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Posts Tagged ‘match 3’

Sometimes it’s hard for me to believe that it’s already been a month since I deleted Marvel Puzzle Quest from my smartphone.  I played the game for almost six months and had a decent roster of characters built up.  And yet… almost every single change that the developers made during the time I played the game made the game less appealing.  I finally reached the point where I just didn’t want to like it any more, and gave up.

The sad part is that the core gameplay is actually really solid.  The puzzle combat isn’t finely balanced, but I’m fine with that, as I don’t mind a bit of imbalance.  It is well crafted and adds some nice twists to the Puzzle Quest formula.  If the game can be taken purely on its combat, it’s a fine addition to the pedigree.

And yet, the progression scheme and monetization scheme (intricately tied together, but even without monetization, the progression would be awful) just kill the game in the long run.  Of course, that’s “kill the game for me”, since it’s apparently still live and gathering clients, but I would really love to see some numbers on what sort of churn they are seeing.  It is very much a “winners win more” game, with elements that skirt the dreaded “pay to win” area.  Some of the judgment on the latter depends on how you define the phrase, but for me, it’s clearly designed to give an edge to those who spend inordinate amounts of money on the game, in no small part because of how glacial the progression system is, and that you can pay to speed it up.

This is not anything new in the F2P arena, to be sure, and it’s less grievous than being able to flat out buy victories, but it does undermine what could be very satisfying PvP combat puzzling.

In the end, though, it wasn’t any single huge change that made me uninstall the game.  It was a death by degree.  The poor progression scheme.  Nothing worth spending money on (which saved me money, but it was still what I thought of as poor design).  New characters introduced fairly regularly… but predominantly at the rare tier, so recruiting them was a crapshoot with their slot machine sort of character acquisition.  (Almost everything in the game is tied to a random chance of acquisition or absurdly overpriced… sometimes both.)  The change in healing so that it was limited to the combat of the moment.  Damage persists after a fight, limiting the ability to play multiple rounds in succession unless you heal in the fight or pay for refills between fights.  You get a few free refills, but they don’t last long if you’re in a heated race to top the competition boards to get some character you’d like.  You can buy refills or wait for them to recharge, 1 every 35 minutes, and you can hold 5 at a time.  (With 3 characters in combat, that’s not a lot of healing to go around.)  Competition is mostly PvP of a sort (never against other players; the AI just takes their team and runs it), which isn’t terrible, but PvP really needs to be balanced to be fun, and when character levels can be as disparate as they are in the game, it gets old when you play a few successful rounds and then get matched with an overpowered team you have no chance of beating.  Normalized PvP (like Guild Wars) where skill and team composition rule would go a long way to making the game better… but that sort of level playing field is harder to monetize.

Playing the moment to moment combat was still good fun.  It’s just… everything else isn’t, and the combat alone isn’t enough to save the game.

On the other hand, there’s Slingshot Braves.  It’s sort of a weird mix of PS1-era graphics (so it still looks good; I’m playing on a phone for crying out loud), Squids and Angry Birds, with a gear upgrade system that feels a bit like Puzzle & Dragons (consume hundreds of little pieces of loot to level up your gear) and a newly introduced gem/slot system that is a bit like socketed gear in a Blizzard game, but you can also level up the gems by combining several of a kind, and you can move some gems around, so it has a slight FFVII flavor.  It’s simple, but the five weapons are fairly elegantly designed, each with its own niche.  Leveling gear is slow, and the only way to make your team stronger, but it feels just fast enough to be acceptable.  Marvel Puzzle Quest’s character leveling is very, very slow by comparison.

Acquiring gear is only done via very rare loot drops or by the “Gacha” system.  It’s effectively a gear slot machine.  This is a bit annoying, but the game provides you with enough “gems” (the currency you can buy directly or earn via play or the occasional promotion) to get the occasional new bit of gear in that system.  Gear is in four tiers (C, B, A, and S, increasing in value), and you’re guaranteed at least a B level bit of gear in the Gacha.  It’s a bit annoying in that the best gear seems to be in the Gacha gamble, but at the same time, you can level up your gear and evolve it to a higher tier with enough little loot drops, so you can grind into some good gear eventually.  It’s slow, and annoying to get great new gear that you then have to level up, but that’s the quirk that comes with leveling gear in general.  It’s still much faster than MPQ’s system, and less frustrating.

I’m not sure there’s much that offers good value for real money here, either, but at least progress in the game isn’t as tedious as is is in MPQ.  You can buy gems, which allow character renaming, larger loot libraries, Gacha “pulls” and stamina refills (each mission you play consumes stamina, which recharges slowly; a standard F2P throttle).  Still, it’s not necessary, and most importantly, buying gems doesn’t have a huge effect on your success or pace of progress.

Perhaps most importantly, though, the only multiplayer system is a cooperative one, so it’s OK if someone else is stronger than you.  You both win faster that way.  There is some light competition among scoring leaderboards on some events, but the majority of the time any reason you have to care about the gear other players have is in how much it helps you, not how hard it is to beat.  That’s a huge underlying shift in assumptions and goals, and it makes a world of difference.

…and is it telling that the progression scheme is the first thing I write about?  That’s really where these games live or die, since that’s where they monetize, usually.  It’s also where things get annoying, and where MPQ got worse as time went on, SB just keeps getting better.  Loot drops have been made more frequent, promotions give people more goods to work with, the gear Gacha was split into a weapon Gacha and an Armor Gacha (anything that increases player control over the slot machine is a Good Thing for players), and the new socketing system makes gear more flexible.

But how does it play, moment to moment?  Largely like Squids, where you fire your character in a direction and watch it bounce around the arena, beating on foes or careening off of your ally unit or the walls.  Maybe it’s just the billiards fan in me, but I love that a good eye for angles and thinking ahead pays off in the game.  It’s a simpler game than MPQ, but it still seems to reward player skill, and that’s one of the things that I appreciate most in games.

So, while Marvel Puzzle Quest’s fortunes in my library sank, Slingshot Braves has risen to be the game I most prefer to play at the moment on my phone.  Tiny Dice Dungeons is another great contender, but it hasn’t seen as many “live” changes.

I find it striking that MPQ made most of its changes to try to squeeze out more monetization, and it’s obvious.  SB wants more money too, certainly, but their changes have almost uniformly felt like they were improving the progression scheme, and occasionally the combat engine.  My visceral response to the two development teams couldn’t be more opposed.  The more I see each in action, the more I like SB, and the less I like MPQ.

In a world where games can mutate and adjust over time, I think it’s critical that the changes feel like they are making the game better, and that’s really the difference between these two when it comes to whether or not I play them and recommend them.

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Some time ago, Psychochild mentioned his friend, Dave Toulouse, and his crazy awesome indie game development ways.  He runs a blog over at Over00, where he writes about his efforts.  I’ve been following them both on Twitter, and a couple of days ago, they announced Toulouse’s latest project, Bret Airborne, which he has written about a few times on his blog that I totally have been neglecting.  I’m so bad at keeping up lately.

Anyway, I gotta say… I like it.  A lot.  Like, enough to play it and write this post about it instead of working on my steampunk poker stuff like I probably should be doing.

Y’see, I’m a fan of Puzzle Quest.  And Puzzle Kingdoms.  And Puzzle Quest: Galactrix.  And Gyromancer.  And I’m a huge fan of Puzzle Pirates.  Muckbeast’s Tower of Elements is similarly sweet.  I’m a gamer, have been for decades, but I never did pick up the attitude that “match 3″ or other simple puzzle games are unworthy of attention.  I like puzzle games, and though they may be “light” gaming fare most of the time, that’s not a bad thing.  I also happen to love RPGs, so splicing in some RPG DNA into puzzle games is a Good Idea in my eyes.

Bret Airborne is definitely a mutation of the Puzzle Quest school of design.  This is an expression of praise, at least as far as I’m concerned.  It uses some of  the standard match 3 game design elements, with swapping items, new pieces dropping in from above, that sort of thing.  It is basically PvP puzzling, like Puzzle Quest is, complete with special attacks (using energy from matches you’ve made) that you can use to make the experience a bit more strategic.  It’s pretty simple to understand, and the learning curve is kind.

BretAirborne

It builds on the Puzzle Quest design in a few important ways (that I’ve seen, there may be others), though.  First, the playing field is split between the two players, though it’s still technically a shared space.  If you get matches of 4 at a time or more, you can push your zone of control of the shared space into the opponent’s territory (that bar in the middle scoots over, opening up a new column to control), messing up their plans or using their resources.  At first, I thought this was too constraining and potentially too swingy, but it actually plays very nicely.  I thought the scoot was persistent, silly me.  It actually resets at the beginning of each player’s turn.  It certainly penalizes bad luck and bad defensive play, but it just feels right, like my own play is more important than luck.  This is a Good Thing.

Second, and I can’t emphasize how much this made me happy, you’re not constrained to making moves that create matches.  You can make a move that sets things up for the future, though if you don’t make a match, the opponent gets a boost to their zone of control on their next turn.  I have always loved Bilging in Puzzle Pirates for exactly this, the ability to shuffle things around without the necessity of matching every time you make a move.  In that game, you do take a scoring penalty, but if you play smart, you can set up big combos that more than make up for the penalty.  This freedom is a beautiful thing, and it’s awesome to see it in Bret Airborne.  This also means the board will never reset itself if it gets into a locked position, which again facilitates planning over randomness.  This is a subtle thing, perhaps, but it’s something that makes the game a joy to play for me, rather than the frustration that the persnickity prototypical Bejeweled clones tend to offer.

It also has a few of what I call “quality of life” improvements.  One that made me smile was that matching two sets of three in an L or T shape doesn’t just register as two threes, it registers as five at a time matched, with the concurrent zone increase bonus.  Again, it’s a subtle thing, but it really helps me enjoy the game.  No longer do I have to choose to match a four in a row (to get the zone bonus and extra move) and leave a bit of clutter with that fifth piece as the odd man out.  If the gems are in the right formation, I can play with an eye to keeping the board cleaner, which enables further tricks down the road and still get the bonus for matching more than the baseline three.  Maybe this is “easy mode” to purists, but I love it.  The suite of tricks that you can learn to make combat more interesting are excellent, too.  There isn’t quite the array of abilities that Puzzle Quest has, but then, it doesn’t have the class system, either, so it’s nice and flexible.  One other, simple thing… it lets me click over to my second monitor without freaking out, crashing or nuking my computer.  No Alt-Tab necessary.  This is a little thing, but I love it.  It’s like Star Trek Online in that regard… and it’s something that WoW, in all its pomp, still fails at sometimes.  (Alt-Tabbing out of it crashes the game half the time for me.  It’s a jealous game.)  Bret Airborne runs in full screen mode nicely on one monitor while I do my thing on the other, like writing this post, and it doesn’t try to wreck my workflow.  It’s a genial game.  Again, simple quality of life improvement, and it’s a shame I have to mention it as an aberration, but I appreciate it.

Oh, and it’s Steampunk themed.  This also makes me smile.  The art is fairly simple, but it’s clean, readable and stylistic.  It won’t compete with Bioshock Infinite (since y’know, that’s important or something), and there are some things I’d do differently (I’m an artist, after all), but that’s just me nitpicking.  The play’s the thing, and Bret Airborne is simply a joy to play.  Maybe it’s a little “plain Jane” to look at, but it’s a beauty in action.

Go get the demo.  Play it.  Buy it.  It’s worth it.  I’ve been picky with what games I buy lately, mostly because I don’t have time to play, but this is one that I’m happy to have found.  I recommend it highly.

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A little while back, Muckbeast of Frogdice, a fellow blogger who used to write an incisive game design-heavy blog (now sadly apparently lost to the 404 archives), asked me to take a look at his company’s latest indie Unity-based game offering, Tower of Elements.  It’s sort of an oddball little game, but I like it.  Partly because it’s a stew of disparate elements that seem to mesh well together.

I’m the sort of gamer who loves genre and mechanic blends like Puzzle Quest.  I’ve indulged in mixing and matching game design elements before, like this article on a game I still wish would be made.  (I’d be happy to make it, but I’m kinda… not rich.  Not even close.)  So, this Tower of Elements thing, combining bits and bobs of match-3, tower defense and RPGish progression elements, is just the sort of weird mashup that makes me happy.

This video gives a good sense of the core gameplay:

I can’t say for sure that it’s a game that I’d play for dozens of hours like I did Puzzle Quest, but it is one that I’d at least like to spend a good chunk of time with.  There’s a ten level demo that’s worth investigating, if nothing else.  I know, I know, match-3 games aren’t exactly novel, but there’s some good design in making the matching spatially relevant as it’s the way you attack the hordes at the gates.  Spatially sensitive, time-sensitive match-3 is a nice riff on the genre, and there’s a whole system of upgrades, utility spells (to change the playing field and mess with enemies, always nice) and progression that is icing on the cake.

For the next week or so, they are also running a promotion to get some meals to people who need them through these guys, as part of buying the game.  It’s a nice side effect of picking up the game, methinketh.

Anyway, I wish I could give you a rundown of the full game, but my time is very constrained of late.  I’m poking my head up on this because I think it looks like a good game, and there’s that time-sensitive promotion involved.

Oh, and Muckbeast shared a 50% off code as well, so, y’know, that’s cool, too.

CFXR000QV

Tally ho!

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