In literature, the rule of three is used to help a writer get the most impact from their ideas and allusions. In baseball, three strikes signify a major turning point in a game. In gaming, the number three is also significant, especially when it involves matching brightly colored symbols. To put it another way, match-3 games have become hugely popular in recent years and, today, any aspiring developer can learn a lot from the genre. For the uninitiated, match-3 games are exactly as you’d expect: players have to match three symbols to unlock a prize/feature. The genre itself has been around for the best part of a decade, but it really came to prominence thanks to the release of Candy Crush in 2012.
Match-3 Games Remain Popular
Despite its simple premise, the game had been downloaded more than 3 billion times by 2017 and was still a firm favorite with gamers, despite five years in the industry being a veritable lifetime. Since Candy Crush, the market has been flooded with options. In fact, according to a 2016 article by Sellmyapp.com, the App Store alone has more than 2,200 match-3 games available. However, despite the potential saturation of the market, people are still hungry for more. As a developer, this apparent yearning for trios of symbols is great news because match-3 games don’t have to be infinitely complex to become popular. Of course, you can make them complex, but it’s not necessary.
To see what we mean, you only have to look at Plarium’s Family Zoo: The Story. At its core, this is a match-3 game where players have to match fruits and vegetables to unlock characters and features. However, as you read through the Family Zoo: The Story official website, you’ll notice that the match-3 aspect of the game is a launchpad for an RPG element that, unsurprisingly, revolves around a zoo. Like Zoo Tycoon or many of the sim-based games such as Theme Park, the aim of the game is to create and sustain a living world full of animals. This secondary aim (i.e. building a zoo) is part of an overarching narrative, which, the strategy and research firm Dubit believes, is necessary for a successful match-3 game.
Create a Narrative and Think Outside the Box
In breaking down the DNA of successful match-3 titles, researchers have identified five areas in which a game must score well in order to become a hit. Alongside gameplay, a social (competitive) element, solid audio and the ability to monetize, match-3 games must have a strong narrative. Family Zoo: The Story has that. Instead of saying "here are some symbols, match them and earn points", the developers have used this aspect of the game to drive the growth of the zoo. In other words, the more matches you make, the more areas of the zoo and animals you activate. What’s interesting about this is that building games are highly engaging in their own right. The process of building something from scratch and then sustaining it taps into our innate desire to nurture and create.
By fusing these elements together, Plarium’s team has not only merged two genres to bring a new twist to the match-3 dynamic but created something that’s immersive on multiple levels. For those looking to create their own match-3 product, there are two lessons to be learned here. The first is that a narrative, some extra layer of interest is integral to the success of a match-3 game. Although the process of matching symbols is appealing on its own, it’s not enough to cut it in today’s over-populated market. The second lesson relates to innovation. Don’t be afraid to borrow ideas from another genre and find a way to incorporate them into your product. For instance, you could develop a fight narrative where matches give a character new powers.
Basically, don’t be afraid to experiment. The match-3 genre will give you a solid foundation and put you halfway to a potential hit. Take confidence from this, be creative and you should find that this is an accessible genre that most aspiring developers can do well in.