Ladies, gentlemen, non-binaries, and whatever other thing you designate yourself as, welcome to another Acts of Terrorism. Don’t worry, this one isn’t Star Wars-related; I think I finally got all of that out of my brain space. No, dear reader, today I return you to your regularly-scheduled programming of my insight massaging your grey matter as it relates to design and the theory behind it. Today’s topic is familiarity and how important a tool it is when you set out to actually create something. Shall we begin? No? Well this is my show, and I say yes.
I will present to you two scenarios to kick this thing off. For the purposes of apt comparison, assume in both scenarios the game/movie is exactly the same, save for the noted differences:
- Let’s assume you see a video game or movie in progress. You know nothing of the rules, mechanics or the plot, but you see/hear the familiar visage/voice of Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson/Tom Hardy/Leonardo DiCaprio/etc as the main character.
- Let’s assume you see a video game or movie in progress. You know nothing of the rules, mechanics or the plot, but you see/hear someone you’ve never seen/heard before as the main character.
Which of the two would you be more likely to give a chance? If your answer is “Number 2,” then congratulations on having a number 2 opinion. I jest. Generally, the answer is Number 1. That’s why posters tend to have a popular actor’s face and name all over the poster and other promotional material, because the exposure effect says we’re programmed to go to what we know.
That is the power of familiarity. It hooks you by appealing to what you expect. This may seem like a bad thing, but in its purest form it isn’t. It’s familiarity that helped our ancestors survive the harshness of nature, because generally speaking, eating a berry you’ve foraged before is safer than eating a berry you’ve never seen before: it’s an evolutionary mechanism.
This principle of exposure isn’t true just for grabbing your attention, it’s true for keeping it. Let’s take Star Wars, for example. George Lucas, the genius he is, looked at all the tried and true tropes inherent in Western storytelling, then combined them in his unique way to create one of the most influential franchises of all time. These tropes he combined are familiar because they’re tried and tested—they’ve endured for centuries, so obviously they must be doing something right, right? Right.
Now how does this apply to game design?
The above image shows cards that are functionally identical: they all do the same thing, basically. In Magic: The Gathering, Llanowar is a location in a specific world. When the story isn’t currently on that world, they had to create a new card that filled the same niche Llanowar Elves did. The one mana 1/1 that taps for one mana is such a basic, intrinsic part of the Green color alignment that it’s generally always part of a Green deck. It’s what players expect, yes, but also something design finds incredibly useful as it ties into Green’s strategy of accelerating its mana production in order to play big creatures. In this case, this is a familiar element because it works so well functionally.
That functionality stuff is all fine and good, but that’s mostly something designers would be thinking about. For players, what’s important about familiarity is this: (I can’t come up with a fancy, roll-off-the-tongue term for this, and I apologize in advance) it reduces how much a person has to learn. Let’s go back to the above example. If you read Llanowar Elves and used it, you now also know how to use Elvish Mystic and Fyndhorn elves too, which essentially lessens the number of cards from a new environment you need to commit to memory.
What have we learned here today? To sum up:
- People like familiarity. It’s comforting and attractive.
- Familiar things are familiar because generally, they’re doing something right.
- They reduce the burden of memorization.
Since this is Acts of Terrorism, and I am me, it’s time we looked at the negative side of this.
Parit enim conversatio contemptum; raritas conciliat admirationem.
“Familiarity breeds contempt, while rarity wins admiration.” – Lucius Apuleius
Let’s talk about what familiarity leads to so many times in pop culture: stagnation (nowadays, often through nostalgia). I feel it is important, however, to note that there is a marked difference between familiarity and stagnation.
Stagnation refers to a lack of progress. You use familiar themes to tell a familiar story in a familiar way.
Note that in this article, I’ve talked about how familiarity helps a game, and not that a game should be familiar. This is a significant distinction because familiarity is a tool. This article is working under the premise that one is using familiar mechanics and concepts to create something unique.
Let us again go back to the example of Llanowar Elves. In one set, Llanowar Elves and its doppelgangers could be there to facilitate summoning powerful creatures early; in another, maybe they’re part of weenie rush strategy; in another, maybe they’re Elf tribal. This is taking the same LEGOs and building something different.
Now let’s look at something that does it wrong.
The above image is a compilation of “Stratoses”. That is, a monster that when summoned allows you to add a monster of a particular group from your deck to your hand. These monsters are typically part of the aforementioned group and usually have a secondary effect that rarely gets used. What makes this substantially different from the Llanowar scenario is these cards have a very limited amount of use. Unlike Llanowar, which gets a ton of mileage out of tapping for Green, being just 1 mana, and being an Elf, these only get mileage out of the last mentioned: being from a specific group.
To explain further, Llanowar Elves can be used in any number of strategies and contribute to them. These guys can only be used with their intended group of cards and always fulfill the same role within that group. Further, Yu-Gi-Oh’s archetypes do not have the versatility of Magic’s 5 colors, so they play very similarly. What this means is, these cards do not represent familiarity, but stagnation. They’re such good effects that you can’t create other cards that can compete, so you end up adding that same “Stratos” effect to every new archetype you create. You’ve locked yourself into this one particular type of card effect.
Going back to Star Wars, just look at Rey and then look at Luke. Look at the entirety of The Force Awakens vs A New Hope. The Force Awakens pulled people in with its promise of nostalgia, did absolutely nothing new and stagnated the franchise and the galaxy without adding anything. I mean, when you look at the Prequel trilogy vs the original movies, the prequels added far more to the galaxy than the originals. They use familiarity to pull people in, and then expand on what was familiar.
Oh wow, I could not even make it through the end of the article without talking about Star Wars. Now you know my weakness, dear reader. See you next time.