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The Evolution of Puzzle Craft

October 25, 2012 Article Start Page 1 of 4 Next
 

On the road to smartphone success, there significant are challenges -- game design, business model, and look and feel. How did one developer navigate those waters? This candid look back examines all of these crucial elements of building a mobile game.

Puzzle Craft is a cross-genre puzzle/town building game developed by Ars Thanea Games and published by Chillingo. The game got great reviews, and a great response form the public, who loved the addictive gameplay, and the unobtrusive in-app purchase model.

In this article we would like to look back at the production of the game and share with you some insights and anecdotes.

Behind the Scenes

Ars Thanea Games is a small, independent game developer, and a part of an advertising agency and production studio Ars Thanea.

The game was published on the 16th of August, 2012. The development of Puzzle Craft started in July 2011 and took almost one year, with a core team of four people, along with some outsourcing.

Our production philosophy was to start with simple prototypes and iterate, working on the ideas, expanding them and adding new elements. Later in the text we will analyze the process on several interesting examples.


The final version of Puzzle Craft.

The game was coded using Cocos2d. We also created a toolset for defining the gameplay and editing the village screen, as in such a small team we found it critical to separate the programmer’s work from the designer’s tasks. With the toolset we could test the gameplay and balance over and over, while the programmer focused on new features optimization etc. In the gameplay editor we defined all prices, puzzle parameters, and upgrades describing them with a set of actions defined in the code. The data was saved to an XML file, which we could download to the game and test the new parameters without the need to rebuild the code.


Click for larger version

The other custom-made tool was the village editor. We used it to define all the visual aspects of our village screen -- the placement of trees, the placement and parameters of building slots, the roads the villagers used etc. Both editors were made in Flash.

Shaping of the Basic Idea

We started with two base ideas: we wanted to make a game about building, creating, and caring about stuff, rather than a game about destroying; we also wanted to make a game with some actual gameplay.

Going after the building/creating core idea, we decided to make a town-building simulation, and the engaging gameplay core idea solidified in the puzzle element. We wanted to stand out form the other town-building games, and wanted the players to actually do something constructive, rather that just click and wait. Collecting resources by solving puzzles seemed constructive enough, and fun enough. So the basic gameplay cycle was born -- you want a new building, so solve puzzles until you have the resources you need; then you build the building, feel satisfied, and want to build another new building. At the beginning there was a simple prototype, with doodle graphics and duct-taped code. And it played so well that we decided to go for it.

Step by step, we started adding depth and new elements to the gameplay. The first challenge was to define the difference between the farm and the mine -- the goal was that the farm felt organic and peaceful, while the mine challenging and industrial. That is why every visit on the farm lasts for one year, and as you play the seasons change, while to go enter the mine, you have to use some of the food you gathered and the supplies are the only limit, you dig as deep as you can.

The first feedback from test players showed that there was a need for some kind of instant bonuses, that would allow them to change the situation on puzzle boards. There were also some disagreements on how many collected tiles should add you a new resource and how long a chain should add a bonus tile. Letting the players decide seemed like a good idea.

Thus the three cornerstones of Puzzle Craft gameplay were defined:

1. Tools acting as one-time bonuses giving more control over the board;

2. Workers, changing the tile-to-resource and chain-length-to-bonus-tile ratios;

3. Buildings, introducing lasting changes to the gameplay.

With the buildings, we have actually made a huge spreadsheet listing every changeable element of our game and basing on that list we started thinking on possible buildings.

At the same time we were playing and polishing the puzzle mechanisms. Distractions like the explosive gas, rats, and wolves were balanced and all mechanisms unified: at first long chains of dirt, grass and trees gave you no bonus tiles -- then we changed that, strengthening in the process the core themes of the mine puzzle screen (gathering dirt without tools heightens the risk).

Basing on a small number of mechanisms, we started building up the game, and after several months of constant testing and re-iterating of all the upgrades and prices ended with a quite deep and addictive gameplay.


Article Start Page 1 of 4 Next

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Comments


E McNeill
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> "We wanted to make a game about building, creating, and caring about stuff, rather than a game about destroying; we also wanted to make a game with some actual gameplay."

It's crazy that this ever needs to be said, but I'm glad you did!

> "Then we realized, that to develop a moneymaking F2P game, we would have to add waiting for new buildings to be constructed (skippable with coins) and a second currency (available only in IAPs)."

Why? It seems to me that just making your current version free (with IAPs) would be another totally valid tack, right?

It's clear that you didn't go as far as you could have, but I'm wondering how you felt you managed the conflict of interest that comes with certain F2P models. You allowed the player to pay for bonuses, and you implemented "business-driven" design changes. You claim that some of these mechanics improved the game, but is there any reason you didn't consider them beforehand? Presumably the added barriers and systems would have improved the game even if the player couldn't pay to go past them?

Artur Ganszyniec
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> Why? It seems to me that just making your current version free (with IAPs) would be another totally valid tack, right?

When we were making the decisions (at the beginning of 2012) the only business F2P model, that we knew for sure was making money was based on two cornerstones: the player must wait, and there must be a second in-game currency, that cannot be earned in the game and is inly available via IAPs.

When we tried to apply the rules to our game, we encountered two main problems. First, we were forcing the player to invest too much: in farmville-like games you invest your time (by waiting), in PuzzleCraft you invest your energy (by thinking how to work the puzzles), and when we asked players first to play and then wait, the investment was seen as too big. And the whole process felt "not worth it".
Secondly, one of the basic ideas for Puzzle Craft was that you could play the game at your own pace - you can put it down at any time, but you always visit the farm or the mine once more and try out how the new tool/building works. And forcing players to wait (= to put down your game) spoiled the whole feeling.

So we decided not to add new frustrations, but to keep the F2P elements, that the players could use to skip the elements of frustration, that were already part of the game mechanics (ex. paying for extra moves in the mine).

We suspected that players will buy IAPS but were not sure, how many of them will, so we decided to play it safe and release the game for $.99 (a fair price for over 12hrs of gameplay) and keep the IAPs as an option for those, who choose to skip/speed up some element of the game.

> You claim that some of these mechanics improved the game, but is there any reason you didn't consider them beforehand?

Frankly speaking, we had no experience in F2P games :) We definitely use the experience gained while working on Puzzle Craft in the projects we work on now.

> Presumably the added barriers and systems would have improved the game even if the player couldn't pay to go past them?

Hard to say. We found out the ideas starting with F2P model and I am not sure if we would have managed to find them in some other way. Basically all the mechanisms boil down to using in-game coins as a full-fledged resource that you can manage and put to different uses.

E McNeill
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Thanks for answering, Artur.

If, in some hypothetical future, you create a similar game without any IAPs, do you think you'd include these features that you discovered through IAP integration? Also, if you find that a large amount of your revenue is coming through IAPs on the existing game, will you consider removing the $0.99 price?

Artur Ganszyniec
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> If, in some hypothetical future, you create a similar game without any IAPs, do you think you'd include these features that you discovered through IAP integration?

The features can be summed up as "when a player hits a wall, be it because of bad luck, a lack of skill or some unfortunate choices, it is good to give them a fair way to go around the wall" (ex: when you run out of money and cannot enter the farm, you can sell the resources gathered in the mine).
And yes, I think we will apply this philosophy in our future productions.

> Also, if you find that a large amount of your revenue is coming through IAPs on the existing game, will you consider removing the $0.99 price?

As for now Puzzle Craft works fine as a $.99 app with optional IAPs, and it seems to be the economical optimum for this app.

Bartlomiej Rozbicki
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@McNeill >It's crazy that this ever needs to be said, but I'm glad you did!

Sounds crazy but many people get lost in track developing the game, so we were really focus not to loose fun from the game under tons of rules, mechanics etc. The game meant to be simple and bringing fun to the people.

>It's clear that you didn't go as far as you could have, but I'm wondering how you felt you managed the >conflict of interest that comes with certain F2P models.

There are several models of F2P. The most common one is when you punish the player to get money and in our opinion it's not a best idea. We prefer model when you give players opportunity to play and get money from their love for the game. That is why inApps in Puzzle Craft are totally optional. The idea of F2P game combined with our relaxing puzzles game didn't fit all together.

Mathieu Dumont
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Thank you for sharing your experience with us! I found it very interesting, especially the screenshots describing your different iterations. Great work!

Andres Ortega
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Great read! Thanks for sharing!


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