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EGD News #85 — Designing a merge game

EGD News #85 — Designing a merge game

Sent on June 4th 2021.

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🌼 Designing a merge game

I recently listened to an insightful discussion on the Mastering Retention podcast, where they interviewed Niek Tuerlings from Voodoo about how they’ve been working on their merge game Plantopia.

Here are my highlights from that discussion.

Tell us about your studio, the team and what you guys are trying to do?

I’m in the Voodoo Berlin casual studio, which Sophie Vo leads. We’re a relatively experienced team, and especially in deep casual games.

Last year we were playing Merge Mansion. The core game super engaging. And later, it turned out that we were not the only ones playing it. There are Merge Friends, Merge Villa, Merge Estate now out there.

They are all trying to do their iteration of the game. You can make a game like Merge Mansion in two months. Because we are not a smaller company, we had more freedom to innovate and think about what we could do better.

Plantopia is our first game. It’s currently in soft launch. We’re trying to measure KPIs and find our market and find our audience.

At Voodoo, short-term projects are in the DNA. I think it has always been in Voodoo’s DNA to have many smaller successes, whether it’s hyper-casual or, in our case, casual. But it is in Voodoo’s DNA to be disruptive—not focusing on making a similar product to what already exists. [That has been] manifesting itself in our casual strategy.

At Voodoo, there has never been a game [project this long]. A year is already long for their standards. That’s why we have kept it lean.

How do you keep things lean but still deliver something that can get to 15% Day-30 retention?

Depending on how innovative you want to be [and how] you can piggyback on the things that players already know. We have the casual merge core. We didn’t stray far from Merge Mansion. We made some small innovations.

We are reluctant to make a whole new core game that has not been proven yet because that is tricky. Especially if you’re in a smaller company with less funding. At Voodoo, we’re in a pretty luxurious position. But yet, you still can’t spend years on one project.

[To keep things lean,] what you do is take a core, you take a meta, and see if they match and combine. You have to decide on what your core is. What are you piggybacking on, and what is the part that you’re going to iterate on. If you see a successful game like Merge Mansion, you can pick and match what you want to put into your game. Improving on the game that you’re getting inspiration from.

It’s crucial to test. What does it mean to test?

The majority [of testing is on the] understandability [of the game]. If you can’t explain your game during your FTUE (first-time user experience), that’s a big red flag. Test as quickly as possible if the game is understandable. We have had some issues there. We had to iterate on how to explain specific parts of the game to the player.

You have to get [the game] in people’s hands. Testing within the team is misleading. Everybody already understands the game.

[CPI tests] are the most crucial test. We did it very early [with Plantopia]. We stuck to a specific theme that other games didn’t have, which caters well to our audience: millennial, female audience, conscious about the environment, they like to be outside, they enjoy gardening, DIY, making Kombucha, etc. [A specific theme is a] way to keep your CPI lower, because you can have a specific marketing message.

What problems did you see in Merge Mansion? And how did you seek to fix them?

[Merge Mansion] has a relatively weak link between the meta and the core. You’re merging all that stuff. The only thing you do in the meta is a cosmetic “gardenscapes” loop. And it works, there are many games like this.

We took a different metagame approach. It has Farmville-like resource management [meta]. It still has those hooks from the “puzzle and decorate” games. But it’s more in the background. You are doing the orders board from Hay Day. We have made it personal: customers are coming in and asking you for stuff instead of random notes on the board.

Our metagame can take advantage of all the resources that you have in the core game. It has been challenging. It’s the boldest and riskiest change that we have made. But it does pay off when people play because it’s original. They’ve never seen this before. That was our goal. We are not catering to the people that like the decoration loop the most. The people that stick with us are more interested in the economy of the game because they get coins back and can manage their coins.

We don’t even have energy. This gives players a lot more freedom, just like in farming games where you don’t have energy.

Your session gating is tied to the flower plots?

Yes exactly. You start with an overgrown [garden]. In the end, you have a nicely decorated place that you’ve also customized.

One thing that made me churn early in Merge Mansion was that their one board becomes claustrophobic quite quickly. You add more crates, more resources, but the board stays the same. And before you know it, you have to make choices about which spawners you use. You might even have to sell stuff. Nobody likes to sell things you’ve made, and you might need them later.

My thought was, why don’t we have a Saga-style progression? We have six boards in our game, where Merge Mansion still has that one board. [Multiple boards] brings many UX challenges since players need to learn where stuff is. Each board has specific resources.

We increase the amount [of boards] slowly. In the first 20 minutes, you have one board. Then you unlock another one to show players that there are multiple boards. The third board comes in on Day-3. It’s already a lot to handle, to multitask between boards.

What is the proper ratio of innovation? How would you take Lily’s Garden and turn that to something innovative?

I would keep the meta because it works like a charm and is relatively simple.

But you need to write a lot. You need to get some writers on your staff because the story is the focus. You can be innovative within the story. You can take topics of the story where you want to innovate. You can take extreme topics, like cheating and relationships.

Talking about the gameplay, I would maybe exchange the core game. You won’t have all the issues we have because the meta and the core aren’t linked. The link between the core and the meta is almost non-existent [in Lily’s Garden]. It doesn’t matter what you’re doing in the levels. Of course, you’re having fun there, but if you are motivated by the story, that is what you have to do to get further into the game. You won’t have all the issues we have because the meta and the core aren’t linked.

If you want to innovate, you can write many stories that can take people in different directions. You can choose from those two things, core or story, which are relatively safe for innovation.

What have you learned from Plantopia, and what are lessons that other people should know?

First, if you’re innovating, start implementing and iterating your FTUE as soon as possible. If players understand your game’s loop, you’re on the right track. And if they don’t, you have to consider onboarding them in a more casual way. We use Figma a lot. It’s a brilliant tool to do quick click tests. And yeah, PlaytestCloud and others.

Second, don’t innovate on everything. Pick your battles. We chose decoration mechanics and the occasional trickle of resources to be straightforward and easy to understand. If you’re going nuts on unconventional combinations of meta and core, that’s already a lot. You’ll have to reinvent things.

Third: from a game design perspective, manage your expectations. Be realistic. If you enter the territory of unproven features, you can’t expect to make everything better on your first try. You will run into things where you made some assumptions that people don’t [understand]. Iterate, test, iterate, embrace the grind. That’s what we are doing all the time. You have to embrace it. Otherwise, you won’t survive.

Things that were mentioned

Here are the items that were mentioned in the podcast. Tools, games, etc.

Listen to the full episode by going here.

🎙 Eric Goldberg on investing and the future of gaming

On this week’s podcast episode, I’m talking with Eric Goldberg, an investor, and entrepreneur in gaming. We talk about Eric’s knowledge of game funding, but also about these billion-dollar game companies, how they’ve grown and what’s been the change to allow these companies to come up.

Here are my highlights from the discussion with Eric.

What would be the best thing for gaming financing to happen next?

[I’ll rather be] a little bit pragmatic, instead of giving the happy answer.

We have seen IPOs at a level we’ve never seen before. We had not seen more than three or four IPOs of game companies in a 12 month period. We’ve now seen over 10, including several Asian IPOs. So there are a lot more exits. There’s also been an artificial bump in gameplay, which has caused over-investment. The reason is the pandemic. People being more at home, the uptake of gameplay went up by something like 25%. That will drop inevitably when people can be outdoors in the west.

Let’s say that gaming tripled. It hasn’t. But let’s say that it did. And you fund projects that assume that it increased by five times. There are just too many. That’s what we’ve had. It’s not that games haven’t grown and will continue to grow. There are too many VCs. The good news is that we will see who the best VCs are.

Epic, Applovin, Roblox, all $10 billion companies. There are not that many $10bn companies in the game studio landscape?

In venture, you want to scarce commodity. There are tonnes of studios. It’s not hard to find people who want to make games. [So there] is massive competition with studios.

The advantage that Epic has is its core business, which is a rendering engine. There’s only one major competitor in the West in Unity. There are several other competitors, but it’s a duopoly. If you look at Applovin, the ad network business is not sexy, but it sure as hell makes money.

UGC is hard. Roblox started in 2006. They did not get the flywheel going until 2016. I described them as a ten-year overnight sensation. The reason why that’s better is each of those companies has staked out a territory with relatively few competitors and has become a dominant player.

What are your thoughts on Applovin? It’s the closest to the game studio model.

Applovin has done something that I suspect will attract regulatory attention down the road because they’re able to buy studios that do well-understood games. If you’re doing the umpteenth fashion game or the umpteenth house building game derivative from Covet [Fashion] or The Sims, Applovin can make sure that it gets a better chance to succeed. It reaches a broader audience. They can essentially look at information from people who use their network which they do not own [the studios] and use it to get their studios to perform better.

Of all the one game companies that have gone public, they may actually deserve the valuation. They own the distribution. They own the production. I am not exaggerating when I say that Applovin’s advantage from its synergies, because it is integrated end to end from distribution through the game, is possibly 10 to 15x.

Listen to the full episode by going here.

This newsletter is sponsored by Favro

📃 Articles worth reading

Fundraising Without YC – The Process — “Now that you have set the cap, asked for intros, and created your pitch deck, you are ready to run the process. If you are not a YC founder you do not have the benefit of Demo Day to help with your fundraising. There is no day where a deluge of investors will come cold inbound and want to write checks to invest. Therefore, you need to create your own mini Demo Day by creating momentum.”

Burnout is code for… — “I had burnout 2 times in my life. Or, rather, I never had burnout, but I had mental health issues that disrupted my personal and professional life 2 times, and I think that’s what burnout is code for.”

The Power Of Meaningful Choices In Game Design — “There are many ways to give your player arbitrary choices. Meaningful choices, on the other hand, are a bit more difficult to create. They often lead to the player asking themselves questions, such as the following: Where should I go? How should I spend my resources? What should I practice? How should I customize my character? How fast should I go through the game? Should I be more offensive or defensive? Should I play it safe or risky?”

💬 Quote that I’ve been thinking about

“The most exciting breakthroughs of the twenty-first century will not occur because of technology, but because of an expanding concept of what it means to be human.” — John Naisbitt

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