Analyzing minimal gameplay unit in match-three: why simple elimination process makes players keep swiping?

This article tries to find some answers from the perspective of the player side and psychological mechanisms.

1. Match-three game genre and its brief market introduction

Match-three games usually involve the elimination of at least three identical elements altogether. Some of them add a simulation/story on top of the match three play, and players will win items for some progress and character growth through the gameplay.

According to DoF's data, the global puzzle game scale reaches 5.1 billion USD in 2020, of which match-three games account for 3.76 billion USD (excluding China, Japan, and Korea markets). Especially in the United States, match-three game is one of the largest segments of the mobile game market. According to GameRefinery's data, the revenue share of match-three games in the U.S. iOS game market in May 2020 and 2021 is 21% and 16%, respectively. Among the Top 100 games in the U.S. iOS grossing list, match-three games account for about 15 titles, of which King, Playrix, and Zynga are the major developers occupying the top position.

The core gameplay of match-three games is not as complicated as some other game genres, but people all over the world love them so much that they can traverse decades. And it seems that this genre will remain popular in the decades to come, which keeps some people asking why it is so attractive? Let's try to find some answers from the perspective of the player side and psychological mechanisms.

2. Match-three elimination gameplay units bring immediate feedback

No matter how old a match-three game is, it comes with the steps of "pooling the same color (in Tetris it is filling the same row)", "eliminating the same color (same row)", "increasing the score", and these several steps form the smallest unit of gameplay in this game genre, and the process of the game is to basically repeat this action over and over again. Whenever you complete a gameplay unit, the game will give sound effects and visual cues, such as the elimination motion on the screen and the addition of a score display. Visually, the same color stacked together naturally conforms to human perceptual fluency preferences and will give a sense of regularity and comfort.

[What is Human Perceptual Fluency Preference] The human brain is busy processing all kinds of information from the outside world. Suddenly a light appears and it enters another world, and the outside information has been organized in a very regular way already, which makes the brain process easily. And our brain can get a full rest and feel the kindness of the world. So when encountering neat and regular content, people will instinctively feel comfortable, while the clutter is easy to make people feel headaches.

While the elimination action is going on, the game system will generate, for example, "great" sound effects, characters, and scores, which in human culture represent compliments and are very direct positive feedback. In the current popular match-three games, there are even combos (the more you repeat the action of elimination, the higher the score of the combos), and there are various functional blocks, which are more brilliant and exaggerated in the performance of the elimination effect, and can bring more attractive visual feedback. They all add up to the feedback after the elimination action, giving players double pleasure.

If explained from the perspective of psychological mechanisms, each unit of elimination play is positive reinforcement - you make an action and then immediately get an experience that makes you feel happy. Theories of positive reinforcement have found that when people take a certain behavior, they get some kind of pleasant result from outside, which in turn becomes the force that advocates them to repeat that behavior. This is the underlying principle behind the core gameplay of match-three, which, although seemingly simple, is something players always want to do consistently.

3. Randomness, the joy written in the genes

Most match-three games, on top of the delightful gameplay unit of elimination, are added with a layer of the source of happiness written in the human genes - randomness. In a match-three game, each time you open it, you are given a random array of squares, and the sequence of squares that slide down from above after completing the elimination is also random. If you are lucky, you can randomly have some functional squares at the beginning of the game. For example, colored candies that can eliminate all the same color squares will reduce the difficulty of clearance of levels.


The happy outcome obtained after people's behavior reinforces the expectation of this behavior the next time, and the intensity of this expectation is controlled by dopamine. When randomness is introduced, the player's expectation is a randomly occurring reinforcer, and the player realizes the expectation once by chance, and then desires the next realization, and so on and so forth. In this process, our brain constantly predicts the relationship between this moment's behavior and the next moment's reward. In psychological experiments, it has been found that "almost winning " causes only slightly lower dopamine than "real wins", suggesting that the expectation and motivation for the next behavior are not perfectly correlated with the outcome of the current behavior. This suggests that human expectations and motivation for the next behavior do not correspond to the outcome of the current behavior, but rather that "almost winning " provides a guide to uncertainty, thus reinforcing the player's behavior.


People tend to have expectations of outcomes before randomness sets in, and this expectation accumulates as behavior increases. When the expectation is fulfilled, the uncertainty causes people to secrete more dopamine compared to the certainty of the outcome, giving you a stronger desire, which will lead to a more solid reinforcement of the feedback mechanism.

In terms of the minimal gameplay unit of match-three actions, after each swipe on the screen, we will get a layout of the eliminated squares, but due to the existence of the randomness of the falling squares above, the layout of the eliminated squares obtained is what we are not sure of. The expectation of getting awesome functional squares for the next swipe will give us a stronger motivation to perform the next control than the certain result of each swipe.

5. Summary

This article only attempts to analyze again the smallest unit of gameplay in match-three games, the elimination level and analyzes the appeal of this game genre in terms of psychological mechanisms. Of course, in addition to the above content, match-three games also have a lot of elements such as score, star rating, and even simulation elements to increase the joy of this type of game and make it more playable.

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