Got Churn? Tune-up your Learning Loop

Recently, I was talking with my friend Raph Koster about how he play-tests new game ideas. At one point, Raph described his process as ‘I make sure my core learning loop is working’ — meaning that he prototypes a simple version of the game, and then focuses on tweaking the player’s core experience of doing, learning, and getting better at something before adding extra features. Listen to Raph Koster’s interview here.

Raph’s process mirrors how the best game designers I’ve worked with bring their ideas to life. These tactics aren’t just for games — they work for products, services and apps too. If you want to save MONTHS of time — and build a compelling experience from the ground up — keep reading.

This post is a preview of what we’ll cover in our FREE Game Thinking Webinar on Wed Nov 30 2016 — only a few seats left, SIGNUP NOW

What is a Learning Loop?

Forget about points, badges and levels; a well-crafted Learning Loop is at the heart of good game design.

A Learning Loop is built to support skill-building and mastery. It’s a session-based customer experience that helps you get better at something. A well-designed Learning Loop includes activities & feedback that allows you to learn something, and then deploy your newfound skill to continue learning. The design goal is to empower the player, and move them towards mastery.

Feedback is Fundamental for Learning

Compelling digital games are skill-building systems with multiple nested feedback loops. Feedback is fundamental for learning; without it, you can’t get better at something. And the better your feedback system — the more likely you are to improve. That’s the essence of a well-designed Learning Loop.

Contrast that model with a Skinner Box — AKA an operant conditioning loop — which is built around psychological manipulation. A Skinner Box design is intended to shape behavior through external rewards and reinforcement schedules. Learning might happen along the way — but it’s a side-effect, not the express goal.

Operant conditioning tactics can work in the short-term — but they ultimately backfire, because they don’t result in player delight or long-term loyalty. If you want to delight your customers, think feedback — not rewards.

This is how you design a game-like experience

Game Thinking orients your design approach around skill-building & mastery — rather than rewards & manipulation. This approach helps you create a journey towards mastery for your customers — and ask yourself at each stage: “What skills and knowledge does my customer need to acquire to make progress?”

A Game Thinking approach will deliver that “game-like” experience you’re going after, and empower you to design long-term engagement from the ground up. There are many tools in the Game Thinking toolkit — but the most fundamental one is the blueprint for designing a compelling Learning Loop. Let’s take a look at the key elements.

Pleasurable, repeatable activity — triggered by internal or situational urge

The beating heart of a Learning Loop is a repeatable, pleasurable activity that pulls customers back — triggered by some internal urge or need. Without that in place, it’s tough to drive long-term engagement.

In a Mario game, that pleasurable core activity is running, jumping and collecting coins. Everything else the player does is built on top of this.

In Rock Band, the pleasurable core activity is playing a song with your friends. If that doesn’t feel right — if the feedback doesn’t result in skill-building — nothing else matters.

And in Slack, that pleasurable core activity is reading and responding to updates from your team. That’s the most common use for Slack — and it’s what people often focus on during a session. And how do they know if they’re “doing it right?” Feedback.

Simple, effective feedback system

Once you’ve identified a core, pleasurable activity that will pull your customers back, you need to provide feedback to let them know if they’re on the right track — and help them improve.

In Mario, simple feedback and hints help you lean to run, jump and climb — and sets you up to use those skills to explore levels, solve puzzles and collect treasures.

When you play a song in Rock Band, you experience multiple nested feedback loops that help you learn to play or sing with greater accuracy. And the Easy/Medium/Hard levelling system lets you customize the feedback intensity for your skill level.

Every complex system starts out as a simple system that works — and the simplest coherent system is a feedback loop. When you’re bringing your Learning Loop to life, it’s smart to focus first on feedback — not progress, or rewards.

So ask yourself: what feedback system will help my customers get BETTER at the core activity I’m offering? Remember — it doesn’t have to be complex. Good designers start by testing the simplest possible feedback system — and adding more once that’s working.

Consider Slack. The basic feedback loop is simple and familiar — the ‘messages waiting’ notification. Once you’ve read all your messages, and caught up with your channels, you’re “done” — just like email. Later — once you’ve mastered the basics — Slackbot starts dropping hints about customization options and advanced features. Which is a loop within a loop — another game-like feature that Slack embraces.

Now, take a moment to notice what’s missing. Where are the points, levels and badges? Those overused mechanics are nowhere to be found — instead, your customization options unfold before you, and Slack helps you discover the complexities over time, and create the product that YOU love through customization.

Meaningful Progression

This brings us to progress and investment. Once you’ve got a skill-building feedback system, layering on progress mechanics and an investment path makes sense. These are the techniques that light the path mastery.

Sometimes it’s seamless — as in Slack, where you make progress by customizing your environment and building new things — a path to mastery that’s more similar to Minecraft than to Yammer.

Or in a complex game like Rock Band, there are multiple ways to make progress: you can beat your own score — play harder songs — play at a harder level — play bigger arenas — and collect cooler clothes & instruments.

Coherent Narrative that ties it together

But these aren’t just a bunch of progress mechanics layered on top. What makes it work — what makes those customer experiences delightful — is that everything takes place in a coherent setting and narrative that we understand. Playing Rock Band feels like playing in a band, getting better, and then having new opportunities open up. Playing Mario feels like exploring new places and discovering the wonders — and dangers — there. And using Slack feels like chatting online with your team in a streamlined & customizable environment.

It’s that package — the combination of pleasurable activity, skill-building feedback, and meaningful progression within a coherent narrative — that creates a compelling experience that people love — and come back to, again and again.

Want more? Join us at Game Thinking Live 2017

Game designer, startup coach, author, entrepreneur

Game designer, startup coach, author, entrepreneur