Three’s Company


Today, 41 of the top 100 grossing U.S. games in the iOS App Store fall into one of these categories: (1) Slots, (2) Match-3, or (3) Merge.

What do they all have in common? The number three. Slot game players chase triplets with their money, while match-3 and merge players chase triplets with their time.

This begs the question, then, why are we seemingly obsessed with the number three?

It all comes down to the way we humans process information. By necessity we have evolved to become adept at pattern recognition, and to communicate effectively, that pattern needs to be as small as possible. So what is the smallest number required to make a pattern? Three.

This “rule of three” is in fact an already well known principle in many different disciplines, especially writing:

The rule of three is a writing principle that suggests that a trio of events or characters is more humorous, satisfying, or effective than other numbers. The audience of this form of text is also thereby more likely to remember the information conveyed because having three entities combines both brevity and rhythm with having the smallest amount of information to create a pattern. It makes the author or speaker appear knowledgeable while being both simple and catchy.Slogans, film titles and a variety of other things have been structured in threes, a tradition that grew out of oral storytelling. Examples include the Three Little Pigs, Three Billy Goats Gruff, and the Three Musketeers. Similarly, adjectives are often grouped in threes to emphasize an idea.The Latin phrase “omne trium perfectum” (everything that comes in threes is perfect, or, every set of three is complete) conveys the same idea as the rule of three.

The application of the rule of threes in gaming extends even beyond the casual space. One of the oldest games of all time, rock paper scissors, dates back to circa 200 BCE, and even to this day we can see numerous applications of its zero-sum gameplay system applied in countless video games, especially RPGs:

The game of chance is so deeply embedded in game design, it might be easier to think of video games that aren’t rock, paper, scissors. It’s a classic building block of the wheel of luck and/or skill that makes up nearly every video game, from its transparent use in RPG element wheels to FPS games like Doom where weapons are based on properties like burst damage and hitstun.

StarCraft’s own version of “rock paper scissors”

The “rule of three” relates to pattern recognition, and patterns are essentially the building blocks of learning. Nintendo’s famed game designer Shigeru Miyamoto has also championed his own “Rule of Threes” variant as it pertains to level design: “Before you challenge the player with a new feature, you should first present it in three easy, but varied situations.”


Source: “The Rule of Threes in action: Preparing the player for Koopa”

Rather than just let the player deal with Koopa and meet instant death, the player is given a short training course on fireballs. First, a fireball comes straight at you in isolation. Then, the terrain changes and the fireballs come at different heights. Finally, the fireballs start to come more quickly. The player has been “primed” for battling Koopa before the fight has even begun.

Note that this post, too, was purposefully constructed with three case studies to hopefully maximize your recognition and acceptance of this pattern. ;)

What other applications of the “rule of three” have you seen in games? Let us know in the comments below!