The “Strange Attractor” in Video Game Design

Context

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 fantasy novelist Brandon Sanderson et al. 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:

  1. Explain what a “strange attractor” is, and
  2. Show examples of its use in mobile gaming.

What is a “Strange Attractor”?

Terry Rossio (from his blog) 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.

Before you even begin your next game design, think: What is the strange attractor for this game?

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.

For a mobile game this 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

The podcasting crew of Writing Excuses suggests that a good way to think about developing a strange attractor is by mixing the “familiar” with the “strange.” As author Howard Tayler 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:

  1. 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.
  2. “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 from the Writing Excuses podcast speakers:

  1. Genres Evolve: What may be considered strange today may quickly be considered familiar tomorrow. As an example, the typical kids in high school type of story popularized by Japanese manga. It used to be novel to have high school students + the teacher is an alien/monster/robot. Yet today, with the popularization we begin to expect the monster to appear when we now see another kids in high school story. “What was original becomes cliche.”
  2. 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.
  3. 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. Finally, think deeply about whether your audience truly considers your extraordinary/strange bits truly original or not.

For more information, you can listen to the really brilliant discussion about this here:

Strange Attractors in Mobile Games

So what about games?

In mobile gaming in particular, given the incredibly high competitive intensity, I believe that having a strange attractor is critical. I further submit that the importance of having a strange attractor increases if you are developing a game in a highly competitive game category such as a Clash of Clans type of game or a march battle game like Game of War. In other words, if you’re building another Clash game you need to have a lot more original/strange content than if you were to develop a game in a category that is relatively new and with few competitors (e.g., currently the idle game, tactical combat, story based, or MOBA categories).

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).

In games, we must message the strange attractor both in the marketing of the product but also in the initial/early game experience.

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.

No Strange Attractor Example

A good example of how a company screwed up by not developing a strange attractor is the company IGG with their game Clash of Lords 2. 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.

What happened?

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.

Why?

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.

Conclusion

Anyone competing in a highly competitive game category needs to consider what the strange attractor to 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?

Just to be clear though: I’m not saying you shouldn’t target a niche audience. For example, Tolkienesque fantasy books have generally fallen out of favor and evolved to non-elf/dwarf, non-hero’s journey storylines, etc. (mentioned by the Writing Excuses authors). However, a small market still exists for Tolkienesque/hero’s journey stories. The key point though is that you as a designer need to understand the market you are addressing and, if necessary, what it takes to address a broader audience.

What is your game’s strange attractor?

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