Posted by: seanmalstrom | February 2, 2013

Malstrom’s Law

When I keep referencing arcade games or 8-bit or 16-bit, it has nothing to do with nostalgia. It has to do with where I believe is the ‘sweet spot’ for gaming satisfaction.

Games cannot be too big or too small. If a game is too small, like an Atari 2600 title, people will buy many games of which many are garbage. Consumers get burnt and turn away from gaming. But if a game is too big, the consumer gets frustrated that he cannot finish it or that it hogs time from other activities (such as real world events or other games).

Consider movies. While movie lengths differ, every movie is around two hours. This didn’t always used to be the case. Back half a century ago, Hollywood made ‘epics’ such as Ben-Hur or The Ten Commandments which were like four hours with the intermission. Aside from the spectacle, that format is just too long.

Television shows were always shorter due to their format. Most television shows are around an hour to half an hour in length. Starting in the 90s going forward, TV shows began to serialize themselves which works fantastic in DVD playbacks or through streaming services. You’re not just watching random episodes. The shows are progressing somewhere.

Gaming is a medium that doesn’t know what the ‘sweet spot’ for length is. Games keep varying wildly in their ‘bloat factor’.

I believe a good ‘norm’ of gaming is the 8-bit and 16-bit generations. What type of games did we have there?

Unlike the Atari Era, the NES Era was remarkably different because Nintendo imposed a limit that only 5 games could be published by a company. Yamauchi was forcing game companies to not just spit out games (that helped lead to the crash in the Atari era) but to made the games they put out have good quality. If you could only have five games a year, you would make sure they were higher quality since that is what the company was relying on. (There are problems with the 5 games limit of course. Not every game company is the same size. Some game companies made new corporate entities just to publish an additional five games. But for the time period, it worked to fix the Atari Era problem.)

What was the NES experience like? Well, there were many, many games to choose from and they were very arcade-like.

Aside from a few titles (Kung Fu, 10-yard fight, and Slalom), all the games above were nearly launch titles for the NES and all were made by Nintendo. How did Nintendo put out so many games so fast? One, the NES was released a few years earlier in Japan and took advantage of the first year or two of NES designed games. Nintendo also created a type of ‘Virtual Console’ for the NES with the releasing of their arcade games such as Donkey Kong.

Even today, just the games on that list would satisfy me for quite a significant while. Most of the games seem very arcade-like with the exceptions of a few MASSIVE titles such as Legend of Zelda, Adventure of Link, and Metroid. Punch-Out was also a big title.

Have you noticed everyone saying ‘tablet gaming is going to kill consoles’ or ‘smartphone gaming is going to kill handheld consoles?’ The reason why that is being said is that they are noticing people enjoying smaller games. But are these ‘casual games’ any different than what is on the poster above? To Trip Hawkins’s great disappointment, NES succeeded despite PC gaming.

Then how did games like Dragon Quest and Final Fantasy succeed on the NES? Or what about some PC game ports such as Shadowgate? If arcade gaming is The Way, then how did those games find success?

I believe there is enough data out there to suggest a link to what creates consumer satisfaction. It seems to be a law that operates in the background for all gaming:

The satisfaction of the gaming experience is directly proportional to the potential difference of concentration required from the gamer (or resistance the game offers) and the length of the game (or concentration of coolness).

The reason why arcade games worked is because the more concentration a game needed, the shorter and cooler the game was. It proved satisfying in that respect. But long games such as RPG or strategy games could prosper because they required much less concentration from the player. They didn’t need to be as flashy either.

High concentration and high length of time means the game feels like a chore. Low concentration and low length of time feels like there is no game there at all.

A game such as Donkey Kong requires much work from the player. The player must be ready to jump over the barrels or fireballs at an instant. One hit kills.

A game such as Super Mario Brothers requires less work from the player. The player has multiple paths to avoid enemies (which wasn’t available in Donkey Kong). The player also can get hit and stay alive. Super Mario Brothers could also be a much larger game because it doesn’t require as much work. A game like Super Mario Brothers 3 or Super Mario World could be even larger because it requires less concentration. You can literally fly or leap over entire stages and win.

The shmup is a game that requires high concentration. However, the game isn’t long. This is why the game is satisfying.

A game like Dragon Quest or Final Fantasy requires low concentration. You can play the game with only one hand (and there were one handed controllers made for that purpose). You could play the game drunk as well. This allowed the game to be much, much, much longer and ‘vaster’ in order to make up the difference in the lack of concentration.

2d Mario has always been a ‘big game’ to me. It is a ‘big game’ on that chart of course. Yet, everyone keeps treating it as a small game which reveals just how bloated most games today are.

When we moved into the 16-bit Era, I became agitated. The games were getting much, much longer, but they were also requiring less concentration. Sonic the Hedgehog only required one button and not that much concentration. But it was a VERY LARGE and very long game.

When Final Fantasy 6 came out, I remember thinking, “This is as largest a game I ever desire on a game console.” This hasn’t changed in twenty years. Yet today, Final Fantasy 6 is considered a ‘handheld game experience’. With many people gaming on handhelds (such as Japan), is it perhaps due to overshooting in many other areas? Why is it that the level of gaming people are enjoying on ‘casual games’ always match a similar level of 8-bit or 16-bit gaming?

I think Malstrom’s Law reveals many problems with games that may be invisible otherwise.

Take the problems of Starcraft 2. Many people feel the game is a chore. According to Malstrom’s Law, that means the gamers are putting out more concentration than they should with the game length. How is Starcraft 2 requiring so much more concentration? For one, the game is much, much faster than the original Starcraft. Two, there is more ‘busywork’ throughout the entire game such as using Nexus energy or Queen larva injects. But isn’t the length of the game short? I would not call a half hour minimal for each game session to be ‘short’. It is quite long in fact. The original Starcraft was slower, had no ‘busywork’ throughout the game in terms of managing larva injects or Nexus energy, and most people played Starcraft on maps like Big Game Hunters (high resource maps). They played that way even in South Korea. So we can determine that Blizzard’s effort to ‘band-aid’ Starcraft 2’s problems of ‘ladder anxiety’ with an experience bar will not be successful. Starcraft 2 needs to require less concentration in order to maximize satisfaction levels. If you play the early RTS games today, it is stunning just how slow they are. Yet, we found that exciting and fun back in that time period.

And if we apply Malstrom’s Law to the MOBA games, what do we find? We find there is MUCH less concentration in order to succeed in the period of time (45 min or so) than Starcraft 2. Therefore, the satisfaction level goes up. It also shows that DOTA 2 will not ‘crush’ League of Legends because DOTA 2 requires more concentration for that same period of game length.

Look at World of Warcraft. Does that game require a ton of concentration? Only during a raid boss, perhaps. The times are few and far between of needing concentration. Yet, World of Warcraft is a HUGE game in terms of length. Blizzard requiring less concentration for WoW as the game got larger was actually a good move in maintaining satisfaction levels.

The problem with Malstrom’s Law is that the optimal satisfaction ratio between concentration needed and the game length is not identical with every gamer. Most people are in the same ballpark, but there are differences. What is the game maker’s solution for that?

The solution is for the game maker to allow the gamer to adjust the faucet of concentration needed for the game to flow out. There are many ways to do this.

-Difficulty Levels

Different difficulty levels allows gamers to adjust the game to a ratio they like. Shmups use difficulty levels as do FPS games. Difficulty levels have been used so long because it is very successful at allowing the player to adjust the concentration level required.

-RPG Levels

RPGs use an interesting technique to adjust the concentration levels required through leveling. The lower level you attack a boss, the more concentration is required in order to win. The higher level you attack a boss, the less concentration is required in order to win. Metroid and Zelda also use ‘RPG levels’ in terms of energy tanks, heart containers, or more weapons. In other words, you appear at the boss with ‘more power’.


PC game mods can work as a valve to alter the concentration levels in games. The UI mods of World of Warcraft are famous for this.

-Geographic placement

Games like Minecraft adjust concentration levels by how the player places himself or herself into the world. If the player wants to concentrate hard, the player runs around at night with many monsters. If the player wishes to just stay away from monsters, this can be done as well if the player stays in nicely torched areas. While Minecraft does offer difficulty levels, most of the concentration level is adjusted based on geographic placement. Turn based strategy games also have difficulty levels but their levels of concentration are adjusted primarily through geographic placement. Don’t want to fight in a war? Don’t build your city next to the enemy empire.

It’s tempting for game makers to want to make a game that does everything, that is so elastic it can satisfy everyone. But can every recipe satisfy everyone? Of course not. The big problem with games is that while concentration levels can be adjusted through various means, the game length or game coolness cannot.

So if I’m correct, the next mega hits are going to be games that allow the player to somehow adjust the length or concentrated coolness of the game. How could this be done?


We’ve seen how game editors can add life to a game. If a player wants more levels, they can simply make it themselves. Would Lode Runner be such a big hit without the map editor? Or what about Warcraft 2, 3, or Starcraft? With DLC, many game companies are trying to remove game editors, but they are also removing an important tool for gamers to adjust the length of the game to satisfy their needs. The game editor should not be viewed as a way for the gamer to play ‘infinitely’ without ever paying again. That is as absurd as thinking as offering an easier difficulty level is ‘cheating’ the experience. All people are different and have different needs of concentration or game length they desire.

-Self-Generating Length

This includes randomization. A game like Minecraft offers a nearly infinite world. How long is the game? It is as long as you want. And that is the correct answer. Some games like FTL offer randomization. This also offers greater length but it is too dependent on the roll of the dice. Sometimes, you get the same event frequently.

Self-generating game worlds are something game makers should seriously consider if they are unwilling to include level editors.

Offer me what you think of ‘Malstrom’s Law’. But I do stress that I still believe we are in the pioneer days of gaming, that gaming has not become mature yet. There is much we still do not understand about gaming. Just because we strive to learn more about how it works does not mean we love it any the less.



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