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The "Strange Attractor" in Video Game Design

by Joseph Kim on 05/20/15 02:13:00 pm   Expert Blogs   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutras community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.



I initially published this post in my personal 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 includeShrek,Pirates of the Caribbean,Aladdin, and many others) developed the notionof a "Strange Attractor" to help otherscreenwriters understand how to create compelling film concepts for movie audiences. This was further adapted and refined for books by authors from the groupWriting 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:

  1. Explain what a "strange attractor" is, and
  2. Show examples of its use in video games.

What is a "Strange Attractor"?

Terry Rossio (from hiswebsite) 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 giveyour 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 spacethis 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 groupWriting Excusesmore concisely summarize the astrange attractor asmixing the "familiar" with the "strange." As Howard Tayler fromWriting Excusesputs it:

Take a fairly mundane idea and something that was out there or extraordinary and merge them together.

Some good examples mentioned by theWriting Excusesauthors 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 clich. 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,someadditional key insights theWriting Excusesteam mention:

  1. 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."
  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 understandyour market and know what percentage offamiliar 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 VideoGames

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 ofapps 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:

Screenshot 2015-05-15 13.39.10

Further, within say the mobile gaming platform, each game market will have different levelsof competitive intensity e.g., there are only a few MOBAs (“multiplayer online battle arena” games likeLeague of Legends) hence unique differentiation not so necessary as making yet making another “Clash of Clans” type of game requires a strong strange attractor.

Screenshot 2015-05-15 13.40.14

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 ofDomiNationsby Big Huge Games. On the face of it, just anotherClash of Clansclone, but the Big Huge team were able to create a compelling product by juxtaposing the notion ofClash of Clansgameplay (the familiar) with the age evolution concept fromCivilization(the strange).

Screenshot 2015-05-02 19.58.26In games, we must message the strange attractor both in the marketingof the product but also in the initial/early game experience.

SeetheDomiNationsgame HUD below:

2015-04-22 00.30.27

Users can immediately see the differentiationfromClash 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 thingsadd to the unique flavor of the game and message differentiation to the user. Again this is critical for a highly competitive genre.

KeyPoint:The user must be able to quickly and easily see and understand the unique differentiation.

No Strange Attractor Example

Clash of Lords 2by IGGserves asagood 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 generateaudience interest. In fact, IGG launched twoClash of Clans-like games:Castle ClashandClash of Lords 2. However, IGG achieved some success withCastle Clashyetfailed withClash of Lords 2.

What happened?

IGG launcheda very small iteration toClash of Clansbut did it relativelyearly - 1 year afterClash 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 helpCastle Clashgain fairly decent traction and has been a top 50 - 170 grossing game from that period. However, 1 year afterCastle Clash, IGG followed up withClash of Lords 2.By this time the Clash gameplay and the notion of heroes had become cliche. ThereforeClash of Lords 2failed to gain much traction despite having better gameplay (e.g., active skills in battle, hero troop units, hero gacha fusion) thanCastle Clash.


Screenshot 2015-05-02 20.19.49

As you can see from the above, the two games look very similar: from color to art style toUI structure. Unfortunately for IGG, the differences in the gameplay don't quickly come through to the new game player. In fact,anew player jumping in can't clearly understand what is cool and compelling about the game andwith 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 Jonessetting
    • 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 developingtheir 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?

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