How to Play And Deconstruct Match 3 Games Like A Pro
In previous posts, we’ve been talking a lot about which games you should play. But have you ever thought about what it means to “play” the game as a professional puzzle developer? Obviously, everybody has a different answer to this question.
But in this article, I will share some principles that will help you better understand the Match 3 games you play.
Playing a casual game sounds easy. But it could be tricky to spot all the interesting and important details. And even harder to understand if the game has market potential.
Let’s check what you should look for and how to digest the puzzle product properly.
Start of the game
When you are just starting a new game, the first step is to check for the icon. What does the icon say to you? Can you understand it? These days icons are primarily a marketing instrument, but you still can get some sentiments and see how the game creators see or want players to see their game.
Check for the loading process and timing. How much time passes from the launch of the game to the first gameplay bit? Is it starting actual gameplay from the puzzle level, from a story beat, or maybe from a trendy hypercasual minigame?
Is the game asking immediately about notifications permission or patiently waiting for the right moment?
Art of basic pieces
Ok, you are in the first level now. What to look at now?
Check basic pieces! At this point, we are not talking about the beauty of the elements. It is very subjective and quite different for everyone. What we should review first is:
- How easy is it to find matches on the board? If you perceive some elements as similar, you can make match mistakes and suffer a lot during gameplay.
- How noisy or clear are the pieces? How many tiny details do they have or colors or shades of colors? If you feel that game pieces are subjectively noisy, your eyes will be tired during long play sessions.
- How does the basic piece array contrast from the background? Is the background distracting you from the gameplay or emphasizing the pieces and make making matches easier?
This particular point also could give you some tips about the development team. Usually, teams that care about the puzzle quality polish this moment a lot to get the best “match readability” of the board.
Let’s check some examples
- Very noisy shapes with a lot of details
- Violet flower blending with the background
- A lot of multicolored elements
- Very noisy borders of each piece
- Yellow and orange pieces are very similar in terms of color
Now better examples
Why are they good?
- Simple but distinct shapes.
- All pieces have clear borders and are well separated from the background.
- All pieces are drawn in the same projection.
- All colors are distinct and hard to be confused between each other.
The big thing you need to understand is what the game is doing with power-ups. Those unique pieces you have as a reward for big matches are essential to comprehending the game. Power-ups are usually the core differentiator of the experience.
Inspect that power-up system, and follow tutorials. Usually, the first levels explain everything about power-ups. Don’t neglect and read them all. How to create power-ups, how to use and what they are doing. It’s painful and boring but necessary.
Try to figure out if it’s something new or something you have seen before. If it is similar to another game, do you see any changes? What is your feeling? Is it better than the original? Is it improving something?
Let’s say you are playing Homescapes first time. What would be your thoughts? Probably something along:
- Oh, ok, it looks like Candy Crush Soda Saga.
- But I can trigger those power-ups effortlessly now by just double-tapping or swiping them instead of making color matches.
- And the “Bomb” is different. It has a larger explosion area and does not do it twice.
- And the “Flying” power-up has a little explosion on the activation.
Do you feel it’s different from what you’ve seen before? Probably yes.
Do you like it? And here, the correct answer should be “I don’t know.” Because you need to play at least 30 levels to understand what you feel about the power-up system.
Do you like those explosions and clearly understand how everything works together? Does the whole system improve the overall experience? For example, the good old Farm Hero Saga still makes money and does not have a power-up system at all.
Some hidden things
Also, you need to spend more time digging for the hidden details.
For example, targeting rules for “Flying power-up” in Royal Match. This game improved their behavior significantly in comparison with the existing market.
- Its “Flying power-up” is always helpful to the level’s goals.
- Combos with “Line” and “Bomb” will always fly to the area that will guarantee the most amount of obstacles removed.
Those are relatively minor modifications that are challenging to spot initially but undoubtedly satisfying and influential for the player in the mid and long term.
When you complete starting tutorials, you see different goals and blockers. Boxes, chains, gummy bears, carpets, plenty of those.
Every other works a bit differently. You should memorize or write down the first five of those.
You need to think about those first five elements as the starting element ecosystem.
Do you think this system is diverse? But what does diversity mean here? Definitely not the visuals, even though everything should look great. What is more important is logical diversity.
The most typical mistake of mediocre puzzle games is when the game makes all first elements “Match near” type. They could look different, but interaction is always the same, and players will be bored pretty fast. The first elements should offer diverse experiences:
- “Match near” the element.
- “Match on” the element.
- “Match with” the element.
- Any other thing you can imagine for a “wow” factor.
Let’s take Homescapes again. The starting five will be:
- Carpet. (“Match on” element). You need to roll it and spread it all over the board.
- Chains. (“Match with” element). Covering other pieces and you have to make a match with that element or explode it.
- Jelly with cherries. (“Match near” element). You should collect them from nearby matches.
- Donut. (“Move indirectly” element). Move it to the bottom of the board.
- Box. (“Match near” element). Destroy it with nearby matches.
This list shows a clear sign of diversity. I am not talking about how interesting it is, but it’s easier to build interest with logically various elements.
Art alert here! After you get yourself familiar with five new elements, you should make a second check if you can still easily find matches. Or maybe the board became messy and noisy.
Ok, we came to the point when you saw the power-up system. You saw at least the first 5 game elements and played around 30 levels.
- Did you find something that you had never witnessed before?
- Did you see any exciting behavior?
- Did you see something that was implemented with some original details?
If all answers are “no,” that probably means that game is hiding innovation somewhere deeper (which is risky because not too many players will see it) or simply counting on high-quality clone implementation. That’s also an option.
This one is essential and easy to check. Does the game allow you to make new moves while pieces from the previous match still fall? To inspect that, make a match somewhere on the bottom left/right and while pieces are falling, try to make a match on another side of the board.
This feature is not intended to allow you to pull off some crazy tricks but to give you the freedom to make your next move while something is still happening on the board. Basically, saving your time!
I am not going into the black hole of level design here, but I just want to share some tips that you can quickly review:
1. What kind of level design approach prevails in the game? Do you see a lot of strategic puzzlish levels where you need to think a bit and define some kind of strategy for how to pass the level, or do you see levels where you just need straightforwardly destroy everything in any order? So-called “puzzle approach” VS “digging approach.”
2. The number of goals you see in the levels. If you see 1 and 2, it means the game is trying to put some focus on a particular element for you. If you see 3 and 4 goals simultaneously, it usually indicates that the game is just pushing everything in the goal panel to increase players’ satisfaction with achieving something with every move.
3. Do you see levels with multiple boards and long scrolling boards? If yes, developers tried to bring additional diversity to your gaming experience. Or maybe they are worried about win streaks and trying to artificially limit their power. Or just blindly copied it from somewhere. 🙂
It is tricky to understand the difficulty, but I still need to mention it. You should play more than one hundred levels to get an INITIAL feeling for the difficulty, which will still be subjective and not representative. But you can at least understand whether the game is easy or hard.
Also, you should try to understand where is the first paywall level. How frequent are the paywalls? How rapidly does the paywall difficulty rise after the initial 20-30 levels?
This one is tricky to explain, but that’s the feeling you get from the game. Forget about everything we discussed here and just play 10 levels more. Don’t concentrate on specific things but follow the flow. After those additional levels, stop and think about what you were feeling. Did you like the overall experience? What were the friction points for you?
Let’s summarize the steps:
- When you start a new game, pay close attention to the details.
- Check if it is easy to differentiate all basic pieces and find matches.
- Check what the game’s power-up system is and if it’s offering something new. Do you see some hidden innovations later in the game?
- Is the game offering mid-cascading matches?
- Check if starting obstacles are diverse interaction-wise.
- Read tutorials and see if the features are explained in a traditional or in an unusual way
- Try to understand the difficulty the game is offering at the start and its approach to paywall levels.
- Check overall feeling.
The next day you need to think about what kind of aftertaste game left you. Do you want to return? Do you believe that some people would like to return? Why?
When you check all those things and answer all those questions, you will understand the game’s core condition and potential. It’s not guaranteeing anything, but you will measure against industry standards and common sense.
Also, I exclude features and live ops discussion here. Just the pure basic gameplay. Because if the basics are broken or not working smoothly, it will damage the entire game.
Have a nice and thoughtful playtime!