The match-3 puzzle game market is a cluttered space.
Typing "match-3" into the iTunes App Store yields more than 2,200 search results. PopCap's Bejeweled sits at the top of the list alongside similar-looking titles that share similar names. There's Jewel World — a match-3 gem game, Jewel Mania — a match-3 gem game, Candy Crush Saga — a match-3 candy game, Candy Blast Mania — a match-3 candy game, Matching With Friends — a match-3 matching game and, well, some 2,000 more.
The market is saturated and frequently faces criticism for its seeming lack of innovation. Match-3 games both new and old are often called "Bejeweled clones" or copycats, and are quickly dismissed for all being the same. And while there is some truth to the criticisms — there are indeed lots of video game clones, and there are puzzle games that exist only to capitalize on the success of others — members of the games industry believe there's more to a good match-3 game than a similar core mechanic.
There was a time when all first-person shooters were known as Doom clones..."
"Having developed casual games for more than 10 years, the misconception that all puzzle games are the same is something we're used to," said Sebastian Knutsson, the chief creator officer of King, a company best known for Candy Crush Saga. "Unless you play them regularly, you'll see that they're the same, but we know our active players are very perceptive to the differences and nuances. It all comes down to the actual exposure of playing them as opposed to just reading about these games."
According to Knutsson, it's easy for people to be myopic and make sweeping generalizations about entire game genres and categories when they're not familiar with them. But to a player who regularly plays match-3 puzzle games, the differences between them are clear, and the differences matter. He told Polygon the copycat and cloning criticisms the company faces tend to come from "outsiders" — people who either haven't or aren't interested in playing King's games, or any match-3 puzzle games. "You can always say that all card Solitaire games are the same, but there's tons of people who love them, who appreciate the different variations that are out there," he said. "So I think you either play them and appreciate the difference or uniqueness, or from the outside you just judge them all as the same type of game."
A similar analogy can be drawn with first-person shooters, according to author, game designer and associate professor at The Royal Danish Academic of Fine Arts — The School of Design, Jesper Juul. Juul says the similarities between popular match-3 games are over-blown, and that genres tend to be similar because that's how they form to begin with.
"Shooters are obviously very, very similar, and have been going for almost 30 years now," he said. "But I think what happens is if you're really into a particular genre, you see all kinds of interesting, important distinctions. So if somebody is a big shooter fan, the distinctions between the Battlefield series and Call of Duty will be really, really important to them. But if you're not a shooter fan, those games look incredibly similar, and I think that's what's happening with match-3 games."
To the outsider who doesn't play shooters, when the stories and themes are stripped from the game, it can be hard to differentiate them. Players are moving a reticule around and using one button to aim and another to shoot. This is fairly consistent among most shooters. And while first-person shooters don't face copycat accusations any more, there was a time when all first-person shooters were known as Doom clones. It wasn't until players eventually recognized the first-person shooter as a genre and understood the subtle distinctions that separated the games that people started paying more attention to them as interesting, creative and important.
"First-person shooters are also heavily-framed by narrative, and I think that helped to make the distinctions between different first-person shooters feel more substantial," said game designer and director of the NYU Game Center, Frank Lantz. "People tend to focus a lot on theme and narrative and, by their nature, match-3 games tend to be kind of abstract games. They're more about the kind of formal logic of what you're doing and how you're re-arranging the elements. It doesn't matter if those elements are themed as gems or cute little critters or bugs or rocks. Maybe that's what people mean when they say all match-3 games are the same — that the theme, the sort of representational surface is kind of immaterial, and what they're really saying is under the hood, all these games are the same."
Nigel Li is an art director at Storm8, a studio that has worked on titles like Bakery Story, Candy Blast Mania, Jewel Mania and Kingdoms Live. The studio aims to have the best game in each category it enters, one of which is the match-3 category. When stripped of its art, sounds and design, the core mechanic of Candy Blast Mania requires players to match three of the same kinds of candy to achieve certain goals. This description alone makes it sound a lot like PopCap's Bejeweled and King's Candy Crush Saga. But as Li says, it's everything else about the game that makes it a completely different experience.
"I think art plays a huge role in casual games," he said. "In fact, I think it's a key ingredient to painting the world and the story, and encourages the player to be invested. How does a player feel when they first enter the game? How well are they doing? How do we guide them through the game? We rely on the art as visual rewards. Art is a language we use to communicate with them, and how good that language is has a direct result on how good the game is going to do."
It's not just the art, either. Li says developers at Storm8 iterate on every element of their games to make sure they feel right. "For Jewel Mania and Fruit Mania, just the way that you either pop the jewel or pop the fruit has gone through 10, 20, 30 iterations," he said. "We try to get the feeling right, to make it feel rewarding and very snappy."
Heather Hazen is the executive producer of Bejeweled at PopCap. She believes there's more to the game's success beyond it being one of the first to market and, like Li, she puts it down to attention to detail. "The game looks and appears simple, but it's the nuances that make it a great experience," she said. "Gems shouldn't just drop onto the board; they should fall with an obvious relationship to gravity and land with a satisfying ‘clink.'
"Gems shouldn't just disappear when they are matched; they should explode in a visual flourish with an exciting effect on the rest of the board. Every detail needs to be consistent with the overall experience."
Some of the differences between match-3 games are bigger and more obvious than the sound effects and visual flourishes. When comparing Bejeweled and Candy Crush Saga, the former offers a raw system where players try to score as high as possible, while the latter offers distinct level progression. In Bejeweled, players are given a different, randomized board each time. In Candy Crush Saga, players are given a specific, composed level that is part of a series of hundreds of levels. In Candy Blast Mania, levels are punctuated with boss battles where players have to match certain kinds of candy to inflict damage on the enemy. Games like Puzzle Quest tie in a role-playing element, while Puzzle and Dragons merges a match-3 mechanic with a dungeon crawler. All of these titles use match-3 as their base, but to the seasoned and even not-so-seasoned player, they're worlds apart.
"If the core mechanic is the main ingredient, then the production values are the way that ingredient is prepared and presented to the player," Lantz said. "And that's really important."
There's a puzzle game by Russian programmer Eugene Alemzhin called Shariki. Developed for DOS in 1994, it is believed to be the first video game to feature the match-3 mechanic. The simple and abstract mechanic of matching three of the same items to clear them from the board hasn't changed in more than 20 years, but match-3 games have.
"If you look at something like the original Bejeweled, it's very flat," Juul said. "A lot has changed over time. The audience's expectations have changed, and something that felt very new a few years ago just feels different today."
Hazen says there's always room for innovation, even if the core mechanic remains the same. PopCap's own co-founder John Vechey said in a Reddit thread that many games have been inspired by Bejeweled, but even he acknowledged that PopCap's competitors like King have innovated.
"King may be a competitor, and clearly both [Candy Crush Saga] and Papa Pear are inspired by Bejeweled and Peggle respectively, but they're not clones," Vechey said. "Candy Crush has added a lot of great mechanics to the match-3 genre, not just the saga meta-game, but the power-ups, and how they change the game as it goes. Calling Candy Crush a Bejeweled ‘clone' would be like calling Half-Life a Quake clone.
"They're a competitor, and right now doing quite well ... I must be candid and honest that they've done a lot of innovative things around mechanics we originally created (which were inspired by other games), and that's not cloning."
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