03 Apr

OCR loops in game design

OCR loops, which stands for “Objective, Challenge, Reward”, are a pattern of game design that I learned from the experts at Ubisoft. They are used to describe various levels of motivation in such a way that challenges can be distributed throughout the game to keep the player engaged.

What constitutes an OCR loop?

In its simplest form, an OCR loop is a diagram that binds together 3 elements:

  • Objective: A clear goal given by the game to the player.
  • Challenge: Obstacles that the player has to overcome by demonstrating certain skills.
  • Reward: What the player receives for completing the objective.

Let’s see concretely what these elements mean with the example of a quest in Assassin’s Creed Odyssey:

  • Objective: Elpenor, a non-player character, tells the player to recover the stolen shroud of Penelope.

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  • Challenge: The player needs to infiltrate Odysseus’s Palace, which will require mental skills such as strategy (analyzing the situation with the help of the eagle Ikaros) and tactical choices (short-term decisions to attack a guard or not), as well as physical skills such as precision and timing (pressing buttons at the right moment to assassinate a guard for example).

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  • Reward: When the mission has been completed successfully, the player reports back to Elpenor and receives the woven shroud of Penelope, as well as some XP.

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We have now drawn an OCR diagram and defined its elements but it is not very “loopy” yet, in the sense that the relation between rewards (last step of one cycle) and objective (first step of the next cycle) is not visible.

OCR loops and motivation

Game Director Marc Albinet further enriched the diagram with extra elements highlighting the relationship between OCR loops and motivation. This is how he drew it:

OCR loop game design

Conquering a well-crafted OCR loop is very satisfying for the player because it is both intrinsically rewarding, thanks to the correct use of skills, and extrinsically rewarding via the completion of the objective and subsequent reward.

Alignment of loops

OCR loops are a powerful tool when we understand how they can be distributed in time to create satisfying experiences that keep players engaged in the long run. I learned the following visualization from another Ubisoft game designer (who didn’t want to be credited). It shows the importance of aligning the loops from the micro through the macro level.

In the middle, we find the objective that gives a meaning and direction to the mission, as with the quest to recover Penelope’s shroud. This level corresponds to the duration of a play session:

Under it, the mini level corresponds to a smaller unit of gameplay that, when conquered in combination with other mini-objectives, allows the player to progress toward the accomplishment of the mission:

At a micro level, we find the challenges at the level of the core gameplay, which are the actions that the player will perform repetitively:

Even micro challenges have their own cycle of objective, challenge and reward. For example, during combat in Assassin’s Creed a well-timed dodge will slow down time and give the player an edge. Or in Mario Kart, managing to drift in a bend will build up a turbo boost.

Finally, at a macro level, the story binds all OCR loops together by giving them a purpose:

A good design takes all these levels into account. Describing OCR loops can be used as an alignment practice within the team to ensure that the game progression keeps players in a state of flow.

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