When done right, a match-three puzzle can be as strategic as any other form of RPG combat, and even a slot machine can tell a story.
I like a lot of mobile games. I've become the mobile-game guy among my friends and at Moving Pixels, but even I have my prejudices: I hate match-three mobile games.
I hate how they're always timed, rushing to you make a match so that you can never really think about or plan your actions. I hate how cluttered they are, with so many different symbols in play on a little grid that it becomes hard to find a match. My eyes just glaze over the mess of icons until time runs out, and I fail at whatever I was trying to do. I hate how abusive they often are. The issues I mentioned before abuse my time and efforts, while microtransactions for special items abuse my wallet. Sometimes these two things work together, like when a level becomes impossible to beat unless you pay for point-boosting items. Even the supposedly great games like You Must Build A Boat just get on my nerves .
And yet, I've somehow put over 25 hours into Hero Emblems, a match-three RPG, a game that somehow turns an annoying and abusive gameplay system into a satisfying and thought-provoking gameplay system.
I've been to Las Vegas a few times in my life, and each time I've always avoided the slot machines. They just seem like a stupid waste of time. I'd rather play an actual game, one with rules and strategy, like black jack or poker. Heck, even roulette can be fun, if only because it requires a big plastic peripheral. Slot machines aren't even fun to watch, like a sports game or a race. They're the purest embodiment of abusive Skinner Box manipulations.
And yet, I've put countless hours of play and thought into the Tower of Fortune series, the whole time marveling at how these slot machine RPGs manage to combine player progression with a gameplay system that seems designed to prevent progression.
Between these two surprise gems, I'm convinced that there's really no such thing as an inherently abusive gameplay system. Any abuse exists only in execution.
I see an abusive gameplay system as one designed to prevent interaction, like a match-three game that makes it hard to match tiles or a slot machine that discourages pulling its lever over and over again.
Hero Emblems avoids this abuse by making matches easy to find. The challenge isn't in simply finding a match. Instead, it's in finding the right match. Do I want to match staves and heal my group or shields to bolster my defense or swords to attack with blades or stars to attack with magic? I'm rarely ever lacking for choices, and each tile has its own unique effect on things depending on how I've equipped a particular character. My swordsman may be using a fire sword against a fire resistant monster, which makes his tiles useless unless I use them to set up other actions. In all my hours of play, I've never once stared at the screen and only found one possible match option.
I have the ability to pick and choose actions, which begets strategic thinking. Hero Emblems is fun because it's not just about matching tiles, it's about strategic planning. Combat progresses in turns, which means I'm very aware of a battle's progression, like who will act when. I know the monster will attack next turn, so do I go for a kill now or turtle up and take the hit? Or do I throw away my turn on a dumb match in order to set up a power move next turn?
Hero Emblems doesn't want you to rush through its central gameplay, making bad matches out of panic because it's the only apparent option (like the overrated You Must Build a Boat). Instead, it wants you to take your time and consider its gameplay carefully, so that you can interact with it fully.
I've written about Tower of Fortune 2 before, but to summarize: It keeps the odds in the player’s favor. On every slot machine, there’s only one symbol that’s truly bad: the skull. It represents failure, a total absence of progress or positivity. In combat, it results in an enemy attack. During exploration, it results in setting off a trap. During forging or cooking or any mini-game, it results in a loss.
Yet for all the negativity associated with the skull, it doesn’t really hurt all that much. Getting attacked is inevitable, traps are more annoying than dangerous, and we can upgrade our camp to give us an advantage in cooking and forging. The skull is less about reversing progress and more about denying our forward progress. We don’t get to attack, we don’t get to do something helpful while exploring, we don’t cook good food items, and we don’t forge good armor. In each instance, we don’t lose anything as a result of our failure. We just don’t win anything.
That's how you make a slot machine player-friendly. Put the odds in our favor and then remove the emphasis on loss. That way one bad spin doesn't reverse the progress of 20 lucky spins.
Some gameplay systems can be abusive, and often are, but their badness isn't inherent. With a few tweaks, a match-three puzzle can become as strategic as any other form of RPG combat, and even a slot machine can tell a story.