772736 is a quasi-random number.

Learning Lessons from Pokemon Shuffle

June 2, 2015 essay,Learning Lessons; Tags: ,

Pokemon Puzzle is one of the first (perhaps the first) free-to-play games I have spent time with. It’s a rather standard match 3 game. The Pokemon twist is that matching a particular Pokemon on the board may activate its special power.

As is a staple of these kinds of games, you can play without spending any money, but its design is heavily weighted such that you are enticed to make small payments to help you out or improve your experience.

But this Learning Lessons sort of article is not really meant to be a historical survey, or even a particularly deep discussion about the game and its mechanics. It’s about looking at some of the game’s design decisions and seeing how they might be applied toward game design more generally.

  • UI considerations
    • The most recent update made a simple change: it now remembers your stage position when switching between modes. Small change that is a simple reminder to make things easy on your players to get around your UI.
    • On a related note, you have several “levels” (groups of stages) and arrows that move you to the beginning of the next or previous level. As more stages are added over time, navigation by arrows is frustrating. I hope they’ll add a level selection menu.
  • I wish there were a practice/sandbox mode where you could test specific scenarios. This is because you have a number of special Pokemon abilities and very vague information on how they, and certain game systems, work. In lieu of accurate details, a sandbox mode would go far for poking the mechanics and rules. Naturally, the Internet has stepped in to fulfill some of these needs. It’s less than perfect, though, unless the creators are decompiling the game to figure out what’s going on internally. Otherwise it’s guesswork, experimentation, and observation.
  • Oh, here’s a lesson: if you’re going to give your players info, make sure it’s accurate and complete. Especially in what is ostensibly a “puzzle” game.
  • Similarly-colored Pokemon on your team is a bummer. It makes it hard to read the board quickly, and makes it easy to miss certain beneficial moves. I don’t know what, if any, solution is best here. Just a circle behind them with easily distinguishable colors?
  • I would suggest there are two kinds of progressions in this game, and most free-to-plays. The first is concrete progression. When you beat a stage, you can move to the next stage. As you attempt stages, your Pokemon increase in level. These are real benefits to playing.
    The second type is a perceived progression. There are over 200 Pokemon in the game, and not half of those will be your go-to characters. This is not a game where every character has a situational use. Nope. Some Pokemon are simply obsoleted by others. Many games, particularly free-to-plays and loot-based games, use a steady trickle of new items and bonuses to provide a sense of accomplishment or good luck. This helps to keep people attached to the game.
    The pessimist in me would learn the lesson that both types of progression are necessary in a game. Concrete progression might be a long-term system while perceived progression works as short-term. Flagpoles vs. coins in Mario 1? I want to believe, though, that an alternative is interwoven, concrete progression systems. (This may or may not apply to Pokemon Shuffle, though.)
    Shuffle may not even need all this fuss about progression, though obviously the allure of a Pokemon game has always been completing a collection. Shuffle is just a type of game, like most puzzle games, where the game itself can be fun. Match-3 games have certainly stayed a viable game type. But I would suggest Shuffle needs a new mode. Like a multi-match mode (a series of battles in a row, instead of the current one-off battles), or some means of a randomized challenge. Once you’ve moved through the game to the point where you’re just waiting for the next content update, you’ve lost any real reason to keep playing.
But you know, is a casual free-to-play game really a problem? Like, there’s no rule that you have to be tied to one game, and only one game. Maybe it’s okay to have a game that you can revisit briefly every day, or a few times a day. It worked for Animal Crossing, and you actually paid to play that. What’s different, then, about free-to-play?