Triple Town: A Social Game Design Analysis

In this reprinted #altdevblogaday analysis, Vostu lead game designer Raul Aliaga Diaz examines Spry Fox's Triple Town and the match-3 social game's monetization strategy.
[In this reprinted #altdevblogaday opinion piece, Vostu lead game designer Raul Aliaga Diaz examines Spry Fox's Triple Town and the match-3 social game's monetization strategy.] Triple Town is a puzzle game developed by Spry Fox, originally for Kindle and then Facebook and Google+. There are several reviews out there, but chances are you already played it, and if you haven't, try it or check this video to see how it flows.
Source: Lost Garden
We'll discuss the set of game design decisions that are interesting in the mindset of social games. Spry Fox's Daniel Cook himself wrote about designing to find emotional resonance choosing the right setting from the systems design, so we'll concentrate on other design issues. Comparable games are other puzzle games with match-3 mechanics such as Bejeweled Blitz, Diamond Dash, among others, but Triple Town promotes a "city building", following match-3 mechanics. Social games take advantage of limiting the game session length to fit into the expectation of visiting the social network for a short break -after all, social games compete for people's time. Also, in the context of something-building social games, the session length is limited by the almost pervasive "Energy mechanic", but puzzle games can not directly use this, so what we can found here is: (a) limiting game session to a fixed time and to get the most points possible within that time (b) Just like (a) but the number of game sessions take each one "a life" or energy, refilling over time with a relatively low max cap around five. In any case, playing a puzzle game constrained by a clock on an environment in which not all browsers perform at the same speed, pacing and responsiveness suffer, and if you're already used to play at another, quicker pace, adjusting to play like that might not be accepted. Therefore, a key innovation is to change the mechanics and pacing of the puzzle in turns, translating those turns to a familiar Energy mechanic. A second important element is the monetization strategy. As pioneered by Nexon, microtransactions were originally conceived to enhance players' experience through content to express themselves. An important distinction was to have two currencies, one in-game and another payable with real money. This way communication to the player of how to spend their money can be clarified, it separates possible inflation issues and other players might not feel unfair competition from paying players ensuring there are no gameplay advantages because of paying, specially since Nexon games were mainly in the high peak of MMO's, games in which that concern is extremely important. Traditional gamers saw this monetization model as a deep flaw in social games, as much of the progress is: through the platform's viralization channels, grinding or paying, considering grinding the only possible acceptable option, then unacceptable anyway because is done without (directly perceivable) skills involved. Since Triple Town doesn't have avatars, neither any expensive-to-produce-continually content, the option is to sell more turns (energy). But why not one currency for turns and another in-game currency for the pieces on the market?
Triple Town's Market
Well, in my opinion the genius move here is to have only one currency. This is at first perceived counter intuitive, because in this case, What's the point of achieving high scores if paying players can buy their way in gameplay? The answer to this question is not unique, and it depends on the type of player asking it. If you're a typical social network player, and assuming you don't play other traditional games, the fact of having only one currency instead of two isn't necessarily perceived as something wrong because you don't care, you're used to it or even better, it's simpler. For a hardcore player of traditional games, the answer to the question "What's the point of this if you can pay?", the game designer has to ask first "Is this a real problem?". Given that the audience that generally play social games can be designated as the primary target, the fact that some people might dismiss the game at all because of this perceived flaw at first can be considered not that important. But if those players end up actually playing it against their initial doubts, thanks to the gameplay's balance they'll eventually know that the advantage of payable gameplay progress is negligible.
Money won't get you out of this, because even though you can have infinite money, the pieces you can buy at the market have very low limits.
The game can satisfy both type of players, through familiarity and simplicity to the feeling of outsmarting others, whether they're paying or not. Also, the fact that there's only one currency carefully balanced masks the one who pays with the one who plays a lot earning currency finishing cities, having a direct trade-off in time in the context of games that again, compete for their players' time. Moreover, satisfying both type of players and having a great amount of depth supports to satisfy everyone in between nurturing them to become expert players from any point they might be in the video games-familiarity spectrum. Which brings us to my third point: the depth of the game. If you start to play and engage regularly, you'll notice that there are some patterns to play more effectively, at first sight. But later on your friends share stories with you of gameplay cliffhangers in which they accomplish crazy things or discover new stuff such as different uses for the "match anything" crystal, and then you'll wonder which things you want to try differently next time. The board is fairly balanced, and the amount of turns give you room to move quickly if you feel smart enough, and then you draw a mental picture of what's your grand strategy to play the game: "I'm going for castles", "I'm creating cathedrals", etc, but once the turns run out and you come back in a few minutes/hours, chances are you forgot what you were doing! This is because the game offers several competing styles of play that unfold gradually as you play it and learn its depth, usually by sharing your experience with friends or other engaged players on social networks. All this gives you enough incentives to either pay for more turns -and don't forget what you were doing- or to think and debate about what style of play to choose when you're not in the game, ideally discussing it with other friends and people already playing it. Thus, you end up paying for more turns, staying on the game long enough to wait for just those couple of turns to finish your current strategy or thinking what moves support the playing style you want to use, discussing them with friends and others in any platform you engage with them. Therefore, the game's depth drive monetization, retention and viralization. Does the game have room for improvements? Lots of it. It's a risky move to have an insufficiently clear -or insufficiently graphical- tutorial for your traditional Facebook player, a bold move to not use known viralization channels and to rely purely on word of mouth -though differentiating the game from all the "noise"- and a controversial move to have only one currency, despite the fact that metrics don't support such controversy. There have been some updates featuring pumpkins and now pines, addition of cute villagers that talk to each other, and the removal of the annoying language question each time you opened the game. Nevertheless, more features are coming for sure, but sticking to the smallest shippable game, allowed Triple Town developers to focus on their game's strengths, to test their hypotheses and leave room to focus future developments based on player's feedback, as every social game should.
Villagers talking about the threat of Ninja Bears.
In summary, even though the game isn't perfect, it doesn't have flaws that blocked it from achieving the Best Facebook Game Award 2011 at Gamezebo, and some key lessons to learn from it are the adaptation of pace to the environment and context of the platform, relying on players familiarity with competing games to support bold game design moves such as only one currency that embraces all kinds of players through careful balance and to design for depth to enhance your core metrics and greater emergent game experience. [This piece was reprinted from #AltDevBlogADay, a shared blog initiative started by @mike_acton devoted to giving game developers of all disciplines a place to motivate each other to write regularly about their personal game development passions.]

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