Yeah I know. *yucchh* match-3 games ... I believe in some countries people must exile themselves after building such game.
Don't get me wrong. I wasn't a fan of match-3 games either. I never understood why so many people got excited about sliding gems around just for the sake of sliding some more gems around. I'm not one to tell others they're "having fun wrong" though. I just didn't see any reason to spend more than 3 seconds playing one.
Obviously my opinion has changed on the subject as I released one. To be honest I never thought I'd work on such game. Here's how it all happened ...
Before working on Bret Airborne I released 11 games and 3 of them were MMOs (Golemizer, Dungeon of Loot and Star Corsairs). All 3 MMOs are now offline but don't be too quick to draw conclusions from indie teams (or in my case a single dev) working on MMOs. There's much to be said but for this post I'll just say that working on MMOs was what got me into game development and I don't regret anything.
All of these 11 games ended up being ... well let's say they ended up being incredible learning opportunities ... But after releasing my 11th game and not seeing much results I really felt that no matter what my next idea would be that I should forget about it right away. Oh I won't talk here about the reasons I didn't see much results or if I was right or wrong to feel that way, that's a whole different post. I'm just saying that it was how I felt.
I entered a phase where I would write down a few lines in my notebook for the next potential project, sleep on it and then trash it the day after because you know, there was no way this next idea was any good or that I could execute it in a better way than my previous projects. I was lacking the desire to push further any draft.
That's when my wife told me: "You should make me a game". I thought she was cute saying that. She just wanted to make me feel better and tell me in her own way that she was supporting me in whatever I was going through. For some reason I actually took her words seriously. I thought that since I couldn't motivate myself to work on some "genius idea of mine" that maybe I should approach the whole thing from a different angle.
What are you playing honey?
My wife is not what most would call a "gamer". The games she was playing were Pac-Man, Solitaire, Minesweeper and some match-3 Tetris clone and Bejeweled clone found on some random Flash games portal. Right ... So you want me to make you a game ... Sure, I'll see what I can do ... maybe ... tomorrow?
I did try to show her other games but it never got anywhere. All she wanted was to spend some time on something she could understand in less than 30 seconds. I even showed her the "king" of casual games, Angry Birds, but nope, she wasn't interested.
Exploring the unknown world of Match-3 games
Two of the games she was playing had the match-3 concept so I decided to take a look at it to see why I would want to work on such game.
So I played Bejeweled and played again and then played some other match-3 games that should remain unknown and almost bored myself to death in the process. Even though I had a clear objective to build a game my wife would enjoy there was no way I was going to work on a game I didn't enjoy myself.
I then came across Puzzle Quest and Runespell: Overture. That's when I finally saw some light in this dark tunnel. I found myself playing a match-3 game and flipping cards and having fun in the process! It was more than just matching gems for the sake of matching more gems or flipping cards only to find out that there was no way you could possibly win the current game.
These mechanics were there for a greater goal. They were only abstractions for fighting enemies much like rolling a die while playing D&D or clicking an icon when playing most MMOs. With the addition of powers it wasn't just pure luck, you could actually elaborate a strategy. Of course luck is involved. Like it is involved in D&D when rolling a die can make the difference between your character suffering a horrible death or defeating the enemy in a glorious way.
So finally I started to believed that there might be a way for me to work on a game that both my wife and I could enjoy.
A gift from the past
In 2010 I released a game called Blimp Wars. It was a badly planned and rushed multiplayer project built on the same engine as my first MMO for which I spent quite some money considering the fact that I took the game offline 2 months after launch.
I always kept all the assets not quite knowing what to do with these. After all they were like new since so few people ever saw Blimp Wars and I paid for them so why not use it all in a new game. What game? Well after 3 years of looking at these graphics like a foolish expense I was now seeing them as a nice gift from the past.
It was really weird. Much like an out-of-body experience in which I was telling myself: "Here are some graphics now go make me a fun match-3 game".
For 11 games I was used to take a picture and then cut it the way I wanted to create my own jigsaw puzzle. This time though with these self-imposed constraints it was like I was given a bunch of pieces with no idea what it should look like when assembled and no guarantee that these pieces were all from the same set. It was weird but since the point was to try a new way to work on a game it was also quite exciting.
Puzzle Quest and Runespell: Overture gave me the basics of what it would feel like so I was good to do quite some work from there. I was still missing that twist that would make my game different from others and I also didn't want to get too deep into RPG territories to make sure the game remains in familiar territory for my wife.
FTL was a bit of an inspiration here even though Bret Airborne doesn't share much with this game. One thing I like about FTL is that you make rapid progress and that even if you fail you can quickly start a new game and it still feels like one continuous experience. You don't play different games of FTL. You just play FTL. While a single game is fairly simple it's the whole experience of multiple games that makes FTL great.
For that I'd need an engaging combat mechanic through the match-3 concept and a fluid way to insert that greater goal I previously talked about. That's why I divided the campaign into 10 zones the player has to go through to "win" the game. Progress is easily measurable and each zone provides just enough variety in enemies and powers to buy to keep you interested to get to the next zone. It doesn't have the depth of a full-fledged RPG and it's meant that way. If you fail the campaign you can quickly start over and not feel like you have such a long and boring road to get to the same point you were before. This approach allowed me to insert some RPG flavor to the game without getting too far away from the puzzle experience.
Squeezing a twist out of the match-3 concept
It was time to reinvent match-3 games! Or so I thought. There's a good reason why match-3 games have a lot in common. It's because the concept works as it is. After trying various tricks in the hope to "hide" the match-3 idea behind some "amazing" and exhausting twists I finally figured that maybe I didn't have to go too far to add my own flavor to the genre.
There are two things I didn't like from Puzzle Quest. The first one is that once no more matches are possible the grid is reset. For some reason it was giving me the impression that I didn't have much power over what was happening. Sure it's a bit more complicated than that with the addition of powers but if you couldn't cast anything and there was only 1 move available then you HAD to play that move.
The second thing I didn't like was that both players have access to the same tiles. While you can try to plan some turns ahead it often ends up being wasted energy as your opponent can easily destroy your plan. Again there's more to it and I'm sure fans of Puzzle Quest might argue against that but still I felt there was something there that could be improved to allow more strategy.
That's when I came up with the moving bar splitting up the grid in two. The resulting effect is that the grid now becomes an abstraction of your domination over the enemy instead of just being a pool of resources both opponents draw from without restrictions. It allowed me to remove the grid reset (which is mandatory if both players have access to all the grid because a player making a move not creating a match would always have the lower hand) and to give some freedom to players to better plan 2-3 turns ahead instead of always going for the best possible move available.
This relatively small addition completely changed the dynamic of the game and involved even more the grid in duels. The result IMHO is that you don't see as much the match-3 concept even if it's still very there and push forward the strategy element.
Full steam ahead!
At this point I felt I had enough pieces of the puzzle together to go ahead with this project. I sent an early build to my friend and "design compass" Brian 'Psychochild' Green as I still needed some kind of approval of my idea just to make sure I wasn't caught in some toxic creative bubble and was quite excited when he told me that I got something nice there.
Brian helped a lot to complete the design and fine-tune things and I'm very grateful for his help. The greatest thing of all though beside his help on the design was that he was also enjoying the game as a player! It's one thing to be told from someone "yeah you're idea is good" but when that same person also genuinely enjoy playing the game it greatly reinforce your confidence.
With Brian and my wife enjoying what was slowly coming up together I had all I needed to make sure I'd remain totally focused and passionate about this project. It's nice to not work in a vacuum from time to time.
So what do you think my love?
Well I didn't get an answer to that ... She was just too busy fighting enemies in her hot air balloon and cursing at the enemy for pulling a "cheap" move. For a second I got scared because her attitude and involvement in the game felt strangely familiar ... Oh right! She looks just like me when I'm playing games! I guess there's a gamer in all of us after all.
So with a smile on my face I launched the game I created and couldn't believe that for the very first time I was playing the same game my wife was playing and that we were both having fun.
After this experience of imposing myself the creation of a game I never though I'd work on in a million years it makes me look behind and makes me have second thoughts about everything I thought I knew about how X genre is lame. About how "these" games are boring. About "why are these people playing such games?". It might also be that I'm getting older and that I don't care anymore to waste time on judging things I'm not familiar with. All I know is that I just release what might just be my best game so far and that I never expected it to be "just" a match-3 game ...