As Jesper Juul (his company made High Seas) mentioned to me in an email recently, match-3 puzzle games seem to be getting harder. He’s right… they really are. In fact, the newest match-3 puzzle games are really tough! In earlier posts, I had suggested that the DS game Puzzle Quest was too difficult to be a casual game. But maybe I’m wrong. The newest match-3 games rival Puzzle Quest in difficulty.
I still think that, in general, casual audiences want to be engaged by a game, rather than outright aggressively challenged by the game. They don’t think it’s fun to retry a boss stage over and over until they get it right. But what was once engaging is becoming boring. What was once a perfectly-balanced match-3 game three years ago is too easy now. I think the hide-and-seek item hunt game genre is undergoing the same thing: the newest entries in the genre are significantly harder than the earliest ones. That genre is solidifying, too, and it’s much younger than the match-3 genre.
This is a tricky problem, because it means it’s harder than ever to know how hard to make a game. Starcrossed isn’t a match-3 game at all. But it’s played on a similar board. Do any of the player’s match-3 skills come into play in Starcrossed? Probably some match-3 skills, yes, but not all of them. So … yeah. I guess I should make it kinda-sorta hard, then? What do I use to measure?
The only real way to tell how hard to make it is to get members of your target audience to play your game and give you feedback. If you’re making a match-3 game, your audience is match-3 enthusiasts, so you’ll have to find some and get them to test your game.
At this point, you might be shouting, “Just stop making games in the same genres!” There’s some merit to this: if you make a game that’s significantly different from the common portal games, you can assume that the audience doesn’t have any skills in your game, and it’s a bit easier to balance. You can err on the side of easy.
But as I found with Starcrossed, even a game with significantly different mechanics has some crossover skill. Let’s face it: casual gamers are starting to get real gaming skills, and those skills will carry over into almost any kind of game they play. The audience is solidifying. They’re getting better, and casual games are getting harder as a result.