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How to Crack the Match 3 Code?- Part 1

A deep dive in to "Meta" evolution of Match 3 games, analysing the key design shifts in UX & Game Design in 2020, backed by industry data. Future projections and how new and veteran Match 3 devs. are adapting to this new reality!

Om Tandon, Blogger

May 4, 2020

13 Min Read



Finding success in mobile games in 2020 is way more science than art. It is no longer about where the ball is right now, but rather where the ball is going.


Read on to find out how!

Since the early days of app store gaming, Match 3 games have been consistently one of the most popular top grossing casual games category (Candy Crush Saga launched in 2012 being a classic example genre's long reign). Reasons for this genre's mass popularity with players have traditionally included:

  1. Simplified core loop with low barrier to entry for new players and first time gamers

  2. Game mechanics leveraging mobile first, intuitive touch gestures on smart devices like tap, swipe which even children can figure out (literally)

  3. Relatively less player effort & user friction via low strategy puzzle core loop.

  4. Short gameplay sessions with low time commitment making these games effortlessly easy to pick and drop on the go. You can successfully play a session in a 5 minute tea break or while in the bus, even in the washroom.

But what was true for the old guard of games launched over 8 years ago is changing fast & how!

In January 2017, I analysed & predicted in a 2 part series (Are Casual games maturing?) that casual player behaviour is maturing & so are their needs & preferences.


This change was attributed to following factors:

1) Players mastery of same old game mechanics (6+ years of playing)

2) Longevity and familiarity of playing the same genre and mechanics repetitiously

3) Wearing off of the novelty value due to a flood of clones

4) Piecemeal introduction of deeper designs by game developers

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Diagram above shows this pool of rising players between casual and mid-core games.


My 2 part series (links below) on the subject predicted that early shift in player behaviour will create an appetite for deeper and more complex experiences which has in-fact ultimately led to genre blending and addition of META goals. This was analysed way early in evolution of games like Angry Birds 2 here

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Angry Birds 2 Meta elements like quests, collections, mini games, PvP features showed how far the franchise has come from its original in 2009 and simple slingshot core.


And in the second part of the same series for Playrix's Homescapes here:

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Playrix on other hand was mashing traditional Match 3 Core elements with light base building and powerful character driven narrative.

Both games were analysed back in 2017 and were early pre cursors of the shift in META evolution of casual games signalling deepening player needs & preferences.


In the last 2 years, this shift has been confirmed by various industry analysts & pundits. In fact many of the early META adopters like Playrix, Peak & others have cemented their position in the top grossing charts.

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Image Source: Deconstructor of Fun

Infact, one of Deconstructor of Fun's 2020 predictions is that Playrix is poised to overtake King on back of its Meta and marketing innovations this year.


If seeing the early signs and adopting them for casual gaming audiences enabled small developers to scale up and reap big rewards by going head to head against industry titans, it only stands to reason:

The game is no longer about where the ball is right now, but rather where it's going.


Let's now take a look at some intriguing Match 3 industry data and draw some inferences about the future.


Match 3: Size of the Prize 2019

By the end of 2019, Match 3 games generated a massive $3.5 Billion in revenue, single handedly dominating the $8.1 billion casual gaming pie, as noted by Deconstructor of Fun

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Source: Deconstructor of Fun

Despite being in an over 8 years old category, this genre is an engagement and revenue generating cash cow.

But as lucrative as it may sound, the barrier to entry is EXTREMELY high given the dominance of veterans like King & early META adopters like Playrix, Peak & Rovio.

If you are a mid or small sized developer, competing head to head with these established players who have proven chops of game design innovation, marketing muscle, loyal fan base and deep pockets:

It might sound suicidal but greater the risk, greater the reward. Therefore given the size of the prize, there will always be developers trying to crack the Match 3 code!


Numbers that do the talking

1) Looking at latest Match 3 genre trends from an analysis by GameRefinery, it is apparent that between 2018 and 2020, the number of new games with "Swapping" match 3 tiles mechanics (example Candy Crush Saga) has declined while the number of games with "Collapse/Blast" mechanics (examples Toy Blast, Lilies Garden, Hay Day Pop) has actually doubled in top grossing charts.

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Source: GameRefinery

2) The data also shows other match 3 mechanics like linking and bubble shooting have almost died down as far as new launches are concerned, last year.

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Source: GameRefinery


Implying Match 3 developers are finding way more success with "collapse" mechanics over "swipe" in newly launched Match 3 games that have Meta. Does this mean players are preferring "collapse" mechanics over "swipe"?

3) GameRefinery report also states "almost all Newly successful Match 3 games" have some kind of META elements like decoration or light base building in line with our 2017 predictions.

But what are the implications of these trends? Let's try to read between the lines and understand from a UX & Game Design perspective.


Why is there a shift in preference from "Swipe" to "Collapse" in match 3 games with META?

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Here are some interlinked UX and game design factors that could be fueling this shift:

1) Reduction in Player Effort (Player Effort Score/PEF)

a) Tactile Effort: Reason for players preferring "Collapse" mechanics over "Swipe" might be relatively greater ease of input on players part:

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On a relative physical effort scale it's far more easier to tap and blast a group of tiles than to swipe/drag them.

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b) Mental Effort: From a mental pattern recognition perspective, it is much easier for our brain to recognize patterns with big blobs of colour that are in close vicinity compared to finding patterns that require matching tiles along a row or column.

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Our brains are sub-consciously wired to find patterns. Example: Even in the blurred image above, it's relatively faster for our brain to find big blobs of similar color palettes (Left Image) compared to alignment pattern of those colors (Right Image).

Preference for Collapse over Swipe might be due to reduction in player effort through tactile & mentally exercised efforts.

Now don't get me wrong, many players really like the additional challenge of swipe over collapse as I have seen that first hand in my usability tests. It can also be more fun as swipe mechanics create more randomness due to cascading features which creates boosts aka super exploding gems. I am not saying "Collapse" mechanics is far more fun or superior to "Swipe" mechanics, after all classic swipe match 3 games still dominate the industry!

However why this reduction in player effort is important will become relevant when you read the next point!


2) Regulating "Snacking" session lengths via game design

One of the greatest hallmark of Match 3 games has always been short "snacking" session times that allows players to pick and drop the games at ease, steal a session between tea breaks or that quick trip to the washroom. Typical session time in Match 3 is usually between 2 - 4 minutes, this has been true for all classic non-meta Match 3 games.

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When you add META gameplay, a satisfying game session still needs to account for the Time spent in Match 3 level + Time spent in the base building/decoration phase.

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Figure above shows a players session time break down between classic and meta Match 3.

In order to regulate "snacking" session time window, meta games will need adjustment for time spent either in Match 3 or Meta phases.



From a game design perspective too, there are considerable differences between the Swipe & Collapse mechanics when it comes to reduction in player effort and regulating session times owing to following factors:

(Game Design inputs, courtesy Florian Steinhoff )

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It should be noted the time spent per level is also a big function of level design, not just the mechanics. Due to all the other factors mentioned above, it would stand to reason from a game design perspective, to regulate shorter session times for games with META that still adhere to "Snacking" window of 3-4 minutes. Collapse is a better choice over swipe as it aids faster decision making and lower effort on players part.

3) Which objectives are player learning to values more - is META dominating Core?

Players might themselves be willing to spend less time in Match 3 Phase

As noted in the trend report section earlier, the use of meta gameplay/ objectives in "newly successful" games is hooking players, this meta mashup is very likely also attracting players from other (non-Match 3) casual games genre like dress up or home design etc. This is partially evident in player reviews of these meta Match 3 games, where many players often complain both about belied expectations and the frequency with which they have to play mini games to grind.

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So, firstly, players do not expect to be playing extensive Match 3 as core gameplay and they also despise spending too much time repetitiously farming meagre amount soft currencies needed for their meta objectives.

This signals that Match 3 cores will become secondary and Meta goals become primary motivation for players. They are bound to psychologically treat matching/smashing tiles as means to an end and not the end in itself for core loop completion.

This player mentality is already seen in mid core and hard core games where a vast majority of engaged players care about over all progression of their ranks, empires or castles etc. and indulge in all the other mini-games or activities mainly for farming currencies/resources which will eventually help them achieve their primary objective.

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From player motivation perspective, Meta Match 3's are a series of linked cascading goals, as seen above.

Maturing player behaviour shows that Match 3, in it's new avatar, is not about the core but all about the META

Tip: Current Match 3 meta games only use the "Match 3 board" (ie: mini-games) for allowing players to farm currencies/resources, but "wait timers/idle" activities are also another means of allowing players to farm resources as seen in mid core/hard core games. Using "wait timer/idle" features could be another future avenue to reduce player frustration.


Question: Are traditional "Match 3" games pivoting too?

You might ask: If this was such a big deal, then why aren't traditional Match 3 games reacting?

Well, some attempts have been made. Even long reigning traditional Match 3 games realise the importance of this shift. In genre titans like Candy Crush Saga, we can see examples of how META goals have been incrementally added over the last 2 years.

1) "You passed on your first try" victory introduced by King in CCS is an attempt to add a meta goal in addition to clearing levels. It acts as a vanity/prestige goal for the player while sub consciously priming them to pass on first try. Once the player becomes used to this message, it further aids currency and booster sinks too.

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2) Now famous "Piggy Bank Model" which I analysed & recommended adoption! initially in my post, 4 years back in 2016 is now seen commonly in majority of top grossing Match 3 games. Other than being just a conversion/monetisation model, aka IKEA effect, it also acts as a cascading meta goal for players to farm hard currency and gives them an additional incentive to play the game to fill up the piggy bank/vaults.

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However, note classic match 3 games can not dramatically pivot, since it will change the core game play and UX for existing players who are used to playing them a certain way.


  1. Analysing and acting on upcoming trends/shift in player behaviour can reap great rewards as demonstrated by companies like Playrix & Peak, who have joined the ranks of companies like King.com in a relatively short amount of time.

  2. From both UX and game design perspectives, "Collapse" based Match 3 games relatively reduce player effort both physically and mentally compared to "Swipe" based mechanics.

  3. There is a high probability that newly launched Match 3 meta games will continue to prefer "Collapse" over "Swipe" mechanics to help regulate "snacking" session times via reduced, tactile & mental effort for players.

  4. Overtime, as players' expectations and needs deepen, they will begin to get conditioned to using Match 3/puzzle phase as a means to an end for a satisfying core loop experience and not an end in itself. Thereby Meta goals will start dominating core loop goals.

  5. Currency/resource farming activity currently only utilises completing mini-games but in the future, there is potential to use "wait timer/idle" activities as well. We can see that HayDay Pop has already made a move in that direction!

  6. Narration and story telling is another trending strong pillar, not only because casual players like being hand held, but it helps run high engagement marketing campaigns for UA.

More deep dives will be done in subsequent part of this series, stay tuned! If you want to tell us what you would like to see in future posts, please fill this 45 seconds survey! https://forms.gle/37zu1jegzesjxX8X8

If you liked this post, please feel free to check out my other game deconstructs at https://www.uxreviewer.com/ or get in touch for consulting queries. Feel free to connect with me for future articles.

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