Looking at the app stores, you’d think screaming dudes were going out of fashion.

The app icons for strategy games such as Clash of Clans, Game of War: Fire Age, Clash of Lords 2, Battle Nations and This Means War! are all strikingly similar: a full-face portrait of an angry guy yelling at something just out of frame. With discovery such a big issue in mobile gaming—where around 500 iOS and 250 Android games launch daily —it’s curious that so many games present the same first impression to potential players.

What’s the deal? We asked designers why this sullen image is so prevalent in mobile gaming, and their thoughts were pretty revealing.

The Amazing Power of Faces

Faces are powerful, and designers take full advantage of that fact.

As a species, we’ve evolved to recognize faces and emotions to help us breed and survive. Even 7-month-old infants respond strongly to images of angry human faces. Using a face in an icon is a great way of generating instant impact and memorability, according to Andrew Smith, producer at creative studio Sugarway. He says the trend links back to some of the age-old secrets of magazine cover design.

Imprinting your app store icon in someone’s memory is much easier to do with a human-like character than an inanimate object. And while a face looking directly at you is the most powerful image type—particularly one with dilated pupils (or “bedroom eyes”)—using an angled and expression-filled face helps convey the ideas of action and emotion to potential players.

Dominations

Dominations

You’ve Got One Shot—Make It Count

Artist and writer Stephen Kleckner says it’s important to realize how limited the tiny app store icon canvas is for designers. They have “one sideways glance to compel your brain to stop and notice their image,” and they have to make it count. Going with a human face maximizes the designer’s chance to make this instant impact.

As for what Kleckner calls the “RAAAR!” face, he says it’s a widely overused trope but it’s also a “cheap and easy” way to convey action and emotion. The fact that these characters are yelling at something out of frame also invites us to investigate the mystery of what lies beyond: “To figure out what the hell they’re looking at.”

Me-Too Mentality

Copying a trend in a crowded market isn’t always the smartest move, but the human face is such an “eyeball magnet” that trying something new is risky, Kleckner says. It’s also likely that game studios want to ape established big hitters such as Clash of Clans. Mimicking Clash of Clans’ angry-faced logo is one small way of trying to emulate its success.

Image via the App Store

Image via the App Store

“I’ll eat my imaginary hat if a good chunk of the people in the app store saw that a successful game used a certain type of face and didn’t say, ‘You see their sales numbers? See their retention rate? Do what they’re doing!’” Kleckner says. “‘Take our main character, open his mouth, and make an icon out of that!'”

For pages and pages more of in-depth insights on mobile strategy games, check out the latest Chartboost Power-Up Report. In the absolutely free (no email necessary), you’ll learn from helpful creative design tips from the experts at Zynga, exclusive retention and IAP data for strategy games, the scoop on breakthrough strategy game DomiNations, and loads more.

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