Deconstructing Hay Day Pop

Hay Day Pop is Supercell‘s latest game which is currently in soft launch. Supercell is known for their innovation that often has the capability to define the trend in mobile free to play games for years to come. As such, I was curious to learn what they’re bringing to the market now. In a market where developers often resort to known concepts to mitigate risks, we should closely watch those who dare to try something new.


  • Hay Day Pop builds on top of the proven puzzle-game core loop where the progression of the player hinges on successfully finishing levels
  • The innovation of Hay Day Pop is to wrap this technically very linear progression in a system that does not feel linear at all, but instead, gives players a sense of agency and choice
  • Supercell hooks this scattered progression system into other monetization and progression systems – but is the core strong enough to support all of these systems?
  • Hay Day Pop runs the risk of alienating their “Hay Day” audience by giving them a pure puzzle game, wrapped in the Hay Day Theme that does not speak to the “Gameplay” taste of farming-game players
  • Hay Day Pop does not shy away from exposing their players early to social gameplay and even makes it part of the core loop

The Game

Porting the Farming Theme to a Puzzle Core

Hay Day Pop maps the farming theme well to the core loop of a puzzle game. Supercell has found fitting metaphors to wrap the linear puzzle level progression into a farm theme. Hay Day Pop makes the players feel as if they are running & growing their farm – this also includes building producers of items and decorating. However the building/ decorations options are much more limited as there is only 1 building for each “item type” and access to decoration items is scarce. 

At the heart of Hay Days’ economy is time, “Hay Day Pop” uses “Successfully Completed Levels”. E.g. it takes 5 completed puzzle levels to make 60 Bacon, instead of 5 hours. Another aspect that is brought to Hay Day Pop is “order prioritization”:  Hay Day Pop lets players decide what their “active order” is that they want to progress by playing levels. Under the hood there is no real impactful choice here, but players still have agency in how they want to progress, ultimately the outcomes are the same. This is not meant derogatory, it is a good example of how players don’t need meaningful choices in order to have agency.

This illusion of choice is achieved by having different producers (buildings) in the game. Each one determines the rewarded amount of items of a specific type. These items automatically fill the bar of the current order. Upgrading buildings further increases that amount. But players can’t just go for 1 specific item all the time and then upgrade only 1 building. There are 2 tuning knobs that make players diversify their buildings.

  1. Availability of orders: The order board asks for a variety of items. To satisfy all orders, players will want to have every building upgrade as much as they can.
  2. Upgrade cost / upgrade caps: Buildings cannot be upgraded to oblivion. There are exponential cost and level requirements for building upgrades. Exponential cost leads to a situation where it is the smartest thing to upgrade cheaper buildings first. For this to work, the cost needs to outgrow the yield of the buildings. So the best “reward per cost” is achieved by upgrading low cost buildings first.

Disrupting the “Saga Map”

This is the innovation of Hay Day Pop. Instead of feeling trapped on a predictable and (obviously) linear saga map, as in many other puzzle games, players have options. As you can see in the diagram, these options don’t really lead to a different outcome – players still complete 4 levels. However that does not matter, as players have options along the way.

This system leads to a state where the farms of players of the same level look more or less the same. Players can decide what to upgrade first, and what orders to take. And these choices are intertwined. But the permutations of all the players farms are only a few. Which means that players’ choices don’t really make a difference. However, it feels like they have agency along the way. 

A Solid Puzzle Gameplay

The puzzle gameplay at the core of Hay Day Pop fulfills every expectation that players could have towards a puzzle game. Great VFX and Audio, Interesting Mechanics, introduced at a surprisingly high rate. The high variety in mechanics and the designers’ capability to combine them to interesting, well, puzzles. Levels feel fresh for a very long time. From a monetization standpoint, they are very tightly designed so that players come close to completion with each attempt. This happens exceptionally consistently, which is a crucial design requirement for puzzle games: Each gameplay gets players close to completion and then monetizes this “near miss” by nudging them to use a booster / spend hard currency on “5 more moves”.

Important to note is that every (modern Candy Crush inspired) puzzle game relies on this near miss design. Players are expected to only finish a level after so many attempts. Success is not the usual outcome of a gameplay. Making it all the more rewarding if players do finish it, and additionally making booster and spending so appealing.


Neatly designed puzzle gameplay and near miss psychology brings us directly to the monetization of Hay Day Pop. Besides the typical boosters, more moves and lives, the game leans into 2 more monetization aspects that, in my opinion, are contradicting the established paradigms that drive monetization.

Winning Streak

For every consecutive win, the winning streak builds up. At the start of a level, players receive boosters according to their win streak. “Not losing” a win streak is another motivator to increase odds of success by using boosters or more moves (= spending diamonds)

Puzzlepass + Star River

This system works similar to battle passes. Players receive rewards for essentially playing the game. At some point the progress resets. Players are rewarded for playing the game a lot until the reset. For each reward that players get for playing the game, an additional reward is earned that can only be obtained by purchasing a Battlepass (in Hay Day Pops case = Puzzlepass). 
In a nutshell: players generate value from every gameplay and can further increase their reward per gameplay by becoming a a paying player. Battlepasses are monetizing the loss aversion coming from the reset quite aggressively. If I don’t purchase, I’m missing out on a lot of the value that I have generated.


The engine that drives these two mechanics is that players need to complete levels successfully. The main monetization driver is that the game makes it hard for players to achieve that. So on one hand, the game prevents players from achieving victory often and tries to tightly control the odds of success to be rather low (at Wooga we had Puzzle games that were tuned to be completed roughly every 200th attempt =0.5%). On the other hand it is trying to cash in on the loss aversion that comes from missing out on rewards that are generated by winning.

In more practical terms, if one wanted to increase the monetization from the star river, they’d want to increase players’ progress on the star river, thus increasing the loss aversion. But that would hurt the monetization from boosters & “more moves”. Of course you could also increase rewards from the star river, but the potential is always going to be capped by the odds of winning. I would recommend having the “star river progress” not be driven by only successful gameplays, but for any star reached in a gameplay – even if the round is not won. This could even further increase the usage of boosters as players can achieve incremental success in each round.

Social system from the get go

On Social Systems

Social systems are a powerful way to engage players. If done right, other players become the content. With the right system, players engage each other, add variety, uncertainty and a level human emotional connection. For this, the game needs to actually let players interact. Just being grouped together in a clan, does not make a game social. To make a game truly social it needs to

  • Allow players to communicate, so that players know there are actual humans around
  • Allow to compete/ collaborate for a common/mutual goal, to have a reason to interact and achieve things together
  • Allow players to help each other by actually investing something, so that helping has meaning
  • Allow players to reciprocate the help to allow players to build trust & recurring interactions
  • Show that others are around

Many games shy away from exposing their players to real social gameplay in the early game. The earlier in their journey, the more likely players are to drop out of a game. This creates ghost-communities. Not enjoyable for the players who remain. Also this makes social mechanics harder to balance. Additionally, players are hard to predict, the more real interaction you allow, the more you allow for possible negative interactions. As a reaction, developers often choose to keep their players safe, and the early game experience tightly controlled.

Hay Day Pops Social Systems

Hay Day Pop throws players into a group right away. You can opt out, but the UI will guide most players to join a neighborhood. The noteworthy aspect for Hay Day Pops Social gameplay is that instead of adding mechanics as part of the social gameplay, the social aspect becomes a layer on top of existing mechanics and systems. Players do not need to learn new rules and UI’s, they play the game as usual, but benefit from playing with others with every gameplay.

  • Simply playing the core loop makes players feel that they contribute to a common goal (the neighborhood chest).
  • Other players names and progress is feedbacked in many places (e.g. the order board)

Other than injecting social gameplay into the core loop, Hay Day Pop makes players feel connected in different ways:

  • Collect stars for the star river on other players farms
    • Visiting other farms bolsters the decoration loop as it gives exposure to players farm
  • Displays progress of other players in my neighborhood e.g. naming animals and incentivizes interactions among players


Hay Day Pop’s solid core puzzle gameplay caters successfully to a puzzle audience and the farm-theme + removal of the saga map has the potential to retain players better than its competitors. Currently the farm-progression layer feels like it breaks after some hours of gameplay. It is really hard to come by decorations, and visiting high level players farms shows that there is not much decoration going on. So that whole potential audience is not being satisfied currently.

Monetization wise, the game won’t do worse than it’s puzzle competitors but I have concerns that the puzzle-core-loop does not carry the weight of all the other progression/ monetization systems that are layered on top, as they are (currently) limited by the very same aspect that makes puzzle-game-monetization work (keeping the odds of success for a level low & controlled).

How Junes Journey empowers players with an innovative session design

In this article, I want to outline how you can give your game a boost by letting players own their sessions. As an example, I will use mechanics and systems that I found in “Junes Journey” – Woogas latest Free to Play Hidden Object game for Mobile devices. The game show-cases how mobile games can provide small empowering choices that lets players strategize in meaningful ways with their energy-economy.

Session Pacing

In a previous article  I gave an overview of the importance of session design in mobile games, and how it is implemented across various games. In short, session design is an essential part of mobile free to play design. Players should be able to get a significant amount of satisfaction within a somewhat predictable time. That’s what makes them come back. Then there is a mechanic that paces them to the next session.

These mechanics are usually things that are on a schedule: a bucket of missions filling up, energy/lives being refilled, or crops being ready to harvest. This is the essential loop of the “byte-sized” fun in mobile free to play games.

Junes Journey Empowering Session Design

Junes Journey runs on a pretty straightforward energy-system. At the expense of energy, you play Hidden-Object Scenes. Energy replenishes over time. So you play a couple of scenes until you run out. And then you wait or monetize at the end of your session.

However, after playing for a couple of days and touching base with all of the different progression mechanics, I noticed that I had some control over my energy economy. Various mechanics and features are tied into the energy system.  And they don’t just extend it arbitrarily, no – they let players decide. Multiple sources allow players to modify their energy economy. These can be earned or purchased. The critical point is, players can save these “tokens” and trigger them whenever they want. As game creators, we should seize every opportunity to let players feel smart. June’s Journey is achieving this through various mechanics/systems


Chests are rewarded for completing content. For each “Star” a player receives (Stars are earned by accumulating score over multiple gameplays and when a level has 5 stars, it’s completed). Chests contain Energy, Building Materials, and Character Cards. The content is randomized. Players can also purchase the chest for money. Giving these chests “for free” upon completing content is a smart move. My guess is, that a big portion of June’s Journeys monetisation is rooted in these chests. By making chests part of the core loop, players get used to using the feature regularly. They learn the value of this purchasable item over time. It is not this “alien money feature”, with uncertain value.

A critical aspect of chests is, that they are collected in an inventory. The game does not just give progression rewards to players, they can open them at their own discretion.

Players can pile up these chests, and when they feel they want to roll the dice for some extra energy they can open them – chances for Energy in a chest are quite high.

Video Ads

Most successful free to play games harness the power of video ads. It is more appealing to the masses, as they don’t need to spend money, however, the return per ad is very low. That’s why most games incorporate incentivized video ads in their core loop. In Junes Journey, video ads are implemented in a very powerful way.

For watching a video ad, players can start Hidden-Object-Scenes for less (33%) energy for 30 minutes. This essentially turns a 10minutes session into a 20minute session. It’s almost a must-have, if players want to play smart. It is also a commitment by the player. By watching the ad – “investing” the time – they commit to playing until their energy runs out – to make the best use of the bonus that they were granted. So not just does the game generate Ad-Revenue through this feature, it also increases time spent in the game, which is usually never a bad thing (unless you’re running out of content)

Character Cards

Character cards are obtained from the aforementioned chests. And therefor is another resource, diverted from the core gameplay loop. The cards go into a pool. When all cards of a character have been collected, players can complete a puzzle. As a reward for this puzzle, players can trigger a full energy bar one-time, whenever they want. Character cards are on a quite long loop, but it is an interesting side mechanic that also expands the narrative of a game by revealing more information about the world’s characters.

Random Energy

The game also drops a bit of energy randomly from individual gameplays. This does not add to the player’s autonomy – quite the opposite – I would argue that adding the uncertainty of a length of a session is not necessarily best for every player. There are players who will be happy with any bit of energy they get because they’ll just play as long as they can. For others, just craving a certain experience, adding more energy is just inducing a bit of loss aversion. However, players of type 1 are probably more common, so overall it’s probably still a viable mechanic – but I see some room for improvement for addressing different player types here.

Increased Energy Maximum

This ridiculously expensive permanent upgrade lets players increase the maximum amount of energy that their bar hold and thereby increasing the number of gameplays, players can squeeze out of each session.

The Perfect Session

These are all the features interacting with the energy economy, of which most are at the player’s discretion. Each of these systems is tied into the core loop in a slightly different way to address a multitude of use-cases and player-types.

The power of all of these features is visible when looking at them as a system. A system that lets players create their “perfect session”.  Players accumulate cards, chests, trigger the video ad and suddenly they have created a super long & rewarding session for themselves. I can’t stress enough, how important it is, that the players are utilizing the game’s mechanics to execute their plan of creating this situation for themselves.


By giving players control over these peripheral systems, the game  governs control of the session length to the player. The idea of extending the session of a player by granting extra energy is not new. But in games, every detail matters. A seemingly small mechanical change can have a big impact on the player’s experience.

Respecting Players

Many other games fill up the energy bar on a level up or other markers in the game’s progression. However, I argue that that is not necessarily the best implementation for casual mobile games. We never know in what situation the player is. Maybe they are just prepared for their 2-5minute session and they can not make use of your gift. The gift turns into a curse. Players might feel like they’re missing out.

Reward & Anticipation

Players earn those extended sessions by completing content. Completing content to earn rewards, already an integral part of the games’ loop. This system diverts a bit of those rewards into a bucket. A bucket that the player can use when they want. They can withhold some of their rewards for later use.


Games should strive to provide players with some autonomy over their journey. Autonomy is a corner-stone for successful games. But especially casual mobile games, struggle to design and implement features that provide decisions. Systems that provide a high degree of autonomy are usually quite complex – e.g. Crafting Systems, Tech/Skill Trees, Branching Narrative. But this system grants players small pockets of freedom that empower players.

The Uncertainty of Design


uncertainty of design title

I was facing a frightening dilemma in my first years as a designer. I was supposed to make decisions. Decisions that would create great value. That would create interesting gameplay and perfect retention KPI’s.

I had the feeling that I could never know whether what I was designing is “right” or “wrong”. I felt lost and that every decision I made as a designer was merely a coin-flip, a bet on whether that design decision went into the intended direction or not. How could I even justify getting a salary for being the “coin flipper”? I finally came to peace with this uncertainty of design and I try make its implications work for me, not against me.

Let’s go

To tackle the problem of “design uncertainty” I would like to introduce the concept of “unself-conscious design” and “self-conscious design”. I will briefly explain those two approaches and how they apply to games. Then I’ll assess how accurate a design (decision) can actually be by comparing game design to social sciences. At the end, I’ll try to share some learnings on how to actually deal with design uncertainty.

Un/self-conscious Design

The Austrian architect and a promoter of “Design Science“, Christopher Alexander, describes two approaches to designing: “selfconscious design” and “unselfconscious design”.

Katherine Neil wrote a fantastic article on that matter in the game design context. A brief summary: Unselfconscious designs advance a product by modifying it (replacing, adding, removing elements), and then assessing the outcome.  Is it better, keep the change? Is it worse? Roll back the change. This means gradual improvement to a product, step by step.

On the contrary, there is “self-conscious design”, where the “design is freed from its reliance on making”, because it is based on methods and knowledge of the substance. E.g. “a composer’s ability to write pages of orchestral music at a desk, without needing to literally hear the music they are writing.”  Katherine Neil wrote a fantastic article on that matter in the game design context. She describes in the article that working purely in unselfconscious design (or should I say “as an unselfconcious designer”?) would make it impossible to make intentional changes. Predicting the outcome is only possible by looking at the results of previous modifications of this product. A good example for “unselfconscious design” is A/B testing which is heavily used in Mobile games. A change is made, and a group of players is exposed to that change. That demographics’ behavior is then compared to that of a control group without the change. After a time-span the numbers say whether a change had the desired effect or not. This creates a learning about how the system behaves when changing certain condition. But the experience remains a black box.

This is why it is dangerous to copy systems/mechanics from other games. As they can and probably ​will​ work differently. Learnings from unselfconscious design methods such as A/B testing, rarely translate to other games. How a system works, depends on the context it’s never standing by itself, it is connected to other parts of the game, other systems, and content which is geared towards a certain experience. Shoehorning a system or mechanic into that ecosystem will not create the same experience as in its origin.

As soon as we start asking ourselves why a certain change leads to a particular outcome, we step into the realm of “selfconscious design”. The result would be that we can abstract the reasons for an emerging behavior of our design. By knowing why something works, we have the power to apply generic rules to intentionally instigate a certain user-behavior or emotion through our design.  ​Now we can take a system and try to recreate ​that experience within the context of our game. This makes Design more formal and discussing it objectively. Those principles, when passed on from generation to generation, will evolve, leading to a sustainable advancement of the ​whole ​ field.   

Between the knowledge gained through observation, and formalized design rules lies the  “design-instinct”, which is developed by a designer undergoing many iterations of modifications and observation and then transformed them into maybe generalizable models. The problem is that designers might draw different conclusions from their various projects. This knowledge is shared by collaboration and discussion. There is no guarantee that the “correct” models are passed on. The evolution is rather slow.  I have observed many people (including myself), making the mistake of generalizing too rash. A good reminder to bring up the Dunning-Krueger effect; which describes our overconfidence due to lack of knowledge!

To counter this, we should try to transform the learnings from observations to generalizable models. This was already postulated by Dan Cook in one of my all time favorite articles on that topic, where he compares game design to alchemy.. A process in which by combining arbitrary elements, hypotheses were formed about the inner workings by making observations (Similar to the beforehand mentioned unselfconcious design). This describes how games are built: there is an idea, we build it, then we see if it works. Based on the outcome we repeat or iterate.

Since we are human beings with limited resources, this process is very inefficient as only a limited amount of insights are possible.

Especially now as designing games has already come a long way, it is harder to gain profound insights with that method. He, therefore, concludes, that the field should mature from alchemy to chemistry. Where the deep understanding of the underlying parts, assumptions can be made about the behavior of those parts (selfconscious design).

But Chemistry has an advantage: it deals with a consistent substance. A hydrogen molecule is always exactly the same, the same experiment can be repeated as every scientist in the world has access to the same hydrogen molecule. With games we are dealing with one of the ​least ​ consistent and ​least ​ understood substances in the known universe: The human brain, psychology. “Design” is facing the same challenges like social sciences. Both fields are based on the behavior of independent actors (people) under varying conditions. Unfortunately, people are more complicated than non-meant-physical-objects and behave differently and “irrationally” under varying conditions (it is probably only called irrational because we do not fully understand it yet).  Studies of social sciences are often inconclusive or only apply to specific situations. Does that uncertainty sound familiar?

Economists, for example, are formulating models that try to explain and predict economic behaviors. The more enclosed the subject is, the more accurate the model can be. When going to a higher level problem, models have to be combined, and their uncertainty multiplies, as multiple assumptions and experiments are and interacting with each other. That’s why we have lengthy discussions whether minimum wage has a positive impact on the economy or not. What happens long term? What happens short term? What side effects will there be? All of these things are very hard to predict. Because in reality, a colossal number of variables go into a complex system that, over time, and under the influence of outside factors behaves in a chaotic way.  I would say we are dealing with a similar situation when creating games. There is an endless amount of permutations of the experiences that the game is creating in each individual player’s head.

Where the science becomes the craft is when it is decided what model to apply to what situation. And what models to combine depending on the situation. In science, models are not perfect, but they don’t need to be. In science, we always must assume that our understanding is imperfect. But it is ​good enough ​ to get us to the moon, or to predict the existence of the Higgs boson.   

In the same manner, the design of a game is not a coin flip, by improving our models we improve the accuracy of our predictions when it comes to the players’ behavior or emotions.

The Current State

Katherine Neil writes: “No language of game design, nor anything that could be described as ‘formal, abstract design tools’, has been adopted into mainstream game design practice”.  From my experience, this is quite accurate. Every Designer that I’ve met so far, has some sort of technique, or method, or ways of abstracting and describing things. But each one has their own. It always takes some initial effort to find a common ground when diving deep into a game design discussion. Explorations into the formality are being done by designers like Jason VandenBerghe who is iterating on a psychology based model that tries to explain and predict why people play and what keeps them going: ​Engines of Play​. Also “Project Horseshoe“, a “think tank”, explores the opportunities of selfconscious designs.


Those are more or less still based on individuals or single groups, creating brief islands of knowledge and insight. In other fields, such as psychology or political, schools form, exploring a specific angle on a topic by which they hope to fully grasp their field. I’ve not seen that happen in game design yet.  

Designing for the Uncertainty

What became clear to me is that my initial problem of not knowing whether I was “wrong” or “right” was flawed, to begin with. There is no right answer, there is no 100% confidence if I just invest enough time. This can be tough. Many people, including myself, want to mitigate uncertainty and risks. I want to explore all options before making a decision. Reaching a high confidence seems like a desirable goal, but if taken too far it becomes a problem. Some decisions just need to be made, and the confidence level in those decisions is limited.  Time spent on investigating has a diminishing return. At the end of investigating there will be no “perfect design”, therefore it is important to know when to stop. Also, the further you wander into the design space in relation to what you already know, the more uncertain decision become. On the other side of the scale: The more accurate our models the higher our confidence can be, yet, validation still needs to come from the test as any model that we can have is far too inaccurate to predict the players’ behavior.

Never trust a designer that is overconfident in being right. Especially if that designer can not explain what the applied model or assumption is.

Like a scientist, designers must operate under the assumption that they might be wrong. This is not just a rational precept, it is also vital to keep an open discussion. Chances are high you have had a discussion with someone who had a fundamental belief in his or her idea, without the ability to rationalize it. Don’t be that person! And also keep in mind, the more certain you are about something, the more silly you will look when you’re wrong :)

Which leads to another important topic. In a team, in production, the designer can also not be the person that is never confident in what they’re doing. So how can you deal with the dilemma of knowing that the direction everyone is walking towards might be a mistake?

  1. Every effort of building something should be seen as an experiment, stay open and observant, test early.
  2. Probably not all of your assumptions are wrong. As mentioned, experience, instinct, formal models increase the confidence. A design is a series of choices, and chances are that only some of them were “wrong”.
  3. Communication. As a good designer, you should be able to rationalize your choices or let you guide choices of the team with a more rational approach. Every single design decision has a pro & con. It’s a jungle. But at each intersection you stand, there should be a reason and understanding of how to make that choice. What builds trust with teams or stakeholders is not magically always being right enough times (because you won’t!). What builds trust is communicating the rationale of the choices to team members or stakeholders. This allows them to question the choices that were made. Only 2 things can happen: A) They have a concern that you have already considered. Then you can explain what assumption led to the decision. B) They bring something up that you have not considered. Cool! This might lead to a better choice because you could just update the rationale and maybe avoid a stupid edge case or flaw in the design.



Designing games is tough. If you feel frustrated with not being sure what you’re doing is promising, keep in mind that you can never be sure. Try to see it like a scientist, like an experiment. Rationalize your hypothesis, then you can communicate it to others. This will earn their trust and leaves enough wiggle room for changes and discussions. More experience as a designer will lead to more accurate predictions, it will not make you more right. Try to have as rational design discussion as possible, the argument should matter, not the person who is making it. As designers we are not entitled to are a more valuable opinion. The only thing that differentiates the designer from any other person on the team is that they get the time to apply their problem-solving skills and abstract thinking to the problems of the game and hopefully end up with a good repertoire of arguments and rationales that can stand on their own feet.


Less is more: 4 reasons to keep your rewards scarce

less is more

Rewards are at the heart of games. They come in many flavors.  

When balancing economic rewards such as Currencies, XP, Items and other quantifiable things, we often face a challenge like: “Where do we give the player what?” And “How Much of what?”

This article discusses how giving fewer rewards is more desirable for making a game’s economy tighter and the game more enjoyable for players.

Argument 1: The Presenters Paradox

A study shows that adding less desirable information to more desirable information actually diminishes the total value of all the information that are presented.

The same is true for items with a quantifiable monetary value (see study 1 in the paper). The problem is that the evaluator of a “bundle” (multiple items) subconsciously averages the value of the all the items.  Mixing something very valuable with something that is less valuable will reduce the value of the higher valued item. Hence, when both are combined, the sum is lower. The perceived value is lower than the sum of its parts. If your bundle aims at conversion, this might not be your biggest concern. But if the “bundle” is a set of rewards that players receive, then you probably create a lower motivation to pursue that reward by adding more items to the rewards.  Less, in this case, is more.

From the study

“They could either bundle an iPod Touch MP3 player with 8MB of memory with a cover or the same iPod Touch MP3 player with 8MB of memory with a cover and one free music download. […] They were willing to pay more for the smaller package that contained only the iPod (Mean: $242.19) than for the larger and economically more valuable package that contained the same iPod plus a free music download (Mean: $176.71)“

presenters paradox


So what does it mean?

As the balancer, we have 2 Axises to balance our rewards

  • Type (What do we give?)
  • Amount (How much do we give?)

It sometimes hard to decide how to tweak the rewards along these vectors. The presenters’ paradox can be used to inform that decision. As the designer/balancer, you should be cautious about mixing different TYPES of items. Because you risk watering down the individual reward. You would give out less bang for a bigger buck!

  • When your economy has multiple resources and systems: Giving out high valuable items together with lower value items, makes it less special!
  • This is something you should strongly consider when you are in charge of designing bundles/prices for items in shops of free to play games! The perceived value of the bundle will be lower than the combined value of the individual items.

The presenters’ paradox also works for penalties (check “Study 3: Littering penalties” in the study). Hence, if your game has a losing condition where players lose something, then just losing 1 Item/resource can be more powerful than losing multiple things.

Argument 2: Exclusive Rewards Guide Player Behavior

Rewards can be a tool to reinforcing or incentivizing a certain behavior. By receiving a reward, players know they have done something “right”. That they have reached a desirable game state. Players, of course, come with a certain intrinsic motivation and don’t play the game for rewards. Yet, players expect to get something back from the game when they have achieved something or made a choice. Explicit rewards can also motivate the player to engage in an activity that they otherwise not have e.g. Achievements. 


What does that mean???

  • Consider what reward types in your game should be exclusively tied to one activity
  • Ask yourself what rewards should the player receive for which activity and why
  • Exclusive rewards motivate players to dig into a certain system or practice a certain skill or to play the game in a special way
  • An exclusive reward tied to a performance goal can create a high sense of achievement
    • If possible, give players the opportunity to revisit their exclusive rewards. Players can relive the memories of their journey towards that reward (items, cutscenes, achievements)


Argument 3: Choices

So we know that giving out multiple things for one activity can have a diminishing effect. Also, we know that we can incentivize player behavior with certain rewards. This means we introduce a choice. That’s cool. But as the designers, we must carefully adjust our reward-sources to meet the sweet spot between “exclusivity” and “uniformly distributed” rewards. Uniformly distributed means that you multiple reward-types from every system in the game. This means that players actions or choices come at a lower opportunity cost since they get more of the different types of rewards from any action. On the other hand, this reduces the sense of choice.


Again I would like to emphasize that there are tons of other factors that make players enjoy a game. Rewards are just one (important) element. Players will have preferences for mechanics/systems based on many factors (which we only have partial control over). What we do have control over, is the rewards balancing. So let’s continue with that.

The point is: Know your players, decide what kind of decisions you want them to make, and then adjust the reward balancing to that. None of the approaches are perse bad. But we should make it a choice in the design rather than just letting it happen. These small decisions heavily influence how player experience the game and informs their decisions. As designers, we have to use every opportunity to shape that experience.


What does that mean???

  • Opportunity costs and resource scarcity drive players decisions, so by reduction of rewards/opportunities, you end up with a higher player agency. Less is more.
  • Carefully adjust the rewards of your game through the lens of players choices
    • What systems are part of the core loop, which rewards belong to these systems and which ones not?
    • Analyze sources sinks, and try to assign the sources only to those systems where you need them.
  • By deciding what players receive for what activity, you also inform their mental model of how the game works


Argument 4: It is easier to understand

Argument 2+3 lead to players having an easier time of building a mental model of the game’s economy or system. When it is clear what choice yields what reward, the players can grasp more easily the systems intentions.

  • Reduce noise to help players understand what really matters and what they should do


Real Life example

With a small team, I am working on a turn based squad tactic game. We can place loot on the map but also enemies can drop loot of various kinds: currency, med packs, and other consumable items.

Instead of adding loot crates that drop a bit of everything, we decided to have distinct loot-crates for each of the item types. Players can then get an idea what the loot crate might contain and incorporate that into their strategy. Whereas if all the loot was the same, it doesn’t really matter where players go with their squad (Argument#3). We also wanted players to feel rewarded when they get the loot. Since it is actually quite rare to get it, we also decided to put just one item into the crates for the sake of Argument#1.


A resumé of 20 side projects

Many professional game developers maintain personal projects as a creative outlet. The day to day work can be very restrictive and we operate under tough requirements. Working on the same game for a long time means that the mind is mostly busy the same set the problems within a certain design space.

For me, it is crucial to get my mind of the everyday problems and give me some fresh problems from time to time. This is a personal resume of almost 2 years of working on side projects.

The Goal

When I started a project, the goal was usually pretty simple: “Create something fun”. To see if I have reached my goal, I off course need to create a prototype and then validate the games concept in a playtest.

If a project does not reach the stage of a player holding it in his or her hands, then I consider that project as failed. If there is no player, then there is no game. Projects who reach a stage where I can test them I consider as a success. No matter whether players proved or disproved the concept. These are the ones I could learn the most from as a designer.

20 Projects

In the last 2 years, I have started 20 projects Of which I released one. 3 Other prototypes turned out to be not as much as fun as I thought to be while 16 others I would consider as a failure. I only count projects that I attempted to actually build, so all of the “failed” projects ended during the development phase, for the following reasons.

Reason #1: Design

These projects ended because something went wrong mostly on the design side. I would divide this into two further groups.

The Premature Idea

The reason for these games to get cancelled is that I simply didn’t think them true. The typical story is that I have a “great idea” which sounds super fun in my head but once I start building it, I realize that there are some major holes in the design. Luckily these projects end quite fast and not so much time is wasted.

The Spiral

These are the most dangerous projects. That were stuck in a place where I believed in them and tried really hard to make the design work. One cause for these projects were too high ambitions. In some cases I wanted to create a game that would be valid in the market. This opposed more challenges on the design the project became everything else than fast. In other cases, the designed turned out to be harder to prototype and I went back and forth between paper – and digital prototypes. These projects are dangerous because of a strong Sunk Cost bias combined with the feeling of an imminent breakthrough. Needless to say that the time-cost here is huge. And the more time I invested, the harder it was to end it.

Reason #2: Development

These projects turned out to be too complicated to build in order to prove the initial design. I would argue that the problems of these projects are also rooted in the design phase, though since I could have foreseen many of the issue and complications ahead.

My Learnings

In the creative industry, it is widely accepted that “failing” is part of the process. Motivational quotes that encourage failing are all over the place. But the time spent while failing is only worth it if we take a step back and reflect upon the shambles that lay before us. After all, we want to improve (mostly by not repeating mistakes).

Personally, my biggest challenge is that I stress out too fast. Which is not really helping since these were side project which ought to  provide me with some relief by letting me exercise my design-brain.  My personal lesson from this time of trying really hard is that the journey is its own reward.  While I was going for a solid end result, I forgot to enjoy the moments that lead there. I forgot that the quality of a designer is determined by his or her creative-process and not necessarily the outcome.  The outcome of a project (if it is released), varies on many factors. The only thing we can do is to make sure our decision now is the best that we can do.

PS:  In my next article, I will lay out some tips which I hope will help people who are on the same path as I am.

Game Design Analysis: The Promised Land


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

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

The Promised Land Loop - New Page
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

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

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.

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


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


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


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.


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.

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.


  • 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.


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”.



Cooking Fever Loop - New Page (1)

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.



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


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.


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


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


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.


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.


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.


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.


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


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.


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


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.



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.



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


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


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.


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.





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.


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.

The Design of Rocket League


Two weeks ago something unusual happened to my gamer alter-ego. I got hooked on a game. The first time in a long time. Many other poor souls seem to have fallen into the same addicting trap called: Rocket League.

Then my Game-Designer alter-ego jumped in and raised the question why this was so much fun. So of course I needed to investigate and dissect what caused this steamrolling success.

I tried to identify the key pillars that are mainly responsible for the current success of the game.

The Game


Rocket League is basically football. With Cars. That can fly. And jump. Players control their car in the 3’rd Person view and try to move the ball into the opponents’ goal by bumping it. Although it offers a single-player-mode it heavily focusses on symmetrical PvP gameplay (Team-Competition or 1vs1).

The fundamental gameplay principles are heavily inspired by real sports. As it is a pure competition of skill in a physical environment with physical challenges. There are no exploit progression mechanics built into the game other than players becoming better at the game (similar to other competitive games).


The main point I will dwell on, is how the Developers of the game have designed it to be incredible accessible. While “Accessible” seems like a contradiction for a game with a competitive audience I will lay out how the designers of rocket league have achieved both. Making an incredible competitive and challenging game while everyone is able to pick it up.


The easiest way is to make a game accessible is to make its rules & systems simple. Rocket League’s core gameplay relies on 2 pillars: Input Execution and Tactics. While tactics are added gradually other the course of the game.

The amount of mechanics players can use in Rocket League is negligible, but because they must be combined to use their full potential: there is a huge “Skill-Space” for players to explore.

The game remains interesting as each mechanic takes a significant amount of time to practice until players can use it purposefully. But the time invested will yield diminishing returns in terms of “skill”. A players skills will eventually stop improving at its “natural limit”. The faster a player learns and adapts, the sooner this point will come. The game has them then either hooked them on the tactical layer, or they will get bored because they have exhausted the games systems. And the only way the game stays interesting is through interesting PVP interaction.

Still, Rocket League does an extraordinary job on getting players to that point. A new player can just pick up the game and have fun and score goals with the most fundamental mechanic: Accelerating and Steering. This is a perfect example of  depth & complexity. The game is simple enough to pick up, but then has enough depth that allows players to learn.

Level Design

Although there are some different Maps, they merely differ in their visual and auditory presentation. There are no varying level layouts. Therefore the only key points the player needs to keep in her “spatial”-awareness are the two goals and the fuel-pickups that are also in the same spot on every map. This allows players to focus solely on the ball and tactics (which is challenging enough by itself).

As stated earlier, I believe that these choices were made in order to stay true to the “sports” character of the game. Real life sports rely on the same core pillars: Execution & some layer of tactic. They do not alter the playing field to keep things interesting. It is a contest of pure skill and the ability to “read the game”. Most sports rules are quite simple but have a huge emerging depth from the “input randomness” and different tactics.


Core Gameplay


Each loop is part of a goal hierarchy with the ultimate goal to win the round. In order to win a round, players must score goals and block opponent goal attempts. To achieve this they must gain control of the ball and apply tactics. Goals and core mechanics are strongly tied together (to be expected from a good game, not self-evident though). On the lowest level we have all the movement mechanics (which is basically everything the player can do) is a test of player’s abilities and each test gives players the opportunity to use their skills.

This way, players never truly lose even if they don’t win a match they can find success and recognition for their skills in the small things

And even if they lose, a round – the games longest gameplay-loop – merely being 6 Minutes makes failure less punishing as the time invested is not too high and the next short round is just one click away.

The lack of an in game-economy eliminates potential “kingmaking” mechanics other games would have to fight with negative-feedbackloops. And the short rounds allows the design to make “comebacks” a core element of the games narrative.


2 Sources of Fun

There are 2 main Sources of fun: Success and Mastery.

One informs another but they are separated. Fun from Success happens through winning, scoring or otherwise dominating the opponent. The downside of “Fun from success” in a PvP-based game is that the success of the one team is the forfeit of the other team. This is called a zero sum -game. Fortunately, the sum of fun in Rocket League is >0. The reason for that is the “fun from mastery”. Players have the chance to have small successes by using tactics / mechanic-combinations that they have learned by that time. Fun can be experienced in all of the games loops. Additionally the game rewards certain action such as a pass to the center, or a save with points which accumulate to a player’s point-rating at the end of the match.


Another element that makes “Mastery” such a strong motivator in Rocket League is that the Acquired Skill is the actual progression of the game. Yes, the ladder also lets player progress, but this is merely a measurement of the players skills compared to others. And a ladder system implies that a player’s rank can decline. But it is unlikely that the skill of a player declines.

This principle is not unique to Rocket League, if you think about any successful competitive PvP game – player-skill-progression as a main motivator is what they all have in common.



The Core of Rocket Leagues gameplay lets players interact with physically simulated objects. The car being the avatar with controlled in various ways. And a Sphere. This physically accurate simulated game world is highly chaotic where a slight alternation of inputs, create very different results. Together with rather imprecise player-inputs this opens up the room for many random & and uncertain events. The player is never 100% sure into what results her inputs will end. Of course it is not physically random since the physical simulation is deterministic. But so is the roll of a die in the real world. But by just alternating some of the input parameters (speed, angle, height of throw) we can produce nearly random results. Getting the balance right between random & intended results of physically interacting player controlled objects was probably one of the challenges when polishing Rocket Leagues Gameplay. Having some degree of randomness comes in handy in 3 ways:

  1. This randomness can create lucky moments such as unexpected goals, spectacular saves or otherwise funny and thrilling events which adds a very interesting layer to the games narrative that is otherwise merely constructed by the skill & tactics of the players.
  2. Fairness; The more uncertain the feedback for a particular input is, the more casual/newbie friendly it becomes. This way the game allows also beginners to have some success against opponents at a slightly higher skill level. I think Rocket League hits the sweet spot between Skill & Randomness for their target audience.
  3. Reducing randomness becomes the long-term goal of players on their path to master the game

When advancing, and player are able of hitting the balls more accurate, tactic and strategy become more important as they require a certain amount of mastery to be executed.



All of the previous stated would lead to a total mess if the matchmaking was not near to perfect. Newbies would be crushed by skilled players leading to frustration for both player types. While Pro’s wouldn’t finding meaningful challenge and newbies not finding any success.

Players progress at their own pace in the matchmaking system. They will mostly find a challenging opponent at their skill level. But players can still learn strategies from each other. Which leads to small but continuous skill improvements. The games power curve is controlled through the matchmaking system. It determines how fast players can learn new strategies.


Emerging Tactics

One remarkable fact about Rocket Leagues design is that all cars are basically the same. Many games try to introduce tactics & roles by implementing Rock-Paper-Scissor Elements (RTS-Factions)or by Interdepending classes (Team Fortress Classes), or by a complex Counterplay-Systems as in League of Legends.

Not forcing players to pick a role creates freedom but also the necessity to work together as a team more closely. Example: There is no “goalie” car, which is bigger, or can jump quicker. If there was, that player would be doomed to play defensively the whole match. This does not only reduce choices for that player, also the tactical depth of the whole match would be harmed. As reacting quickly to opponents counter-attacks by building a defense quickly becomes less of a challenge.


Training Modes


There are a couple ways players can learn about a certain mechanics (or the way to combine them in order to). They either see another player in multiplayer use it, they find out by experimenting themselves and then there is the training mode. A very nice way to teach players advanced mechanics.

The trick here is that the game never explicitly tells the player how to use the mechanics, instead it puts the player into a specific situation in which there is basically just one solution for the player. E.g. in the goal training the player spawns in the goal and a huge canon shoots the ball into the goals direction. The task is clear, now players need to figure out how to do it. Also the feedback whether they succeeded or not is quite clear.




I think one of the reasons for Rocket Leagues current success is that it was picked up by many Streamers on The main reason for that being of course that picked it up because it was simply fun. And increased popularity also increases chance of streamers playing it. So View-ability plays a role in popularity but is not the sole cause.  What makes Rocket League such a good-to-watch game?

  1. The drama mentioned earlier, with an entertaining streaming, the drama created by the gameplay is even enhanced and is entertaining
  2. Easy to understand: Get the ball into the goal there is no research required in order to get into the meta of Rocket League


Car Customization


Players want to differentiate. In a game so heavily depending on symmetric abilities, this individualism must come from elements that don’t affect the gameplay. Rocket League satisfy the players need to show off and underpin their social status by offering a bunch of unlockable customizations for their cars: decals, colors, particle effects and of course hats.

Every time a goal has been shot, the game shows a recap of the last couple of events in slow motion. Since in the otherwise fast paced game details such as the specular mapping for car decals can go by unnoticed, these are the perfect moments for players to show off their car.

Although they are not many ways to customize the cars it is sufficient so that every player can create something unique (And I bet they will add more cars & customizations later)




The best thing about the game, might be what will cause its downfall eventually: Its simplicity.

Player progress until their Skill Plateaus – since there are no other progression mechanics, this is when the game starts to get boring. The only way they can “get something” out of the game is by succeeding and winning matches. Since the matchmaking works quite well players will win maybe half of the time (depending on their skill-level). So a player’s skill ultimately determines how long the game is enjoyable.

By adding more game modes this problem could become less imminent because it would allow players to maybe become good at another game mode instead. So players could find their “niche” that they enjoy.

How do other competitive games solve this problem? – More Content. Mobas add more heroes, CS:GO adds more maps, and StarCraft adds more Units & Builds + More Maps. Adding more content will be difficult in Rocket League because the systems are not built around interesting levels, abilities or units.

This is why I think that adding additional game modes is the way to go (e.g. a Golf Mode, Tennis, or Volleyball etc).

Overall Rocket League is a very tightly designed game with exactly the right mechanics that it needs to be fun and engaging for a competitive core audience.


The Heart of Game Systems

In my previous post:  “The Game Design Rabbit Hole” I have conducted my struggles with game design and it being not as a solid craft as I wish it was. This is yet another attempt to shed some light into the dark. And of course, this merely reflects my own opinions and learnings.

In this article, I will flesh out how games work and what makes them so engrossing. To do this, I build my case on the works of Raph Koster’s  “Theory of Fun” And Daniel Cooks’ “Feedback System”.

Fun = Learning

Raph Koster’s “Theory of Fun” is that the source of all fun is learning. Confronting the player with a challenge and giving her the capabilities to overcome it. It’s a task for the brain to figure out through an iterative process in which players refine their strategies up to the point where they are able to overcome the opposed obstacle. I want to dive into that a bit more and share my thought on how exactly this approach can help to take apart the process of designing games into more tangible pieces.

The Game -Loop

*This is not a merely decorative image. Take a closer look as this is what this text is about :)
*This is not a merely decorative image. Take a closer look as this is what this text is about :)


The player and the game are communicating with each other. The player speaks the “language” of input and the game answers with “feedback”. Players then form a mental model of the game system and the inner working of its parts. Through Inputs, they can modify parts of that system. The game will then alternate its current state and communicate that change to the player. These Inputs can be intentional, if the player has already learned what the resulting state change can be, or experimental if the player is still figuring out that part of the game. Either way, the feedback system will inform the player about the impact of these inputs and the player can validate it. Even more importantly, the players gain knowledge about how the game-system works and can in turn, update her understanding of the game-system. The intention is informed by goals which either emerge intrinsically in the players mind, or the game can explicitly give these goals extrinsically. More extrinsic goals are better for the early game when players still need assistance in learning the basics of the game. Extrinsic goals, if rewarded properly, will align with intrinsic goals eventually. “Reaching level 90” in an RPG is an extrinsic goal, while “I want to become more powerful” is an intrinsic goal. Ideally, they match, but first players have to learn that leveling up makes them more powerful. With that, the next loop of the feedback cycle starts. Every iteration of that cycle is an opportunity for players to learn. If the players knowledge of the games system has been established well enough (by running the feedback loop a sufficient number of times) the inputs players make can become intentional towards the desired game-state. The “desired game-state” can be an explicit goal stated within the game (e.g. finish a level) or a player-internal goal (I want to build a nice city). Throughout a game, the players understanding of the increases and a well-paced game will alternate between applying and learning strategies.

Strategies & Goals

I use the word strategy very broadly in this text and it means the following:

“A strategy is the intentional alternation of the game state through a sequence of inputs that lead to a desired state”.


The “desired game state” implies an intention on the player’s side. She wants the game to do something specific, so she uses her knowledge of the game to manipulate it. It is somewhat related to what Daniel Cook describes as “Skill Atom”. Although a “strategy” in this text can describe the usage of multiple “Skill Atoms” to achieve a particular result within the game world.

This definition can be applied to all levels of a game system. From a simple mechanics e.g.

  • Press the jump- button at the right velocity & position to perform a jump collect a pickup in Platformers
  • Placing units behind cover so they receive less damage in XCOM, spread units to mitigate Alien-AoE Damage
  • Throw a smoke grenade into a tunnel to deny an enemy rush in Counterstrike
  • Only shoot in small burst to maintain accuracy (FPS with recoil mechanic)
  • Place an observer at the enemy base to gain high ground vision ( Starcraft 2)
  • Find the biggest match in order to get the biggest possible cascading effect (Candy Crush)
  • Deploy skeletons first when attacking an enemy base (Clash of Clans)
  • Spend all of the mana in a turn in Hearthstone
  • Defending enemy attacks in a Beat’em’up
  • Execute headshots for increased damage
  • Stock up on pokeballs before leaving a town

To more complex ones– these strategies require a deep understanding of a games systems and require some iterations of the feedback cycle before they have been formed and mastered

  • Find efficient city layouts to maximize population happiness and thereby tax income
  • Min-Maxing Character stats in an MMO
  • Building a deck in Hearthstone around a new card
  • Using certain attacks to force the opponent into a bad position and then exploit that weakness with a finishing move/combo
  • Only pick up the most valuable goods in “This war of Mine’s” scavenging mode

The skill a player uses to execute a strategy varies greatly from genre to genre. Executing a headshot requires accurate mouse movement & reaction time while placing buildings efficiently requires strategic thinking. Both are strategies that work towards a goal in the context of their game. The applicability of this model to almost all genres makes it such a powerful. Learning strategies and combining them is what makes games entertaining and what keeps them challenging – given that the game provides more complex goals and deeper systems to interact with. A game becomes boring when there is nothing new to learn, or there is no incentive to combine learned strategies to reach more complex goals. This can be achieved by either increasing the depth or the complexity of the mechanics. Players attempt a solution of the goal with a certain strategy. The game will inform the player whether the attempt was successful or not. This iterative process how learning works and is engraved into the human brains by rewarding its success. When it comes to difficulty I consider creating challenges that gives players the opportunity to show how smart they are rather than showing them that they are inadequate. I think this is exactly where the border between challenging and punishing difficulty lies, but that is a totally different topic in itself.

Actionable: “Look at the mechanics of your game and list possible strategies. Map these strategies to possible explicit and implicit goals. Validate whether all strategies are tested by the goals and whether some your mechanics are underrepresented in your strategies.”

In the players Mind

The player’s ability to act inside of the game context hinges on 3 aspects:

  • Understanding the System: How much of the games system has been understood
  • Understanding the Inputs: To what extent is the player aware of all the possibilities she has to interact with game-systems (not the physical inputs)
  • Transmuting: Combining system-knowledge and input-knowledge to create a hypothesis about a new strategy: “I wonder if I can avoid taking damage by jumping over that enemy”, depending on the target audience this part is either left to the player through experimenting or has to be explained explicitly
  • Applying: Ability to use acquired strategies to solve the games challenge

This perspective allows to break down “player skill” into more tangible parts that can be addressed individually. Especially the first 2 are directly under the control of the designers through good tutorials and an elegant pacing of introducing new game elements and systems.

The latter two are not in the direct control of the designers are they happen mostly in the players mind, but with proper guidance (e.g. highlighting vulnerable parts in a boss-fight) we can assist players in finding solutions. Games test the “Transmute” and “Apply” categories with the goals they present to the players. When a player solves a challenge, she has proven that she has mastered the strategies associated with that goal.

Actionable 1: “Understand how your games performs in teaching the systems (through feedback) and the inputs (possibly through tutorials). Ensure that the challenge matches the player’s abilities to transmute & apply (Flow). “

Actionable 2: “What strategies do you teach explicitly and which ones do you leave for the player to discover? Discovering new strategies is one of the most rewarding moments in a game, but leaving the player too helpless can lead to frustration.”

The Hook: Player Agency – Rewarding Curiosity

Players invest upfront into a game by buying, downloading and launching it. So the game starts with a small debt towards the player. We know what the player want in general (“A nice experience”). So it should be the games’ first task to repay that debt and give players something in return. The more we know about the target audience for a certain game, the more accurate we can deliver that. Introducing the players to the core principles of the game and letting her execute that and yield first successes (as in ascertaining the games systems by experiencing the feedback-loop) will hook the players and motivate them to further explore the game. How do we do that? We show them that their inputs have an impact and lay out breadcrumbs for players to discover and figure out. These breadcrumbs can be a piece of narration about the world, a new ability, a new enemy. Everything that rewards curiosity or that introduces new elements keeps the players interested. This spiral goes on as long as the game actually makes the effort to encourage the players’ curiosity. At no point, the game becomes a “no brainer”. The game always needs to promote progression.

Empowering players through learning and applying the knowledge/skills, conveys a sense of accomplishment and mastery which ultimately is the core of a game experience and is what hooks a player.
Games provide an obstacle (be it a QT in a “walking simulator” or a boss fight in Dark Souls), but also the tools to solve them. Beating a challenge is already rewarding in itself intrinsically. If the player has reached the intended game state by using the abilities the game has taught her she has a feeling of agency and power within the game world.

narrative exploration vs bossfights
The concept of player agency applies to narrative exploration in the same matter as to boss fights.

Despite the resentments from core gamers and even some stubborn game designers, “Heavy Rain” just works like “Dark Souls” in terms of player agency, Players are in control of the games system an progress through the game-world on behalf of their intentions and the resulting actions. And that progress is communicated through whatever extrinsic rewards the particular genre has to offer. A cut-scene (narrative reward), a level-up (power reward), a new level (content reward) etc.

Actionable: “Is the feedback for the mechanics clear enough so that the player know what consequences their actions have? Carefully consider what events in the game world are tied to the players input and what are systematically generated (e.g. by randomness)”


Many things in this article were “stating the obvious” for most designers out there. But my approach to these articles is more of a “What would I have liked to have known when I started designing Games”? I hope that this approach of dissecting the individual parts of the game experience will help to single out certain design challenges that we face along the way of creating awesome games.

My belief is, that the better I understand how games work and what drives players, the better I can “design” systems that fulfill a certain purpose: Bringing fun to players

PS: While writing this post, I discovered the video of a presentation about “Defining Gameplay: Between structure and chaos” that industry veteran Alexandre Mandryka (Ubisoft) was giving. It pretty much sums up everything that I wanted to say here and is a must see for any aspiring game designer IMO.

Rabbit Hole: Game Design

Tag Cloud created with

The process of designing “fun” has always been and is still is an undefined matter for me. All the books, all the articles, all the thoughts expressed on how we designers should approach this task just left me with even more questions than before. I became to realize that there hardly is a common understanding of our craft. Though I don’t believe that good games are just happening by accident or good processes (such as iterative design & prototyping). There seems to be some truth that every successful designer has his or her version of.

There are plenty of ideas and concepts on how to view the player, how to define the interactions between players and the game, what a game is, what a game needs, what makes a game fun. Checklists, lenses, models as plenty as there are designers. I believe, eventually a game designer will end up with its very own and unique variant on how to design games and how they work. But where would I start? How would I become one of those designers who seems to understand how all the elements come together, crafting an experience that is enjoyable for others.


iterative design 1

Prototyping! That must be the way. And there is no doubt about prototyping teaching loads of valuable lessons about _finding_ fun.  Cranking out prototypes, iterating their design and testing them is one of the best ways to unveil the inner workings of games. It will teach about what lets fun emerge, not so much about why it emerges though. The fact that we must rely on prototyping, a trial and error approach, tells me, that we still have a long road ahead of us to bring together those two domains. Sharpening the design skills will reduce the amount of iterations a designer needs to get from A to B and there will be less “failures”, although each failed iteration is the chance to learn something new. I believe that by learning and understanding more of our craft, we can speed up this process and make it more efficient – simply by avoiding mistakes.

Trying to Improve my Skills

I had my own experiences from playing games. At least I knew what fun is for me or could try to tell why certain things where not. In addition I could dwell on the shared thoughts of more experienced designers and people who have walked the same path that I am was about to pursue. I wanted to stand on the shoulders of giants.

shoulders of giants

Since I had already played a lot of games, and read a lot on the subject, my goal was to absorb all the different ideas expressed by other designers and researchers. Then I would reflect upon them by applying them on my own experiences when playing games. In the hope of eventually building up my own understanding of the elements and their arrangement to create “fun”- games (I would like to apply them also to other people’s experiences but that is rather hard unfortunately).

Underneath there is one terrifying fear of which which I don’t know whether other game designers share it: What justifies me earning money from something that I can barely grasp?


Daniel Cook has expressed an analogy that I appreciate very much – comparing today’s game designers to alchemist in the days before there was chemistry ( The Chemistry of Game Design). Experimenting with the known elements in order to create something new, making up their own version of the truth without knowing the underlying rules. Eventually alchemy developed into an actual science. I would not give any money to an alchemist for creating gold from common materials, would you? Game design as it appears, is not yet at the stage of science. However, it has already left the field of a mere art form. It is something in between. And that, to be honest, makes me uncomfortable by itself. I would like to figure it out. As I will probably not be the one to discover the truth™, I will have to just try my best to find at least some degree of certainty that allows me to ask for a salary. Oh yes, and if you want, you can read about my very own personal discoveries as I write about them.

I will keep you posted.


The Mechanics of “Halfway”

the mechanics of halfway


The purpose of this blog is to document game systems and insights into the balancing of games as I encounter them in games. I hope that writing about these things will not only improve my own design skills, but also help others out there too. I want to learn from the mistakes of others and want to look behind the scenes why certain things work and how. Raph Koster has written an amazing article on his blog about that.

In this piece I will focus on small design decisions that have a great leverage on the dynamics and emotions of the game. Even as a designer the first perception of a game is the own experience. The challenge then is to identify the underlying layers of that experience. Ultimately we will reach the deepest layer of a game; its rules. The fascination of understanding the relations between the rules and the experience they create is what kept me going while analyzing Halfway.

 Disclaimer: I am not associated with the developers of “Halfway”, everything stated here is purely based on my observation and publicity available data.

Why Halfway?

Actually there is no special reason. I bought the game, I played it. I noticed a few things, wrote them down in my notebook and suddenly realized that I had few interesting things on my hand which came quite close to my goal of unveiling how the mechanics inform the game experience. 



Halfway is a turn based top down squad-fighting game.


It combines “XCom: Enemy Unkown”- Gameplay with a “Dead Space” Setting and pretty 2D pixel graphics. From their home base, players venture with their squad through decks of a spaceship whose crew has been infested and is battled in turn based fights. The goal is to unveil the events that led to the AI of the ship becoming hostile and the mutation of the crew.

“XCom: Enemy Unknown” as the best in its class will serve as a reference where needed. Not as a benchmark – it is not about what game is “better”.


This piece will be about how slight modifications of the rules lead to completely different game play (which is way more interesting than merely discussing what game is more “fun”).

Let’s start.



Theme, not setting, not art-style or story. Theme as in Jesse Shells book “The art of game Design”:

“[..] but what is a theme? The theme is what your game is about. It is the idea that ties your entire game together — the idea that all the elements must support. If you don’t know what your theme is, it is very likely that your game is not engaging people as much as it could.” – The Art of Game Design p. 48.

Themes exist outside of genres, outside of graphics styles and outside of stories. From my point of view Half-ways Theme is “Surviving in an environment depleted of resources”. The survival based theme mostly emerges through scarce resources. Players constantly have to consider their ammo and health at all times. But creating a deep survival-game-experience is not simply achieved by limiting resources.

Many of “Halfways” mechanics are designed to reinforce the survival-theme of the game. Also the story of an “out of control-AI that is hostile towards the player” further reinforces the theme by adding a component of immediacy.

Progression & Game Flow

Players fight with their squad from level to level while meeting increasingly tough and more enemies along the way. Between levels the player is in a safe haven where she can restock on consumables such as ammo and medi-packs besides obtaining small chunks of the storyline through dialogues.


Squad Members

The player has control of a certain number of units. New units are added to the squad as the player progresses through the game and triggers certain story-points.


Unit Properties



  • Health (when health drops to 0 in combat, the unit will become unconscious and can not fight in that encounter)
  • Agility (agility influences movement distance in combat as well as the ability to dodge enemy fire)
  • Aiming (influences hit chance of firing a raged weapon)


  • Equipped Weapon
  • Equipped Armor
  • Inventory
    • Inventory Size
    • Items in Inventory

Other Properties

  • AP (Action points)


  • Every unit has 2 Abilities. A passive and an active one. Using an active ability in combat uses 1 AP and has a cooldown (turns). More details about the abilities will be covered later.


Players explore and navigate through the levels with an avatar that moves to specific location by clicking on that position. There are two types of movement-commands, left click will only command the selected squad member to move to the target position while a right click will move the whole squad (a very useful feature).

Level Pacing

Levels have interactive objects such as doors or terminals that can trigger dialogues and/or encounters. When an encounter is triggered the Combat Phase starts. Most levels have multiple encounters. When a fight ends, the game goes back to the exploration-phase.

Halfway - New Page (3)

These 2 phases are the main tool for controlling the pacing of the game. The exploration phases are the intermissions for the stressful encounter phases. Unfortunately the games has no mechanic to control the pacing WITHIN one encounter. As soon as the combat phase starts, all enemies involved in the fight will spawn and from that point it is up to the player to meet the challenge. In XCom for example, the levels are also divided into encounters (single enemy groups), but those are much smaller and the player can concentrate on fighting 3 enemies at a time (usually). Whereas in Halfway the enemy groups are much bigger in each encounter (the reasons for that will be covered later). Depending on enemy selection and number of enemies the encounters can be tweaked to match the desired stress-level.

Levels also contain some loot crates where the player can find consumable items.

interactive objects



Resources and Items


Energy can be obtained by recycling unneeded items  (a weird choice to name that resource energy imo). Energy can be used to purchase consumables in the save haven between levels. shop


Players can find ammo-clips in levels or purchase it. Each ammo clip fills the magazine of a weapon no matter how many bullets that weapon can hold.

In Combat; When all loaded bullets of a weapon have been fired, the player needs to reload. Reloading costs 1 AP and 1 Ammo clip.


The value of one ammo clip thereby varies on the weapons that the player chooses for his squadmembers. 1 Ammo clip can give 5 shots from a sniper rifle, or 30shots for a SMG. Ammo will not be restored after fights. Every bullet that is fired originates from an ammo clip that has been obtained at some point.


These are quite rare but deal massive damage in an Area of Effect (AoE). Buying them costs 225 Energy which is 9x more than a magazine.

Medkits & Shield Cells

Like their name says, these consumables can be used in combat to restore a certain amount of health or shields (there are small, medium, large version for each of these item types). Using a Medi or Shield Pack costs 1 AP.


Global Resource System

This mechanic alone, creates interesting choices that support the survival theme. In fights players have some control over their ammo usage, while using more ammo is usually the more safe decision within one encounter, but not the best other the long run because every bullet used, is one that the player might be missing in the next encounter – or level. To use ammo efficiently the player needs to carefully choose which weapon to bring to a fight. The weapon choices are influenced by the squad-members using them (they have some unique abilities & properties that determine their role). This is how the ammo system is entangled with all the other systems in the game to deliver the survival-theme. When creating levels and encounters, the designers always need to account for the impact on the global resource systems. These are some tough constraints for the encounter design which sadly led to the encounters being quite repetitive. The variety of the encounter difficulty cannot differ too far from the current “power” curve. Otherwise the impact on the resources might be too harsh. And the most limiting factor is that as the designer / balancer, you cannot be entirely sure what the resources the players have at a given time. A player can be in level 5 with 20 Clips and 10 Med Kits in her inventory, or she might have one 1 of each left. What do you balance the encounter for? The middle? That would be too easy for good player and way too hard for the less advanced. For the Minimum-case? Then there would be no challenge. You get the problem..

This is why shooter nowadays have auto health refill instead of health pickups. As a level/content designer, you can create more interesting fights when you know that the player enters a fight with 100% HP. You can add spots where the player can regen and then crank up the difficulty again. Knowing how many resources a player has at a given time, allows designer to create better tuned content.

The designer of XCom for example want the players to focus more on the individual fights without forcing the player the consider the non-fight-systems of the game too much. Ammo is not relevant at all. The only way XCom emulates an ammo system is by limiting the number of shots until the weapon needs to be reloaded (at the opportunity cost of shooting). But the player has unlimited reloads, hence unlimited shots. This liberates the designers to put more action into the single encounters as there are no consequences for the global game-economy. (While of course there are a couple of mechanics in xcom that make the players consider the global-consequences of their actions such as wounded-players, using explosives-destroys-weapon-fragments). Health supply is limited in-fight by the charges of the med kit (which can be increased by bringing a support class). There will be no situation in an “XCom” Encounter where the player has an unforeseeable amount of Health-Refills or Ammo.


halfway recycling

“Halfway” gives players the ability to recycle equipment ( suits + weapons) which gives them a certain amount of energy. With energy, players can purchase consumables that can be used in combat for 1AP. As there is no random loot and a finite number of levels which can only be cleared once, the energy available in the game is capped. This means the designers have a control over how the income of consumables for every “progression”-stage. From that point onward though, players can spend the energy however they want, opening up the opportunity of an almost-ammo-deadlock (if players are out of ammo, it becomes insanely hard to obtain new ammo because players can only melee in fights).




In any games with a challenge component, the games difficulty increases over time in order to keep the game interesting. To also convey the feeling of achievement and mastery, the players “power” can also improve.


Many games utilize a leveling-system for that purpose.

In Halfway there is no XP-based-leveling system that increases a units stats or adds new abilities.

The only way the players power level is increased to match the increasing difficulty of levels, is by equipment (armor & weapons), and by

Stim Packs.

Stim packs can be found in levels and use one inventory slot. The player use the stimpack to increase the respective stat of a unit of her choice. Stim packs act as distributable stat-points (in RPG’s those are mainly given to the player when she levels and can be distributed freely in some games (e.g. Dark Souls) or increase automatically ( MMO’s ). Stim-packs are quite rare and given that the player has 5+ units every increase in a stat should have a significant impact. The frequency of stat increases determines how much impact that increase has.  So there is a tradeoff between how often the player is rewarded with level-ups and how much more powerful the player becomes.

halfway impact


To allow for tactical choices during fights, games that incorporate group-combat mechanics rely on unit-roles. From Team Fortress to Final Fantasy all the genres use a system of weaknesses, strengths, armor types, abilities and usable equipment to create distinct roles that are played in different ways. Players can then strategize on how to set up their squads to solve the fight challenge.

The unit roles in “Halfway” are created by different Weapon Types whose efficiency depend on their accuracy at specific ranges (more details on weapons soon).



rifle_expertEvery unit comes with 2 abilities which somewhat determine the weapon and thereby also the role of each unit. The connection between Abilities and Roles, hence weapons, is quite loose in most cases. The “Rifle Expert”-ability cleary specifies the role & weapon, while the “Medic”-role can be legitimately played with all weapon types, whereas some weapons make more sense than others.

Xcom handles this topic differently. Characters have a specific class that come with very unique abilities that cleary distinct the different roles.


Also there are explicit rules for what weapons can be carried by what unit. This means that the players has less choices when it comes to micromanaging the unit development. XCom limits these choices to those within one role while “Halfways” choices allow for some blur between roles. Giving players the option to do that also bears a higher risk of the player messing up.


Health & Shield System

In combat, units have Health and Shields. When taking damage, shields will be reduced first. When the shield-hitpoints are down to zero, incoming damage will reduce the health-points. Incoming health-damage is reduced by suit-armor. When the health-points reach 0, the unit becomes unconscious and is not able to continue fight/moving. When a fight ends, shields are restored and unconscious units awake with 1 point of health.

There are different suit types that have an important part of this system.



  • Scout Suits have a large amount of shield-hitpoints
  • Tank Suits have a high armor value that mitigates incoming damage
  • Assault Suits are the halfway blend of both

Suit Balancing

The damage a unit can take, depends son its hitpoints –

hitpoints = health+shields

Balancing-wise armor can be translated into hitpoints – a 50% reduction of incoming damage for example is basically doubling a players hitpoints.

hitpoints = health*armorMultiplier + shields

This means that armor scales with health: each health-point added to a unit, is more worth with a higher armor. The value of shields does not scale with hit-points. So at a certain health-threshold, a unit will benefit more from a tank suit, than from a shield suit of a specific type. At a given Equipment Tier, the suits are about equally strong in terms of total hitpoints (I estimated a certain health value on a unit for a certain Tier because hier tiers of equipment become available later in the game where units have more HP).

This has been calculated with the actual configured values from the game. Luckily the developers created the game to be modable and all the balancing files are disclosed ad JSON files. I collected some of the data for suits and weapons in this excel. Download Collected Data.



Shield suits come with an advantage though. Remember that shields are restored after a fight? Health points are not. The advantage of shield suits are free hit-points. Also the drain on the economy system is reduced because the player will need less medkits which are worth a certain amount of energy. This advantage does not come with another cost as far as I can tell. This would mean that shield-suits are simply better than the other types.

The choice for the player regarding which suit to assign to which units becomes unclear as the values between the different armor types are only slightly different. And the clear benefit what armor is better is not visible unless the player sits down and does the math. Although the balancing of the numbers makes sense as in “Cost vs. Benefits”, the distinction between the different suits is too blurry to have an interesting choice here. XCom is being slightly simpler in that matter too, armors merely increase the HP, but the different armor types come with special perks, such as flying-capabilities, or fire restistance.

xcom armor 2


Fighting Mechanic

This is where all the systems come together. The fight is executed in alternating player & AI turns. Each unit (enemy and players) has 2 Action Points (AP) per turn. Unlike XCom shooting does not end the turn. Since there are no explicit classes, there are no “special” rules regarding how different units work during a fight (e.g. XComs “Sniper move or shoot”-rule).

Actions During a turn
  • Moving (1AP per zone)
    • Each AP is worth a certain movement distance that varies by the agility stat (IMG movement radius).
  • Shooting (1-2AP)
    • A regular shot costs 1 AP, but the player can choose to do a shot for 2AP with an increased accuracy value (this will be covered later in more detail)
  • Use Item (1AP)
    • Players can use consumables: Use Shield-Packs, Medkits (on self or others),Throw Grenades, Reload.
  • Use Ability (1AP)
    • Every player comes with 1 active ability.
  • Retaliate (ALL AP)
    • If the unit is hit during the other sides turn, it will shoot back.



“Halfway” uses a half/full cover system that affect (incoming & outgoing) ranged-shots-accuracy similar to Xcom.


Decision Space

All these systems add a dimension to the “decision”-space of the combat:

  • The spacing and positioning of coverpoints in the level-design
  • Different ranges of weapons
  • Positioning of Enemies
  • Global Resource System
  • Different Enemy Behaviors
  • Consumables & Abilities


Weapon Balancing

As mentioned before, weapons are the component that define the role of a unit, to be specific: the accuracy at different ranges does. An additional metric to consider when it comes to the choice of weapon is the magazine size. Ammunition is a scarce resource and therefor player want to maximize the damage per magazine.

 Damage per magazine = BulletsInWeapon * Accuracy * DamagePerShot.

The amount of bullets per weapon and the damage are defined in the weapon and does not change. But the accuracy completely depends on the players choices (hence, the skill) during a fight.

weapon types

Other properties such as a weapon-damage range and critical chance that adds damage allow for some RNG to create some uncertainty which keeps the fight interesting and enables potentially exciting or threatening.

Effective Damage:

Avg Damage Per Shot = (BaseDamage + CritChance*CritDamage) * Accuracy

To decide what unit will receive which weapon the player must first consider the desired role-mix. Then, within each weapon type, there are multiple variations regarding the ammo consumption, damage, and accuracy.


Weapon Roles

Each weapon type has a distinct accuracy-curve which ultimately defines their role. On problem with these accuracy curves is, that while in the balancing, there are quite distinct curves as you can see – ingame, nothing refers to them. It merely states the “best” range for a weapon, which does not imply a certain falloff curve. The game hides this mechanic behind the scenes.


Short-Range Weapons are only useful when players get quite close to enemies which makes them particular good for a unit that will be pushing forward to hinder enemies from moving towards the rest of the group – off course this dynamic can only emerge because the AI is programmed in a way that it will not just run into the player group attacking a random-player unit. Short Range Weapons also have a smaller magazine, leading to higher Ammo-Clip cost and less shots per action-point because of an increased reload-frequency. The steep accuracy falloff means that the 2-AP shot does not help the player to maximize ammo-efficiency.  The accuracy is at 100% (which is the maximum) for 3 tiles and then goes very fast to 0. So any increase in these values will not make the weapon more accurate.

The limited range is not only compensated by the high ranged DPS but also by the melee Attack which has a 100% accuracy. Since users of short-range-weapons will be closer to enemies, they will use the melee attack more often – which will also deal more damage because short-range-weapons have the highest melee-damage.

Medium-Range-Weapons have the largest magazine which adds the option of firing 2 shots a valid choice to increase DPS at the cost of bullets. Shot Accuracy remains high until a range of 8 tiles and then starts to drop. The balanced accuracy and the best Damage per Magazine value make it the most versatile of all weapon types.

Long-Range-Weapons have the lowest accuracy at short and medium ranges but their high base damage make up for that to actually succeed medium-ranged weapons even at medium range in damage throughput. This comes at the cost of a very high Ammo consumption is about the same as for short ranged weapons. Due to the high bullet cost and lowest average-accuracy, this weapon benefits the most from the 2-AP shot.





Shot Modes

When it comes to picking a shot players have 3 choices:

  • 1AP for a single shot
  • 2AP for two single shots
  • 2AP for a single accurate shot



I mocked up some example balancing for these 3 shot options to show why the different are balanced the way they are in “Halfway”. The exact formula for accuracy calculations is hidden in the source code, but the general idea is this:


For adding 1 AP to the shooting action, players can increase the accuracy of that shot. Increased accuracy leads to a higher damage. In the first column I added a few example rows where I simulate different accuracy increases for the additional AP. In the game, the additional AP gives an accuracy increase of about 150%. If the additional would be twice as high, the damage would be higher than 2 single shots. Then there would be no choice because it not make sense to use 2 single shots as it uses 2 bullets for the same amount of damage. By picking a value lower than that, the designer actually created a choice where the player can control the ammo consumption vs. damage. The increase must be high enough to make a reasonable change though. The accuracy does not increase by a multiplier though, there is a second accuracy curve for each regular curve that is used when shooting with 2AP.




Halfways balancing & design adds up when looking under the hood. How these system are entangled with each other is not clear to the player though.  The presented choices in the unit-progression (items & weapons) are not clear enough because the connection with the unit-roles only becomes obvious when fully understanding the combat-math. Interesting choices stem from a distinct functionality and or values with a clear trade-off. The differences should be reasonably high and must be communicated explicitly in order to explain the consequences of that choice. Only a clear choice can create player-agency.

The unit progression is quite slow due to the missing XP-leveling-system. This leads to a very slow progression which fits the theme. Also – each improvement is more rewarding because the impact of is more recognizable. This shows how much control the designers have when simply adjusting the power-curve.

The global resources systems leads to some combat-design limitations which make the fights slighty less interesting than they could.

Still, “Halfway” is a very carefully designed and tuned survival-game-experience that will attract some players and retain those who are already very familiar with the game-systems of the genre.

Thanks for creating this nice little game whose simplicity allowed me to learn a lot from its systems.

Lives, Timers and Production Queues: Session Pacing in Mobile Free to Play Games

Session Pacing

In my previous post about the progression mechanics in Sim City BuildIt I argued that shaping the players sessions is an important aspect of the games core mechanic, the crafting system. This time I want to scratch the surface of how certain game systems create and utitlize a certain player behaviour.

Session Pacing can be summarized like this:

How often does a player interact with a game per day and how long does that engagement last?


So why is it so important?

Getting the session pacing parametres right, is important for creating a successful free to play mobile game because their monetisation model is based on games being a “service”. This means that the games systems need to engage players for an as long as possible timespan. To make this possible, the content of the game has to be packaged in small chunks to not burn out the players interest in the game. Each of these chunks should be a rewarding and concluded experience. Players want to feel, that at a certain point, it is okay to leave game . That they have accomplished something. They can put a “done” on their mental checklist and know that in a couple of hours there will be something waiting for them. This is what players of mobile games want and expect, and this also an advantage for the creators because we can build games to satisfy that desire.

Free 2 play Sessions
Players interact with the core loop until the reach a point of closure which also triggers a cue to return at a later point.


Local notifications are sent when it’s time to jump back into the game.

In a session the players repeatedly engage with the core mechanics of a game up to a certain point. The choice regarding what game systems brings the player to that point of session-closure is depending on games the target audience. But a session must always end with setting an incentive to return, a promise, the prospect of an reward in future, putting a new “Todo” on that mental checklist. Just to make sure players don’t  forget; also a local notification is queued at that point, ready to trigger when it’s time for the player to come back. The point at which a session ends is usually when a certain resources is exhausted (by the core mechanic).


The session frequency is determined by speed at which this resource needs to refill and the session length is driven by the amount of resources consumed per round (and of course the length of one round).

This principle applies to all flavors of session pacing-systems.



Energy Systems

In this easy to understand system, each gameplay a certain amount of a resource is consumed. This resource can be given out as reward and is usually restored over time. A strength of this system is its simplicity and the scalability of the cost and income of the energy-resource


Summoner Wars

summoner wars energy
Energy Systems are often used in games with a Collectible Card – Mechanic as their progression system. This is a screenshot from Summoner Wars where each gameplay costs a certain amount of energy.


Agent Alice

In the Hidden Object Game Agent Alice, energy is not only used for starting a round, players also need to invest energy to solve clues (time based progression blockers).


Kim Cardasian

kim kardashian energy
In “Kim Kardashian: Hollywood” each action uses energy. The session ends when the energy has been spent.


This qualifies as a subgroup of the energy system. The difference is that one gameplay always 1 requires life. For a casual audience this is even easier to conceptualize but it comes with the disandvantage that lives can not be rewarded in “small” amounts. Limiting the designers possibilities to to tie lives into their reward systems.


Candy Crush Saga

Almost every puzzle games used a live-system. The session pacing almost never changes and there is no resource management required.

 Production Slots

Now it becomes a bit more abstract. The resource that is “spent” during a session and replenished over time, in these systems are “available-production-entities” . A player starts a session and harvests all the crops or collects all the produced resources. During the session the players use up their production slots by assigning a recipe/crop to it. The production then takes a certain time  and the players can return to the game, when the production has ended, hence, when the production-slots are available again. Session pacing is controlled by scaling the amount of production slots and tuning the production timers & cost.

The trigger for the next session is stronger than in the Lives & Energy system because the player becomes emotionally invested when queuing up these crafting timers.


Sim City BuildIt

sim city buildit production queues
In Sim City Buildit players queue up the products that they need to upgrade their city. Additional purchase slots can be bought with hard currency.


Farmville 2

farmville 2 plots
In farming simulations such as Farmville, the production slots are presented as plots. Players can determine their own session pacing by making choices about what to plant.


Hay Day

hay day crafting
Hay Day deploys several production mechanics such as expandable plots & Harvest-Timers or this production unit with a production queue.


In these systems, players build up their resources to use in the core gameplay. As the player progresses she increases the possible amount of units. So it becomes more expensive to max these out. In clash of clans for example, players build units which they then can use to engange in PvE or PvP content. There is one aspect that makes this system quite interesting. Players can choose how much of their troops/resources they want to invest. It becomes a risk vs. reward choice. The players decides how many units they want to deploy and put at risk of loosing them. The more they can keep, the less time they need to spend waiting for their units to rebuild or heal.

coc used units
When players attack in Clash of Clans, they risk using units which they have to rebuild with resources. Minimizing unit loss lets the players attack sooner.

This aspect of rewarding skill for a target audience that seeks challenge in a game. The better a player is, the more she can get out of every session which is a strong motivation for optimizing their strategy in the core gameplay. This “strategizing” that involves the players skill can come down to the actual fighting mechanics or merely to troop selection before the fight starts.The trigger to initiate the next session is strongest in this systems because the players had to use their hard earned currency to build the troops that they wanted.



boom beach troop limits
In Boom Beach players extend their troop limits by building additional ships.


Clash of Clans

Player can choose with what troops they want to to attack. But they want to use as few as possible.


Empire Kingdoms

Similiar to Clash of Clans or Boom Beach players need to build troops before they can attack in Strategy Games such as “Empire Foure Kingdoms” or “Game of War”.


Lionheart Tactics

lionheart troops 2
In the Tactic-RPG Lionheart Tactics, player don’t build troops. But unit HP only heals over time (or Hard Currency). So minimizing received Damage (by ending a fight fast, or bringing tank units) is the players main concerns.



Finding the system that triggers the right player emotions in your target audience is a top priority design decision when building a free to play mobile game. Some systems will work better with certain players for various reasons. All the systems presented here are built on the same principle which leads to the same goal: Motivating players to return the game. But every single implementation has been carefully crafted to meet player expectations & behaviors. To choose and build the right system to achieve that, we must first fully understand our players and their needs. This concerns not only the high level decision of frequency and session-duration but also what motivates players to come back to a game.


Progression Control in Sim City BuildIt


SimCityBuildit2I took a close look at the balancing of the successful mobile free to play game “Sim City BuildIt”. I recorded many data points during my play-through in order to interpret the designers’ intention behind these numbers.

Download the excel file  here:


and look for yourself. It has more content than I will refer to in this article so taking a closer look might be useful.


I will start with a brief introduction regarding the focus of this article: Player Progression.



Games are about players pursuing a goal. In order to reach that goal players accomplish a subset of goals. “Progression” describes how far a player has come, reaching that goal. This often implies consuming a games content while moving on.

The content is consumed by engaging with the game mechanics. For example, in order to progress in an RPG (progress = Levels, Items, Story), the player needs to fight (core mechanic) enemies (obstacle).

What is progress in “Sim City BuildIt”? In Simulation games, or in social games in general, there often is no final goal which after reaching it, concludes the game. Progression itself is the goal in these games. Expanding, growing and exploring. Usually

economic challenges are imposed on the players as an obstacle to reaching their goal. Controlling the progression in games like that is crucial to their success in terms of longevity and monetization.


Goals of progression Control

Learning Curve & Ramping up new players

To not overwhelm players with too many Gameplay mechanics or systems in the beginning, the access to new features needs to spaced out. Giving players one bit of the game at the (right) time gives them the chance to learn the existing ones before presenting the next one. Although there is a fine line between spacing out unlocks of features for the sake of merely stretching the content (mostly for monetization reasons) and actually providing a smooth learning curve. Which leads to:


To overcome the progression blockers the designers have put into a game, the players are often asked to repeatedly execute the same loops. This increases the time spent with the same content. This only works if the core gameplay is highly replayable.

Hooking players

Having a lot of things happening and unlocking, keeps things more interesting. Bread crumbing the player through the early stages of a game to keep them engaged and helps getting them from install to showing the games full feature set. Once the player is hooked, things can slow down.

Long term goals

Having a clear measurable goal such as a level gives the player something to look forward to. Especially if they know what elements of the game are connected to reaching a level (e.g. unlocking new buildings, features or other content)

How it works

Unlocking new content or mechanics can be slower because players can spend increasingly more time engaging with the previously unlocked capabilities.

The number systems which the players can interact with or the complexity of the existing ones usually increases over time. This means, that the further the player has progressed, she can spend more time with different aspects of the game.

Example Lego, in the beginning you will need a lot of content (pieces) fast in order to build things. While too many pieces might overwhelm a child. Although obtaining more pieces (long term goal) is worthwhile (reward), the child can spend that time waiting for cChristmas with all the pieces it has collected up to that point.

How progression is controlled

Some examples for gameplay elements that have an impact on the player progression.

Level Thresholds

In games that use level-systems it is common to control to pace the progression by adjusting the XP curve. The XP needed to level up, increases with every level. Usually also the XP income increases (numbers always need to grow so players can see the progress). But at a lower rate than the thresholds. So overall the time to level up increases (Fig 1).

Sim City Buildit - charts (6)
Fig1: XP Requirements are growing faster than XP Income


Adding Systems or Complexity

In MMOs sometimes non XP rewarding systems (such as crafting or PVP) are introduced which will slow down the player’s progression. During a round of Civilization turns get longer because the complexity is growing (number of cities, units, diplomatic options).

Difficulty / Randomness

Controlling the rate at which the player can consume content by letting her fail and repeat more often. Found in puzzle Games where some levels are simply harder (or more random) in order to require more rounds-played to finish.


Sim City Buildit

I will mostly cover the topic of the relation between the crafting system and the player progression. If you are looking for a more broader analysis of the game especially in regards to its free to play mechanics, I recommend reading the great deconstruction at the deconstructors of fun.

The Game

“Sim City BuildIt” boils down the concept of the original Sim City Series down to 2 systems: a Hay Day like crafting and old school city building mechanics as found in previous Sim City titles or the “Anno” series where the placement of support-buildings is crucial in order to grow a city. Notions of Sim City’s well known RCI Zones (residential, commercial and industrial) can still be identified but they merely continue to exist thematically.

Core Gameplay

Crafting is the pacemaker of the whole economy. Everything hinges on players capabilities to create products which she then can either use to upgrade residential buildings or convert them into soft currency through trading, the Cargo ship, disasters, or randomly appearing Deals.

Players expand their city by building residential buildings which will increase a city’s population when upgraded. Residential buildings require coverage of Utility and Service buildings such as power plants, hospitals etc.. Adding a residential building to the city will come at the cost of providing a sufficient service and utility supply. These supporting buildings can be built with soft currency. To maximize the effects of supporting buildings, players need to re-layout their cities from time to time. Meeting the citizen’s demands increases their happiness which will in return increase the tax income (SC).



Progression Sim City BuildIt

The player’s goal is to expand her city. Many of the systems to control progression are tied to the level of a player. Although they may appear simply as a burden when looked at from a systematical perspective, for players they are tasks and challenges that they want to overcome in order to reach their goal. Finding the sweet spot between challenging and driving players away is among the tough tasks when balancing the progression of a free to play game since this is where the monetization hinges.

Soft Currency

The Soft Currency economy is as important for the progression as upgrading houses. By adding residential buildings the player expands the city and increases the population’s demands, and SC is used to meet these demands.

Players have two options to increase Population (Fig 2):

  • Build more houses (which will increase utility or service cost)
  • boost the population of the existing houses by building Parks or “Key” buildings

Fig 2. Every residential house has a potential population that which is unleashed by providing services.


The latter does NOT add to the utility costs. And since there are no new buildings added, the service cost (buildings that provide happiness through area-coverage) also remain the same. But of course the designers have accounted for that strategy by adding a distinct cost to increasing population in the existing houses: players need to upgrades the roads for a large SC amount to keep the population in these houses happy.

SC is generated in 3 ways.

  1. Sell products (either Trading or random-deals)
  2. Upgrade Buildings
  3. Taxes

There are 3 Sinks for SC:

  • Utility costs (water, power, sewage) are increased by +1 for every additional house built.
  • Services (buildings that satisfy a certain demand by covering the area around it)
  • Parks & Departments boost the people living in a house
  • Trading
Random SC Rewards for upgrades

Coin rewards per upgraded are very fluctuating. They are always with a certain range. The average amount of earned SC increases by level but also the range (min max value to determine the amount) is increasing SC Ranges (Fig 3). By randomizing the rewards the game becomes less predictable the overall feeling for progression is smoother than with fixed rewards per level.

Fig3: Rewarded Soft Currency for upgrading a building is within a random range




Happiness and population size is used to determine the SC production of the town hall. The happiness determines the tax bracket, and is then scaled by the population by a certain multiplier.

scr2The income is not increasing linearly though. As you can see in Fig. 3 the tax income per citizen decreases with a growing population, meaning a diminishing return for each population increase. In other words: Increasing the population size becomes less lucrative as the city gets bigger. But the costs for each population added stays the same. Since the tax system does not have such a big impact on the progression of an engaged player this is only a minor progression dampening mechanic.

Fig 4. Tax income per citizen at different population sizes.


Demands & Utilities

Sim City Buildit - charts (1)
Fig. 5: Each residential building has demands that lead to the happiness rating. These needs are satisfied by building the respective facilities with SC.

In the early phase of the game, no services need to be provided to the population. Players gradually unlock them.  If services are not provided, the happiness of the population is reduced (Fig. 4).

This introduces a new coin sink without any additional benefit for the player. The player needs to invest SC in order to maintain the current game state. So every time the player unlocks a new demand, or builds a new residential house, this creates a cost that needs to be accounted for with SC. In Fig. 6 you can see how the “cost” per additional building evolves throughout the game.

Fig 6.: The demands are unlocked between level and 16


The cost per residential building is calculated by stacking the average cost of meeting the demands. The farther the player has come in the game, the more SC it will cost to get the max happiness out of a residential building. And because happiness is provided by buildings purchased with soft currency, the time needed to support a residential house increases as well.

Sim City Buildit - charts (3)
Everytime the player unlocks a new demand or, plops a new residential building, the happiness is decreased.


Players go through a constant cycle of expanding and grinding making their progression plateau until enough SC has been earned & invested.

Sim City Buildit - charts (1)
More and more time needs to be invested for a decreasing progression.

There is also another progression dampening side effect to this. The player needs to change and optimize her city layout when she unlocks a new demand. When plopping the new buildings they make every other building that supplies happiness to residential buildings less effective. Because the residential buildings are spread out wider to make room for the new utility/specialization building hence, the area that needs to be covered with services becomes larger by an amount of tiles that is larger than the newly added residential building.

The players goals advance as the player moves on. A stable state is never reached.

The whole system of coin-sinks is a good example for a Red Queen Dilemma (the player needs to work more to maintain her current gamestate) or the good old carrot on a stick.

This way, every level up where the player unlocks a new Population-Demand becomes a potential monetization point. These kind of systems are the meat of Free to play economy balancing.

An issue I see with this system in “Sim City BuildIt” in particular, is that leveling up doesn’t really feel good and actually avoiding to level up is good strategy because the game is very tight on the Soft-Currency Economy. Leveling up is not rewarding and does thereby not qualify as a goal for the player.


XP & Levels              

Upgrading Residential Areas

In this pop the player sees the required products and the rewards for the upgrade.



Upgrading buildings is one of the core activities and goals in “Sim City BuildIt”. It is the only way to earn XP and one of many ways to earn Soft Currency. A residential building can be upgraded 5 times, each time granting XP and coins and a population boost.

This means, by adding a new building, the players also create a source for coins and XP that can be exhausted. The total amount of XP that can be earned by player is thereby limited by the residential buildings that have been built.

Fig 7: How much xp does the player need to level up?

In Fig.7 you can see the XP curve, showing the amount of XP that is required for a certain level. This curve doesn’t look too exiting at first glance. The interesting question for these type of curves is, at what rate does it increase?And usually the rate at which increases, is increasing as well, creating an exponential growth. So to get this number, we need to look at the XP-Requirement-Increase from level to level.

Fig. 8: By looking at the deltas of the XP curve, we know the XP thresholds for each level.


Now things get a bit more interesting! As you can see the XP-Requirement does not grow steadily. For each upgrade of a residential building, the players will receive XP. The amount of XP rewarded is a random value in a range  which seems to be configured by level. The base-rate is increasing by level. This is expected since XP income usually grows. To convey a feeling of progression to the player, numbers always need to grow.

Since upgrades equals XP, the number of upgrades required by level can be simply calculated by looking up the XP income for an upgrade at a specific level and use that to divide the amount of XP required for that level (Fig. 9).

Fig. 9: Shows How many residential upgrades need to be performed to get to the next level.


Fig10. shows how the number of required upgrades per level differ. This means that players will have faster and slower level ups, alternating by 1 upgrade more or less per level.

Fig 10.: The differences of “Upgrades Required by level”. Some increases are faster than others.


By having some fluctuation the progression is not too rigid and predictable. A progression with small bumps feels better than absolute linearity. Slower and faster levels can be created.

It is interesting that the required amount of upgrades sometimes decreases. But it makes sense – by that, the designers can have a strong “bumpiness” by maintaining an overall slow growth.



Crafting is the core of the gameplay and everything revolves around it. The whole session design and most of the progression is handled by this system. Through crafting players generate XP and SC, the two resources that players need to progress. The player is therefor under constant pressure to always keep the crafting queue running.

There are several implications in the crafting system when the players level up. Each of them eventually leading to a slowed down progression due to an increased complexity in the core loop.


Increasing Material Requirements per Upgrade

Material requirements for a residential-house-upgrade depend on 3 Factors (Fig. 11):

  • the number of materials slots
  • the material type
  • the amount of materials

3 dimensions
Fig. 11: Upgrades can ask for a certain number of different product types


Product Requirement Slots

To upgrade residential buildings in the first session, the player only needs to manage a very limited set of products. This leads to a very high upgrade-rate for the first sessions. There is almost always a match between what the player has in her inventory and that what a house requires to be upgraded. The core loop gets executed often and fast because timers are fast and requirements are low.

Fig. 12: Number of requirement slots possible at a certain level. More slots means more work for the player

This is exactly how the early phase of a free to play simulation game should feel. And it is entirely controlled by the crafting system. Additional product-requirement slots are introduced over the course of the game (Fig 12).

Increasing required material naturally leads to the player spending more time on the core loop. In other terms, each upgrade will ask for more player engagement.

There is a side effect to this mechanic: The material types and counts are more or less generated randomly per slot (that will be covered in a later section). So by increasing the possible slots for an upgrade, the stress on inventory management is increased.

Unlocking Product Types

As the player progresses, she unlocks new products making the range of possible requirements larger. Gaining access to a new product also implies building the production-building for that type of product if it is the first of its kind. Building this production facility of course requires coins. As soon as the player unlocks a new product Type, it can show up in the upgrade requirements for residential buildings.

Gaining access to more crafting products will also force the players to care more and more about inventory management. With each new product unlocked it becomes more likely that players will hit the inventory limit. Which will then push them into engaging with the trading systems in order to obtain the materials needed to increase the inventory or to get rid of excess products.

Although new material types put the players into a disadvantageous position, it keeps the game interesting. Always producing the same items would be too boring after a while. With multiple possible products, players have to plan and organize their production queues which becomes one of the few challenges in the game. This is also what is limiting this system in terms of scalability. Adding too many crafting products with longer timers or more complex recipes doesn’t make the game more interesting after certain point.

Recipe Complexity

2 slots asking for 3 raw products of a certain type each

As the game progresses, timers on products not only get longer, also the recipes become more complex. In the early game, the products needed to upgrade a building are often simply some raw products.

In the mid game, more products are unlocked that require raw materials as an ingredient. This significantly increases the production time for this product because this time is added to the actual production time.

this upgrade requires a certain amount of 2 raw products, but also 3 types of “tier2” products that require raw products.


And then there are even some products that need ingredients that need to be crafted from raw materials.

To upgrade this building, players will need to craft a lot of products..



3 Dimensional Scaling

Having these 3 axes to balance the core loop gives the designers to capability to tune the system in different ways but with the same outcome, modifying the “Time to level”.


XP meets Crafting System

Now I will combine all these mechanics to show how the progression actually develops over time. Again, progression means the “moving towards the end goal of a game”, which in Sim City is, expanding and optimizing the city. To reach this goal, players need to complete the core loop of producing, collecting and investing products.

The time to level in Sim City can be calculated like this

Time to Level = NumberOfUpgrades * ProductsRequiredPerUpgrade * ProductProductionTime

NumberUpgrades = XPForLevel / XP per Building

ProductsRequiredPerUpgrade = SlotsPerUpgrade * ProductQuantityPerSlot

All of these factors are increasing, all of the small increases, lead to huge increase of the Time-To-Levelup.

  • Increasing number of Upgrades per Level: The number of upgrades is growing because the XP-Threshold is increasing faster than the XP Income Per upgrade.
  • The Slots per Upgrade are increasing up to a maximum of 6 at level 15.
  • The amount of products per slot stay about the same so the main increase from products per Upgrade comes from the added Slot
  • Production time increases as more and more products with longer timers are thrown into the mix

Amount of products that need to be crafted per level just to get the proper amount of XP.


There is one mechanic that compensates a bit for all these increasing requirements. Over time the players can build more factories with more production slots (Fig.13).

Fig13. : Raw materials-slots can produce in parallel and the other production facility queue up the products.


This compensates only the production time though as each product needs to be queued up and collected. So the amount of work  (queuing up the products and collecting them) on the player side is still increasing proportional to the amount of products. Even if the growing production capabilities are set in relation to the increasing upgrade cost, the ratio increases over time, letting the players spend more time in the core loop until they can progress.


Distribution of Products

This section is about the probability for certain item types to get chosen as an upgrade requirement for residential buildings. The data I could collect to make this analysis is by far not enough to draw very accurate conclusions about the probabilities but there are at least some quite obvious tendencies.

The probability for each product is calculated by looking at how often that item was a requirement compared to all the recorded upgrades. To account for items being unlocked later in the game, the “RequiredCount” has been normalized (Check the spreadsheet for more insights into this). I just want you to be aware of that normalization when looking at the charts because some products just have a few data points but are treated equally to those with a lot of data points.

Observation 1

Ratio of “Raw Products” to “Manufactured Products” is 1:1 – Raw products are created in factories where all production slots are active in parallel. Manufactured Products are those built in “Stores”. Stores only have one 1 active production slot, but players can queue up products. Manufactured materials are always created from Raw Products.


Observation 2

Quick products are more frequent. At least for raw products it is clear that those that can be produced fast, are more often used to upgrade buildings (Fig. 15).

Fig. 15: How often was a product a requirement for an upgrade. Colors reflect the production time.


For Manufactured Products this no clearly supported by the data (Fig. 16)

Fig 16. Probability for manufactured products in upgrades. Results are not so clear.




The distribution of products is a system the designers can utilize to tune the session design.

A mix of different item types with varying production times is preferable. But shorter timers need to be more frequent in order to shape a “good” session:

Players are kept engaged during the session as long as they have a reason to produce quick materials until only those products with long timers are left, letting the players end their session after queuing them up. The goal of most social games is not to have the users playing as long as possible, but in small chunks distributed over the day, so the content doesn’t get exhausted to fast but the player gets used to engage with the game on a regular basis.


The means of controlling the progression in “Sim City BuildIt” are subtle but very effective. This stems from a lot of small progression-dampening systems working together on multiple levels (Crafting, Soft Currency Sources & Sinks, and City Lay outing). The designers have tuned these systems in a way that they are not too harsh to the player and ease them smoothly into the habit & hobby phase.

In a nutshell
  • SC is the gating resource
  • Gradually increasing SC sinks by unlocking new demands
  • For each expansion players need to invest a growing amount of SC in order to maintain population happiness
  • SC income increases at a lower rate than the SC sinks
  • Each level requires more and more upgrades of residential buildings
    • Upgrade time increases by asking for more products and different kinds of products
  • Efficient session design through the crafting system