

    […] Tabletop game design isn’t an expensive hobby to begin. All you need is a pencil and some paper to start. However as your designs get more and more complicated, other necessities get added to your list. Common items include Dice, Index Cards, Card Sleeves, etc. You want to have enough tools to make your design iterations as fast and as painless as possible so you can focus on designing instead of prototyping (I discussed more on that in a previous post the “Rule of the Loop“). […]

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