How to crack the Match 3 code — Part 1

UX expert Om Tandon explains the evolution of Meta features in Match 3 games, and analyzes the key design shifts and trends in 2020

Om Tandon
Om Tandon
Apr 28 · 10 min read
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Finding success in mobile games in 2020 is way more science than art. It is no longer about where the ball is right now, but rather where the ball is going.

Since the early days of app store gaming, Match 3 games have been consistently one of the most popular top grossing casual games categories (Candy Crush Saga, launched in 2012, being a classic example of the genre’s long reign). There are several reasons that can explain this genre’s mass popularity:

  1. Simplified core loop with low barrier to entry for new players and first time gamers
  2. Game mechanics that leverage mobile-first, intuitive touch gestures on smart devices
  3. Relatively less player effort & user friction due to the low strategy puzzle core loop.
  4. Short gameplay sessions with low time commitment, which make these games easy to pick up and drop on the go.

But what was true for the old guard of games launched over 8 years ago is changing fast.

Meta-morphosis

In January 2017, I correctly predicted that casual player behaviour was maturing and too were their needs & preferences.

This change was attributed to the following factors:

1) Players’ mastery of game mechanics that were by then old (after 6+ years of playing)

2) Familiarity of playing the same genre and mechanics repetitiously

3) Wearing off of the novelty value due to a flood of clones

4) Gradual introduction of deeper designs by game developers

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The diagram above shows the increase of players between casual and mid-core games.

My two part series predicted that early shifts in player behaviour will create an appetite for deeper and more complex experiences, which ultimately led to genre blending and the addition of meta goals. This was analysed in the evolution of games like Angry Birds 2 here.

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Meta elements in Angry Birds 2 such as quests, collections, mini games, and PvP features, show how far the franchise has come since its original simple slingshot core in 2009.

Playrix, on the other hand, was fusing traditional Match 3 core elements with light base building and powerful character driven narrative.

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Both games were early pre-cursors of the evolution of Meta features in casual games, signaling deepening player needs and preferences.

In the last 2 years, this shift has been confirmed by various industry analysts and pundits. In fact, many of the early Meta adopters like Playrix and Peak have cemented their positions in the top-grossing charts.

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Image Source: Deconstructor of Fun

Interestingly, one of Deconstructor of Fun’s 2020 predictions is that Playrix is poised to overtake King this year on the back of its Meta and marketing innovations this year.

Let’s now take a look at some intriguing Match 3 industry data and draw some inferences about the future.

Match 3: Size of the prize in 2019

By the end of 2019, Match 3 games generated a massive $3.5 billion in revenue, dominating the $8.1 billion casual gaming pie, as noted by Deconstructor of Fun.

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Source: Deconstructor of Fun

But as lucrative as it may sound, the barrier to entry is EXTREMELY high given the dominance of veterans like King and early Meta adopters like Playrix, Peak and Rovio.

If you are a mid or small-sized developer, competing head to head with these established players might seem a daunting task. However, given the size of the prize, there will always be developers trying to crack the Match 3 code.

Trends in Match 3 game design

1) “Collapse/Blast” mechanics on the rise

Looking at the latest Match 3 genre trends from an analysis by GameRefinery, it is apparent that between 2018 and 2020, the number of new games with “Swapping” match 3 tiles mechanics (like Candy Crush Saga) has declined while the number of games with “Collapse/Blast” mechanics (like Toy Blast, Lilies Garden, and Hay Day Pop) has actually doubled in the top grossing charts.

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Source: GameRefinery

2) More success with “collapse” mechanics

The data also shows other Match 3 mechanics like linking and bubble shooting have almost died down as far as new launches are concerned. This suggests Match 3 developers are finding more success with “collapse” mechanics over “swipe” in newly launched Match 3 games that have Meta.

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Source: GameRefinery

3) Success with Meta

The GameRefinery report also states how almost all newly successful Match 3 games have some kind of Meta element, like decoration or light base building, in line with our 2017 predictions.

But what are the implications of these trends? Let’s try to read between the lines and understand from a UX & game design perspective.

Explaining the shift in preference from “swipe” to “collapse” in Match 3 games with Meta

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Here are some interlinked UX and game design factors that could be fueling this shift:

1) Reduction in player effort (Player Effort Score/PEF)

Tactile Effort: The reason for players preferring “collapse” mechanics over “swipe” might be the relatively greater ease of input on the player’s part:

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On a relative physical effort scale, it’s far easier to tap and blast a group of tiles than to swipe and drag them.

Tap vs Swipe actions:

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Mental Effort: From a mental pattern recognition perspective, it is much easier for our brain to recognise patterns with big blobs of colour that are in close vicinity compared to finding patterns that require matching tiles along a row or column.

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Our brains are subconsciously wired to find patterns. Even in the blurred image above, it’s relatively faster for our brain to find big blobs of similar color palettes compared to alignment patterns of those colors.

Preference for collapse over swipe might be due to a reduction in player effort through tactile & mentally exercised efforts.

Now don’t get me wrong, classic swipe Match 3 games still dominate the industry, and many players prefer the additional challenge of swipe over collapse — as I have seen first hand in my usability tests. However, the importance of this reduction in player effort will become clear when you read the next point.

2) Regulating “snacking” session lengths via game design

One of the greatest hallmarks of Match 3 games has always been short “snacking” session times that allow players to pick and drop the games at ease, steal a session between tea breaks or that quick trip to the washroom. Typical session time for classic non-meta Match 3 games is usually between 2–4 minutes.

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When you add Meta gameplay, a satisfying game session still needs to account for the time spent in a Match 3 level + time spent in the base building/decoration phase.

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The figure above shows a breakdown of session time for classic and Meta Match 3 games. In order to regulate the “snacking” session time window, Meta games need adjustment for time spent either in Match 3 or Meta phases.

From a game design perspective too, there are considerable differences between the swipe & collapse mechanics when it comes to reduction in player effort and regulating session times owing to the following factors:

(Game Design inputs courtesy Florian Steinhoff)

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It should be noted that the time spent per level is also a big function of level design, not just the mechanics. Due to all the other factors mentioned above, it would stand to reason from a game design perspective to regulate shorter session times for games with Meta that still adhere to the “snacking” window of 3–4 minutes. Collapse is a better choice over swipe as it aids faster decision making and lower effort on the players’ part.

3) Meta vs. Core: Which objectives are players learning to value more?

Meta features are likely also attracting players from other (non-Match 3) casual game genres like dress up or home design. This is partially evident in player reviews of these Meta Match 3 games below, where players complain both about belied expectations and the frequency with which they have to play mini games to grind.

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So, firstly, players do not expect to be playing extensive Match 3 as core gameplay and they also despise spending too much time repetitiously farming meager amounts of soft currencies needed for their Meta objectives.

This signals that Match 3 cores will become secondary and Meta goals will become the primary motivation for players. They are bound to psychologically treat matching tiles as a means to an end and not the end in itself for core loop completion.

This player mentality is already seen in midcore and hardcore games where a vast majority of engaged players care about overall progression of their ranks, empires or castles, and interact with all the other mini-games or activities mainly for farming currencies/resources which will eventually help them achieve their primary objective.

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From a player motivation perspective, Meta Match 3 games are a series of linked cascading goals.

Maturing player behaviour shows that Match 3 is no longer about the core, but all about the Meta

Tip: Current Match 3 Meta games only use the “Match 3 board” (ie: mini-games) for allowing players to farm currencies/resources, but “wait timers/idle” activities are also another means of allowing players to farm resources as seen in midcore and hardcore games. Using “wait timer/idle” features could be another avenue to reduce player frustration.

Are traditional “Match 3” games pivoting too?

You might ask: If this was such a big deal, then why aren’t traditional Match 3 games reacting?

Well, some attempts have been made. Even long-reigning traditional Match 3 games realise the importance of this shift. In genre titans like Candy Crush Saga, we can see examples of how Meta goals have been incrementally added over the last 2 years:

1) “You passed on your first try” victory introduced by King in CCS is an attempt to add a Meta goal in addition to clearing levels. It acts as a vanity/prestige goal for the player while subconsciously priming them to pass on their first try. Once the player becomes used to this message, it further aids currency and booster sinks too.

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2) The now famous “Piggy Bank Model” which I analysed initially in my post, 4 years back in 2016 is now seen commonly in a majority of top grossing Match 3 games. Other than being just a conversion and monetization model, AKA IKEA effect, it also acts as a cascading Meta goal for players to farm hard currency and gives them an additional incentive to play the game to fill up the piggy bank.

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Conclusion and trends for Match 3 with Meta games 2020

  1. Analyzing and acting on upcoming trends and shifts in player behaviour can reap great rewards as demonstrated by companies like Playrix & Peak, who have joined the ranks of companies like King.com in a relatively short amount of time.
  2. From both UX and game design perspectives, “collapse” based Match 3 games relatively reduce player effort both physically and mentally compared to “swipe” based mechanics.
  3. There is a very high probability that newly launched Match 3 Meta games will continue to prefer “collapse” over “swipe” mechanics to help regulate “snacking” session times via reduced tactile and mental effort for players.
  4. Over time, as players’ expectations and needs deepen, they will begin to get conditioned to using the Match 3 puzzle phase as a means to an end for a satisfying core loop experience. Thereby Meta goals will start dominating core loop goals.
  5. Currency/resource farming activity currently only utilizes completing mini-games but in the future, there is potential to use “wait timer/idle” activities as well. We can see that Hay Day Pop has already made a move in that direction!
  6. Narration and storytelling is another trending strong pillar, not only because casual players like being hand-held, but it helps run high engagement marketing campaigns for UA.

Stay tuned for part two!

If you liked this post, please feel free to check out my other game deconstructs at https://www.uxreviewer.com/ or contact me for consulting queries here. Feel free to connect with me for future articles.

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