These deconstructions are solely intended for my personal experimentation on game design. It is not requested by or submitted to any of the related companies and I have no connection or affiliation with any of them. So, have fun while reading it and feel free to drop any comments.
I have a broad proficiency on designing game-as-a-product projects, and my experience in game-as-a-service design have started only recently. My main motivation for writing this article was summarizing my early F2P design knowledge and discuss with others what could be researched by just comparing two similar products.
UPDATE: I didn't stopped and decided to create a fake "Feature Proposal" about one of these games. You can check it from here... I've also published this article in Gamasutra. If you have comments please don't hesitate to share.
In this article, I am going to deconstruct and compare two Match-3 games: Farm Heroes Saga and Mystery Match in regard to their economy loops, UI / UX designs, narratives, gameplay, social and retention factors to understand better about their dynamics. Before starting these comparisons, let’s take a look in both games AppAnnie statistics:
Farm Heroes Saga is released by King on March 2013 and currently have 100.000.000 - 500.000.000 downloads on Android and 10.000.000+ monthly active users on Facebook platform.
Mystery Match Farm is released by Outplay on September 2014 and currently have 500.000 - 1.000.000 downloads on Android and 50.000+ monthly active users on Facebook platform.
The main design choice difference between Mystery Match and Farm Heroes Saga is their approach to use/avoid soft currency:
Lack of soft currency pushes Mystery Match to a minimal economy design, and focus its game design on narrative and core game mechanics. Without a soft currency, there is no ground left for additional meta-game elements (ex: playing old levels to collect bonus for weekly / holiday challenges before starting any new and hard level on Farm Heroes Saga) and this choice leads Mystery Match to a minimalist UI / UX design approach. This choice also encapsulates an earlier grinding requirement on difficulty curve, needed for a the first day retention (call back to action). The only option for first day retention is to get the player stuck in a level with no lives left and call player back for another refreshed set of lives. Difficulty must increase very early to create that condition inside the first session. The narrative plot focused on mystery, (considering that the major target audience for match-3 genre is soccer moms) works also as a nice grabber for first day retention in Mystery Match. But in the long term, Mystery Match tries an impossible mission of writing a mystery script that involves lots of match-3 puzzles and narrating it via just character images with very short dialogues or monologues. Nevertheless, a clear and fluent UI design, detailed art direction and brilliant ludology behind it have the most significant role on its game developer’s (Outplay) success.
Meanwhile, Farm Heroes Saga employs a layered economy loop with both soft and hard currencies involved. That complexity pushes Farm Heroes Saga to expand the core gameplay by integrating its economical variables. With such complexity, Farm Heroes Saga walks on the boundaries of being a “Feature Creep” game and still perfectly avoids falling into it. It also assembles a well managed UI / UX that becomes a big part of the game. Farm Heroes Saga needs a long time to successfully introduce its elements and converts this phase to a long spanned difficulty curve. This long span has two effects: Good side of the coin is a (possibly) fast finished first session, which gives more reasons for calling the player back to action (other than the energy renewal call), because there are many features left to explore! The bad side of the coin is the latency of the grabber (the “Companions”), since it would not be encountered before the first session and even before the second session. The developers must have sensed the same problem; so they’ve chosen to expose the grabber related UI before introducing the grabber itself. Even though, game developer (King) successfully constructed the successor of Candy Crush Saga by creating a more detailed match-3 game with a good grabber. In this sense, Farm Heroes Saga illustrates perfectly the casual gamer's new expectations. That expectation pushing the genre into more mature game designs.
Both Mystery Match and Farm Heroes Saga avoid the “Coercive Monetization” model while both of them still stick to a classic freemium transition from a “Skill Game” to a “Money Game”. Especially for Mystery Match, simplified layerless economy increases VoC (Visibility of Control) and creates a greater TtC (Tolerance to Control) barrier that would cause a lower monetization rate. Farm Heroes Saga’s layered economy creates a more blurry VoC that would directly affect a higher monetization rate.
Core Economy Loop
As I discussed on Comparison Summary section, Mystery Match lacks soft currency, and
even by comparing at the core level, Farm Heroes Saga’s economy loop complexity is higher than Mystery Match. This basic difference leads two games to separate design choices, which will be discussed in further sections.
Economy Loop In Depth
The deconstruction of both games’ economy loops in larger scale demonstrates the complexity difference between Farm Heroes Saga and Mystery Match economies clearer.
Mystery Match’s economy differs from Farm Heroes Saga in two important ways: Lack of a soft currency (that feed player income by each successful basic levels or weekly / holiday challenges, achievements, etc.). And lack of indirect hard currency rewards (free hard currency boosters, etc.) except the start bonus (30 coins), and Facebook connection gift (20 coins). Mystery Match try to keep hard currency as tight as possible and with the help of early grinding, and it has absolutely shorter game sessions than Farm Heroes Saga. It depends on a shorter but easy to analyse first session, while Farm Heroes Saga blasts a long and hard to analyse first session (as I’ll discuss it on Key Factors for Retention section.)
With the availability of soft currency, Farm Heroes Saga introduces a major grabber called “Companions”. In each episode, a companion level is placed and player can earn up to three companions in each episode. Player can choose only one companion booster that consumes a small amount of soft currency at each level and it is automatically activated during the game play. It is slightly different than other boosters which could not be used multiple times in a level and consume a lower amount of soft currency than other boosters. This micro management provides a better non-paying user retention (that is always needed for social/viral impact on freemium casual games) and lower the inflation of soft currency.
Another difference between Mystery Match and Farm Heroes Saga is the episode unlock economy. While both games prefer social unlock requests as a second option, first option greatly differs. Farm Heroes Saga prefers adding another complexity layer by a boss fight level on each episode to unlock the next episode (Next episode is unlocked if the boss fight level has been completed with 2 star rating, and 1 star rating provides the second social option). In contrast with Farm Heroes Saga, Mystery Match prefers to add a long timer (called traveling) between the episodes. Player could just wait for the timer or choose the second social option to unlock the next episode. This is a much simpler method compared to boss fight levels of Farm Heroes Saga.
Last small difference between two games lies behind social/viral economy variables. Both games let the players to send/receive life and to ask help for unlocking the next episode from their Facebook friends. But, while Farm Heroes Saga rewards players with game currency and various boosters for inviting friends over Facebook, Mystery Match avoids/miss this feature.
Both charts above explain the differences between two games’ interaction models:
UI Complexity: Farm Heroes Saga needs more panels and even more functions in each panel than Mystery Match.
Panel Styles: While both games mostly use popup panels over three screens (main menu screen, map screen, game screen), Farm Heroes Saga uses left slide for settings panels and bottom slide for use booster panel, and Mystery Match uses minimal radial menus at bottom left of the screen.
Social panels: Both games use similar panels for sending lives, asking help for content gates, inboxes etc. While disconnected, both games insist to replace a Facebook connect button on each panel. Mystery Match insist more by even placing a connect button on the inbox, while Farm Heroes Saga misses it. Also, Mystery Match places a share function on success level panel and content gate unlocked panel.
Reminder panels: Farm Heroes Saga uses reminder panels (such as rate game, invite friends, send lives or cross promotion panels) while opening the map screen and employs them in a strategic way. It opens the “rate game” or “invite friends” panel while only in transition from level success panel to catch player in a better mood, and crosses promotion panel while only in transition from level failed panel. On the other hand, Mystery Match avoids frustrating the player using as minimum reminders as possible.
Both games have intuitive, user-friendly and enjoyable interactions. They both focused on usability, and try to show minimal information on the screen at each phase. They both try to mimic the UI/UX designs of the previous famous match-3 genre games.
Both games use portrait orientation over mobile screens and landscape orientation on the web. Portrait orientation is a better preference on casual mobile games because, portrait orientation ergonomically allows one hand free usage. Both games can be played single handed (one hand free) and they don’t need any timing or other reflex factors.
For iPads (tablets), Farm Heroes Saga provides an additional landscape orientation option (which makes sense that one hand free ergonomy doesn’t apply to tablets) while Mystery Match can’t provide this feature.
Mystery Match has a minor detail while exiting the game. If player wants to leave before making any move, game doesn’t use a life. Farm Heroes Saga always use a life on exit. It also would be an evaluated choice to prevent free-randomization of the start board.
A small but vital detail: Farm Heroes Saga has a cute map and match tiles, and it employs cute animations both on the map and on the match tiles. Since animations increase workload (and the needed space), animations only exist on the first 5 episodes of the map. Mystery Match has a detailed stylistic map and match tiles, while all of them are static. (Only match tiles have reflections to give hints)
Farm Heroes Saga has a limited story, which is very minimalistic and used for patching the game theme together. There is no motivation given to the player to dig the story in depth.
The narrative is a major grabber in Mystery Match. It combines story elements with the core game design and try to feature the core match-3 structure as a diegetic element. Story involves a private inspector woman with a rich family as protagonist, her sidekick (and secret lover), her father and some other side characters. Story starts with a robbery in their family mansion; robbers have left clues of jeweled puzzle boxes behind. So protagonist try to reveal this mystery by traveling around the world and by solving the match-3 puzzles. This narrative idea allures players over the first sessions but in the long term, the mystery script involving lots of match-3 puzzles and narrated only via static character images with very short dialogues / monologue in between puzzles becomes a hard task to accomplish.
In Farm Heroes Saga, matching three or more standard tiles removes the matched tiles from the board and apply gravity to drop tiles over empty grids while sending new tiles above the board. Also each perfect match increases the power of surrounding (goal only) tiles. Chain matches and complex matches increase the powers more. These additional powers are temporary for a single move. After a move, all additional tile powers reset to zero. A complex 5 tiled match removes all matched colors from the board.
On Mystery Match, matching three standard tiles removes the matched tiles from the board and apply gravity to drop tiles over empty grids while sending new tiles above the board. Complex matches done with more than three tiles does not simply remove tiles but combine them into a charged tile of the same color. Any extended matches with these charged tile triggers the side effects of the charge. Also swapping two charged tiles trigger larger side effects.
Both games’ Boosters don’t consume any moves. They could be used before starting a level or could be used by selecting a target tile to use a booster.
Farm Heroes Saga gives only one goal of collect target amount of tiles of each type. Even boss fights only elegantly twist this goal to collect target amount of tiles of given types in sum. New tile types and properties introduced later would help or burden the player to achieve these goals. On each level, player has limited number of moves and each successful match consume a move. Farm Heroes Saga uses the target goal percentage for scoring player high scores and for giving star ranks up to three. Minimum score for the first star rank is always 100% and other two ranks needs various percentage scores on each level.
On the other hand, Mystery Match gives one of this five goals (remove dark squares, collect given gem colors, drop the symbols, remove the locks, remove the blockers) on each level. New tile types and properties introduced later would help or burden the player to achieve these goals. On each level, player has limited moves and each successful match consume a move. Mystery Match uses an abstract scoring system for player high scores and for giving star ranks. Completing level goals isn’t enough to complete the level but player needs a minimum score for the first star rank and other two ranks needs various scores on each level.
Hint System and Shuffle
For both games, when player wait without making a match in an expected time, a small/fast hint is given for a valid match option. Farm Heroes Saga animates a jump on the tiles while Mystery Match highlights the valid gems. This hint always shows the match option with the lowest tile count. If there is not any available move, then a shuffle happens on the board. Both games shuffle only standard tiles. Other tiles remain the same.
Game ending differs when goals are reached on both games. Farm Heroes Saga introduces the “Hero Mode” when goals are met, and that increases goal tiles’ power over the time and keeps the powers on each turn so the power values could be stacked.
Difficulty Curve and Grinding
The chart above illustrates the difficulty curve of user experience on first 51 levels of Farm Heroes Saga. It is clearly seen that Farm Heroes Saga has a nearly flat difficulty curve and it tries to avoid early grinding. That allows player a very short to very long early sessions. Since a very long first session provides a better adaptation to game, it is risky to lose control over when user will leave the first session. I discussed that problem in depth on Key Factors For Retention section.
In Farm Heroes Saga, even there are two companion levels before (on level 7 and 18), companion powers unlocks only after 28.th level (because it would increase the complexity more if it was introduced before). The Companions related UI is exposed (not hidden from the beginning) before introducing the Companion Boosters, because, Companions is the grabber feature of Farm Heroes Saga. Third companion level is at level 38 and the third one is the first not-easy companion level. This level is the first level that have replay value because farm club panel rewards every 3 pairs of companions at the same tier and, without unlocking 3.rd tier companion (by earning 3 stars), the 3.rd reward is not available.
Also, on Farm Heroes Saga, there are two easy rancid levels (boss fight) before (on level 10 and 21), and third rancid level (on level 33) introduces content gates. Content gates (named as Unlock Episode) in Farm Heroes Saga is not a hard challenge on early sessions. Starting from the first content gate after level 40 to last gate I unlocked after level 100 they were effortlessly unlocked after winning the rancid levels by 2 stars ranking or more. Rancid levels also have absolute replay value if only passed by 1 star ranking. First 2 content gates after level 16 and 26 are removed from Farm Heroes Saga. Map design (bridges between themes) obviously points there were content gates after these levels. Also all other episodes are 10-15 levels long that would point out the same theory. The first two content gates possibly removed to simplify the complexity for early sessions.
The chart above illustrates the difficulty curve of user experience on first 51 levels of Mystery Match. After a fast paced 10 levels, Mystery Match ends first episode and asks the player to unlock the next episode by paying hard currency or by just waiting (player must even wait by using social requests, three requests needs to be answered.) Possibly, most of the players would skip this content gate by paying hard currency (since they can’t make an accurate evaluation about the hard currency yet) so at Level 12, a very hard level design awaits players to spend all their gifted hard currency or an absolute end for first session. For second session, Mystery Match offers a full set of medium / hard levels that ends with a second content gate, which forces the player to wait for the first time. After forcing players with short-medium session lengths by very hard puzzles that require almost all 5 lives to complete (expected gameplay is possibly by using previous 3 free boosters to pass these levels), with an extremely difficult 46.th level, Mystery Match first time checks for the early pay users.
So, Mystery Match chooses to grind players at the very early stages of the game. It makes full sense for a game that skips layered economy loop and introduces minimal features.
Both games build their core loops for a very slow paced game design. On the game board, both games do not allow player to make any asynchronous move while the chain match reactions are happening. All UX are designed for a reflex free structure to notify user that, they could act anytime they want. This is also the major factor that moved match-3 games to an epic popularity.
After level 51, Mystery Match begins to use time challenges (instead of move counts) in some levels. This is a bad combination for game experience, because the core game loop is organized for reflex free gameplay. Farm Heroes Saga also repeats the same mistake in a holiday challenge I’ve encountered. The challenge was completing 5 levels in a very limited time. This small challenge brings the same problem of not fitting the core game loop.
Viral / Social Interaction
Both Farm Heroes Saga and Mystery Match use standard techniques when it comes to social interaction: “Invite Friends”, “Send Lives” and “Ask Help From Friends” on the content gates. Also both games interact with players on their respective Facebook page, and try to create a community.
Mystery Match have Share Button after each successful level and after unlocking each episode (content gates). Farm Heroes Saga don’t use any sharing methodology. (It could be taken as a nice hint about player behaviours from the sector lead King)
Key Factors For Retention
Farm Heroes Saga has three back to action calls:
Call to action for a refreshed set of lives after approx. 1 hour (Up to 5 lives and 15 minutes for each life)
Call to action for a weekly events and challenges (like Chasing The Sun challenge)
Call to action for holiday events and challenges (with soft and hard currency rewards)
Mystery Match also has two back to action calls:
Call to action for a refreshed set of lives after approx. 2 hours (Up to 5 lives and 30 minutes for each life)
Call to action for opening a content gate (unlock episode) after 48 hours
These two calls could be missed if a player leaves the last session without using any lives and if this player still has not reached to a content gate. So, a third effective call is vital, and it is fully missed in Mystery Match (yes it possibly has “We missed you” call, but it is not effective)
First idea for a solution would be offering hard currency over time to call back, yet as I mentioned on Difficulty Curve and Grinding Section, a player who left the game in very early sessions can’t make an accurate evaluation about the hard currency yet, so a currency reward would not be a promising reason for calling them back and even it would possibly hurt the monetization.
I’ve played Farm Heroes Saga up to level 102 and Mystery Match up to level 52 before writing this comparison. I tested them both on Android Phone, on iPad, on Facebook and on King Website.
Also, here are some related articles I’ve examined during or before the comparison: