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Rethinking Progression in Mobile Puzzle Games

Dylan breaks down the saga-map progression system, why it's great for some games like Match-3s but awful for skill-based games like Bubble Shooters. He describes his implementation of a radical new model for Bubble Shooters designed specifically for them

Dylan Woodbury, Blogger

March 19, 2020

22 Min Read

In the early 2010’s, casual mobile puzzle games like King’s groundbreaking “Candy Crush Saga” (2012) proved the profitability of free-to-play casual mobile games. The monetization strategy employed by games like this one served as the blueprint for a new wave of casual mobile games.

This blueprint is called the “saga-map” model, referring to the linear map of levels in games like “Candy Crush Saga” that players progress through one-by-one. While progressing through the game, players experience intervals of consistent progress punctuated by difficult “pinch” levels designed to convince players to spend money in order to return to the pleasant state of consistent progress. 

Nearly a decade later, the saga-map is utilized almost universally in some genres of mobile games, particularly within the casual puzzle game space. The formula proved so successful for early adopters, particularly for Match-3 developers, that it cemented the delusion that the saga-map was somehow a part of the natural fabric of mobile game design. While the saga-map is an extremely effective monetization tool for some types of games, including Match-3s, there are other mobile game genres which have greatly underperformed due to developers’ overreliance on the inclusion of this progression system.

The saga-map system of progression succeeds only when paired with a gameplay system that convinces players to happily accept the state of being stuck. If developers can’t motivate players to repeatedly fail the same challenge, then level designers won’t be able to create effective “pinch” levels. Without a tenacious audience, these “pinch” levels will quickly frustrate many players to the point of rage-quitting. This dropoff of players would force level designers to make these “pinch” levels easier, dramatically reducing the profitability of the game.

Match-3 gameplay, for example, is excellent at convincing players to repeatedly play the same level, enabling level designers to create effective “pinch” levels that are difficult enough to convince players to spend money, but without scaring too many players away. Other genres like the Bubble Shooter, a more skill-based version of the Match-3, fail to motivate players to continue playing a level after repeated losses, and thus are a poor fit for the saga-map structure.


First, I’ll first describe the gameplay conditions that warrant the employment of a saga-map by dissecting the Match-3 gameplay experience. Next, by analyzing the failures of saga-map-based Bubble Shooters, I’ll describe the gameplay conditions that should discourage developers from utilizing the saga-map structure. Finally, I’ll describe my recent experience designing an original system of progression for my new Bubble Shooter called Emoji Pop (https://playemojipop.com). I hope reading this will educate designers to make informed decisions regarding the use of saga-map progression. I also hope to encourage developers to craft progression models that address the nuances and special needs of their unique gameplay experience, as opposed to thoughtlessly mimicking market trends and hoping for the best, assuming their near-universal application.


The Appeal of Match-3s

The appeal of the Match-3 genre, which requires players interact with colored tiles in order to make matches, was proven long before “Candy Crush Saga”. PopCap’s “Bejeweled” was released in 2001 and sold 10 million copies, with 150 million downloads. Its gameplay was simplistic enough to appeal to the masses, yet nuanced enough to make the player feel like they were constantly making important strategic choices.

Match-3 gameplay is perfect for casual gamers, not only because of its instinctive gameplay, but also because of the perfect balance it strikes between chance and skill. Match-3’s are heavily based in chance due to the nature of the randomly-colored tiles falling after every turn. If lucky, large bunches of colors will form that result in powerups that initiate big-win moments. This potential for chancey big-win moments makes the game appear constantly in the balance between success and failure. Every move could be the move that sets the player up for victory. Even if a level in “Candy Crush” is difficult, the player is confident that they will eventually get lucky enough to win. The game is essentially a slot machine laced with strategic choices, all of which contributes to a deeply engaging and retentive experience.

In addition to the obvious element of chance, the delicate infusion of skill also contributes to the replayability of levels. Often after a loss, it isn’t clear whether the player was just unlucky, or if she could have made better strategic choices. This obscurity, a result of the balanced presence of chance and skill, makes losses feel fair, even when they aren’t, further increasing the audience’s threshold for failure.


Match-3 Gameplay and Saga-Maps: A Match Made in Heaven

By analyzing the effects of the chance/skill balance present in the Match-3 gameplay experience, one can see why these games perform so well when packaged with the saga-map, which requires players accept playing some levels potentially dozens of times.

Many Match-3 players don’t mind spending money in order to pass a level due to the chancey nature of Match-3s. Players are confident in their ability to eventually beat even tremendously difficult levels because they know they are bound to get a really lucky playthrough eventually, so spending money on boosters feels more fair to them. Players view transactions in Match-3s as a way to save time, as opposed to the dreaded “paywalls” that force players to spend money, so they view calls-to-action more positively, and are likely to repeat their purchases because they don’t feel burned or cheated from them. They are deciding to spend money voluntarily, not because the game is forcing them to, because the game has trained them to understand and embrace the strong presence of chance.

The dexterity and gaming experience of players of casual puzzle games varies greatly, so the strong presence of chance allows for casual gamers of all skill levels to enjoy the same sequence of levels along a saga-map. Low-skill players who make poor decisions can still eventually win with the right streak of luck. Highly skilled players, even those playing the earlier and easier levels, are motivated to beat every level on their first try, and still occasionally lose due to bad luck. This prevents the game from being boring to them. The ability for both gaming “noobs” and “veterans” to enjoy the same sequence of levels, in different ways, makes it a lot easier for game designers to construct a series of profitable and engaging levels. 

These are some of the main reasons Match-3s are so good at hooking and retaining players, and why, when paired with a saga-map, they make so much money. But saga-maps aren’t always a good fit for mobile puzzle games.


Why Do Saga-Map Bubble Shooters Underperform?

Another genre of casual puzzle game, the Bubble Shooter, showed much promise on the mobile market at the same time Match-3s were taking off. Games like King’s “Bubble Witch” (2011) and Jam City’s “Panda Pop” (2013) task players with shooting colored bubbles in order to make matches. Bubble Shooter gameplay, to the untrained eye, appears to be very similar to the gameplay of Match-3s. They are both games about making colored matches of 3, right? However, the nature of the shooting mechanic transforms the experience into one that is essentially nothing like that of a Match-3.

Bubble Shooters have more in common with the gameplay of classic arcade games than Match-3s, with ancestors like Taito’s beloved “Puzzle Bobble” (1994). One could argue the genre even has some shared DNA with 2D shooting games that dominated the arcades. It was hoped that the deeper, yet still casual, gameplay of Bubble Shooters could launch its own wave of wildly successful mobile games, especially as the casual audience matured. However, that never happened, as Bubble Shooters gross closer to 100 million dollars annually compared to the several billions of dollars that Match-3’s make.

I believe the reason Bubble Shooters have failed to make a significant impact on the market is due to their misled embrace of the saga-map progression style standardized by Match-3 games. Whereas Match-3s strike an even balance between skill and chance, Bubble Shooters are inherently more skill-based, which causes all sorts of problems when a saga-map is slapped on top. 

Bubble Shooters require that players aim and shoot colored bubbles, an inherently more complicated and skill-based mechanic than the simple tapping or swapping of randomly-colored tiles in Match-3s. While the element of chance in Match-3s is constant in the form of randomly falling tiles, levels in Bubble Shooters feel less like a slot machine and more like a static puzzle that players slowly learns the optimal solution of. 

Bubble Shooter gameplay is inherently more difficult to understand than Match-3 gameplay. While the objectives of Match-3s are clear even to beginners (example: Clear 30 yellow tiles), the gameplay in Bubble Shooters is more complex. Players need to understand that higher-up matches are more valuable because they can drop matches below, thus saving moves, but that is counter-intuitive to many who are drawn to the easier-to-shoot matches below. The victory conditions of Bubble Shooters, like clearing special objective bubbles, are also more difficult to convey since players spend most of the level simply climbing towards the top without a need for considering the victory condition. It’s easy for players to forget the objective after ignoring it throughout most of the level. The victory conditions of Bubble Shooters still vary from game to game, unlike games in the Match-3 genre.

The aim-and-shoot mechanic alone is enough to reduce the ability for casual gamers to succeed. Players must precisely aim and steadily release their shot, a dexterous task for non-gamers. The controls are also difficult to communicate, as there are many control schemes present in the genre that all have their downsides. Some players forget they can drag to aim, and instead quickly tap on the screen to shoot, which hinders their success. Some games allow players to pull the bubble back like a slingshot, while others somehow expect their players to know to aim their shot by interacting with the blank and thus least attractive portion of the screen. This is counterintuitive, especially to an audience without much prior gaming experience This struggle with the controls and strategy makes these players perceive Bubble Shooter gameplay to be even more skill-based than experienced gamers can imagine.

These are just a few factors that contribute to the frustration of players who can’t figure out how to beat a level in order to continue progressing. Whereas some players accept playing levels in Match-3s dozens of times because of their “one more try” quality, after a few attempts playing a level in a Bubble Shooter, many casual players get upset. “It’s impossible!” some say. “The game screwed me!” some say. “I feel stupid,” others say. The strong role of skill in Bubble Shooters causes players to lose, sometimes without players knowing what they are even doing wrong.

Developers like King realize these problems with the Bubble Shooter Genre. King attempted to artificially inject chance into their game “Bubble Witch Saga 3” by relying on randomly seeded levels and massive playtesting efforts to craft levels with difficulty that varies playthrough-to-playthrough. This means the same level will be totally different each time, causing some playthroughs to be much easier, often without the player’s awareness, at least for a while. King also includes obstacles like Fairies that destroy random matches on the screen in “Bubble Witch 3”, which could encourage players to play levels repeatedly in hopes that these obstacles will eventually all work in the player’s favor and win them the game. Games like Wooga’s “Bubble Island 2” (2016) and Jam City’s “Snoopy Pop” (2017) touted physics-based modes, which elevated the inherent replayability of levels due to the chaotic nature of swinging bubbles. However, these efforts to tilt the balance of Bubble Shooters towards chance have failed to create an experience as engaging as Match-3s. This indicates that an emphasis of skill is inherent to the Bubble Shooter genre, not something that can be covered up with an infusion of randomness. 

In fact, players actually respond negatively to random-based elements in Bubble Shooters that they would otherwise accept in Match-3s. For example, players in Bubble Shooters are given randomly colored bubbles to shoot. If on the last move of the game, the player requires a red bubble to win, but receives a blue, she is likely to feel cheated, and is likely to immediately quit the game. “I should have won, the game cheated me!” she’ll say. Yet if a Match-3 player loses due to a particularly unlucky drop of tiles, she’ll probably feel that she lost fairly. “I could have done a little bit better,” she’ll say. The reason players of Bubble Shooters react poorly when an element of chance is responsible for their failure is because it disrupts their illusion that their success in the game relies almost completely on their skill, a belief Match-3 players do not hold because they have been trained to accept the strong and active role of chance plays in the game.

This higher degree of skill present in Bubble Shooters causes critical and unsolvable problems when paired with a saga-map progression system. Because Bubble Shooters are interpreted as skill-based, casual players quickly become angered when they get stuck on a level. Due to the lack of chance, players feel less optimistic about their ability to eventually win a hard level, and those who aren’t sure how they could have performed better either feel that they are not smart enough to play the game, or that the game is simply cheating them. Modern Bubble Shooter level designers are tasked with creating a saga-map, a single chain of levels, which is easy enough to prevent less-skilled players from quitting in mass, yet hard enough to convince many players that they should spend money to continue progression. This is not possible with a gameplay system based in skill, as Bubble Shooters are.

Design studios have grappled with this problem with Bubble Shooters since their inception, and yet have never attempted to remove the saga-map structure that appears to be the root of the problem. After dissecting the core gameplay of Bubble Shooters and identifying the need for a progression system which pinches players without completely blocking their progress, I was able to craft a brand new model of progression and monetization strategy which promises to elevate the genre to new heights.

Emoji Pop: My Experience Crafting a Progression System Especially Made for Bubble Shooters

After recognizing that the skill-based nature of Bubble Shooters made them a very poor fit for the saga-map model, I began to search for an alternate system of progression for the genre. The most important constraint of this new model is that players’ progress could never be halted for an extended period of time, due to their adverse reaction to repeated failure. This constraint also introduced the problem of needing to find a way to convince players to occasionally pay for in-game advantages or to watch an advertisement, something that’s tough to do without walling off their progress.

There are many potential solutions which I had to consider before coming up with an optimal one. One solution I've seen other games attempt, for example, is to modify the saga-map structure with branching paths. This means players who are frustrated with a level can play another level, so are less likely to burn out. However, this greatly dilutes the calls-to-action. After a repeated loss, players would switch to another level, and would rarely consider spending money. “Surely I can beat one of these levels,” players would say. Only after going through the miserable experience of failing multiple levels will players consider spending money, but at that point they might already be ready to quit. If they did decide to spend money on a level, they would still be walled off on the other levels, and it wouldn’t be long before they’d have to spend money again.

I wanted to think outside of the box to concoct a system that would feel like a natural pairing with the gameplay of Bubble Shooters. I wanted the progression system to feel less like a list of tasks and more like a game itself. It should arise from the gameplay. When they opened Emoji Pop, I didn’t want them to see a stupid map, I wanted them to be immediately immersed in the game!

One important idea I had was the concept of continuous play. Imagine a really long level that would take multiple play sessions to complete. Instead of getting a limited number of attempts to beat a level, players would have a limited number of moves to play, after which they’d be forced to wait for them to regenerate. This system prevents players from ever getting permanently blocked, and also has the extra benefit immediately immersing players in the game.

Whereas players of modern Bubble Shooters sometimes dread returning to the game and the frustrating level that made them rage-quit last session, this structure of continuous levels hooks players into coming back in order to finish a core task that they had started. It gets them invested in a core task, and makes them come back to complete it. Not checking back regularly means the definite loss of potential progress. This concept of continuous play could be incorporated into many styles of mobile puzzle games as an alternative to the standard level-by-level structure. This approach is partially akin to the Bejeweled-esque strategy employed by games such as Jam City’s “Disney Emoji Blitz”, a Match-3 which shirks the level-by-level strategy in exchange for a consistent challenge full of ongoing tasks.

Making matches in the continuous worlds is equivalent to progress. This system of progress embraces Bubble Shooter gameplay and brings it to the forefront, whereas progress in saga-map games feels tangential to the core experience. By embracing the gameplay within the progression system itself, it makes progress feels more important and tangible to players, and it also showcases the gameplay and sends the signal that the developer is confident in its appeal, and so should the player. 

However, Emoji Pop’s system of continuous levels does not incentivize significant monetization in itself. In addition to the long-term goal of scaling continuous levels, the player needs more immediate challenges that I as the developer could purpose as “pinch” points that pressure the player to take action. I came up with the idea of mini-levels which are unlocked by hitting the Stars scattered throughout the larger continuous levels. Players can win huge rewards by beating mini-levels that aid their progress through the continuous levels I labeled “worlds”, but if they lose, the level disappears along with their potential rewards.

When players beat a mini-level, they are given a chance to spin a slot machine to win highly valuable rewards. This reward comes in the form of world-moves, which allows them to make further progress in the worlds. So by beating a mini-level, players can continue to make progress through the world, which gets them to the next mini-level, which is another opportunity to earn more progress in the world, etc. It’s the overarching reward loop that makes it very important for players to win levels, encouraging them to spend money or watch advertisements in order to get more tries at a level or to earn in-game boosters which makes levels easier.

To maximize the “pinch”, I increased the value of beating levels by implementing a “win streak” mechanic into the core of the game. If players beat levels consecutively, they’ll win even more massive bonuses. This increases the effectiveness of “pinches” because players who are used to the massive rewards due to having a streak are not going to want to give them up. While many popular casual puzzle games of all types run occasional and temporary “win streak” events, Emoji Pop has maximized the value of this system by making it a core part of the game.

When I cut out the broken “saga-map” which has plagued Bubble Shooters for a decade, I realized that there were many insanely cool possibilities that had constantly been suppressed for the last decade due to their skill-based nature. By making levels temporary, I don’t have to shy away from complexity and difficulty like other Bubble Shooter designers who are constantly paranoid that any single level in a chain of thousands could prove too difficult, thus churning away thousands of players.

Unlike other Bubble Shooters, Emoji Pop is able to explore compelling new mechanics and modes. Whereas one has to beat hundreds of levels in most modern Bubble Shooters just to see something that a normal gamer might find compelling, players in Emoji Pop are exposed to several complex game elements within the first hour of gameplay. One example of this is the Dagger Emoji, which constantly spins, so players have to time their shot in order to launch the dagger. I’m currently exploring dozens of intricate mechanics and gameplay modes deeply based in timing, dexterity, and strategy, which players LOVE, in part because their failure to overcome such challenges does not result in permanent failure. The skill-based nature of Bubble Shooters is why many players are drawn to the genre, so these skill-based features deeply engage players like no other Bubble Shooter before it.

While the progression system of Emoji Pop does not have the advantage of hard-wall “pinch” levels that are proven to generate revenue, it motivates players to spend money or watch ads in other ways. The structure of continuous levels scattered with mini-levels, along with the highly variable rewards given for beating levels, creates a highly variable gameplay session. Sometimes, you might open the game, lose a level, and will have nothing to do after only a minute. Other times, you might win a level, build a win streak, and play for many minutes. I believe this variability is healthy, because players who experience an unsatisfactory play-session will have a deeper itch to keep playing because they know what it feels like to go on a long winning streak, and thus will be more tempted to spend money to beat a level or watch an ad to regenerate moves.

Getting to the top of each continuous level also unlocks a new Emoji-themed obstacle, which adds a crazy new mechanic to the game. Players can even use these Emojis to create their own levels, and share them with the world. I have worked very hard to expose the fun of Bubble Shooters in any way I can - incorporating it into the progression system, but also allowing players to dig into the design of this gameplay themselves, providing them with a series of tutorials which teach them the actual design principles that guide Bubble Shooters. If a player is interested in Bubble Shooter gameplay, the potential for investment is incredibly deep, and the ability for players to share levels and get them featured in the actual game. These hardcore players are transformed into creators of content and free marketers of the game.



Games including Match-3s strike a perfect balance between chance and skill, which makes levels almost endlessly replayable. These games are perfect for the saga-map model, which requires players happily lose the same level repeatedly. Skill-based games like Bubble Shooters, however, are inherently more skill-based, which means levels are not very replayable to casual audiences. These skill-based games are thus a poor fit for the saga-map model, a that problem cannot be remedied through the inclusion of chance-based elements.

For these skill-based casual games, we need to imagine new solutions for progression systems. In general, designers need to shirk the copy-paste mindset which runs rampant in the still nascent casual gaming industry, and instead learn to craft meta-systems designed specifically according to the properties of their own unique gameplay systems.

By solving this critical problem that plagues other Bubble Shooters on the market, new possibilities for my game Emoji Pop emerged that could never be considered before. This is a sign that the progression system is a natural fit for the game. Developers of bubble shooters always had to minimize the role of skill in the gameplay, but because players in Emoji Pop don’t get stuck on difficult puzzles, I was allowed to fully embrace skill-based elements which feel core to the genre but had always been repressed. 

By consistently, and without question, adapting the same progression system so successful for the Match-3 genre, mobile game studios show that they don’t prioritize the design of their meta-systems. The problem is that these meta-systems are the main appeal of mobile games, not the core gameplay. For example, imagine if “Candy Crush Saga” was released decades ago on the Nintendo 64. Players would have said, “This game is kind of fun I guess, but doesn’t seem to warrant thousands of levels.” Mobile gamers play these games because of their progression systems, which give players treadmills of achievement to fill the boring crevices of their lives with the feeling of accomplishment, or at least the pursuit of it. We need to put way more effort into creatively designing these systems, coming up with original solutions based on the unique properties of a given gameplay system that allow the gameplay to shine in new ways. There should be multiple optimal solutions for each genre, now is the time to unearth them!

You can play Emoji Pop online, on your phone or computer, at https://playemojipop.com.

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