How Games Use Feedback Loops | Game Maker’s Toolkit

How Games Use Feedback Loops | Game Maker’s Toolkit

Playing Pyre over Christmas got me thinking about feedback loops: the reward structures in games that can reinforce or balance out winners and losers. In this episode I’ll explain what this all means, and talk about the design of Pyre’s positive and negative loops.

Support Game Maker’s Toolkit on Patreon –

Have Mark talk at your studio, university, or event –


Solving XCOM’s Snowball Problem | Pentadact

Solving XCOM’s Snowball Problem

Git along there, little doggies | Team Fortress 2

Find Out More

Level 4.4: Feedback Loops | Canvas

Designer’s Notebook: Positive Feedback | Gamasutra

[PPT] Feedback Systems and the Dramatic Structure of Competition | Mark LeBlanc

Games shown in this episode (in order of appearance)

Bastion (Supergiant Games, 2011)
Transistor (Supergiant Games, 2014)
Pyre (Supergiant Games, 2017)
Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare (Infinity Ward, 2016)
Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare (Infinity Ward, 2007)
Chess Ultra (Ripstone Ltd., 2017)
Mario Kart 8 Deluxe (Nintendo, 2017)
Tekken 7 (Bandai Namco, 2017)
Splatoon (Nintendo, 2015)
Forza Horizon 3 (Playground Games, 2016)
Titanfall 2 (Respawn Entertainment, 2016)
Team Fortress 2 (Valve Corporation, 2007)
Arms (Nintendo, 2017)
XCOM 2 (Firaxis, 2016)
Battlefield 4 (EA DICE, 2013)
SteamWorld Dig 2 (Image and Form, 2017)
Final Fantasy XV (Square Enix, 2016)
The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt (CD Projekt, 2015)
Resident Evil 4 (Capcom Production Studio 4, 2005)
NBA 2K18 (Visual Concepts, 2017)
Civilization V (Firaxis Games, 2010)
Dark Souls (From Software, 2011)
Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 (Infinity Ward, 2009)
Call of Duty: Black Ops (Treyarch, 2010)
Devil May Cry (Capcom, 2001)
Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze (Retro Studios, 2014)

Music used in this episode

00:00 – Surviving Exile (Pyre, Darren Korb)
00:58 – Strange Voyage (Pyre, Darren Korb)
04:05 – The Blackwagon (Pyre, Darren Korb)
06:10 – Path to Glory (Pyre, Darren Korb)
07:11 – Moon-Touched (Pyre, Darren Korb)
07:49 – Path to Glory (Pyre, Darren Korb)
08:16 – To the Stars (Pyre, Darren Korb)
10:54 – Surviving Exile (Pyre, Darren Korb)
12:25 – Surviving Exile, Acoustic (Pyre, Darren Korb)
12:47 – k. Part 2 – 01 untitled 1, animeistrash

Other credits


TACTICAL NUKE with AKIMBO Model 1887 – Modern Warfare 2 | TheKoreanSavage


  1. oinky momo on October 31, 2019 at 5:41 pm

    Stale moves in smash are a negative feedback loop

  2. Core Games on October 31, 2019 at 5:43 pm

    This is amazing! Lots of stuff I hadn’t considered before!

  3. Alex F. on October 31, 2019 at 5:45 pm

    Very interesting. Thanks!

  4. pinky on October 31, 2019 at 5:47 pm

    @2:55 the ancient game GO has the same feedback loop as Splatoon.

  5. Poor Soul on October 31, 2019 at 5:48 pm

    that video is really over explained and i hate the name Feedback Loop cause that’s already a term and here the name makes no sense

  6. Vandell on October 31, 2019 at 5:48 pm

    I could imagine a really interesting positive-negative system for XCOM where your top soldiers, upon reaching max rank, can be upgraded into NPC commanders/generals that can carry out missions on their own, and you can send rookies with them.. but they can’t be used by the player anymore. One could pair this by necessarily increasing the number of missions beyond the scope of what the player is able to carry out on their own.

  7. hungry hippos on October 31, 2019 at 5:51 pm

    So there’s a discussion going on about tf2’s trespass time, but not *random crits*. They’re a feedback loop too, just not a very popular one.

  8. Lachlan Russell on October 31, 2019 at 5:51 pm

    Pokémon has a real problem with this. If you avoid trainers early, you’ll be fine until it gets later, and then you won’t be able to level up enough to not be behind without fighting wild Pokémon, which is a grind. Where as in the early game, if you battle all the trainers, it’ll snowball and by the time you get to late game, you don’t even have to think about levelling at all and you can avoid trainers, which gets boring. Either way, you end up doing a grind at some point, and being bored at some point.

    The Pokémon games are literally my favourite games tho. They’re cute and fun and constantly reward you with little victories which makes them great to unwind with

  9. Crab King on October 31, 2019 at 5:51 pm

    So what’s just the bad half of a positive feedback loop called? The EtG feedback loop? Where successes lead to more failures…and failures lead to more failures?

  10. Malik Evans on October 31, 2019 at 5:51 pm

    One good gameplay loop that comes to mind is the boosted stats at low health.

  11. stuart pyclik on October 31, 2019 at 5:52 pm

    I remember my friends telling me about how in Assassin Creed multiplayer (Brotherhood I think?) Towards the end of the time limit a multiplier would be added to the score of those below a certain place (4th?). So what one friend did was intentionally get below that ranking and then kill players using a method which earns the most points, taking full advantage of the multiplier, and winning. It was funny, but I think also an important lesson in using caution with systems that help players who are falling behind. Good players can and will abuse the mechanic if not done right.

  12. Bob Saget on October 31, 2019 at 5:52 pm

    That’s the point of XCOM? It’s steep penalties make every battle tense and losses are a testament to overcoming adversity. It doesn’t need to be fixed.

  13. Brad Butcher on October 31, 2019 at 5:52 pm

    I’m not sure why but I’ve often struggled to wrap my head around the positive / negative loop terms… your explanation with the graphs just cleared it up in a flash. Thanks!

  14. Justin Daley on October 31, 2019 at 5:55 pm

    Sounds like communists propaganda but ok

  15. Shadow Lord Повелитель теней on October 31, 2019 at 5:55 pm

    for good, negative feedback loops you should look at battlefield 1 as it give the team who is loosing a ‘behemoth’ which is a really powerful vehicle that gives the losers an advantage, it could be a blimp, a super tank, a heavily armed train, etc.

  16. Hugo Thomas on October 31, 2019 at 5:55 pm

    This is why I couldn’t get through Ultimate General: Civil War

  17. Ferhad Semseddinli on October 31, 2019 at 5:59 pm

    Crawl is not mentioned here but it has a very unique feedback loop. It is a multiplayer game and you have 2 forms : Wraith and Human. If you are succesful as a Human you will get more powerful as a Human but other player will get more powerful as Wraith making it harder to survive and when you die eventually you will struggle to kill the other Human player as a Wraith and that will prevent you from becoming a Human till you get better as a Wraith

  18. Gargie396 on October 31, 2019 at 5:59 pm

    Wow 5 years of not playing and that kinda pisses me off about TF2 knew there was some BS causal fuckery going on with that game but not to that extent.

  19. Nigward Spider on October 31, 2019 at 5:59 pm

    b r o t h e r , g i v e m e t h e ;
    L O O P S

  20. Zephyrus Mckinnon on October 31, 2019 at 6:00 pm

    Awesome video man! You did an incredible job explaining feedback loops, much better than the 15 books I read on the subject. Subscribed!

  21. doohik on October 31, 2019 at 6:03 pm

    "real world basketball" –uses nba2k clip

  22. Stuart Folkes on October 31, 2019 at 6:04 pm

    Hi Mark. I love your videos they are really informative and I use them with my classes all the time but I have to correct you on this video. At 2.45 you said Tekken does not have any feedback loops? Traditionally this is correct bu in tekken 7 (The game you had loaded) they use a mechanic called "Rage Art" when you get to a certain health point. This is a one button special move that (can be blocked so is not a sure fire balance) when pressed, if it connects, causes a large amount of damage to the other player. It can level the playing field, bring the health bars closer together and if your opponent is further ahead with more health (I think. I could be wrong here) it does additional damage as a combo. It’s a small tweak used game to game but works as a negative feedback loop in that the player who is losing will be given a powerful combo attack that is simple to pull off to help balance the fight. If the other player gets into that health bracket they will also be given the rage art but if by that point the other player is catching up it can still give them the chance to win over. Just a little thing I noticed and wanted to add. Keep up the fantastic content!

  23. Beau Dean on October 31, 2019 at 6:04 pm

    In the game Darkest Dungeon you can spend earnings to upgrade your stagecoach so that you will occasionally get a higher level characture to add to your roster. This is how the game counters the increasing difficulty.

  24. Luiz___ MK on October 31, 2019 at 6:05 pm

    And talking dogs lul

  25. Moisés Santos Oliveira on October 31, 2019 at 6:09 pm

    I thinking that this feedback system should be applied to the school system. Would be much more engaging and interesting to learn from your own success and stuck in some matter.

  26. Iemand on October 31, 2019 at 6:09 pm

    3:30 i thought it was the other way around? oof my life is a lie

  27. Mohammed AL-Rubaye on October 31, 2019 at 6:10 pm

    Are you Mark Brown?

  28. Masoud Jvn on October 31, 2019 at 6:10 pm

    why is game design so complicated?

  29. ParabolicCat on October 31, 2019 at 6:11 pm

    I’m surprised you didn’t mention Street Fighter. The guy getting beaten up worse can end up getting stunned, making him totally lose control of his character and having no way to defend from getting hurt more. It ends up rewarding the aggressive good player who really doesn’t need help to begin with.

  30. Rowan Fitton on October 31, 2019 at 6:13 pm

    I’m a first-year game design student and my tutor was giving a seminar today on playtesting and balancing, in which he showed us this video. Or rather, he tried to show it. We watched the first 20 seconds then he realised the video was 13 minutes long and stopped it. I mean, that’s most of an achievement, right?

  31. Siarhei Pilat on October 31, 2019 at 6:14 pm

    so… feedback loops is basically recursion?

  32. Kyle Hart on October 31, 2019 at 6:15 pm

    TF2 actually makes spawn times longer for the defending team, so you have a positive and a negative feedback loop that serves to make gameplay more interesting and varied without giving either team an inherent advantage, but it can go to far. 5CP in competitive TF2 is brilliant when both teams are willing to attack, but it’s a snoozefest when one team commits fully to defending their point.

  33. Clockwork Games on October 31, 2019 at 6:15 pm

    I like Celeste’s b-sides and c-sides; they encourage more skilled players to play harder levels, without affecting the rest of the game.

  34. Chris Collins on October 31, 2019 at 6:16 pm

    I was never aware of how capturing points in Team Fortress 2 would result in a varied respawn timer, I have over 850 hours in the game and have been playing since 2011. Very insightful vid as always, all subs would benefit from hitting that bell button. :>

  35. Michael Stalker on October 31, 2019 at 6:18 pm

    Massive Chalice has a good way to handle the feedback problem in X-COM. Because the game takes place over several hundred years, your heroes eventually grow old and retire, forcing you to regularly replace them. Additionally, there are necessary non-combat roles that need to be filled, like instructors, researchers, and being the head of a heroic house (or their spouse) that produces more heroes. These make you retire some of your best soldiers in order to maximize the bonuses. You could always ignore these roles, but that would greatly increase the difficulty in the long run.

    It doesn’t completely mitigate the feed back effect, you can build up enough bonuses to have new heroes start at max level for instance, but it does a really good job.

  36. Mars Farnham on October 31, 2019 at 6:20 pm

    I learnt about feedback loops in my systems dynamics class and I would have never associated that with videogames hadn’t it been for you. This makes the concept so much easier to understand! To think those pesky loops can actually be fun

  37. Hell Bent on October 31, 2019 at 6:23 pm

    I think the problem is Mario Kart is that your skill serves no purpose; to really fight back against the feedback loop, there should be a way to time a counter to the blue shell or something, to at least gain some more knowledge about the game and impress your friends. Of course, it would require players to "get good". But I think it would be kinda fair, rather than give all my chances of survival to a random item that might not even appear…

  38. Czesnek on October 31, 2019 at 6:27 pm

    Perma death in games is bullshit. It only encourages players to save-scumming.

  39. movax20h on October 31, 2019 at 6:29 pm

    Few more interesting feedback loops:

    1) Important lack of feedback loop: In Overwatch when executing the Ultimate, hits, kills and assists doesn’t count towards charging your next Ultimate. There might be a one or two minor exceptions (Bob Ultimate of Ashe), but it is it.

    2) In Counter Strike, you get reward (cash) for killing enemies, giving you opportunity to buy better weapons in the next round (or even current one if you want to go back to spawn point). I honestly do not understand how Counter Strike manages to be somehow balanced despite this serious positive feedback loop.

    3) In Starcraft 1 and 2, and many other strategy games, once you have bigger economy than opponent, and win even a single small fight (or destroy some production of the opponent), you immediately get an advantage for long time, to be able to create even bigger economy and create bigger armies, and crush enemy even more. There is no negative feedback per se to it. The only disadvantage is that you will consume resource faster with more production, forcing to expand pretty early, but with enough army, it is almost never a bad thing. There are only minor disadvantages, like enemy be able to find you easier by accident, you needing to manage more units and facilities in real time "micro" (which might be tricky when you have multi prong attack on you), and having bigger army might navigating your units in some chokepoints harder, as well more vulnerable to area damage more.

  40. CaliforniaHP on October 31, 2019 at 6:29 pm

    This is a really important concept that I think creates both a foundation and a long-term enjoyment of a game if they go well. It’s not common to have both. You usually get one or the other where eventually you see the success of a loop – Dark Souls or the loop is really good at the beginning Assassin’s Creed games. I think Celeste does this well. There’s an assist mode if you’re struggling and then are extremely hard challenges if you find secrets and do really well

  41. Jacob West on October 31, 2019 at 6:32 pm

    Hey I’ve been watching tons of your videos lately and the quality of knowledge is unreal👌 what’s your take on the game sinner quest for redemption? Souls-like that starts you off at your strongest and gives you permanent de-buffs every time you beat a boss so your forced to do the boss you perceive as hardest first, and the one you can handle the easiest last. Very interesting concept and I’d love to see a video on it if you made one!

  42. Karl Smink on October 31, 2019 at 6:32 pm

    Need to see more MMORPGs implement mirrored feedback loops for loot drops.
    If nothing drops for you after X time, the drop rate increases, and vice versa. The drop rate tanks when you find something.

  43. Scriptminer on October 31, 2019 at 6:33 pm

    Really interesting! I love these videos 🙂 Thanks!

  44. pixsaoul on October 31, 2019 at 6:34 pm

    Awesome video ! I couldn’t help but to think about a hidden loop in Breath of the Wild :

    [Spoilers ahead]
    the more divine beast you defeat and the more time you invest on the game, the easier ganon actually is to defeat (but a substantial amount). Therefor it is encouraging players to take time in the world exploring and progressing. It is an awesome experience but it can lead to 2 behaviours :
    – Player who love it will spend hours progressing and keep the final battle for as late as possible, can be disapointed by the climax of the game.
    – Other players would like to spend less time in the world overall would find the final boss hard and feel forced to finish some other part of the game first => frustration.
    In that in mind, it seems that any kind of player would think the game was designed for others.
    (it is one of my favorite game of all time, if not number one).

  45. John Terpack on October 31, 2019 at 6:37 pm

    And now I understand why I dislike party games. There is nothing more infuriating than working your ass off to get good at something and get ahead of the pack only to have it taken away by some random nonsense.

  46. stuna210 on October 31, 2019 at 6:39 pm

    Melee’s DI and SDI. Insane

  47. Angry Pirate on October 31, 2019 at 6:40 pm

    Chess actually has negative feedback built-in as well, because your pieces block your own movement they can be a bother to have on the board. With Alpha Chess you can see that it puts little value in the number of pieces it has left but instead prioritizes having all the pieces it does have, in good positions. Tekken also has negative feedback in the form of a power-up that you are rewarded when your character goes down to low health in a round. The game state is restored once the round is over, but it does give you a better chance of coming back even if your opponent is at full health while you have almost nothing.

  48. Mister Make-believe on October 31, 2019 at 6:40 pm

    You mentioned fighting with low level characters in Pyre led to the most "enjoyable" matches. As with all of this, that’s a subjective statement. I mention this because your series of videos are delightful and you make several excellent points thus are truly influential to some of your audience. With the simple statement "enjoyable", you appear to have declared that this is the right way to do it. However, what is enjoyable to you (high risk for high reward in this instance) is not enjoyable for myself (pay off after hard work, thus keeping my high level characters rather than slogging through the maintenance of an entire team). Neither of us are "right" in this instance, because it is a matter of preference. Some people enjoy positive feedback loops (I hate that term), like pvp gear in old WoW arenas where those who reached higher rating got better gear thus made the level of entry impossible for poor to mediocre players. I never understood how this is a good thing, but it was a beloved standard for WoW’s arena at the height of the game’s popularity. I would label this as "personally not enjoyable", rather than "not enjoyable" because clearly it was for many people.

  49. Ririo on October 31, 2019 at 6:40 pm

    XCOM everytimes LUL

  50. Velzek on October 31, 2019 at 6:40 pm

    This is an old video, but I am curious as to what your observation is on Shining Force’s method (Shining Force being an SRPG where you control multiple units in a battlefield against a multitude of enemies), where the higher the level of your characters, the less XP (and less progression) they’d get for killing weaker enemies.

    I remember leveling up one character in particular in Shining Force 3, where he could one-hit almost any normal enemy and deal massive damage to bosses, but unless the enemy was of a similar level, he would gain just 1xp out of a hundred, whereas a weaker character could kill the same enemy and fill a significant portion of their XP to the next level. So it encouraged you to use weaker characters to defeat enemies, while still allowing you to use your overpowered yet slow to advance stronger characters.

    To me, this always seemed like a rather interesting solution to having positive and negative feedback loops, letting you decide to either simply easily win a fight with a specific unit you’ve been nurturing throughout the whole game, or work your weaker characters up so that in the end you’ve have a wider and more balanced set of units that you could feasibly use towards the end of the game.

Leave a Comment