When studying a game it is also good to do it by reading people’s reviews.
In the case of mobile games, reviews are very often driven by two factors:
an in-game prompt asking you to leave a review. It is usually shown after a success, or at the end of the tutorial.
a moment of anger and frustration of a player. The lowest grade is usually given. For example, one star.
a moment of wonder and joy for a player. Normally the highest grade is given. For example, five stars.
When analyzing the reviews of a game (but also of a product on an e-store in general), I always filter for the average rating and above the average. For example, three and four-star reviews.
In fact, people who leave intermediate values usually leave more detailed comments. They belong to that part of Internet users that are a little less superficial. People who think things through a little more. The best candidates to give quality feedback!
When you work as game designer for companies you will invest a lot of time studying other games. The best thing you can do is to prepare and evolve a personal framework to optimize this job. This post is to detail what I would focus my efforts on.
Game design is a huge word, the word for a container. Jesse Schell writes that game design is “the act of deciding how a game should be”. As you can read, everyone practices that. We, game designers, are facilitators of that act.
To me, game design has four main specializations:
If you work as a generalist, you should focus on all four. If you are a specialist, it is still good having clear the relationships and overlaps with the others
The most important thing for a game designer is NOT the game. Really, it isn’t. The game is a medium to an end. And that end is called: EXPERIENCE.
We can write a book only on this term, but for the sake of the article it is important to mention that we game designers should be able to understand the experience of other games under two lenses:
what is the intention behind them
what does them say actually
Understanding the intention is a matter of dealing with lots of analysis, but nowadays developers publish a lot of content. My suggestion is to watch videos and read articles and hear podcasts to try to spot all that’s possible. Playing the game completes everything, and it is very important to play it deeply. For example, if you are really analysing a free-to-play game you should also buy something to understand how it feels.
In order to really understand what the experience says, the best way is to take notes on everything related with your specialties. And when I say everything I mean absolutely everything.
Record all game sessions and take screens
Copy all texts, level maps and try to empathize with those designers
Last week I saw a post from some LinkedIn influencer regarding a new liveops from King’s Candy Crush Soda Saga.
When I read the description, I decided to study this feature. In fact, as you can see from the announcement on the game’s official forum, the Soda Supreme feature proposal seems heavily based on monetization:
Comments to the feature seem to go into one main direction. Obviously the volumes of people playing these games are huge. The majority is silent and we do not know if it has given good or bad results. As a game designer, I just try to understand the vision behind this, willing to learn from the masters of free-to-play.
Then I downloaded the game again and tested the feature out:
Goals and KPIs
When the Player runs the app, after a second a new screen will appear:
The pitch is quite clear: you get rewarded by spending gold bars. The fact that you are using the premium currency is reinforced by a new rewards layer.
Who is the real target of this feature? Payers: Players who use gold bars regurarly during their game sessions.
Probably, the team wants to improve the Gold Bars spending across the game. It will improve ARPDAU, average revenue per daily active user, since it is a time based feature.
Rewards are boosters, power-ups and lives:
There are 20 tiers of rewards. The higher the tier, the better the rewards. Rewards help you beat new games, so that if you spend gold bars you’ll probably beat more levels.
A secondary goal for the feature is probably to improve the engagement with the game. Engagement to me is: session length (minutes) and average sessions per day.
The game matches you with a tier, according to your spending rate (I suppose).
The promise is to earn 1 special tile booster. I can make that simply by playing!
I have 42 hours total to pass to the next tier, otherwise my bar will reset. So that they are definitely looking for more sessions per day and more trials.
I am not sure that is the best way to explain the feature. First of all, I would introduce it starting from the first time the Player spends and/or needs gold bar. Second, the first reward is something I can create by matching 4 tiles in vertical. It would be better having more succulent rewards on lower tiers to foster the will to continue purchasing gold bars also for Players who doesn’t spend too much.
How will I improve this feature?
Candy Crush Soda Saga is an arcade version of the classic Candy Crush Saga. The levels are more blasty and also the challenge is designed for quick results (successes or failures). It’s fast, it’s for the younger cohorts of CCS Players and it has many game modes. The Player has always something to do.
Match-3 games monetize by removing pain points and by adding an interesting layer of strategy. A large part of the Players pay to be able to pass a level in which they are stuck.
Pain Point: You have run out of movements, but if you buy 5 more you can beat this!
Strategy: You may want to buy a booster to free up some areas on a complicated board.
In Candy Crush Soda Saga gold bars can be bought or won in certain situations. They are a soft currency, so that they are subject to inflation. Which is part of the reason why is very hard to scale those games.
The true potential of Soda Supreme
It would be great to adapt this feature to a ticket system for special levels. You spend gold bars and you earn tiers of special set of levels which give you extra rewards. That would be more meaningful and would probably create a better impact on the game’s community!
Anyway I found this feature really interesting, because it has the courage of taking the monetization directly! We should never forget, anyway, that rewards are great to reinforce successes. They works better as surprises and as the result of a concrete demonstration of skills from the Players. Spending gold bars can give access to new pieces of content, instead, and that would be way more meaningful in my humble opinion!
In this second part I want to write on what I experienced personally during the tutorial experience. It is very important to write down notes for a game designer.
If you have no time for that, you have no time to learn.
The game welcomes you with the main view of the Village. Here the Player can already decide “this is my kind of game” or quit. The welcome is given by the Villager, one of the two characters introduced in the tutorial. The girl has changed visually:
Her expressivity has become more exaggerated and her proportions are nearest to the beauty standards. I preferred the old one, since she reminded me more of a tough and rude viking. But I get why this one was selected: especially on a small screen you need to emphasize gestures and expressions.
The first mechanic is introduced. The tutorial makes you build a cannon to defend from a goblins’ raid. The sequence is pretty memorable. The goblin is fun and informal, but uses sophisticated words and spells correctly. The animation after the build, which is an idle mechanic with its rewards per se in the game. The defense mechanic is not completely introduced to the Players. Players will learn it alone later simply by playing and discovering they can tap on graves to earn some extra elixirs. Which is pretty smart!
Just after, the Player learns the attack feature and all of its mechanics. A group of 5 wizards join your village and you can use them to get revenge with the goblins. First of all, I believe that wizards are chosen because they are narratively meaningful. In fact the Villager has explained that your village is built on a Ley Line, so that your buildings will auto-repair. Magic is on the air. Second, wizards are pretty fast destroying buildings which is great to keep the tutorial shorter. Last, wizards are a kind of troops that a Player can unlock later in the game. So that the Players can get a hint of future unlocks and test two troops during the tutorial (later, they will use the barbarians).
The third part of the tutorial puts its focus on the importance of building and improving your village. I believe that the Developers, after giving an hint on the possible thrills and best moments, considered proper for the Players to really learn the core loop deeply. The Player builds 5 important resources, completing the core loop five times. It is more than enough to learn the basics of the game.
The 2022 tutorial ends with one of the newest features of the game: challenges and rewards. The overview is too fast and based on skipping dialogues, more than actually learning something meaningful like in the first part. Which makes the tutorial experience ending with many questions. This can be interesting for newbie Players, especially for the most hardcore part of the audience that can perceive suddenly that this game is not linear but deep.
When the Players return into the SHOP section, they will find the first offer which is the third builder. No pop-up, no constant prompts looking for no-brain conversions. The value is there. During the tutorial you entered the SHOP enough times and now you know that the SHOP is critical to the experience. You will find the offer and, if you want, you will convert. That is what I call: treating Players with respect.
One of the skills that make a game designer instantly hireable is the deconstruction of games. It is no easy task to complete, since the first instinct is to end the job once we have identified the core loop, the secondary loop and maybe some unique feature.
I have seen too many times teams copying from here and there after a quick deconstruction and the result is something like
Not cool huh?
A good deconstruction looks for the audiences of some game and wants to really empathize. Having a document with the core features is nice, but having empathy maps, customer journeys and personas at the end of it is key for the success of a project.
Play the game for the right amount of time
Look for its update logs: you need to know where developers put the highest efforts
Read reviews and study them
Look for streamers, those are free playtests
Join Discord channels and Reddits to spot the interesting and pain points
Run playtests of your competitorsTry to interview core Players
With all those insights, build your Player. Forget demographics, focus on behaviors and needs!
The thing I like the most about the hypercasual trend is that I really cannot deeply understand why all of this works. My professional mind has collected a lot of assumptions regarding game design theories. So that I am constantly challenged when I see millions of people playing silly games. Fascinating!
This weekend I tried out Merge Animals 3D that is performing well on mobile phones. The concept is pretty cool. The game is about trying out different combinations of animal traits on a runner and see how they do perform on the track. The main character is a human anonymous mannequin. He is competing against two mannekins more, also them with random configurations. The camera is top-right and impedes having a clear view of what is coming, so that some reflexes are needed to overcome obstacles. Then you unlock a new animal trait which will permit to overcome other kind of obstacles.
There are five kind of possible traits to dominate with an animal prothesis: strength, water, climb, fly and run. I haven’t found much more. It is impossible to arrive the last, I have tried everything. If you don’t end the race first no worries: you will still pass to the next levels! No lose condition at all.
The colors and textures are completely plain, that suggests that the game works with the part of our thinking system which looks for immediacy. No complex thoughts involved at all. Classic for the hypercasual games!
The game monetises with ads. I am afraid there is too few challenge right now. Maybe developers are trying out the core loop and then they will iterate on that.
After a while I found pretty frustrating having to choose manually the mutations I wanted to face the next “challenge”. A UX improvement would be in that sense.
There is nothing suggesting to the Player why is doing all of that. A narrative design improvement would probably include a level sequence or images unlock. You discovered a new animal trait? tell me something about that animal.
Levels have basically no challenge. In order to maintain that philosophy, a Level Design improvement would probably be including some bonus level where the Player could collect letters or other elements useful to unlock new mannequin skins, for instance.
The game system is super simple. For the System Design part I would probably try to find some idle mechanic for the levels. Leves are a rewarding moment and not a challenging one, as mentioned before. Probably the Players who stay more than 2 days would find fun having some automatic system where they can grind other elements related with experiments and merging.