The Frontier of Merge Games: “Merge Stories”

A new genre of game is on the rise for some time now: “Merge Games”.

Are merge games just a blip on the radar or does this mechanic have what it takes to establish a new genre for years to come?

Merge games are not new per-se. Games like “Merge Dragons” have been around for some years. However, the mechanic is starting to reach out of its “collectible” niche. One game that has grabbed my interest in doing just that is Merge Stories by the Israeli developer Jelly Button.

Merge Stories is currently in Early Access on the Play Store and has been undergoing some heavy iteration since its original release in late 2019.

Overview

In this post I will:

  1. 🔬Deconstruct the appeal of the merge mechanic
  2. 🔄 Lay out the core loop of “Merge Stories”
  3. 🎨 Show how elegantly Merge Stories uses its core mechanic and how it ties together all gameplay systems,
  4. 💥 Critique: What potential does Merge Stories leave untapped / Where does it go wrong?
  5. 🔮 Discuss the future of merge games
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An evergreen in merge game: Merge Dragons

The players base in Merge Stories, a place for all the items and most of the gameplay.

🔬 Deconstructing The Merge 🔬

What is this “Merging Mechanic?

“Merging” for the sake of this post and deconstruction is:

A mechanic that lets players “physicallycombine items to obtain items of higher quality. The most common use case of merging is merging the same item type. E.g. 1Gem + 1Gem = 1 Cool-Gem. Physical means that instead of occupying 2 space units, the player has a higher quality item in just 1 space.

You can think of merging as a subset of crafting mechanics. Players make better things out of the things they have. The critical distinction to crafting is that “merging” mechanics play out in an actual limited space which makes for interesting dynamics and gameplay.

Merging 2,3 or 5 objects to create objects of the next higher levels, means that we’re dealing with an exponential growth of input requirements. To merge an item to Tier 4, it requires 2^(4-1) = 8 Tier1 Items.

But this is just the basic math. Merge games usually provide means to acquire higher level items directly so that players have the feeling they’re “jumping” ahead, where in truth the game is just compensating for the exponential slowdown.

Players merge units, resources and even hard currency. Space is limited but expands as players progress.

In Merge Planes, player merge planes to higher levels that yield more currency. The perfect fit for incremental/ idle games that dresses up the underlying number game nicely.

What makes it appealing?

Merging is a mechanic that appeals to players who like to optimize and progress.

Merging appeals to deeply rooted responses in our brain. I would consider the responses that merging hooks into as almost universal. The closer a game mechanic & system gets to the more primal parts of our brain, the more satisfying it is. And also the more players it will speak to. Of course people in general still respond differently – that’s why we have different genres out there that lean into specific tastes. So let’s dissect what makes this mechanic tick and which players it speaks to.

Organizing

Source: https://giphy.com/BestServedBold/

Players bring “order” to the chaos of messy items on “their” space. The nature is chaotic. Humans cultivate and tame nature. It is deeply satisfying and makes us feel connected and safe.

Growth

source: https://giphy.com/sheepfilms/

Players gain power, bigger numbers. Nicer items through their actions. Having more of the things that I care about is deeply satisfying. An overlap of the pleasure of growth and pleasure of organizing, is the pleasure in “hoarding”. Some merge games require organizing the space with loads of items.

Haptic

https://giphy.com/BestServedBold/

Drag & dropping items into each other is a very intuitive input on mobile devices. The input of the mechanic corresponds to the objects behavior in the game world.


What makes Merging attractive for design?

Now that we’re hooked into our ancient brain functions, what is that good for?

Engaging Core Mechanic

Merging is absolutely capable of being a core mechanic. It can be repeated often, it is satisfying, it allows for agency (with the right content). There is not much of a skill ceiling here in the mechanic itself. But there can be, if the content is designed accordingly in conjunction with the games’ mid/short term goals. Also, a high skill ceiling is not what we’re usually looking for in casual/mid core games.

Long Sessions

Merging as a core mechanic keeps players engaged for a long time in their session. As you will see, when deconstructing Merge Stories, instead of “idling” to get resources, players are engaged in very small loops that extend their session tremendously.

Extendibility & Versatility

It is easy to extend this system with more content. Merge Chains can branch. As designer you can add/modify the rules of where items for merging come from, and how exactly they merge.


Executing the Mechanic

We now know why the mechanic works, and what it can be used for. However, how do we actually build it and make it matter?

Communicate Value

To really hook into the “growth” aspect, items must communicate their value visually. This will make every merge rewarding when the result presents itself (this also ties into the next point: Merge Feedback). Additionally, when seeing all my items on the grid I should gain a sense of progress, achievement and pride.

Merge Feedback

Feedback for merging needs to be exceptional. This is well spent development time. Players will see this hundreds of time in each session. This has to feel perfect and then the game benefits tremendously. Think about all feedback channels, animating your meshes, VFX, Audio.

Balancing & Tuning

If you decide to have very long chains, also consider to give out some higher level items from your sources. Usually Grid-space is a limiting factor and you do not necessarily want players to merge everything from scratch again. Firstly, this would mean that your chains are not becoming longer/more complex, or that players need longer and more space to merge the current required tier of item.

Consider asking for different items that require different chain lengths. This way players have some short reward loops, as well as some long term ones.

Also, you have to consider to have sink for every item. When the “board” is full, players need to have a satisfying way to get new items on the board that they need for their current goal. In Merge Stories, players can sell any item on their board for a small amount of gold.

Purpose

Merging in itself is a powerful mechanic and executed in the right way will make it a joy to use. But never forget that there needs to be purpose behind the mechanic itself. You can’t fool players with a shiny mechanic on top of a hollow system.


Usage of the Mechanic

So now we have established what makes merging tick and when to consider it, and how to build it. However, as with any mechanics, competitors will come. The gameplay around merging is what matters, just merging stuff in itself will get old quickly and players will want something new. Also, merging is quite easy to build, so your innovation has to go somewhere and is prone to being copied! The merging mechanic lends itself particularly well to systems that require players to put a lot of effort into single items. That’s why we see the meta around classical merging games revolving around collections. Obtaining single items can take many thousands of base items. And the trick, as usual, is to wrap this otherwise “tedious” grind into incremental goals along the way.

So lets go into depth how it can be used in more interesting, harder to copy ways.

🔄 Merge Stories – Gameplay & Core Loop 🔄

Core Loop of Merge Stories

Simply put, imagine Merge Stories as a Clash of Clans with merging in its core. Players prepare their troops to attack other players bases and invest resources that they gain from the raids to improve their base, which in return allows players to have more and better troops, and better defenses. The aspirational long term goal & motivation is to beat others and to progress up a ladder that symbolizes your superiority. The innovation of Merge Stories is the combination of this proven loop with the merging mechanic.

Unlike Clash-of-Clan-like games, where all of the actions at the core are executed in an UI, players actually craft and create their troops, resources and buildings through the merging gameplay.
I will use the generic term “item” for “things that exist at the base and can be merged”. So where do these items come from?


Item Sources

Raids

Think of raids as a “conversion” of units to items. Where the conversion coefficient is the player’s skill. The better they strategize, the higher the conversion is.

The difficulty of raids and their rewards depends on the players’ ladder ranking. Performing well here and completing these successfully is the main long term motivation for players, which puts a lot of importance on preparing for raids (hence merging the most powerful units).

In addition to that, the players’ session will last longer, the better they perform, as they use less units. The less they lose, the more they have, and they can raid more. Raids are the best source for items which are required to upgrade buildings.

Trophies from raids drives ladder progress.

Barrels (Time)

As usual, time is a huge factor in any free to play game. Resources/ income based on time gives developers control over session design, progression speed, and pacing of events.

Barrels are generated over time and one of the main sources for items. Players pop the pool of barrels at their disposal and then they are placed in the base. Barrels are then opened and reveal their item.

They are key to the merging economy and even to session design.

Firstly, players can only place as many barrels as they have space. This creates gameplay, giving players more barrels than they can use, motivates them to organize and merge the existing items before placing the next round of barrels. Usually it takes 2-3 rounds of merging every item per session to make use of all the barrels that were generated. This is great for session design. It does not just “give stuff” to players every 4 hours, it gives them something interesting to do.

Secondly, barrels are a great way to control the players flow through the economy. How many raids are possible per session, depends on the ratio of Base Units (and weapons) inside the barrels. Speed of upgrades is also entirely controlled by amount of resource/ signature items inside of the barrels. Its strength is also its weakness though. Players don’t have much control over what items they get and that leads to every session feeling very tightly determined by what the barrels yield – which in return – ceases to be very surprising at a certain point.

Elegant Session Design through the Barrel-Mechanic

Barrels are designed to be the session pacer. They are the most important source for troops (units + weapons) that are used for raiding. When players run out of troops, and have merged all of their items, its time to end the session. Merge Stories features a “soft”-session closure. We can find this in many mid-core games: There is no fixed ending of a session (e.g. running out of lives) – instead players can just continue to play with diminished return of rewards, or, in Merge Stories’ case, they can delay the end of their session by playing well. This design hits 2 birds with 1 stone – A players session is limited, but in a way they have agency over.

Resource producers (Time)

These buildings (see right) produce resource-items over time up to their maximum. But there is a twist: remember that this is a merge game. The resource producers actually make items that are then placed on the grid, ready to be merged.
An exception for this is gold, which is the only resource that behaves as in non-merge-games (As in, it goes directly from the producer to the players inventory, without merging).

Resource producer make items over time and then place them on the island.

Defense

Another factor for how many items players have, that is related to units & raids, is to “not lose them”. The players base can be raided by other players. To counter that, players can place defensive units and upgrade defensive buildings. This gives players some basic choice & strategy to maximize their items.


Long Term Progression

This post is mostly about the aspects of merging so this is going to be quite brief. The game is in early access and I hope they soon add social features, the current ladder progression feels quite lonely. I have no idea whether other players are around or if I am playing against dead game states. And without feeling related to any other players, how would I feel rewarded for victories in “PVP”, the main driver of the game.

Players have 2 main means of progress. “Base progress” and “Ladder progress.” Both go hand in hand. As the players’ base continues to improve, players are able to clear increasingly challenging enemies in “PVP”, which in return leads to more rewards. This gives players a sense of achievement and at the same time a new goal to strive for. Base progression is linear – the game has a fixed sequence of buildings to upgrade. The devs have decided to not give players agency. The main reason I can see is its simplicity; we already know, from a balancing standpoint how we want players to upgrade their building, so why have them agonize over this low-impact choice? I could also see how it is problematic balancing-wise, to let players choose their next building as the player might choose one that has the most convenient cost, and it would remove challenge/ friction from the merge-economy.

🎨 Merge Stories elegant use & execution of its core mechanic 🎨

Comparing Merge Mechanic Usages

Compared to over Merge Games, Merge Stories goes much more into breadth with its multiple item types, each requiring less merges to obtain the highest level. The game motivates players to care about all of them and complete them in a high cadence. Different Item Types have different gameplay utility. Every merge thereby makes players look forward to a different experience they are going to use that item with. Merging feeds into different systems/ different rewards, making it feel much less repetitive by introducing different purposes and also different gameplay loops.

Other merge games have a different philosophy for complexity vs. breadth of their merge chains:

Merge Planes

Everything is one huge merge chain. The higher the item tier, the more income. There is only 1 purpose.

✔️PRO

  • Progression in the merge chain = progression in the game
  • players become more “powerful”

❌ CON

  • Needs a way around the exponential cost to progress to the next tier
  • Very repetitive without other mechanics and systems around it

Merge Dragons

There are multiple merge chains. Each one feeling rewarding when being completed. Every chain contributes to its own bucket. The goal is to complete all the buckets.

✔️ PRO

  • Many similiar things to complete, sense of completion and progress
  • Simple to explain & learn

❌ CON

  • Very grindy and repetitive
  • high demand in content

Merge Stories

The beauty is that merging is used as the mechanic for different “verbs” (that would often be found in the UI). Of course, re-using your core mechanic is considered good game design, but not many games in the casual/free to play space actually make the effort to hook in their systems to their core mechanics in every aspect they can.

✔️ PRO

  • More rewarding and more immediate
  • Players merge similar items to be consumed in short loops
  • High variation in chain size/ complexity

❌ CON

  • Missing out on the highs of completing a very long chain.

Usage Deepdive

So lets dive into how exactly Merge Stories uses its core mechanic. What Merge stories does really well is to use its core mechanic for different purposes, which then creates interesting dynamics between items, available space, and progression.


Merging Same Units = Leveling up Units

Instead of clicking a button to create a lv3 Unit, players actually merge 4x lv1 units to 2lv2 Units, and 2 lv2 Units into 1x Level 3 Unit. As you can see, each unit feels much more valuable because of the time and effort that went into creating it. It takes more actions to acquire the unit, and the actions are inherently rewarding.


Merging Units with Weapons = Making different Units

This is one of the more interesting aspects that could be a great hook for adding more depth. Players use their weapons for the units that they want. There are different merge chains for the different units. Unfortunately, the difference of units in combat is not very significant to really make me think about what units to merge. More about that later.


Merging Structures = Building

These merge chains are among the longest ones in the game. They give distinct rewards depending on the structure they assemble. Items for these chains come from the “merging reward” and from barrels.

Purpose: Mid/ long term goals that require multiple sessions to complete.


Merging Walls with Weapons = Fortify Walls

An alternative sink for weapons. Instead of bolstering troops for better attack, players can increase defenses. Gives players basic strategic choice.


Merging Resources = Increase Resource Stack Size

Wood and Iron are the two resources of the game. A lot of player time is spent on merging these into larger piles. For every merge, the resource value equals to the value of the input + 1. This +1 is the reward for merging. This is a very small reward for the time spent. Merging is fun and rewarding so I figure the economical value is neglectable, but let’s hope players don’t do the math. :)

Merge everything!

A special use case for resource merging is the merging of Hard Currency! How cool is that?! Instead of pouring out bits and pieces of HC to players, it actually lives in the game world, and the value can be improved through the players action: Merging. This feels great and gives players a sense of achievement and reward. It also tests players patience – using the HC as soon as players receive the item, would be a waste. Players should merge up to the highest Diamond pile. Kind of like a version of the Marshmellow test (testing the ability to delay gratification). But in that, I have the hypothesis that it actually makes players more committed to retuning and “finishing” their pile.


Reinforcing the core loop

Merge Stories layers more gratification on top of the inherently satisfying merging mechanics that. The game reinforces the second to second loop with every merge by:

  • Giving a chance to spawn an additional barrel that gives progress towards one of the “project” items
  • Adding progress to the next tile for their base

This is great because in a merge game there is often a delayed gratification. While a merge chain is being completed, the item just “sits there” and uses space. There is an anticipation and build up to completing the chain, which is great – but good mechanics must also feel and be rewarding with every execution. And having each merge progress the player a bit, makes it rewarding on top of merely feeling satisfying.

💥Critique💥

Missing Out on Agency

As strong as this system is, I feel that Jelly Button is missing out on a great deal of player agency that they could add to their content. Each of these item types’ merge chain is quite shallow and most items have only a single purpose. Since players do not have much actual choice over what items to obtain, the game sometimes feel as it might as well play itself.

I merge the resources I have, I use the weapons that the barrel give and therefore end up with the units that I can make, not thinking about what I want to make.

Depth & Agency in Combat

  1. Strategy requires depth: Combat units should make a difference, layout should make a difference to the outcome of a raid. Difference between units is currently too small to feel impactful when prepared, nor deploying them smartly. The only difference that seems to matter is that between ranged and melee units. However there are more than 10 different units. This puts a huge cap on progression. If current units are not differentiated, how will new units be exiting?
  2. Strategy requires reliability: More reliable = strategy Hard to control/ predict, hence hard to have a strategy. I cannot interfere with combat once units are deployed. Placement Position & Timing are my only input for the combat. It is quite hard to predict how units will behave in combat and sometimes I feel like I lose my whole raid in a situation that might as well turn out as a perfect win. This renders my choice of units meaningless. And then “meaninglessness” trickles down to the core loop where I should be motivated to create different unit types.

Depth & Agency in Merging

The game controls most of the games incomes: Barrels, and raids. In a merge game (where most items = 1 merge chain) this means that the game also pretty much controls what items I end up with after merging. My merging is just making the inevitable happen. That unfortunately shines through quite quickly after going through the core loop for a few days.

To be fair, there are some factors which let me influence what items I end up with:

  • The caravan lets players trade items (for a limited amount of times)
  • When raiding an island, the placement of units influences what you pick up
  • Units/ Walls have different recipes (hence there is a choice of where to spend my weapons)
Suggestion1: Depth in Recipes

Have more items that have multiple sinks (e.g. the weapons) + fix the combat. Then the unit choices that are in the game will matter.

Suggestion2: Mechanical Depth in Merging

Other merge games have depth within the actual merging mechanics. Adjacency, group size etc. matter. Merge Stories uses only a simple 1+1, which limits the extendibility by group size. However, I think there can be done more.

The problem with the name

I find the framing of Merge Stories as a “Merge Game” problematic. Because at its core fantasy it is not. It uses merging as a mechanic, but it does not deliver the “collection and seemingly infinite growth” as its aspirational goal. The same goes for “Stories”, this is not a narrative driven game that gives players any story, nor a narratively coherent world.

Limits of Growth – Practicability

Can a session be too long? Yes it can! Usually a long session time is an indication of a strong player engagement. However, if the game monetizes on players extending the session we have a potential conflict where players “burn out” on a session, or even the game, and don’t have a strong desire to extend their session.

The session limiter are barrels. The barrel-feature looks like the strongest monetization feature, it fulfills the need for more items, which drives the core gameplay. However, at the point where I have merged all the items, popped all the barrels, raided with the units I can, I am already 20 minutes into my session. At that point, purchasing more barrels also means that I have to commit to another 10-15 minutes of gameplay.

My Island is full after a raid and I still have barrels. Am I up for another 10minutes?

After such a long session, that is rarely the case though. Merge Stories does not handle the growth that comes with merge games well. Progressing usually meant that I spent more time merging per session. My base grows, and thereby the amount of barrels, thereby the amount of time I “have to” invest to get closure. It is great, it is necessary, to extend session length. But it should not happen by pushing the (baseline) “point of closure” further out. I really like Merge Stories, as a player, but the session getting longer and longer, for the same “reward” (ladder progress) will burn me out.

Limits of Growth – Extendibility

As laid out, Merge stories relies on short merge chains for usage in its core loop, as players should achieve economic outcomes through merging. This limits the depth that each chain can/ should have. The devs would be forced to add different types of chains to their game, instead of adding depth to their existing ones – also branching out more on the recipes could make the game more complicated.

If the devs want to add different chains, we’re running into a problem with the barrel mechanic as the main driver for items.

I am not saying it is impossible to extend the game with more chains/ content – I just think it is more design effort than in the comparison games, as it requires very careful tuning/ adding/ modification of the sources and sinks.

Disclaimer

Do you agree or do you think my logic is flawed? I am not one of the devs so this my
hypothesis about a design challenge they might have. Would love to hear other opinions!

🔮 The Future of Merge Games 🔮

Merging as a Mechanic

As laid out, merging itself is an inherently satisfying mechanic that works really well on mobile due to its tactile input. I can see the mechanic working in almost any genre. Especially in slow paced real time or turn based gameplay. Merging can work in the core gameplay, or in the progression. It is a mechanic after all, be creative!

Merging as a Genre

The mechanic lends itself to games with a comprehensive collection meta game. The name “Merge + X” tells players what to expect. Which as a combo has a lot of potential that can clearly be marketed to players. However, as in many other emerging genres, I think the innovation opportunity for new developers, is the meta. I think the (next) crown of merge games goes to the game that is able to lean into collection but embeds into an engaging progression system that is tightly intertwined with the merging mechanic.

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.

Overview

  • 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.

Monetization

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.

Criticism

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

Summary

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

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.

Conclusion

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.

Autonomy

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.

 

Conclusion

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)

reward

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.

balance_design_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

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Learning from Games

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

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

The Game

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

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

The Narrative

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

The gameplay

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

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Worker Info

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

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

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

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

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

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

Supporting System: Trade

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.

offer
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

science

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

Supporting System: Crops & House Micromanagement

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

Minigame: Angry Birds

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

Quests

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

Gameplay Assessment

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

8 kinds of fun legend

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

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

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

 

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

Introducing Challenge to Casual Games: “Cooking Fever”

 

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

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

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

Casual players that like a challenge.

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

TLDR;

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

A new Genre?

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

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

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

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

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

Cooking Fever players want

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

What makes Cooking Fever Different?

No Lives/Energy System

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

Focus on skill

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

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

Flow

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

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

Gameplay 

Game-Loop

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.

costumers

Competence

With each round players build competence in these 3 areas:

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

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

Level Structure

level_selection

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

Mechanics

Orders & Recipes

cooking fever core gameplay

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

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

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

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

Tips & Satisfaction

happiness_bars

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

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

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

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

Collecting Coins

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

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

Content

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

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

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

Currencies
Coins

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

Gems

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

Upgrades

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

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

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

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

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

Score Balancing

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

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

Monetization

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

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

New Content

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

Upgrades

Screenshot_2015-11-11-11-20-36

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

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

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

Speciality

specialities

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

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

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

 

Free Hard Currency

levelup gems

rounds_per_level

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

Screenshot_2015-12-13-18-21-39

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

Conclusion

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

 

 

 

Tutorials

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

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

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

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

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

Step 1: Pacing Complexity

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

Step 2: Choosing What to Teach

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

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

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

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

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

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

Step 3: How to Teach

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

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

Pillar 1: Perfect UX

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

Pillar 2: Feedback from your Systems

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

Pillar 3: Learning by Doing

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

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

Pillar 4: Showing

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

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

 

Step4: The First Session

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

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

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

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

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

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

Step 5: Usability testing

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

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

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

Step 6: Tracking

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

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

The Design of Rocket League


header

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

RocketLeagueReview06

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).

Accessibility

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.

Simplicity

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

rocket_league_loops

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.

leaderboard

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.

 

Randomness

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.

 

Matchmaking

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

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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.

 

Viewability

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I think one of the reasons for Rocket Leagues current success is that it was picked up by many Streamers on Twich.tv 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

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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)

 

Conclusion

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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.