Why match3 is a really really good core game.
You might have noticed that the match-3 mechanic is really popular on the top grossing charts of the App Store and Google Play. Why is that? It just happens to be a really good core mechanic.
Before we dive into why match-3 is such a good mechanic, let’s look at something that isn’t a good core for a mobile F2P game. Let’s actually look at something that is a terrible idea: a traditional puzzle game.
As an example, let’s take Tribeflame’s own game from 2012 called Light the Flower. In this, we invented a cute mechanic where you moved mirrors around to guide sunlight onto flowers that were languishing in the dark. Here’s the trailer for that game:
This was still a premium game, and we could not convert it to F2P in any sane way even if we wanted to. Why? Think about the progression – we’re going from easy puzzles to harder and harder puzzles. Puzzles where there is only one or two correct answers.
Either we have a smart player that is just going to breeze through these challenges until they get bored, or we have a… umm… less smart… player that is going to get stuck in one of them. And when they are stuck, there’s not much we can do apart from telling them the answer, which will likely just make them feel “less smart”.
In short: the progression here just sucks!
If you enter some luck into the game, we will be able to fix this. Now, the less smart players are actually just unlucky (or so they keep telling themselves), while the lucky players are smart (or so they keep telling themselves).
There are actually surprisingly few games on the top charts that combine luck with skill. Some 20% of the games on the top charts are variants of match-3, and have such a combination. Then there are about 25% that are casino games where there is basically no skill involved at all. The rest (little more than half) are really deterministic games at their core. That is, if I were to replay an attack in Clash of Clans with exactly the same army and deployment strategy, I would get the same result.
For the level based puzzle games, the balance of luck and skill is crucial, however. With the match-3 mechanic there is an extra bonus: chain reactions of luck.
In a game like Bejeweled, I can make one move somewhere on the field – trigger an explosion that triggers another explosion that triggers a third and a fourth one – and eventually the entire field blows up. This serves two purposes: it’s the jackpot that players crave to make them feel really, really good, and it is what gives them enough hope to keep playing a session that started badly. Even the very last move can turn my luck when there are chain reactions involved!
Just how much luck the player has in a match-3 can actually be completely decided by the game engine. In this way, the game can help a weak player advance, and give some extra challenge to a good player. The jewels/candy/fruit/what have you that fall down from above can be calculated to give a certain result.
To catch the games doing this, try playing a match-3 daily for some time, and then stop for about two weeks. If the company did their analytics correctly, they will assume that you are about to churn out of their game, and cease being among their valued customers. To stop you from doing that, they will want you to have a great session that makes you feel good if you decide to give the game one last chance. Which means that the first session after the two week pause will likely be an amazingly lucky one where everything is going your way!
There might be an optimal difficulty curve for one individual in a puzzle game. The problem is that it is different for all individuals. In a game with a component of “luck”, it is possible to adjust the game to the individual, and that’s what a lot of the match-3 games are doing.
To sum up, match-3 is a great core mechanic because of these reasons:
-The UI is a very simple and direct one swipe
-There are Chain Reactions of Luck that the player craves
-The player can win with the very last move, there’s always hope
-When the player lost, and bought an upgrade to continue, it is unclear how many extra moves are required to finish and win. That is, the player can feel close to winning even though he/she is actually more than 10 moves away from it
-The game engine can control the luck with what drops down
-The game can be interrupted at any time without the player losing
-The game is suitable for one handed play in portrait orientation (you can play standing on the bus)
-The game has quite small footprint (size, loading time, device requirements)
Nothing is quite perfect, however. These are the main weaknesses that I can see in most match-3 games:
-There is nothing permanent built by the player. Only the level progression gives the feeling of accomplishment, rather than e.g. a village the would likely give the player stronger emotional ties to the game.
-There are no stats that can be upgraded by 10% at a time. This is why Puzzle and Dragons pairs match-3 with the dragons that can be upgraded in this way. That’s a way stronger meta game.
-There is no Player vs. Player (PvP) to drive competition and spending by the most competitive players.
-They are somewhat weak when it comes to being brandable. Most match-3 games look the same with a quick glance.