What is the magic behind match-three games?

The Treasures of Montezuma 3

I won’t call myself a “gamer” because I haven’t played many games and in general I am a three-minute passion person. However, the game I have been playing for the longest period of time both on PC or on my phone is match-three games. I started playing “The Treasure of Montezuma 2” when I was in junior high school and played the series for five years until I switched to Macbook. In terms of mobile games, though I have been obsessed with RPG games shortly several times, a match-three game is what I always have in my phone and play for quick simple fun. Realizing this fact, I start to wonder what the magic is behind match-three games that makes my love for it persist.

Low Demanding Game for Everyone

One of the biggest reasons why players come and stay is that match-three games are low demanding both intellectually and temporally. 

The core mechanics of match-three games is to swap, make 3 or more in a row, watch them disappear and score. It makes the barrier to entry low, yet this simple mechanics satisfies people’s primitive desire/need — to turn chaos into order. 

Most of match-three games are level-based, and one level usually only takes less than 5 minutes to finish. I can start a game when I have a period of free time but it’s too short or not suitable for doing something meaningful (e.g. waiting in line, sitting on a bus/shuttle), and I can stop the current level at any time without a severe penalty. In the long term, when I am busy with my work, I cannot commit as much time to games. Compared with those mobile RPG games which keep their players active with live in-game events or grinding, the cost of being AFK is much lower. I won’t miss anything and being AFK won’t ruin my future game experience.

Fancy Feedback

In one of the readings we are assigned in game design class, the theory of player acknowledgement is mentioned. That is, “the game world must acknowledge players every time they perform an action”. Match-three games do well in giving players feedback. When you make a match successfully, you will immediately get feedback from the game. Matched elements will disappear, accompanied by fancy visual effects such as glitters, explosion, the text of points you just earned (often an excessively high number, say, multiples of 100) and delightful sound. If there are combos, all the fancy effects are further intensified and you may even have to wait for seconds for them to finish. Match-three games are very generous with reward for their players. The feedback they provide to their players is much more than what the players input to the game and it gives the players a huge sense of achievement.

Match-three and …

For every plus, there is a minus. A simple mechanics set a low barrier to entry, but players also lose interest quickly if the game is all about the simple mechanics. Therefore, game developers work on improving their match-three games, hoping to build a good interest curve for their players. 

A common solution is to bring in another mechanics or systems as meta-game. For example, what I like the most about The Treasure of Montezuma is its totem power-up system. There are seven totems of different colors, each representing a kind of power-ups in game. For example, the red totem shoots fireballs to eliminate 2 tokens and the orange totem can pause the time temporarily. Players finish levels to get stars that can be used to activate and upgrade totems. Once a totem is activated, players can use it in game by making two matches of tokens in that color in a row. I like this system because it is connected with the core match-three game experience. If I make wise choices when distributing stars to different totem power-ups, I can get a positive feedback by taking advantage of the enhanced power-ups in the next game. I will also be able to improve my performance at previous levels to get more stars and unlock achievements that seemed impossible before. This type of add-in system feels organic and improves game experience in a way of 1+1 > 2.

picture credit: https://store.steampowered.com/app/320690/The_Treasures_of_Montezuma_3/

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