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How to create an addictive puzzle game?

We often dedicate our free time to games, and puzzle (match-three in particular) are among the most popular ones. Have you ever wondered what makes them so addictive?

Antonina Tkachuk, Blogger

March 16, 2015

14 Min Read

The games in this article were picked for example purposes only. I'm not working for any game company nor I am a marketer. 

This article war originally posted on my blog in three parts: firstsecondthird.

Today I'm gonna share my experience regarding match-three puzzle games and different kind of consumer's attraction strategies that are used in such games. This is the first time when I actually write such article, but I'll do my best to explain everything in a simple and a brief form. Let's begin!

First of all, why did I pick puzzle games and not a different kind? The answer is simple - I play puzzle games most of the time, be it on my way to work, during breaks, or while travelling further away. Such games are usually lightweight, have a clear goal, and are not difficult to play. Even though, they require you to stay focused most of the time, it's not like you must respond right away, like in racing games, for example. This is a good thing when played in a bus, train, or any other vehicle where you get distracted by other people, or think about getting out in the right moment. In such cases you can safely pause and resume the game later.

When I reflect about mobile game studios, King is one of the first to come to my mind. It is really a king of puzzles - it's hard not to agree to this statement after their success with Candy Crush Saga. I've played this game for quite a long. I even had a habit - go to bed and play Candy Crush till I waste all my lives :P Then there was Candy Crush Soda Saga, Diamond Digger Saga, and now... Best Fiends. Yes, the last one was developed by Seriously, not King, but it's just as addictive.

Now, we'll talk more about specifics. The above mentioned games are good examples of a successful match-three puzzle stories. They all possess the qualities that are worth being noticed and used in your very own game strategy. I will talk over those qualities using screenshots, - it should be easier like that, both for me and the reader.

The screenshots above illustrate a main view of Diamond Digger Saga. Here you can see a list of levels, grouped into worlds. Now, this is quite a common practice and there are reasons why. First of all, when having dozens of levels and where the goal is to either get some special elements or beat a highscore, one must think about some kind of categorization, otherwise there won't be any satisfaction when moving from 5th to 15th level, after all, it is just another level on 200 levels list. But when separated, and separation means new and exciting functionality, it changes a lot.

Another worth mentioning thing here is the Coming Soon! section. It fulfils the curiosity of what's next and reveals some details, but never shows everything. What about appearance, the clouds look bright and glowing. The fireflies have a light flying animation and the text sparkles. This is a very interactive way of saying Hey, we have new exciting levels getting prepared for you!

And the last thing I would like to add here, is a difference between those two screenshots. The one on the left is a Christmas version of the game. You can notice presents, candies, a bit of snow on the top bar, and a few snowflakes. Another screenshot on the right is a Halloween version. Game coloristics has changed and there are pumpkins scattered here and there, with fancy bats flying.

What is the conclusion here? It's always nice to see holiday-refined games, as it creates a feeling that the game is constantly supported, and you can expect new levels, new bonuses and the like. If you think it's enough to publish a puzzle game and do nothing afterwards - you're wrong. A game is a living organism and the developer should feed it with updates, be it new levels, gameplay changes or bug fixes. Players will always appreciate this and come back for more.

Other things to bear in mind include moves, bonuses and more. So, let's cover some essential parts of a puzzle game which are absolutely must have :)

On the screenshot below you can see a popup of a Daily Bonus. The one I just unlocked gives me 2 Extra Moves. Basically, each day I get a bonus and they are mostly repeating, but from time to time there's something special, as well as unknown, marked with ?. Not only a player receives something for free, he also has an insign into other bonuses, with the most valuable one at the end. All of this makes a little intrigue and creates a stronger bound between a player and a game.

After you receive a Daily Bonus, it is automatically selected in the next-played level. I have mixed up feeling about it, becase on one hand it's nice to have more moves, but on the other - I want a booster to be selected after I lose a few times, not right away. Not sure what to do about it though and how other players react...

Since I mentioned moves, I should say more about it:) First of all, you should never underestimate something as simple as moves system. In Diamond Digger Saga they know it very well and make use of it. For example, almost every level is broke down into a few maps exits, which are blocked and you should dig your way out in order to go the next map. After each such transition you get 2 extra moves. This is a small, but a very pleasant and useful reward, and players like to be rewarded, even for small things. Who knows, maybe those moves will allow you to finish a level, where otherwise you would fail. The developer shouldn't bother about profit as well, because if a level is too difficult for a player, two moves will not make a big difference, and if they do - it means the player would have won this level in a second or a third play.

But what happens if we lose? Nobody like to be out of moves, especially in the middle of having fun. Although, for a developer this is a great opportunity to make money. In Diamond Digger Saga immediately after you lose, a window pops up with a Play button. As you can see, you can continue with 5 extra moves and an activated rocket booster. So, if you decide to pay 12 golden bars, it's like you never lost in the first place! In order to make an offer even more attractive, a Pay & Play button is situated in the most convenient place, where you used to press Play and Try Again buttons, withouth paying anything. This is the first ever place a player would normally press just to proceed. It is right in the middle (or a bit lower) and you can reach it with your thumb. Moreover, in order to close a popup, you must hit much smaller X in the right corner, which doesn't come naturally and requires some efforts. It almost hurt me not to press a big green pulsing button - this is how genious a purchase design is.

After (and if) you finally press the X button, you get a Failed popup. Look at the graphics - it is pretty sad. And where there's sadness, there is a good moment for cheer up :) Notice a Get 10 Gold Bars text. Not very visible, but still noticeable for those who think about pressing a Connect button. We will not spam your wall is always appreciated, as people often refuse the adding of new groups with publishing rights.

And the last thing about moves, that I wanted to cover, is something worse than running out of them. What can be worse, you say? Well, for example, losing a game while still having moves available. I personally hate being stuck. Just look at the screenshots above. They bring despair... On the first one I have destroyed the strawberries at the bottom, but couldn't do anything else, because the elements on top were either objects or covered with slime. On the second one I failed to get a totem because everything on top got blocked. There was really nothing I could do (and if I could, please don't tell me that :).

Yes, there is shuffling when there's no combinations, you have boosters, bonuses and extra moves. But, sometimes there are moments which are not covered and where there is no window popping up, no shuffling, nothing. What happens next is you get a Failed text. Try to avoid such moments of dispair in your game, because they bring a lot of frustration and helplessness, and it is not what a player is looking for.

Previously I have talked about elements which are essential for successful puzzle games. Now, let's talk about some extra things, which add the addictiveness.

Moving crystals here and there isn't exciting, unless the game provides some sort of a feedback, be it sounds or animation. Don't be afraid of being creative and funny! We all remember a very deep voice from Candy Crash Saga, saying Delicious, Sweet, or Divine. This voice is very distinctive and this is what it's all about - to stand out, so the players recognize your game ;) There are thousands of puzzle games in mobile market already, so try to be different in some way!

One thing to remember about animations - is not being intrusive. Even if the animation is very beautiful and you're sure the player will love it, after seeing it for 10th time, he will probably skip it. So, don't make it long, and ideally - enable whatever action the player might take, without delaying it more thn for 1-2 seconds. I don't like when I have to wait, and I doubt I'm the only one.

People like sale and special offers as well, so make use of it! Either it's St. Valentine's, Easter, Halloween or Christmas, - don't forget about your commited users. Not only they will appreciate your effort, you can also count on new ones, which is... great!

Both Best Fiends and Diamond Digger Saga have succeded in making great in-app purchaces's sales. What makes them special is their value and a time limit. The first one should be hight for all users, and the second shouldn't be long, - a few days will be enough, although on holidays it might be a bit longer. Also, remember about putting the sale info in the most visited screens, but don't make it annoying - it will only frighten players. The information should look encouraging, like with a sparkling animation, for instance. Adding timer makes it even more exclusive and seeing decreasing values draws player's attention.

In the end, it's all about reward and the satisfaction of accomplishing something. Passed a level? Get coins, diamonds, and... a choice! After all, we all should have a little freedom in choosing a present, shouldn't we? Best Fiends is a good example here. They reward you with keys and you can use them at any point of time to open nine boxes, each of which has something in it, but only a few offer an excellent value. Although Jatpack Joyride is not a puzzle game (it's arcade :), it has a wonderfull slot machine simulator. Every time I pull a lever, I feel an excitement! And if I don't feel lucky, I can always cash in my X spin tockens. Still, you can either win or... win! And with a choice, the frustration level is reduced to a minimum. Developer gets a good place for a Buy button, and a player gets his reward. Everybody's happy.

On the upper screenshot, notice a Twitter follow button with a key. Isn't it great when you actually get something for following somebody, not only Thank You? I think it's great :)

Remember I talked about being stuck? In Best Fiends they use a strategy which I call unstuck. It lies in the fact that you can always improve in order to pass levels (tune up your fiends or get extras by opening boxes), and there is no such thing as a hopeless situation. How many times I have uninstalled a game, because it suddenly became complicated and it was obvious I need to pay.. Or how many times I was forced to walk though the tutorial, by clicking allowed things only and wasting precious diamonds in order to show me that I can boost something with it. Gosh, I hate it! Why? Because I guess everybody knows that diamonds are either for buying or boosting things, don't make me waste it at the very beginning!

Basically, when I see that the game forces me into something, it only creates a negative impression and I won't buy anything later. Unfortunately, there are plenty of such games. I suppose the reason lies in fear of not earning money. That's why the developer (or publisher) makes tough levels, and hopes that players will buy golden bars or whatever else, in order to pass them. This doesn't work on me. Best Fiends, on the countrary, evoke very positive emotions. If you don't have enough diamonds, just re-play the previous levels or the current one, and eventually, after few rounds, you'll gather enough to boost your creature or unlock a box with a valuable deal, and finally make it through.

For me, the understanding of good and bad intentions in games, was crutial. When the game literally begs me for money, it causes only revultion. When it's friendly and gives me a choice, I can think of paying for some extra things, just to make it all faster. What you can imagine is two sellers: one being rude and telling you what to do, and another - willing to help and showing you possibilities, giving something for free and being very nice to you. From whom would you eventually buy: from the first or the second one?

And... that's it! What I wrote isn't a complete guide, it's not a tutorial and not a list of points which will for 100% make your game successful. It's just a bunch of advices on how to make your match-three game more exciting and make me and many other players eager to come for more :)


  • In the world of changing things, we get distracted all the time. You only have a few seconds to draw attention to your game. If it isn't exciting or somehow exceptional, you gonna fail.

  • Group levels into so-called worlds and make those worlds distinctive and unique in some way. Also, think about attractive Comming Soon section.

  • The game should be constantly maintaned and polished. Change it with a season and publish updates regularly.

  • Daily bonuses and small presents should be offered as a reward for a returning player. Think of it as offering a coffee or a tea to your guest.

  • Make in-app purchases as easy and natural as possible. Pay & Play button should be in the most convenient and frequently pressed place.

  • Do not force your players and always provide them with a choice. Try to cover all places where the player can get lost, and make the game helpful in such moments.

  • Matching 3 crystals shouldn't be tedious. By adding some animations, music or sound you can make it really enjoyable. This can be a place to show off as well.

  • Make use of special offers and sales. Pay attention when there's a holiday and lower prices on selected goods. You can use a count down timer for the most exclusive ones.

  • You can always choose on which side you are: on a light or a dark one. Even if begging for money can work at the very beginning, eventually, it's a good play that will be more rewarding.

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