Comment & Opinion

Key trends that are changing the way match-3 puzzle games play and monetize

Yevgeniy Maiboroda matches the changes

Key trends that are changing the way match-3 puzzle games play and monetize

Yevgeniy Maiboroda is executive producer at Hong Kong-based game developer Playlab Games.

After a few years of crushing charts, puzzle games proved that very simple repetitive mechanics can make money.

However, if you compare old versions of Candy Crush Saga or Jelly Splash with the new ones or other titles that have recently climbed the top, you will see that major changes happened.

Some may not be very obvious, but are game changing nonetheless.

1. Lack of innovation on core gameplay

After Candy Crush Saga became a huge money maker, many companies around the world tried to replicate its model.

Not wanting to look like complete copycats, they did bring some innovative elements into the core gameplay, such as trying different art/story directions or adding additional gameplay mechanics.

However, despite the emergence of a lot of new games with extraordinary art styles or characters, only a few titles managed to reach some success with this strategy.

Although puzzle games have a wide range of players, the majority are 25+ year old women.

Extra game mechanics such as city building or character development may have worked for some games, but this seems to be more of an exception rather than the norm.

The top games keep being very simple and understandable, where you can hardly say they provide unique mechanics or visuals.

One of the best examples is the Candy Crush Saga family, where 3-4 games have almost the same look and gameplay, albeit some variety of mechanics/events, and still sitting well together at the top of the charts.

The causes behind this are clear; the target audience and the goals they pursue when playing the game.

Although puzzle games have a wide range of players, the majority are 25+ year old women.

Their main objective in playing a game is not to compete with friends, build up skills, or collect items; they simply want to kill time.

They don't want to be pushed to explore something new but tend to chose something they are used to. So you better keep your achievement system, weekly leaderboards and limited time non-consuming items for JRPG or strategies :)


2. User Loyalty Like Never Before

The user profile of puzzle game players is pretty unique for the industry.

When trying to predict their behaviour, one needs to take into account that they don't read gaming magazines or listen to podcasts, nor do they surf through the store to find new games. They don't really care about the latest trends and anticipate new releases.

If you manage to retain match-3 players during the early stages, expect them to be there for a long time.

It might seem like a downside but there is one advantage; this audience is loyal. If you manage to retain them during the early stages, expect them to be there for a long time.

They will not uninstall it even if you delay your update or there is some annoying bug that takes time to fix.

And if the late levels are extremely difficult, they will keep trying to beat it again, again and again without switching to something new.


3. UX is the new king

Many developers stick to the idea that the lifecycle of a mobile game is 2-3 years. After that, there is no other choice but to either create a completely new game or make a sequel.

Nowadays, things seem to be different for casual games, especially for puzzlers.

The #1 puzzle game has been there for years and we are not yet seeing anything close to changing this. The main reason for the 2-3 year lifecycle is technology development and device limitations.

For midcore and hardcore games that have dominated mobile markets a few years ago (in many cases being just smaller replications of PC titles) the level of visuals was crucial. Polygons, fps, rendering power, were limitations and challenges for developers.

The evolution of Gameloft's Modern Combat series from 2009 original (top) to 2015's Modern Combat 5 (below)

The approach at that point goes like this: One had a target device, one tries to maximize its use by finding the right balance between performance and graphic fidelity.

Every time a new more powerful device is released, the same steps are repeated.

This results in the newer game being more impressive and the old game uncompetitive.

Little has changed between 2012's Candy Crush Saga and 2016's Candy Crush Jelly

For puzzle games, the situation appeared to be different. The level of visuals is secondary, letting user experience take over.

For example, If you take the Candy Crush series, there is nothing revolutionary in the visuals yet the user experience is extremely high.


4. No easy levels

For several years, developers have been confident that they have found a solid paradigm on how the difficulty curve should look for a puzzler.

Prepare to spend 10-15 tries for every level starting at 25.

To make a long story short, after the tutorial there should be a set of 10-20 easy levels securing user landing. After that there should be a bunch of medium difficulty levels, and then multiple sets of very hard levels with relief levels in between.

The further the player gets, the less relief levels there are. From time to time, there will also be extremely hard levels that can be used as paywalls to further increase monetisation.

But as time passed, developers made a new trend trying to increase KPIs. It meant "NO MORE RELIEF".

Here are the new rules:

  • Most of the easy levels are attributed mainly for the tutorial

In the previous paradigm, after a few hours in puzzlers, the player could easily reach level 50 or 70+. There were 5-10 tutorial levels, 10-15 pretty easy levels and then 2-4 hard levels combined with the relief level.

Nowadays, players rarely get to level 30 after a short period of time. After one is done with tutorial, there is a very limited amount of intro levels (5-7) before it becomes non-stop hardcore. Prepare to spend 10-15 tries for every level starting at 25.

  • The game session structure has changed

In older games, during a standard 3-6 minutes of gameplay, the player could pass two, sometimes three levels. Now, however, shortly after the tutorial, one would be trying to beat just one level over and over again.

Even early levels can take hours and days. So in the end, after hours and hours spent on challenging levels, a 1-2 minute relief level is becoming something the user absolutely does not notice.

  • Less levels -> less production budget

New levels produced always means more money spent, especially if you want to bring new gameplay elements which need to be balanced and tested. The production cost for a user spending 1,000 hours on 100 levels is cheaper than 1,000 hours spent on 500 levels.

Of course it may sometimes frustrate players and give them the impression that the game just wants to make them pay, but if all competitors do the same, they have no other choice.


5. Low virality

As a matter of fact, not very many people want to see which game level a friend has reached in their news feed.

They may not unfriend the player, but the post will most probably be hidden and Facebook will slowly decrease impressions for his/her posting activity.

With the number of apps strongly pushing everybody to go social, these activities are now considered as spam.

While social spam can work for competitive social games such as Pirate King, it's increasingly less effective for match-3 games

Even if some strongly competitive games can still rely on this method, puzzlers simply cannot. Most players will be coming from a featuring in the stores or via paid user acquisition.

The explanation for game rules should either be very brief or skippable.

Social factors are becoming less important as attention shifts to user experience, monetisation, and retention.

6. Fewer tutorials

Nowadays, the chances of your game being the first puzzler that the user has played is as little as their device being the first smartphone or tablet they have owned.

Spending a lot of time finishing a tutorial is not something the user will be eager to do. Even if player doesn't know all details on how the game works, he will definitely believe otherwise.

Although you do not necessarily need to skip creating a tutorial for your game, the explanation for game rules should either be very brief or skippable.

Only items the player can spend money for should be discussed; other details can be learned.

You can skip the tutorial in SGN's Cookie Jam

If the users are smart and experienced, learning through practice is something they'll enjoy.

If your day 1 retention is quite low, you might want to check whether you are "overloading" user with your scripted routine. regularly posts content from a variety of guest writers across the games industry. These encompass a wide range of topics and people from different backgrounds and diversities, sharing their opinion on the hottest trending topics, undiscovered gems and what the future of the business holds.