The "Strange Attractor" in Video Game Design
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I initially published this post in my personal blog Quarterview.com. Check it out to learn more mobile gaming design techniques, analysis, and industry opinions.
Before gameplay, mechanics, monetization, or any other key design consideration, a new video game design needs to consider the most important aspect of all: a good concept.
Feature film screenwriter Terry Rossio (credits include Shrek, Pirates of the Caribbean, Aladdin, and many others) developed the notion of a "Strange Attractor" to help other screenwriters understand how to create compelling film concepts for movie audiences. This was further adapted and refined for books by authors from the group Writing Excuses. Without such a concept Rossio argues: "Very often the screenwriter has picked, from the start, a concept that even in its best form isn't the type of story that sells to Hollywood."
Video games (like movies and books) are just another entertainment medium in which the principle of a strange attractor applies. In this post, I:
- Explain what a "strange attractor" is, and
- Show examples of its use in video games.
What is a "Strange Attractor"?
Terry Rossio (from his website) describes the strange attractor as follows:
Put 'strange' (meaning 'unique') and 'attractor' (from 'attractive,' meaning 'compelling') together and you get 'strange attractor,' or 'something unique that is also compelling.
There must be some aspect that is compelling, enticing, and intriguing.
You could call it a hook, or a gimmick, or a twist. Hollywood sometimes calls it a 'high concept' -- an idea for a movie that can be stated in one or two sentences.
You'd better design an attractor into your movie. You need to know exactly what it is. You should be able to point to it and talk about it, the same way you talk about characters and theme and plot.
The principle of a strange attractor requires that you give your audience something they can easily understand and that feels intriguing and compelling to try. Whether it's a movie, a book, or a game, the initial attraction needs to be there to get someone to give the product a chance.
In the free to play game space this principle primarily impacts:
- Marketing: Initial marketing conversion in attracting users without a compelling concept (lower click-through rates on marketing copy)
- Retention: Overall retention as users quickly cycle out of the game when they can't see clear differentiation and lack a compelling motivation to stay
- LTV: The lower retention then impacts customer life time value (LTV) reducing the overall game economics
Strange Attractor Formula: Familiar + Strange
Authors from the group Writing Excuses more concisely summarize the a strange attractor as mixing the "familiar" with the "strange." As Howard Tayler from Writing Excuses puts it:
Take a fairly mundane idea and something that was out there or extraordinary and merge them together.
Some good examples mentioned by the Writing Excuses authors in fiction include:
- Stories about high school which everyone can relate to and often used as the setting in Japanese manga. This is the familiar piece: "something that you can relate to, something that is already in your head." But then you add the strange part which may be that the teacher is an alien or robot.
- "The idea of worm gate transportation connecting the galaxy was extraordinary, but now it is almost cliché. But when I thought about what would happen if the transportation copied people and someone abused that, then I had something extraordinary again."
In addition, some additional key insights the Writing Excuses team mention:
- Genres Evolve: What may be considered strange today may quickly be considered familiar tomorrow. The creator needs to keep in mind when "what was original becomes cliche."
- Different Expectations: The expectation of how much familiar vs. strange differs by product class or genre. For example, in fiction the romantic book audience typically wants 99% the same with maybe just a name change. Manga readers may want 70% familiar and 30% strange, however, science fiction book audience may expect 70% new/strange and 30% familiar.
- Know Your Audience: Because different audiences have different expectations you need to understand your market and know what percentage of familiar vs. strange that they expect. Also, learn to anticipate what is the familiar and what is the strange for your market as it evolves.
Strange Attractors in Video Games
So what about games?
The relevance of the strange attractor principle to games becomes more clear with the understanding of one further wrinkle: the impact of competitive intensity.
For example, the requirement for a strange attractor generally differs by platform based on competitive intensity (number of available titles) on that platform: millions of apps in the app store for mobile vs. relatively few titles published every year on console means that console titles garner much greater individual attention. Hence mobile titles in general typically have a higher requirement for a strange attractor. See below:
Further, within say the mobile gaming platform, each game market will have different levels of competitive intensity e.g., there are only a few MOBAs (“multiplayer online battle arena” games like League of Legends) hence unique differentiation not so necessary as making yet making another “Clash of Clans” type of game requires a strong strange attractor.
Mobile Game Examples
Let’s examine some examples of strange attractor use in practice. A good current example of the strange attractor principle is the recent launch of DomiNations by Big Huge Games. On the face of it, just another Clash of Clans clone, but the Big Huge team were able to create a compelling product by juxtaposing the notion of Clash of Clans gameplay (the familiar) with the age evolution concept from Civilization (the strange).
See the DomiNations game HUD below:
Users can immediately see the differentiation from Clash of Clans: the art style, roads, hunting & mining, garrisons, resources, build gating system, and of course the progression of the town hall into new ages of civilization. All of these things add to the unique flavor of the game and message differentiation to the user. Again this is critical for a highly competitive genre.
Key Point: The user must be able to quickly and easily see and understand the unique differentiation.
No Strange Attractor Example
Clash of Lords 2 by IGG serves as a good example of a game with good gameplay (arguably much better than existing competitive product) but I would argue that because it lacked a strong strange attractor was unable to generate audience interest. In fact, IGG launched two Clash of Clans-like games: Castle Clash and Clash of Lords 2. However, IGG achieved some success with Castle Clash yet failed with Clash of Lords 2.
IGG launched a very small iteration to Clash of Clans but did it relatively early - 1 year after Clash of Clans - and was the first game to add the idea of hero units to the gameplay. Launched in October of 2013, that incremental gameplay was just enough to help Castle Clash gain fairly decent traction and has been a top 50 - 170 grossing game from that period. However, 1 year after Castle Clash, IGG followed up with Clash of Lords 2. By this time the Clash gameplay and the notion of heroes had become cliche. Therefore Clash of Lords 2 failed to gain much traction despite having better gameplay (e.g., active skills in battle, hero troop units, hero gacha fusion) than Castle Clash.
As you can see from the above, the two games look very similar: from color to art style to UI structure. Unfortunately for IGG, the differences in the gameplay don't quickly come through to the new game player. In fact, a new player jumping in can't clearly understand what is cool and compelling about the game and with hundreds of clones to choose from, the new player will quickly bounce out. Hence, although a better game, there is no strange attractor and I submit the key reason why the game failed to achieve much commercial success.
In Traditional Video Games
In console gaming we see much less need for the use of strange attractors given the relatively few titles launched on consoles every year. More generally, console titles tend to compete based upon production value (e.g., graphics), brand, story, and proven team/developer (e.g., Bungie/Kojima). However, even in this space we have seen a number of titles that have arguably been significantly helped by the presence of a strange attractor:
- Grand Theft Auto:
- Familiar: Typical action-adventure gameplay, Use of familiar cities
- Strange: You get to be the bad guy
- Tomb Raider:
- Familiar: Typical action-adventure gameplay, Indiana Jones setting
- Strange: Use of hot female protagonist (remember this was 1996)
- Dead or Alive:
- Familiar: Typical VS. fighting gameplay
- Strange: "Boob" technology, over the top use of busty female characters
In the PC gaming space, we see greater use of strange attractors in games but I would argue that teams should still think more carefully about this concept before developing their games.
As a current example, take the recent explosion of games in the open world survival horror category without much high-concept differentiation: DayZ, Rust, H1Z1, The Forest, Survive the Nights, Frozen State, Dying Light, etc. etc. As greater competition enters the market, the audience will no longer care so much about the cool new gameplay mechanic but instead focused more on what is the strange attractor to help garner the new player's interest.
Anyone competing in a highly competitive game category needs to consider what the strange attractor for their game is. Designers also need to be cognizant of their market and audience. For the particular game category, ask these key questions:
- What percentage familiar vs. strange is appropriate?
- What would be considered original for this genre?
- At what point do specific novel ideas become cliche?
Opportunities exist for smart developers who can think through key competitive gameplay categories on any platform - where gameplay risk typically has largely already been de-risked - and (with solid game design) determine the strange attractor that will get them the new player attention to give their game a chance.
Before you start your new game project, ask yourself: What is my game's strange attractor?