Smart & Casual: The State of Tile Puzzle Games Level Design

  1. Tile-matching Games Level Design In The History Of Video Gaming
  2. Tile Games & Match 3 Games Level Design as a Service: How It’s Done
  3. Specifics in Tile-Based Casual Games Level Design
  4. Final Thoughts

In casual tile-matching games, the high-quality level design is key to success.

Since the burst of puzzle games’ popularity over a decade ago, the art of crafting an engaging play has become a standalone profession and service. In this article, Darina Emelyantseva, Lead Level Designer and Game Economy Designer at Room 8 Studio, shares the peculiar secrets of the level design: why the industry sticks to manual craft and the latest know-how.

Tile-matching Games Level Design In The History Of Video Gaming

Let’s start with a definition. What is level design?

Being a part of the game development, the level design is a process of creating a game environment where players spend most of the time. It can be the core of an active phase of the game, its locales, stages, and missions. Depending on the genre, the environment may be an open territory, a battlefield, or an apartment. In casual mobile games like match-3, bubble shooters, blast, or line games, this environment is mainly a 2D field with a grid, where a player interacts with game elements using simple mechanics like a tap, swipe, or drag-n-drop. The main challenges for a level designer are to create a playable game field, find fun mechanics combinations, predict player’s progression, and set a target difficulty rate.
Also, we don’t work with lightning or camera settings since the camera position is predefined and fixed. Such differences make the level creation process for tile puzzle games utterly different from the classic one.

How casual level design has changed during the history of the genre?

The first tile-based casual game was Tetris, released in 1984 by programmer Alexey Pajitnov. The first very similar mechanics to the contemporary match-3 game was introduced in the Shariki game, developed by programmer Eugene Alemzhin in 1994. At first, tile-matching games didn’t use a manual level design. The shape of all the levels in the game was similar. Since then, the genre has evolved tremendously. In the 2000s, PC and browser casual games started using manual level design: level designers now created different grids, preset blockers, and boosters. The market truly exploded on mobile devices. In the 2010s, Candy Crush Saga for mobile phones showed that you could make billions on good match-3 level design. Nowadays, several new tile-based casual games are released every week.

Many gaming companies design levels for tile games by copying their successful rivals’ approach to level design. Some titles tried procedural generation to cut costs, but in most cases, generated levels were either impossible to pass, too easy, or just dull. The industry now sticks to crafting its levels manually. Only a few battle match-3 games use one size and rectangular shape of the field because they don’t use blockers, and the ‘enemies’ stand beyond the field.
We provide our customers with a manual tile game level design service. Our team consists of several level designers working on different projects with match-3, line, tap-2, bubble shooter, and other mechanics. The team has created levels according to different customer requirements, game types, and needed emotional UX for over two years now.

Tile Games & Match 3 Games Level Design as a Service: How It’s Done

What are the customers’ usual requests?

Tile matching game development requires new content, a particular amount of levels, over a certain period. Also, we often receive requests to create levels with specific difficulty rates or with some special time-limited event or levels that would be enough for 28 days of retention.

Usually, we provide clients with batches of tested, polished levels weekly. We utilize extensive quality control to ensure that levels match UX guidelines and the client’s requirements. 

So my job as a team lead is to make sure that the team can create high-quality levels and make regular deliveries. Each designer is involved in a couple of projects simultaneously, providing them with the experience necessary for creativity and preventing burn-outs.
We’ve created an educational system for new level designers that includes adaptation courses, development maps, lectures, and workshops within Room 8 Academy. On top of that, we have proven pipelines for tile-matching game level design.

And what is our standard production pipeline?

Batch level creation usually follows four steps. Here they are:

Step 1. We ask the client to share access to the level editor and its user guide, level requirements documentation, rules of level design, and balance sheets. As soon as they are provided — we can start work.
Alternatively, the customer may provide high-level requirements and mechanics for us to create the balance sheets independently or develop a level editor.
Step 2. Our designers create and test levels internally in the level editor according to the balance sheets, share the feedback, and re-polish levels.
Step 3. We deliver levels batch to the client, who, in his turn, plays them and lets us know if we did everything correctly. If levels need more work, we update our internal documentation with the client’s feedback and new requirements we’ve gathered and re-polish the levels. The customer usually sets these rules at the beginning of the project, but practice shows that the list is rarely complete.
Step 4. After the soft launch, we ask for users’ statistical data and re-polish the batch, usually when such statistics become available. We analyze it and tune or develop a level design for tile-matching games accordingly or reorder them to perfect the difficulty curve. Then we make the final delivery.

How is the level design process different on pre-launch, soft-launch or live-ops stages?

Our team has vast experience in tile video game level design for each stage. Our experience shows that the approach is, indeed, different.

In pre-launch we focus on the initial requirements of the customer and the process of the player’s onboarding. The most attention is given to tutorial levels and FTUE. We can go as deep as defining particular moves that players would perform to create a complete user experience. At this stage, it’s crucial to define the core mechanics and test the viability of their combinations.

In soft launch, building level design for tile games requires assessing what our players like in a game. If there’s enough traffic, we get data on what levels are liked and what are not to eliminate the mechanics that irritate players on challenging levels with low pass-rate.

In the live-ops stage, everything depends on the number of levels the customer picked as an optimal quantity for weekly or bi-weekly deliveries. We advise all our customers to opt for regular weekly updates so all players would know for sure when new levels will be introduced. We provide from 40 to 80 levels per month on live-ops.

What’s new in level design today, what are the most common issues you see in your day-to-day work?

What works well for tailoring UX is a dynamic game difficulty balancing system that targets each user determines their playstyle and skill level, and regulates game variables based on collected data, helping with monetization and retention. Such a system can use machine learning to search, learn and execute the most effective strategy for reaching target KPIs.

Plus, the KPIs set to levels, such as a pass rate, are not entirely valid these days. With the dynamic difficulty system, a number of average and median attempts became the right index to control difficulty. So we advise switching from the pass rate to defining a number of attempts per level.

Specifics in Tile-Based Casual Games Level Design

What differs the level design in the modern games of the genre?

There’s no industry-standard or scientific typology, so we’ve made up our own. Tile-matching games differ by:

Interaction type

  • Swipe two elements, like match-3
  • Blast or tap
  • Line or long swipe
  • Drag-n-drop or merge
  • Targeting or shoot

Level’s grid

  • Uses the grid
  • No grid. This is common for physics-based games, where the field is limited only by field boundaries

Boosters

  • None
  • Colored, activated by the match or explosion
  • No color, activated with tap or swipe
  • Mixed

Level size

  • One screen
  • Few screens
  • One long level consisting of a few screens

Player progression control

  • Charge booster
  • Boosters combination

Additional features

  • None
  • Dynamic difficulty system
  • Boosters control
  • Other
Since each game has it’s own features and rules, can the experience that you gain in one project be useful for another?

Sure. Firstly, it helps to improve pipelines, discover hidden pitfalls, learn how to avoid them, and better manage risks. Secondly, whatever the game, levels should have these key characteristics.

Idea. It’s a must unless we want our game to end up a chain of frustrating boring look-alike levels. You can create a level map design for match 3 where boosters will block the goal, a level with a specific combination of mechanics, a level in a particular type of booster, and so on… We try not to repeat mechanics and ideas for at least 50 levels.

Exploration. There aren’t many things that can replace the excitement of discovery. If you take that away from players by giving similar levels with the same types of mechanics — you’ll lose your audience. So, we use metagame exploration, new mechanics exploration, and in-level exploration.

Education. Doing something new and learning new tricks brings players joy. In addition to tutorial levels, we create tile puzzle level designs to educate on such levels.

Visual harmony. Levels should look and feel good. We use symmetry, field shape, and overall color scheme for that. All visual solutions should align with the game’s narrative and style. For example, it would be weird to introduce human-shaped levels into a game that has no mention of human characters.

Lucky chance. Chance matches, cascades of chance matches, and the possibility of having the piece arranged in a necessary order for the very last move create a solid emotional hook for a player.

Level type. What emotions a player gets from playing a particular level.

And what about types of levels?

Again, I didn’t come across a typology of match 3 game level design in existence, so we created our own, taking the level’s goal as criteria.

Tutorial⁠—to introduce new mechanics in the most accessible way. This must be a super-easy level with 1–3 mechanics on the field.

Wow-effect—to invoke bright emotions triggering endorphins release. Here a player sees a lot of action, explosions, unexpected matches, and cascades.

Fuu-effect—to invoke rage. On such levels, 1–2 extra moves always seem to be lacking: this tests player’s patience.

Procrastinating—to help players relax by keeping difficulty in their comfort zone.

Skill—to test a player’s ability to solve a particular puzzle. If the skill is lacking, then the player will pass such a level only after many attempts. Usually, these levels come late in a game.

Visualization—The field shape may resemble something cute like a kitten or a heart to provide visual comfort.

Could you tell more about how level design affects the player’s mood?

Here’s a list.

Dopamine is the main chemical of pleasure. Invoked by:

  • player’s progress
  • reaching goals, winning
  • completion, collection
  • the anticipation of winning

Endorphin is why we enjoy music, comedy, and certain kinds of stress, like sports. In games, it’s invoked by narrative, SFX, and jokes.

Oxytocin provides feelings of trust, attachment, and comfort. It may be invoked by being a part of a group and routine.

Serotonin provides a feeling of self-importance and significance. It is triggered by domination in hierarchy or PvP, recognition, helping others, and the pride of being on the top of the leaderboard.

Adrenaline is a hormone of stress. It is triggered by conflict situations, risk, fear of loss, the excitement from getting loot boxes and a lucky chance, or the loss in proximity to victory.

Final Thoughts

So, whatever mechanics game creators may choose, levels in casual tile puzzle games should be fun, engaging, and balancing in that sweet spot between challenging & relaxing. And what seems easy from the outside takes a lot of work and testing to be done. Still, in the end—skilfully crafted levels are vital to keeping retention high and, ultimately, skyrocketing revenues.

Room 8 Studio team provides match 3 level design support to clients on an ongoing or project basis at different stages—more information on Tile Puzzle Level Design page.

More about level and economy design:

Case study: Angry Birds Dream Blast Level Design (+PDF)
Case study: Meow Match Level & Economy Design
Article: 5 Basic Steps in Creating Balanced In-Game Economy

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Vadim Krayevoy
Head of art division
Vadim Krayevoy