A closer look at the appeal of one of the most popular video games of all time.
It’s one of gaming culture’s odd habits that developers will typically discover a successful game design without really understanding what they’ve got their hands on. You can test something out with audiences and see if people like it, but there is often little time left for the why of the whole process. One of the most prevalent places this exists is in matching games like Bejeweled and the casual knock-offs that expand on the concept. Jason Kapalka comments on an interview at Casualgames.biz that these games are almost primal in their simplicity: connect 3 blocks of a matching color in a randomly generated screen. Most Bejeweled 2 knock-offs just provide the player additional combos for the player so that it is just expanding on the original theme without changing the basic process. You are channeling the innate desire to find order in chaotic systems while balancing the need for finding that order to be easy to manage.
Jesper Juul wrote an excellent article chronicling the history of these types of games. Two games are attributed with kicking off the genre: Tetris and Chain Shot, the latter of which falls more along the lines of making matches while aiming a colored block. Juul defines the rules of a matching game like this, “Video games where the player manipulates tiles in order to make them disappear according to a matching criterion.” The matching aspect is the core mechanic, but it’s the criteria that is constantly changing in these kinds of games. The first thing to be removed from Tetris was requiring the player to fill a whole row with matches. It was too confining and limited the player’s options. Simplifying the matching criterion is a goal that Kapalka also echoes in an interview with Rock, Paper, Shotgun where he points out that typically intellectual puzzles that can only be solved in one way are not as popular as mechanics that are infinitely replayable and don’t require deep thinking. Juul comments that Bejeweled 2’s main innovations was having an untimed mode and making sure there was a method for allowing short play sessions. Statistically people play much longer than the minimum, but they are enticed to start precisely because they think it will only be a small commitment. Not having a timed portion of the game, which could only be played if the game was purchased, ended up being far more appealing than anyone expected.
So if Bejeweled 2’s largest innovation was a few new modes of play, why the insane popularity? Steve Meretzky once said that it should be possible to state the rules of a casual game in three sentences, so it’s not like complexity is generating the appeal for people. The most plausible argument is that people are inherently attracted to applying order to chaotic systems. Iona Miller, in an essay on chaos explains the basics, “In chaos theory, when an attractor disappears due to sudden catastrophic change, the system becomes structureless and experiences a term of "transient chaos" before another attractor is found.” In the context of Bejeweled 2 the attractor is the matching of blocks, the creation of order that is rewarded with points, chimes, and progress in the game. Yet this act also changes the playing field, inducing transient chaos again while our mind searches for a new attractor. Gerald Schueler, a prominent writer and Ph.D, explains in an essay on chaos psychology that it could possibly be a subconscious survival mechanism. He explains several other chaotic realities of our lives, “Perhaps it will rain when we want to do some work outside, or perhaps our car will have a flat tire on the way to an evening in town. The important thing is how we meet this chaos and react to it. According to the findings of chaos theory, times of chaos (i.e., those unplanned, unexpected, and usually unwanted, events that occur to all of us) can be creative. If we look hard, perhaps we can find the new order within the chaos and be better for it.” Bejeweled 2 is a recreation of this relationship with life, a constant barrage of changing jewels that may or may not work out for us. What the game is tapping into is our attraction to finding disorganized situations and making them work.
In the event that you’re noticing this write-up is very quote heavy, it’s because after several years of playing Bejeweled 2 I was startled to find I didn’t have much to say about it. I know, crazy, but it’s true. With the exception of Juul and Kapalka there aren’t even that many people writing about these kinds of games. Other games using the match 3 formula are only taking their idea and adding a few tweaks or kinds of attractors to the game design. Juul points out on his website that making games very similar to Bejeweled 2 allows players to transfer skills, which is key in convincing someone to try a new game in any genre. Perhaps the best explanation I can muster for the hours upon hours I’ve dumped into this game is one Juul comments on: it starts rewarding you immediately. My eyes can roll over the chaotic pile of gems and find connections in moments and these will continue to be produced for me as I go.
The incessant identity crisis of games and trying to appeal to mainstream audiences may be a volatile topic, but there is merit in creating a game that anyone can play and enjoy. Years of playing games means I’ve developed the ‘game grammar’ needed to play just about anything. Trying to pass the controller off to a friend visiting, however, is often as tedious an experience as watching someone phonetically sound out words. The enormous amount of options and chaos going on in the average game takes time to master. Bejeweled 2 isolates the desire to manage that chaos into its purest and most accessible form.