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Dragon Academy: 9 Months Later

About nine months ago, our team launched a puzzle/adventure/rpg Hatch-3 game called Dragon Academy. It's been kind of amazing to see how the game has evolved in the time since our initial launch.

I was a little dubious when our team, Team Chaos, first decided on making a Match-3 game. At first blush, I thought the genre had basically seen so many different games of that type that we couldn't possibly hope to make a splash. Basically, our initial pitch on the game was "Match-3. With Dragons." That's about all we had to go on. Like I said, I was a little dubious.

At the time we started the game, I was a fairly recently-hired Senior Game Designer, only having worked previously on Team Chaos' first game: Elements: Broken Lands, which I had a whole lot of fun working on. Before that, I was working on a variety of projects at LightBox Interactive, namely Starhawk, and before that I was at Stardock Entertainment working on a whole bunch of hardcore PC strategy games. So, basically, I've had a pretty wide variety of projects under my belt by this point. And, on top of all of this, shortly after we started working on Dragon Academy, I was promoted to Creative Director and Project Manager of the game — my very first time in either capacity — so I immediately started having a very different development experience than I had ever had previously.

The first thing that struck me about Dragon Academy was how quickly the game became fun to play. We had a prototype up and running after a weekend, we started messing around with game art and various mechanics and setting up a few sample levels, and it all came together so fast (in a very rough form). And it was legitimately fun to play within the first week and a half or two of development. This was... Unusual to me. I wasn't used to games being fun to play until much further along in the development process. It was pretty great. Whatever doubt I had about how fun the project would be to work on was completely gone. And then our illustrator, Jeff Hill, came up with the designs for our core group of six dragons that the player could play as:

It was around the time that I saw Melty (the purple dragon) and Pokey (the red dragon) that I just absolutely fell in love with Dragon Academy. Sure, it was a Match-3 game, but I felt like our team had the talent, passion, and attention to detail to make something really special out of the game.

We were always targeting this game for mobile, and for a fairly casual audience, but one thing that we all wanted to do was introduce some RPG (well, character progression) elements into the game. This was partially just because we love that kind of stuff, but we also legitimately thought that there weren't any mobile puzzle games that tried to get a wider audience accustomed to the kind of stuff that Pokemon had been doing for ages: experience, evolution, special powers, and so on. And we wanted to make this a primary tenet of our design for the core puzzle game. So, every dragon had three evolution levels, like Melty's here:

And each Dragon had to have its own unique special power that could fundamentally alter the puzzle board and, more importantly, change the player's strategy for solving various puzzles. Melty's power was great for "ingredient levels" (levels where you have to get key items from the top of the board to the bottom), as it chose 1-3 purple tiles on the board and created an acid waterfall that would vertically clear a row of runes. Pokey's special ability was great for "goo levels" (levels where you had to make matches on specific tiles to clear them of their "goo" encasement), as it had a wide rune destruction coverage, even though it was a little unpredictable. And we did this for each of the six dragons.

One thing we pretty quickly realized during development was how crucial the feel of the game was, so once we had most of the core game elements in, an artist and I, Jonathan Price, who worked for our sister company Chaotic Moon spent two-three weeks only working on special effects that we could toss throughout the game to give each Dragon a unique feel and to generally provide a lot of dynamic response throughout every area of the game. And I think Andy Scott, our VP or Engineering, and I spent about 3-4 days just getting the feel of tiles falling onto the board feeling right. Needless to say, there was a lot of time spent on polish, feel, and tone. We also came up with this whole storyline that, for the most part, was implied through small bits of text, but our Art Director, Chuck Wadey, also came up with a great little intro comic panel cut scene:

And because I'm me, the game is filled with amazing puns. Amazing. Whenever you match four or five runes together, you form a dragon egg (powered-up puzzle pieces). So, I officially refer to the game as a Hatch-3 Adventure Game. Combos yield giant text with words like "egg-cellent" and "egg-strordinary" and so on. I can pretty safely say that we are also the only game in all of the video game industry with a button in the settings screen called "Puns Egg-nabled." If you disable this setting, the setting title changes to "Puns Disabled" and the text the game displays is "Excellent!" and "Extraordinary!" and so on. We're very pun tolerant. 

We released the game in August last year, and slowly rolled out support for additional platforms — the game is now out on iOS, Android, Kindle, and Facebook — and we've been super happy with how well it's been received. We even have a couple plush versions of the Dragons that occupy my desk at work:

But, there was one thing about making a free-to-play game that was still very new to me: development and design does not end at launch. Not even a little bit. As soon as we launched the game, we were immediately working on aspects of the game that needed improvements; we redesigned UI screens, we entirely reworked some game flows in response to player feedback, we continued to optimize the game for a variety of devices (and the impressive number of bugs that arise from supporting so many platforms), and so on. We also completely redesigned the interface to support landscape mode on tablets/Facebook, which is maybe the biggest change that I'm personally thankful for, as it just allows so much more real estate for combining the main gameplay with all of the social elements that we have integrated. 

It doesn't stop there, though. In order to make sure all of our players continued to remain interested in the game, and to continually draw in more and more players, we gave ourselves a schedule: new main campaign maps (2 maps, 24 levels) every few weeks. And, beyond that, every two-three months we wanted to do a major "episode" in what we call the BOOK OF CHAPTERS. These are four map (48 levels) episodes that you can play separately from the main campaign and feature entirely new art, a concise storyline, and, basically, a condensed version of the much larger main campaign. So, if you got stuck on any level in the main campaign, you could always hop over to one of the other chapters and just play levels there. This was our solution for any potential bottlenecks that could arise from some of the more difficult levels. Our first chapter in the BOOK OF CHAPTERS was for Halloween and was called Rise of the Zomblins:

The idea behind this chapter was that undead versions of the game's enemies, The Wobblins (hence: Zomblins), have captured one of Dragon Academy's most infamous students: Rattle the Bone Dragon. So, if you play through the 48 levels contained in the chapter, you unlocked Rattle for play in the rest of the game.

Our winter chapter was called The Treasure of Catlantis, though our poster for this chapter was, of course, more appropriately themed to the season:

And just yesterday, we released our latest expansion pack: The Path of the Elders. This newest expansion brought the game to a total of 300+ levels (of which I've personally made about 250 of, which is absolutely mind-boggling to me), 8 unique dragons, four separate campaigns, and a host of iterative improvements based on the massive amount of feedback we've received over time.

The most amazing aspect of this to me is just watching and developing a game from conception to release to post-release. We've worked on a lot (a lot) of other projects since releasing Dragon Academy, but we still always are focused on providing new content and support for this game because we just love it so much.

This was the first puzzle game that I've ever worked on, and every time we talk about adding new mechanics to the game, it's remarkable how much of an impact just one or two new mechanics can add to the core gameplay. We have a pretty wide variety of tools for constructing unique puzzles (I once made 48 levels in a single day and was definitely never lacking for an idea for something new and unique to try), and the way that all of these various mechanics can interact with each other in conjunction with the randomness of the core Match-3 puzzle gameplay creates so much room for creative puzzle solutions amidst all of the inherent randomness. There's always an element of luck involved in solving puzzles but the more I play the game, the more I find that there's also always a strategy for solving puzzles that trumps any luck of the draw. 

Anyway, that's our game. It's been a lot of fun to work on, and if you'd like to try it, it's basically available in some form or another that should be amenable to you:

Google Play:

And, of course, the actual game's site:

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