A version of this article first appeared in the September 2009 issue of Game Developer magazine.
There are songs that are kind of catchy. Others you just can’t get out of your head. And once, ever so rarely, you hear a song so memorable, you could swear you had heard it before. Song taste is highly personal – different people react to different songs in different ways – but the breakout hits are the ones that resonate on this level with a large number of potential fans.
Creating a breakout hit is no easy manner, in part because the songwriter’s instincts can often be wrong. Steven Tyler of Aerosmith was reportedly surprised that “St. John” from Permanent Vacation was met by collective yawns of their concert-goers. He thought he knew what made a hit – the song had an interesting riff, topical lyrics, was meaty to play live – but somehow just didn’t reach the fans. Today, the song is a footnote in the band’s music catalog.
All creative fields are like this. Sometimes films and books just catch fire. Sometimes, surehanded directors stumble. Pop radio is full of songs like “the Macarena” and “I’m Too Sexy”, all done by bands that later proved to be one-hit wonders unable to repeat their success. And it’s true of games as well.
Resonance – the idea that some art is simply more immediately arresting and intriguing than others – exists in games as it does in film and music. But how much of a black art is it, really? Is resonance something that can be willfully added, shaped and controlled? Or is the concept that some games just stick better than others mostly something best left to luck and fate?
Most people reading this magazine are probably pretty comfortable with the idea that games are fun and sell well for good reasons having to do with good design, technique and craftsmanship. The idea that part of game design is left to fate can be somewhat unnerving. But this can be a trap – the idea that there is a formula to good art is seductive, but it also ignores the subjective nature of art. Sometimes, a book, a movie, or a game, just feels good the first time the players get their hands on it.
In his book Blink, author Malcolm Gladwell cites several studies that points out most people decide whether they like or dislike something in seconds, if not nanoseconds. Whether or not a song lingers often is decided by the opening bars. Whether or not a film resonates can often be decided before the opening credits finish. Whether or not you’re going home with the girl at the bar can often be decided before you blurt out your pickup line.
The First 15 Seconds
It’s no secret among game designers and executives that they have a very short period of time in order to earn a player’s trust and attention. What may be underestimated is how short that time period is. Producers love to press on developers about the ‘first five minutes of gameplay’, when in actuality, a customer may only give the game designer 15 seconds. The player may play beyond that, but by then his initial impressions are set and must be overcome. If Gladwell is right, then it’s useful for the game developer to obsess over whether or not their first 15 seconds are resonating with test audiences. Think that’s too short? Consider: the viral hit Youtube of a Prairie Dog turning his head to the camera is :08 seconds long.
I once heard of a programmer who, in an interview asking what he was most proud of, said he crunched and worked overtime for a month in order to get jumping exactly perfect on his last game. His interviewers were unimpressed by his answer, but I am. What is a player more likely to do in his first 15 seconds but to run, and then jump?
Good, smooth movement is the cornerstone of many games, especially platform games. Having smooth jumping increases the chance of resonance. More importantly, bad jumping is incredibly dissonant – if players feel the movement controls in the first 15 seconds are clumsy or sluggish, they are likely to extend this prejudice to the game as a whole. The designer then has to work harder to overcome these initial judgments.
A game designer’s job, then, can be thought of as trying to build resonance, and whenever possible, remove game aspects that are dissonant for the player. There is undoubtedly elements that are impossible to predict or ascertain, but aspects are certainly within the control of the game developers and should not be left to pure chance.
Resonance of Familiarity
So what goes into resonance? One cornerstone is a certain level of player comfort – feeling comfortable with the setting, the mechanics and his role, as quickly as possible. If getting into the game feels to the player like he is slipping into a comfortable pair of shoes, the game designer has probably successfully built resonance. This is one reason why licenses are so attractive to game designers, but even those working with original designs can leverage this.
Alpha Centauri was a solid and needed evolution to the gameplay found in its predecessor, Civilization II. It offered more depth and strategy than previous Civ games, while still streamlining it in ways the classic Civ design needed streamlining. And yet, when I played it, I mostly felt an urge to find my old Civ disks.
Alpha Centauri was more polished, more streamlined, prettier, and more atmospheric as a whole, but I just couldn’t get into the game the way I could into Civ. I found it’s easier to get excited over discovering Writing, building catapults and crushing the Greek Empire than discovering Applied Gravitonics, building Super Tensile Solids and crushing the Human Hive. The former mean something to me and my life. These ideas have resonance, and they grant that to the game.
A similar example in gaming can be found in Everquest vs. Asheron’s Call. Everquest chose to populate their worlds with standard D&D fare – trolls, orcs, gnomes and dragons. By contrast, Asheron’s Call went to great pains in order to create an entirely invented bestiary – no orcs and trolls here, instead players fought creatures with names like Mattekars, Lugians and Mosswarts. AC may have won points for originality, but for Everquest players, most of whom were playing an online RPG for the first time, the familiar setting and enemies undoubtedly made the game feel like a sort of homecoming.
A Hint of New
But familiarity can (and often is) taken to a fault. Right now, there are musicologists diligently working on algorithms to detect whether any given pop song will be a megahit – and trying to define algorithms to write the next hit song. Some musicians are concerned about this – I’m not. Could the result be anything other than ‘formulaic’?
The games industry is sequel-heavy – it is one of the few creative fields where sequels frequently out-earn the original – but at the same time, the market demands novelty. Players want new way to interact with their old classics and games with little new to offer are viewed as glorified expansion packs.
At the same time, if the player loves a game or a genre, they don’t look kindly to adjustments to the classic game design they see as a step backwards. Players, essentially, want new features that feel like they should have been there the whole time. Studios that trade in sequels, such as EA’s Madden team, are acutely aware of this delicate balance, and take great pains to try to find the franchise’s logical extensions. Sometimes, they stumble – the Quarterback Vision feature from Madden ‘06 was received by many fans as making their beloved game more difficult and wonky to play. But sometimes, they score – when they announced the ability to manage your Madden team from the web this E3, the first words out of my mouth is ‘that’s so obvious!’ If you find yourself saying ‘that’s so obvious!’, it’s very likely you’ve found a new feature with resonance.
Tastes are always changing as well. What resonates today may not have that sort of impact in the future. “Spirit in the Sky” was a monster hit in 1969, selling more than 2 million copies, and it was named one of the top 500 songs of all-time by Rolling Stone. Would the song have nearly the impact if it had been released last year? Doubtful.
Tastes change just as quickly in the game space as well –ask any adventure game fan. What’s more, the skills of game players tend to graduate as well. Competitors to Blizzard hoping to make the next great WoW-killer have a tricky balancing act to achieve. On one hand, you want the gameplay to be familiar and inviting to the WoW population to maximize resonance. On the other hand, though, WoW is now four years old, and even devoted fans are now eagerly looking ahead to the next logical evolution of the genre.
This has some unexpected side effects. Modern FPS players who go back and play Castle Wolfenstein are often shocked at how far the genre has come – since then, the genre has added full 3D environments, multiplayer, jumping, crouching, rolling, cover, alternative fire modes, and full physics simulations. What the designer has to be wary of is the opposite – that the player who has never played a first-person shooter now must learn all at once the skills other FPS players have learned over 20 years. Any time a game has a steep learning curve, the barrier to resonance is all that much higher.
Still, resonance has a large intangible component to it. Personally, I find it intriguing to consider the one-hit wonders and unusual hits. What was it about “Song 2” that Blur could never replicate? Why did Katamari Damacy catch on? Even more intriguing is the internet meme. Did ‘All Your Base’ really merit exploding into the public consciousness? Lessons of resonance abound.
Building games that stick is a black art, but not unteachable. Designers striving for resonance should learn to balance the familiar with the new, be obsessive about the first 15 seconds of gameplay, and do everything to remove dissonant gameplay elements, especially early in the game experience. And don’t just trust your gut – developers are too close and familiar with the game to be objective about it. Run playtests, as early and often as you can.
I remember a designer on Guitar Hero saying, shortly after the game shipped, the studio had no idea if the game would succeed or not. The series has since sold more than 25 million units and Activision claims it to be the third largest franchise in video game history. It’s easy to see why – the game just resonates.