Designing The Core Gameplay Loop: A Beginner’s Guide

Alexander Brazie

Alexander Brazie

Alexander is a game designer with 25+ years of experience in both AAA and indie studios, having worked on titles like World of Warcraft, League of Legends, and Ori and The Will of The Wisps. His insights and lessons from roles at Riot and Blizzard are shared through his post-mortems and game design course. You can follow him on Twitter @Xelnath or LinkedIn.

In this guide, I will provide an overview of all the components of the different types of core gameplay loops, why they work, and how to practically create them (and create them well).

Feel free to use the table of contents to skip to the section that interests you 👇

What is a gameplay loop?

In game design, a gameplay loop is a repeatable sequence of actions the players engage in that makes up the primary flow of your players experience that keeps the them playing over and over again.

It can be as basic as spotting, jumping and successfully avoiding an obstacle, or as complex as organizing a raid, defeating the enemies, then distributing loot.

The core gameplay loop is the one upon which all other loops are built.

  • For Super Mario, spot, leap, survive, repeat
  • For first person shooting games, aim, fire, advance, repeat

All games have a core gameplay loop.

Mario loop

1. Jump

2. Spot enemy

3. Survive/Die

(↻ repeat)

First Person Shooter loop

1. Spot Enemy (aim)

2. Shoot Enemy

3. Advance

(↻ repeat)

However, other games’ core loop might treat the gameplay as only one small part of the puzzle.

For example, mobile games often have the structure of play mission, get reward, level up. In these games, the progression loop is more significant to the design than the gameplay loop.

(Source: Ethan Stanaway)

In general, these loops nest into each other, spiraling outward in increasing layers of nuance and complexity, until the overall experience is rich and full of rewards and challenges.

The human experience is a core loop – we anticipate a positive outcome, face a challenge and overcome it, then reap the rewards or sorrows. Naturally, games which take advantage of this learning mechanism share the same shape.

By the way, as you’re reading this post, if you have any questions or issues implementing you can get free help in the #game-design channel in Funsmith Club Discord, or you can DM me there.

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Why are core loops important in gameplay?

The human experience is driven by our responses to the universe around us. Gameplay loops exist to not only hook players, as is commonly believed, but also to drive players to overcome greater challenges than they could have achieved when they first started the game.

If you played World of Warcraft: How many of you could have said you could organize 20-40 people to show up at the same place two or three times a week?

If you played Fortnite: How many of you would ever have expected to be the last person surviving out of a battle of 100?

How many of you can say you’ve done the same habit every day for the last two years? Yet many of us do just that when we login to social media and consistently share an image, post or comment.

Yet many of us have achieved these remarkable outcomes despite lacking the skills when we first encountered these environments or mediums.

(How dopamine is released is a bit more nuanced than this, but this simple version gets the point across)

Dopamine, along with other brain chemicals, works along our interpretation of an experience as a positive one to encourage us to push ourselves further into situations that keep us safe, growing or rewarded.

Without a core gameplay loop, your game is just a loosely scattered collection of features. Players will flounder attempting to find an effective way to play the game, ultimately struggling to find a path that works for them, and eventually giving up in frustration or disinterest.

Such a powerful tool can be used to recondition, reshape or transform our lives. Naturally, it can be used for good or evil, as we mentioned on our podcast with Dr. Kelly Tran and Kevin Caldwell.

Ethical game design is a major topic on its own, so let’s focus on the fundamentals.

But how do you shape an effective core loop?

Before we dig into that, let’s look at examples of how loops work and expand to create a rich experience.

Structuring Your Gameplay Loops

Strong gameplay loops are rarely perfectly planned from the start, so don’t stress if your game loops seem too simple at the start.

Game mechanics and game content should be built just a few seconds at a time to start, ensuring that players playing the game understand clearly what they are doing, then building your game one piece at a time.

It is usually more effective to build several loops independently before attempting to connect them together. Let’s go through this exercise with one of my favorite self-directed game loops: Minecraft.

Minecraft’s heart and soul is a simple three stage loop:

  1. Explore
  2. Harvest
  3. Craft


This loop accurately describes not only the moment-to-moment actions players take in a single session, but also the minute to minute and day to day loop as well.

The basic actions reflect and support the progression systems as well as the whole game.


You explore a small grove to find a tree, harvest the tree to craft a wooden axe.

You explore a new biome to find new materials, harvest as much as you can carry, then bring it home to build your new tower or shed.

It applies to groups as well – you collectively store all of the resources you find on your journeys, refine it into useful materials, then create gear, structures and railways to connect your community.


In addition to each expanding Minecraft’s core, the features it unlocks also expand the nature of the game itself. (Note: this is generally true of all survival games).

When you start the game, you are barely hanging on, with the clear goal of just finding enough food and supplies to survive.

(Subnautica – another fantastic survival game with a strong core loop)

Then as your comfort with the nearby environment and the basic survival system grows, you begin to identify larger landmarks, striking out further and further into new content, creating self-directed goals throughout the game world.

Expanding your character, creating strategies about what you want to complete and in what order are just small examples of nested core loops that create the long term retention that makes these games legendary.

How to design a gameplay loop?

Even if you strongly grasp the player’s mind, creating a core loop is not trivial.

The ideas will vary widely from genre to genre, but in general, I recommend developing a loop for the following time scales:

  1. Moment to moment
  2. Minute to minute
  3. Hour to hour
  4. Day to day

Now let’s loop at how this works in World of Warcraft:

Moment to Moment Minute to Minute Hour to Hour Day to Day
1. Spot Resource

2. Face Enemy

3. Evade Attack

4. Defeat Enemy

5. Collect Resource

(↻ repeat)

1. Spot quest giver

2. Acquire quest

3. Chart path to quest

4. Complete quest

5. Return for reward

(↻ repeat)

1. Complete quests

2. Craft best gear

3. Adjust spells / talents

4. Sell extra resources

(↻ repeat)

1. Travel new zones

2. Set new goals

3. Make new friends

4. Plan for raids

5. Complete PvP

(↻ repeat)

Where the leftmost side is your innermost core gameplay, the right-most is your big-picture goals and objectives.

The game’s core gameplay loop is built of many loops, each of which feeds into the next. Successful game design is being able to create a core game loop for each of these.

A great game makes this seamless, with a good loop focusing on the game’s main mechanics and progression feeds back into improving the smaller loops.

The player defines their own strategy and how to win the game, which makes for a fun and varied gaming experience.

What makes a good core loop in gameplay?

The purpose of the core loop is to keep the players running through a constant cycle of the five pillars of Player Centric Game Design Framework.

These are the building blocks of a strong core loop, known as:

  1. Clarity – without clarity, players won’t know how to interact
  2. Motivation – without motivation, they won’t know where to go
  3. Response – without response to a challenge, they will feel disengaged or disempowered
  4. Satisfaction – without satisfaction, they won’t feel rewarded for their effort
    • Viscerality – without this, their emotions won’t be stimulated and rewarded
    • Strategy – without this, their mind won’t be stimulated and rewarded
  1. Fantasy – without the right fit between fantasy and gameplay, they won’t have the experience they came to enjoy

You can apply these pillars throughout the structure of any core loop, which in general is the following:

  1. Challenge
  2. Actions
  3. Reward

This is very similar to the concept of a compulsion loop, so naturally many people villainize games and game design, but this structure is essential for all expensive learning and growth.

You want players motivated when they engage with the core loop and feel they can improve and be challenged each time they experience the same loop.

In addition to having these pieces, we need content that happens consistently enough for each of the four timescale listed in the section above.

Once your game loop is able to hit all these pillars, you’ve essentially achieved ‘fun’ which is the leading indicator for longer player retention and more word of mouth player acquisition.

By the way, being able to do this consistently is essential to thrive as a game designer in the industry. Studios will riguously vet for this ability during the hiring process.

Here is an example of how Ubisoft design interview session vets for this:

That’s why I’ve created a game design course specifically to train game developers to diagnose and improve any game’s core loops based on these pillars.

Next, the gameplay loop needs to feed upward into the minute to minute loop and beyond. We’ll take a look at example core gameplay loops by genre in a moment.

What makes a good core loop in progression?

Anyone who has played or will continue playing a modern mobile game knows that the core loop of these games usually features the gameplay as secondary to the progression loops. The most famous of these are gacha games.

(Credit: mmos.com)

These games can have very interactive (e.g. Genshin Impact) or relatively minimal (e.g. Idle Champions, 7 Knights) gameplay loops.  These games however are highly engaging by triggering the same parts of the brain:

They pose goals (a track of locations to overcome), challenges (enemies within the stages) and rewards (resources or new stage unlocks), reinforced by strong visuals and animation (aka juice) to reinforce to the player that they are winning or losing.

(Credit: Idle Champions of the Forgotten Realms)

However, outside of the gameplay loop, the progression is broad, deep and intermittently rewarding. Many developers attempt to clone these games and the idea of a broad cast of characters, with unique powers and other aspects consistently seems to last.

(Credit: Genshin Impact Reddit)

Progression is generally described as coming in two axis:

  1. Vertical (power)
  2. Horizontal (options)

While it’s unreasonable to perfectly define every possible game team, system and flow, in general vertical progression makes the numbers go up, while horizontal progression adds new characters, spells or skills.

image9 image3

For example, level one character with lots of gear might have health close to a level 19 character with no gear. Furthermore, many games will rank the gear and even the characters themselves with 1 star ⭐ to 5 star ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐ rating.


The end result is that you have multi dimensional growth:

(Imaginary New Gacha Game Numbers)

In the made-up example made above, just adding one new character might introduce 85 different pieces of progression, which across 40 characters is suddenly 3,600 different tiny objectives players can pursue, each with different costs and rewards.

Does this mean Gacha games are the perfect form of progression?

Definitely not.

Gacha games rely on uncertainty and stacking odds to generate revenue from the uncertainty. However, Gacha games make the progression so transparent that its easy to examine.

Not discussed here is how the game content needs to scale with additional tools and challenges as well. New characters demand new enemies to counter them to ensure the flavor of the week doesn’t become the flavor of the year.


Nevertheless, whereas the core loop is a circle, you can imagine the progression loop as a spiral – with escalating amounts of characters, challenges and rewards.

Core gameplay loop examples

Game development is an iterative process – expanding not only from feature to feature, but also game to game and decade to decade.

As a result, the core game loops that you see now are built upon the classic game loops built back in the 80s. Even Minecraft, with all of its flexibility and self-drive was an iteration atop the concepts in UnReal World, back in 1992.

To learn how to build your game loop, first let’s examine a broad selection of existing game loops.

First/Third Person Shooters core loop examples:

Moment to Moment Minute to Minute Hour to Hour Day to Day
1. Spot Enemy

2. Shoot Enemy3. Advance

(↻ repeat)

1. Enter Room

2. Acquire Weapons

3. Clear Room

(↻ repeat)

1. Setup Loadout

2. Clear Missions

3. Receive Gear Upgrades

(↻ repeat)

1. Acquire New Character

2. Complete Achievements

3. Spend Gems on Cosmetics

(↻ repeat)

RPG core loop examples:

Moment to Moment Minute to Minute Hour to Hour Day to Day
1. Observe Targets

2. Select Skill + Target

3. Fight Targets

4. Receive Experience

(↻ repeat)

1. Navigate Room

2. Defeat Random or 3. Placed Enemies

4. Loot Chests

(↻ repeat)

1. Explore Areas
2. Complete Dungeons

3. Gain Levels & Wealth

4. Visit Shops(↻ repeat)

1. Complete Story Arcs

2. Complete Challenges

3. Defeat Bosses

4. Unlock Talents

(↻ repeat)

2D Game core loop examples:


Moment to Moment Minute to Minute Hour to Hour Day to Day
1.1 Run

1.2 Evade

1.3 Defeat

(↻ repeat)

2.1 Pick Tool

2.2 Overcome Terrain

2.3 Continue

(↻ repeat)

1. Room Exploration

2. Secret Finding

3. Loot Collection

(↻ repeat)

1. Clear Levels

2. Find New Tool

3. Defeat New Enemies

4. Backtrack to unlock areas

(↻ repeat)

1. Clear Zones

2. Defeat Bosses

3. Base Progression / Achievements

(↻ repeat)

Platformer / Sidescroller

Moment to Moment Minute to Minute Hour to Hour Day to Day
1. Run

2. Jump

3. Collect Coins

(↻ repeat)

1. Clear screens

2. Overcome new hazard/enemy combinations

(↻ repeat)

1. Clear entire levels

2. Defeat zone bosses

3. Discover shortcuts

(↻ repeat)

N / A

RTS core loop examples:

Moment to Moment Minute to Minute Hour to Hour Day to Day
1. Manage Workers

2. Micro Soldiers

3. Queue Unit Builds

4. Scout Map

(↻ repeat)

1. Harvest Resources

2. Build New Structures

3. Research new tech

(↻ repeat)

1. Clear campaigns

2. Unlock new missions

3. Obtain new permanent upgrades

4. Achievements

(↻ repeat)

1. Improve Core Skills

2. Improve Strategy

Improve Micro

3. Play PvP Missions

4. Acquire ELO/Rank

(↻ repeat)

MOBA core loop examples:

Moment to Moment Minute to Minute Hour to Hour Day to Day
1. Move Hero

2. Cast Spells

3. Last Hit Minions

(↻ repeat)

1. Return to base

2. Acquire Items

3. Challenge objectives

(↻ repeat)

1. Play games

2. Acquire progression

3. Unlock stats progression / points

(↻ repeat)

1. Unlock new champions

2. Play new team compositions

3. Develop better skills / rank

(↻ repeat)

Board & Card Games core loop examples:

Moment to Moment Minute to Minute Hour to Hour Day to Day
1. Move Pieces

2. Buy / Sell

3. Plan for future rounds

(↻ repeat)

1. Determine Objectives

2. Challenge other players

3. Collect victory points

(↻ repeat)

1. Play full games

2. Strategize w/ Friends

3. Master and Learn

(↻ repeat)

N / A

Bringing It Together

It’s not enough for your core loops to just exist and be repeatable, they need to feed back into your smaller loops, changing the experience slightly, be it through new skills, new enemies, new rewards or just a different narrative experience.

This example below using a generic MMORPG showcases how new characters, raids, achievements and cosmetics all encourage players to go back into the content they’ve already experienced.

This is what helps extend the lifespan of the game – the idea that new experiences can be achieved in a place you’ve mastered and are now increasingly familiar with.


You should sketch the ways that each new element expands the core experience of the game out like the diagram above.

Ensure that everything creates a cycle. You’ll quickly notice that while core gameplay loops repeat, progression loops expand outward, feed back into the core gameplay to add variation, and ultimately require additional content to support long-term.

The amount of progression your game needs will vary depending on the type of game you’re making and how long your audience expects to be playing it.

Dishonored has far less progression than Legend of Zelda: LTTP, and both have less progression than Skyrim. All three are considered masterpieces of game loop design and lead the industry.

The amount of progression and number of loops alone does not create greatness, but rather the quality of their execution.

How do you learn to design better gameplay loops consistently?

1. Remember the essentials:

  • Challenge
  • Action
  • Reward (or punishment)

2. And apply this at ALL time scales of the game:

  1. Moment to moment
  2. Minute to minute
  3. Hour to hour
  4. Day to day

3. Make sure your core loop achieves all five pillars of an ideal ‘fun’ player experience:

  1. Clarity
  2. Motivation
  3. Response
  4. Satisfaction
    1. Viscerality
    2. Strategy
  1. Fantasy (fit)

If you want to learn more about the psychology that drives the player during these loops and how to implement the five pillars, feel free to check out First Principles of Game Design Skill Development Program.

Core gameplay loops final thoughts

Building core gameplay loops that keep the players engaged is one of the essential skills of designing any game.

I hope this guide provides you with some actionable insights.

If you have any questions for me feel free to comment below or chat with other game developers and me in the #game-design channel in the Funsmith Club Discord.

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[STUDIO] Blizzard Entertainment: Content, mechanics, and systems designer

(Creator of Apex Legends & former Creative Director at Respawn)

[GAME] World of Warcraft: MMORPG with 8.5 million average monthly players, won Gamer’s Choice Award – Fan Favorite MMORPG, VGX Award for Best PC Game, Best RPG, and Most Addictive Video Game.

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[GAME] Diablo 3: Playtested and provided design feedback during prototyping and development

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(Former Technical Game Designer at Riot Games)

[GAME] League of Legends: Team-based strategy MOBA with 152 million average active monthly players, won The Game Award for Best Esports Game and BAFTA Best Persistent Game Award.

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[STUDIO] Moon Studios: Senior game designer

(Former Lead Game Designer at Moon Studios)

[GAME] Ori & The Will of The Wisps: 2m total players (423k people finished it) with average 92.8/100 ratings by 23 top game rating sites (including Steam and Nintendo Switch).

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