Game Design Analysis: The Promised Land

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Learning from Games

As designers, we can learn from every game. So naturally, whenever I play a game, I play them as a player but also as a designer.  To be efficient with my resources (time), I want to learn as much as possible from the games I invest time in. For this purpose, it doesn’t matter if it is a critically acclaimed blockbuster or a niche casual game. There is potential to learn from every one of them.

In fact, I believe it is easier to learn from the not-perfect games as their mistakes are easier to identify. Playing games, learning from their mistakes and also from their accomplishments, helps to build a library of systems, mechanics, and emergent behavior. This library, together with the right level of seniority, enables designers to make the right call and see more paths that their products could take.

The Game

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The first screen of the game, workers arriving and setting up the colony.

The game that I will discuss in this post is the “Promised Land”. I picked it up in a Steam Sale for just a few cents. I am interested in all genres of games, and I make my living by creating casual games so it was an easy choice.

The Narrative

In “The promised Land” the players take over the control of a colony in medieval times and ensure its prosperity by building, expanding and trading.

The gameplay

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The Promised Land Entity Relationship Diagram

Core System: Production Sites

To make this narrative happen players assign their workers to various production sites. Upgrade states for all the production nodes can be unlocked by researching them with research points. This is a resource that is produced by assigning workers to the observatory (a production site).

The goal is to establish the colony by building more production sites and discovering the whole map. Hence, exhausting the content.

To offer players a brief choice, the game is balanced so that  there are more production sites than workers. This forces players to strategize what resource they will need next. This information is established by guiding the players with missions and trade events.

New workers can be obtained by solving quests or by trade.

Through the course of the game, players unlock more production sites that they can assign their workers to.

Core Mechanic: Assigning Workers

The interaction (input, verb) to drive the core system is simply drag and dropping workers on their worksite.

Supporting System: Worker Happiness & Efficiency
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Worker Info

Over time, workers become hungry and unhappy. By drag & dropping workers next to each other, they will initiate a conversation which will make them happy again. This only comes at the opportunity cost of them not being able to work on a production site in that time.

Hunger is solved by assigning a worker to a table, this will consume harvested food resources but it will also come at a time cost.

To not make the game to punishing and tedious, workers will automatically go to the table or start talking. A good design decision otherwise the players will find themselves merely managing unhappy workers the whole time.

By micromanaging, players can streamline the process and choose a more suited time or conversation partner for the worker.

Workers are trained at a specific activity by working in one of the production sites.

They even have a personality that determines their efficiency by production-type.

Supporting System: Trade
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The trading screen. Once a trade a has been initiated, it takes time until it comes back. Players must choose wisely what to trade.

After unlocking the ship, players can trade resources for money or other goods that are needed to build more production sites. Although it is a supporting system, it is necessary to progress. The items you see on the right, can not be obtained from anywhere else in the game.

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Once in a while, a certain resource yields higher sales.

An important feature in this system is the bonus payment. For a limited time, players get additional pay for specific goods. This asks players to shift their worker-economy towards the production of a certain good. This is one of the main drivers to keep the game entertaining and somewhat demanding.

Supporting System: Research

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The observatory can be worked like any other production site which will earn players research points. These are used to unlock techs that are organized in a tech-tree, where certain techs can only be acquired if the previous one has been learned.The research system serves as one of the major progression blockers because generating the resources for the upgrades takes very long.

Supporting System: Crops & House Micromanagement

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Some buildings offer additional properties that players can tweak. This gives players one layer of depth that is entangled with the research system.

Minigame: Angry Birds

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This is a minigame that is unlocked after building a fort. In angry birds manner, the players need to shoot a cannonball on pirates. As a return, they will receive gold. I find this game mode very problematic as it is aiming at totally different players. The regular game is not asking for any physics-puzzle related skills. Fortunately, the minigame is not vital to the progression of the game. But IMO it was not the most valuable way to spend development resources on. Some players might have liked, it, but it there is also a big chance of alienating many of the players that were targeted originally.

Quests

The quest system sets up some breadcrumbs to give players the next goal. They are introduced by one of the characters and make sure players always know what to do next.

Gameplay Assessment

In “The Promised Land”, there is no loose-state the only punishment for not solving the game’s problems is that progressing takes longer. Players can not lose progress. This is one of the most important implications of casual games. The “cost” of playing bad, should never be too high. Systematically this is not handled very well in my opinion because there is virtually no reason to use many of the supporting systems.

8 kinds of fun legend

I will use Marc Le Blanc taxonomy of kinds of fun to categorize the games focus on creating fun for its players. The main goal and, therefore, the motivation of the player is to reach a fully upgraded map. Therefore, the game triggers the players curiosity and urge to discover the remaining pieces of the world.

The somewhat relatable and approachable setting is responsible for my higher ratings in the Narrative categories.

What Works
  • Simple loop that is very accessible, just feeding of a worker placement mechanic
  • No fail state, the game just goes on, players can not really screw up, the worst the player can do is playing inefficiently
  • Good example scaling in complexity only, not in depth
  • Small addition systems unlocked  over time keep the game interesting

 

What doesn’t work
  • The game offers many systems that focus on the “efficiency” of workers, but there is not much incentive to use these systems. Making the workers more efficient simply means that they produce things faster. But the time it takes to micromanage the workers, is barely regained by the increased production speed
  • The minigame  it is targeted at other players than the core gameplay
  • Being targeted at a very casual audience, I think the tutorial and the beginning of the phase lacks many explanations, e.g. highlights in the terrain would be needed in order to see where production sites are

Introducing Challenge to Casual Games: “Cooking Fever”

 

“Cooking Fever” is a currently very successful casual game climbing the ranks in the respective App-Stores.

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Currenlty “Cooking Fever” is ranking #50 in the google play store.

I argue that this success is stemming from its unique approach to casual games. The developers Northcurrent are targeting a currently untapped audience:

Casual players that like a challenge.

In this article, I will lay out what makes Cooking Fever so different from the other casual games in the market and highlight some of the game’s mechanics and systems that make it so unique.

TLDR;

  • Cooking Fever emphasizes mastery and skill
  • The gameplay is complex but not deep, disguised under an approachable theme, allowing players to experience casual but challenging gameplay
  • No limits to gameplays enable player to practice and master levels
  • Player need to upgrade the kitchen to fully utilize their skills and reach the highest scores
  • Robust core gameplay that is expandable and offers a high degree of variance to create interesting challenges
  • Very Slowly ramping difficulty ensures that casual players remain in the flow channel
  • Players get addicted to the core gameplay as there is no restriction to gameplays but then monetize when they want to play additional content
  • The additional content is not just more of the same, it offers similar gameplay that feels fresh and challenging all along
  • Play or Churn approach feels fair but merciless, players know what they pay for, but cannot get everything without paying.

A new Genre?

This could be the start of a new genre as there are not many (well executed) games that offer this experience.

The majority of currently successful games targeted at a casual audience are based on one of these approaches:

  • Turn based & highly random games with a simple core mechanic (bubble shooters, tile swapping/matching games)
    • Monetizing near misses and a “just one more round”-lives system
    • Candy Crush, Pet Rescue Saga
  • Build & Expand games with appointment mechanics at their core where players progress by frequently showing up to the game and manage their resources / production
    • Monetizing through timers and an economy that is balanced to create shortcomings of specific resources, and convenience features (bigger inventory)
    • Sim City BuildIt”, “Hay Day

Cooking fever is in neither of these categories and still appealing to a casual audience.

A complex and not deep core gameplay is hidden under a very approachable theme. It starts very simple is and instantly rewarding while players prepare the first meals and serve them to their customers. The mechanics of a level remain the same but the complexity ramps up over the course of the game, creating more challenge. This happens in very small steps from level to level, making sure players remain in the flow.

Cooking Fever players want

  • See their skills progressing and test it against increasingly challenging levels
  • To complete an area by to get a perfect score in each of the levels
  • reach the next level to face a higher challenge
  • see and experience the different types of areas
  • “Complete” an area

What makes Cooking Fever Different?

No Lives/Energy System

There is no limitation to play a round. The player can play a level as often as they want. This is a very important factor for the next two points.

Focus on skill

There is no randomness involved at all! A given level is always the same in all regards

This enables players to practice and learn a level. A factor that is crucial for players to feel proud of their achievements. Especially in harder levels on the later stages that require many rounds of play in order to get the “perfect”-score.

Flow

Finally, the concept of flow link has its appearance on the stage of casual games. The original flow concept refers mostly to the moment to moment experience of an activity.

By giving players the ability to play as often as they want while ramping up the difficulty very slowly, “Cooking Fever” is the perfect example for a well implemented concept of “Flow”.

Gameplay 

Game-Loop

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Playing a Round

 

A round ends when the time runs out, or after the last customer has been served. Players earn a score depending on the type of order and the time that they need to serve it.

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Competence

With each round players build competence in these 3 areas:

  • This particular level
    • Each level unravels in the same way, being able to predict the orders will become vital to mastering a level
  • This area
    • Every level has a specific main dish, finding ways how to handle the orders in an area will help players receiving a higher score
  • The general game
    • Some of the mechanics are available in every level, playing any level will let players learn and practice their strategies

Letting players build and test their skills is crucial for “Cooking Fever”. 

Level Structure

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The levels are grouped into different areas, each area consists of 40 levels. To gain access to a level, players need to finish the previous level with at least 1 star. The star rating of a level depends on the score (coins) earned in that level. Players keep the score as a currency in a game.

Mechanics

Orders & Recipes

cooking fever core gameplay

Players need to serve what customers want. Each level area has a unique theme and a different way of assembling the main dish.

Via drag and drop of the ingredients players prepare the meals that the customers demand for.

 Each level has a certain number of customers, and each customer has a certain list of items that they want.

Besides the main dish, each area has side dishes / drink that are themed differently but always work the same.

Tips & Satisfaction

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A happiness meter indicates the patience of a customer. After a customer becomes servable, the happiness starts to decrease. If it reaches 0, the customer will leave.

Happy customers leave a tip: the happier a customer is when he has been served all of the required items, the more tip they will give.

This is why it is crucial for the level to always have the same order of customers.

It gives players the ability to learn and master each level. At later stages of the game each point of score is very valuable and players gain the full control of the score that they reach.

Collecting Coins

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After costumers have been served, they leave the value of the items + the tip on the counter. The number of customers that can be active at a given time is capped at 4. Collecting the payment, frees the slot. This mechanic gives players a control of the pacing of a level. Only after picking up the payment of a customer, will free the slot for the next one. At the same time, players are under pressure because of the global time limit for the level so taking too much time, might not leave enough time to deal with every customer: An interesting mechanic for an adaptive difficulty.

This gives players the opportunity to adjust the speed of the level and not overwhelm them. Each level is carefully paced. The developers have full control of how every level “feels” at a given time by balancing the customers’ requirements. Sometimes using more complex recipes, sometimes more simple ones.

Content

The mechanics allow a high variance to create a high number of levels per area that all feel different and allow for a shallow slope for the difficulty.

The food-preparation mechanics stay the say within one area. The way the design allows for a growing challenge in each level is by adding more components to the respective main dish.

Also, the kitchen appliances can be upgraded to not only serve 1 item per production cycle but 2 or 3. By adding more variance to the recipe – each level is challenging in its own way and must be practiced over and over in order to reach the highest possible score.

Currencies
Coins

Coins are earned in levels by serving customers what they ask for. The higher the kitchen upgrades are, the more users will score in a level. The score equals to coins.

Gems

The hard currency which can be obtained by an in-App-purchase or after leveling up (xp is earned by finishing a level). There is also a slot machine where players can invest coins for a small shot a gem reward.

Upgrades

Kitchen appliances and the restaurant can be upgraded permanently. Each upgrade either increases the value of a certain item, this will directly increase a players score. Or it is a “convenience” upgrade.

Some upgrades can be purchased with coins, which can be earned by simply playing levels, other upgrades require Gems. The levels of upgrades are unlocked by level within an area.

The convenience upgrades are the most beneficial upgrades from a player’s perspective as these directly impact the players’ capability to deal with the customers requirements.

It is very rewarding to unlock additional main-dish-slots as it is not automatically making the game easier – in fact, by adding slots, the game becomes more complex because players need to juggle more game-entities at the same time. Players can clearly see how they are becoming better at the game. Being able to manage more and more elements at once. Each level adds a small bit of challenge, making sure that no level-difficulty-jump is too steep to overcome. Upgrades are at the very heart of the games progression and monetization system. They are perfectly tied in to the core experience. Each upgrade can be recognized in the kitchen level immediately due to a dedicated asset.

Because each level is balanced so tightly, the impact of every upgrade can be felt immediately.

Score Balancing

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The scores (coins) players can achieve in a level depend on the upgrades and the execution. Even with a nearly perfect execution, the score is capped by the upgrades.

A crucial point for the monetization is the fact that the star-Requirements for the levels are balanced so that it will be impossible to reach 3-stars in every level with coin-only-upgrades. This ultimately means, players need to pay if they want to reach the highest scores possible. But they are also motivated to get the level-execution perfect first.

Monetization

Having unlimited playable content only limited by player skill and upgrades, leaves the developers not much of a choice on where to monetize without harming the challenging core of their game. Players in Cooking Fever always know what they will get for their money. This makes the game very transparent for players and they will never feel cheated.

Any purchase the players make (except the cakes), increases the players’ capabilities permanently.

New Content

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After playing so many rounds of the addicting core gameplay, the need for additional content is high. Gaining access to a new area costs a significant amount of hard currency. I expect the new content is one of the main conversion drivers.

Upgrades

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As mentioned before, some upgrades require Gems. And some of them are obligatory to reach a 3-star-rating in some of the levels. Score wise, the 1-star-rating can be achieved with the coin upgrades – but it just doesn’t feel as great. It is always a struggle to finish all the costumers’ orders in time, even with perfect execution.

Theoretically, upgrades are only mandatory for the completionists who want a 3-star-rating in all of the levels, since every level is unlocked with just one star in the previous level. But players want to beat a level (3 stars) and what they need, are upgrades.

Some upgrades feel a bit “forced” upon the players. The customers in some levels ask for many items of a specific kind. Those items will create a bottleneck in the flow of the level. But a kitchen upgrade to relieve the players of that pain is just one purchase away. These are the times where the monetization is very obvious and players learn that this is no “free lunch”. Hence, it is a “churn-or-play” point.

Speciality

specialities

The consumable – since every free to play game needs a consumable, right?

Every area has a specific consumable that some customers ask for. It is only obtainable with gems though. Players can give them to customers which increase their tip.

Given that the games addresses skill & mastery driven players, I do not expect that this monetizes too well. It goes against the nature of the audience that the game is targeting as this would be almost like cheating.

 

Free Hard Currency

levelup gems

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Players can earn 6 Gems every 5 levels. As usual, the XP progression is balanced in a way that level-ups happen more frequent at lower levels. That way, players can earn some hard currency early and can decide where to spend it. On the other hand, the rate of earning Gems dramatically slows down, leaving players no way to play the content at all.

Spinning Mechanic

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Another very ineffective way to earn Hard Currency is the slot machine. The chances for gems are ridiculously low, though. They have to be – because coins can be grinded freely. If the chance of the slot machine for gems would be too high, the player could just grind for all the Gems that they need. Which is a great incentive to play even more, but eventually not leaving anything to monetize for the developers.

Conclusion

Fun core gameplay that is built on mastery and skill rather than randomness. Creating a different kind of fun compared many other casual games. The developers have a core mechanic at their hand that seems to have no limits to build more content for it, keeping their most engaged players in line. Unlike other games, there is hardly a way where players can get everything the game has to offer without paying. The monetization is transparent, but also merciless. Either players buy gems to unlock new content and gain the possibility to earn the highest scores, or they will stop playing. On the other hand, this a very fair way to monetize as players know exactly what they are buying. An overall very refreshing approach to monetizing a casual free to play game.

 

 

 

Tutorials

When players or even designers are asked whether they like tutorials or not, many of them will reply with a clear “no”. The reason is that so many games have bad tutorials. Especially in the mobile segment.

But games need a proper introduction, given their novel nature, players are not familiar with many things within the game. So as designers it is our task to somehow make players comfortable with the game’s mechanics and systems.

But most tutorials already fail by explicitly calling it “Tutorial”, triggering unpleasant memories about school, homework, or all the other places where we have learned that learning is not fun. But this is the way our brain works. Our body rewards us with dopamine when we have successfully learned or mastered something new. As designers, we can use that mechanism and let players have fun while secretly teaching them how the game works.

The best way to teach players in the first place is to not confuse and overwhelm them. Together with a slowly increasing complexity, this can already solve half of the challenge of teaching a player your game. The other half is taking the player’s hand, and let her explore the systems that are at her disposal, and acknowledging when new mechanics have been learned. This, after all, is how humans also learn in the real world. And there is no difference between learning a game and learning how to ride a bike (except the risk of breaking a leg).

In games and technology products in general, a user lost in the first session, will never show up again. You want them to get excited about your product. You want them to return and interact with you game every day. This is why a proper introduction phase is crucial to the success of every game.

Step 1: Pacing Complexity

This is a general advice that will help to ease players into the experience: Ramp up the complexity slowly. Players, especially in the casual segment, are easily overwhelmed. At the same time, they are easily bored and you need to grab their attention fast. By introducing features step by step (e.g. by locking them behind a level progression, or a task system) players have something to look forward to. They feel rewarded when unlocking that new feature. In the meantime, on their path to unlocking it, you let them focus on the available gameplay elements and make sure players master / understand those.

Step 2: Choosing What to Teach

Before starting to even think about how to introduce players to a game, I would carefully consider what you want to teach them. Not every system that is available must be taught in the first session.

  • What is the most crucial thing that players need to understand, to play my game?
  • What is the most fun?

As mentioned earlier, it is crucial to show players what the game is about within the first minutes. In the best case, this is also what is most fun.

Only if they experience what is fun a game, they will be hooked and have a reason to start the second session. This is more important than teaching them every single detail about a game.

What should be taught in a game, hinges on the target audience. The more experienced your players are the less introduction on certain elements of the game they need. E.g. a RPG game will most likely not teach players about their HP system. While the HP is a good example for something that does not need to be explained explicitly in the first place.

With the right hints in the UI (for low HP) and character animations, players will learn that their characters die when their HP reaches 0 through the game system itself.

Step 3: How to Teach

In mobile games, where the session design and monetization revolves around a core loop, players should execute an abridged version of that core game loop at least once. In the next iteration of playing the core-loop, more features can be introduced.

The most important thing to do, when working on a “first-time user experience” is to cut the need for a tutorial. Many games are built too complex and have too complicated systems which don’t explain themselves in a good way. Hence, they are badly designed.

Pillar 1: Perfect UX

This is the foundation of any mobile game. If your UI is bad, your game is bad. The tutorial is not responsible for explaining the UI. It is responsible for explaining the game systems. Players should be able to figure out what to do on a certain screen and when they should expect when using a certain feature in your UI. If they are not, then this is nothing that should be fixed with a tutorial but with a proper flow.

Pillar 2: Feedback from your Systems

What is true for the UI, is also true for the actual game mechanics. They must be self-explaining. Game systems are rigid things until players interact (communicate) with them. Upon communication, the system will react in a way and give an answer to the player’s input to the system. If that answer is not understandable or does not relate to the actions, then the system fails. And then there is nothing to learn from.

Pillar 3: Learning by Doing

Humans learn best by actually doing things. If the game has proper feedback mechanisms, they will then know when they have done something right, and when not. 

I suggest giving players tasks. These tasks will guide them to learn a certain aspect of your game. They will need to explore your system to find the “right” answer. This is what games are about.

Pillar 4: Showing

Still, players can be lost. Then it is the designer’s task to make sure that they will not get frustrated. After all, you want players to enjoy your product and not oppose a challenge to them – that if it’s too hard to solve, will lead them to turn away from your game.

Have systems in place that check how players are doing in their current task, or on a certain screen. Build an adaptive help system that supports the players when needed by highlighting UI elements. Or offer an actual help screen / tutorial for a feature if they seem to have troubles figuring out your game.

 

Step4: The First Session

The first session should end with an investment, a commitment, something that players care about. The tricky part is to actually make them care about your game. If the previous steps have been followed they will have played the core loop a couple of times and know what the game is about. The game should make a promise that when they come back, they will receive more of what they have already experienced.

Ending a session correctly is as important as designing the beginning of a session.

A well-known model for this is the “hook”-cycle introduced by Nir Eyal.

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The trigger for the first session is that your game has grabbed their interest in the app store or through some advertisement. The “Reward” part is crucial in the first session. But don’t forget that players need to care about the things that you reward them with. For example, simply letting a player level up 5 times in the first couple of minutes is not rewarding at all. Because it doesn’t mean anything to the player yet. Teach them what benefit leveling up has. That the game is, even more, fun when they level up, because they get more things to play with (Units, Buildings, Features, etc). Then they will care about leveling up. Only then it is rewarding. The same goes with resources. Just giving out 3.000 gold does not mean anything. Players need to be able to internally convert these abstract game-things into “fun”.

The investment in many cases is a timer of some sort. Something that will reward them when they return.

It is important that players have a choice in the last investment. Players care more about things that they actually have agency in. They feel committed and are more likely to be triggered for the second session.

Step 5: Usability testing

This should be obvious but must be said nevertheless. Get your target audience to play your game. Let them play the game without a tutorial. See what they understand and what not. Do they understand the systems? How much do you actually need to explain?

Figuring out how your users already understand your product helps you to decide what parts you should focus on in the tutorial efforts.

  • When the tutorial / introduction is available, carefully watch how the users interact with the game. Where do they stop and think? Ask them to speak out loudly.
  • Never do usability tests alone. It is a quite demanding task to talk to the user and ask them questions. another person should take notes and have an eye on aspects that might have been forgotten. There are different styles of Usability tests, some, where users just interact with the game without interference, and some that are more a dialogue. But this is a whole topic in itself.
  • Prepare questions (for yourself) what do you want to find in the usability test? You want comparable results from the tests. Only then the goals of the next iteration can be prioritized.

Step 6: Tracking

This should also be self-explaining but is an important aspect. Implement events that are tracked in your backend when users interact with features. With the right view on that data, you will learn how your players actually interact with your game.

Sometimes this happens in unexpected ways. It might just a badly placed/wrong colored button that gets them irritated. These things you will only find out if you think about how to keep track of the players’ behavior.