(I wrote this piece prior to EA’s purchase of PopCap. The opinions & viewpoints contained within are entirely personal. Any updates are agnostic of knowledge derived from my employment.)
Bejeweled 3 by PopCap, The King of Feedback.
Strive for Super-Satisfying Feedback
When a player takes any action in your game, the game must provide feedback. If your feedback is super-satisfying, then players will love the second-to-second interactions and your game will be hard to put down. Very much like bubble wrap.
Then all you have left to do is make your game engaging over the long-term, and you have a hit.
Perhaps it’s not that simple, but often this interaction feedback goes such a long way that it can make or break a game.
PopCap does this incredibly well. Their superpower is finding a single interaction that’s fun, adding tons of satisfying feedback, and then building a game around it. This is the secret to their success.
Two of the precursors to Bejeweled were Jewelbox and Columns:
Columns (Game Gear)
These are both match-three games with a gem theme, but neither saw the incredible success of Bejeweled. Bejeweled is also a match-three game with a gem theme. What makes it so different?
The most fun and satisfying aspect of Columns and Jewelbox are stacking up gems and then getting a large combo to score tons of points in a long chain reaction. PopCap realized this, and designed Bejeweled around it. The notable changes:
- The playing space is wider and already crammed with gems – making chain reactions perpetually imminent.
- Because the play space is already filled with gems, the player tries to make matches by swapping adjacent gems (rather than by lining up falling sets of 3 like in Columns & Jewelbox).
- The feedback for getting combos is incredibly satisfying and celebratory.
That’s it. There are other differences, but these are the major ones that are the key to Bejeweled’s success: a satisfying mechanic + great feedback.
There are 3 types of feedback to consider when designing a satisfying interaction: visual, aural, and verbal. These are the Holy Trinity of feedback. There’s also a 4th and slightly different kind of feedback – anticipatory feedback – which is more of a feedback enhancer.
This is the most obvious: it is any visual reaction to a player’s action. It could be an explosion from shooting a propane tank, a particle effect of sparkles from a puzzle game combo, collected coins flying to the UI, or even just a color change on a clicked button.
Visuals should also be used to communicate magnitude and type of reward. The bigger and better the accomplishment of the player, the better the visuals should be. If you obliterate an enemy slime in a single hit versus just barely killing it, there should be a difference. The slime should burst fiercely rather than dying a normal death.
Terraria: Look at all this incredible visual feedback! The trees practically explode when you chop them down!
Chopping trees in Terraria is a great example. Chopping a tree could have just turned it into a tiny, single bundle of wood. But that’s not satisfying. Instead, the tree practically explodes into wood, acorns, and woodchip particles. The taller the tree, the greater the feedback.
This is the sound effect or musical response to your actions. It can be as simple as a button click or the sound of collecting a coin. It can be a musical sting or a fanfare in response to an even greater accomplishment – like finding a key item or beating a tough level. Or it can be a subtle changing of musical score when the player enters a dangerous location.
You must have well-crafted aural feedback for anything you want the player to be excited about doing. If the player discovers a hidden tomb but gets no musical accompaniment, it won’t feel as special and the player might not even realize they’ve found something out of the ordinary.
Bejeweled uses a set of tones increasing in pitch for subsequent matches in a combo, which emphasizes each one of those matches as a new and more special accomplishment than the last.
If you really want your player to feel special, tell them. Don’t make them figure it out for themselves. Here are some great examples:
The Sims Social
Bejeweled makes it dead-obvious that you just did something incredible.
In The Sims Social, we tell the player Good Job!! or Awesome!! and so on when they’ve harvested their gardens with great timing. This pat on the back reinforces your behavior and makes you strive to seek it out again.
This is feedback that can enhance the Holy Trinity of feedback by drawing attention to an impending grand outcome – or the possibility of a grand outcome. It’s like a multiplier for feedback.
A canonical example is the spinning of slot machine wheels and its ding sounds that lead up to a potential payout. It makes the act of looking for the reward a reward itself,
regardless of payout. (There’s a great article – Ethos Before Analytics
– that examines why things like this are “fun.” You should read it
Another example is Peggle’s
slow-motion zoom-in when you might make an incredible shot.
The Holy Trinity + Anticipatory Feedback
When these forms of feedback are well-executed, combined, and pervasive in your game, they create a very powerful behavioral drive to seek it out by performing the actions which lead to that reward. In other words, it will keep players glued to your game.
Opening a treasure chest is satisfying when you hear it unlock and see the lid pop open. But it’s even more satisfying if you see a brilliant glow shining from within and hear a soft choir of notes accompanying the glow. It’s even better if the chest is encrusted with jewels so the player knows to anticipate a higher tier of treasure.
And if you’ve found something amazing inside, it’s better still to have celebratory text that announces it: Legendary Artifact Found! And then as a follow-up celebration, the character should visually react and that should be accompanied by grand music.
Contrasting a Hit and a Miss
Headshot in Unreal Tournament
Getting a headshot in the original Unreal Tournament is a great example of the Holy Trinity of feedback.
It looks awesome – the head explodes or bounces around amidst particles of blood.
It sounds awesome – the sound of your rifle firing in unison with the exploding head and then gibs bouncing around is incredibly satisfying.
And then the game tells you you're awesome – Head Shot!! – a nice verbal pat on the back.
Headshot in Unreal Tournament 2003
Unreal Tournament 2003, on the other hand, misses on the Holy Trinity of feedback with the change from the Sniper Rifle to the Lightning Rifle.
You can still get headshots that sound satisfying and that give you verbal recognition, but it misses out on the visual feedback. The lightning gets in the way of satisfying visual feedback of your opponent’s head blowing clean off.
(The tradeoff is that the Lightning Rifle calls attention to a sniper’s location to battle to problem of campers. But there should be an approach that solves this problem without breaking the satisfying visual feedback of headshots.)
And UT2003 makes this mistake despite having even higher production values than its predecessors.
You can’t assume that you are hitting the Holy Trinity just because you have high production values.
The Power is Yours for the Taking
Imagine a slot machine where all you did was drop your money in, press a button, and the screen immediately printed whether you won. No spinning dials. No flashing lights. No fun sounds. No coins spilling out. But exactly the same chances of winning and same payout. The game hasn’t changed – but this would be dull and unsatisfying. But instead, slot machines give you the Holy Trinity of feedback as well as anticipatory feedback, and they are the most popular casino game on the planet.
This is the power that you can harness for your games. It doesn’t matter whether you’re making shallow slot machine games or deep, story-driven role playing games. If you make super-satisfying feedback a priority, your game will have the potential to be far more successful.