Digital Media PhD Student
Kenneth is a doctoral student in the Digital Media PhD program. In his series “Kenneth on Games” he writes about his passion for games and game design.
Puzzle and Dragons is a strange case of game design. It’s a mobile game that’s as maliciously monetized as they come, but it’s built upon an amazingly deep mechanic that the developers seem to have stumbled upon by accident. Even with their latest updates, they struggle constantly to balance the two attributes of character-based statistics versus player-based skill. The latest content to hit NA is a dungeon where you fight against a half-dragon girl named Myr, and she introduces several new mechanics that force players to change the way they play… but for better, or for worse?
How Combos Work
The core game loop of Puzzle and Dragons is a Bejeweled-style board filled with sets of orbs, and you need to match them in groups of three or more. This is juxtaposed below a fantasy battle where you have a team of monsters fighting through a dungeon. If you match red orbs, all of your monsters who are red will attack. If the player performs well with the puzzle, their monsters will do more damage. In the above video from daheins, we see an experienced player matching many combos
But the thing that sets Puzzle and Dragons apart from Bejeweled (aside from the setting) is the mechanic. You can pick up an orb and then move it around as much as you want for a limited period of time. While you’re moving it, it will continue to displace other orbs. In a standard Bejeweled game, you would move one orb by one tile and that’s it, but in Puzzle and Dragons you can use that orb to make other combos.
When people start, they play it like they would play Bejeweled, but eventually they get better and start experimenting with longer combos. At this point, the amount of time you have to move orbs becomes a large part of the game. The base amount is four seconds after you pick up an orb, but putting certain characters on your team can extend it slightly. A late game player will generally have enough of these characters that they reach at least six seconds for movement.
This forms a symbiotic relationship between skill and statistics. As your skill increases, you will find that four seconds aren’t enough, and you will try to increase your statistics to compensate. Likewise, having higher time can also compensate for a lack of skill by giving you more flexibility and room for error. Theoretically, a skilled player could make many combos even with just four seconds, but practically, that same player would make more combos if they had more time anyway. Players will develop whole teams around time extensions even at the expense of other attributes (dark Sakuya teams).
But more importantly, having more time is simply more fun. Less time makes you feel constrained, and you have to rush your combos and you can easily mess up. As you increase the amount of time you have, you can experiment more with your combos and stack them all nicely. It feels good when you’ve formed a perfect combo and you can let go of your orb, rather than having the orb time out and drop automatically.
Puzzle and Dragons is organized into sets of dungeons, and the latest one is called “Time Boundaries Dragon.” The boss of this dungeon is named Dragonbound Myr, and she’s a half-dragon who takes the shape of a little girl and she can control time. Doesn’t that sound oddly familiar? But putting the fantasy trope aside, her time theme is implemented into her mechanics to change the way you use combos in her dungeon.
Myr has the ability to reduce the amount of time you have to move your orbs. Even though this isn’t a new mechanic, Myr reduces your time by so much and for such a high amount of turns that it becomes disruptive. She reduces your time by two seconds for five turns, which is a significant penalty. Other time reduction debuffs on this magnitude are designed to be punishments if you make a mistake (Sherospada’s Backdraft in Deus Ex Machina Descended), but Myr will do this as soon as you see her.
In true Japanese fashion, there is a roundabout hidden way to avoid this debuff, but the debuff itself is still a significant design decision. Gungho wants players to feel disempowered when they face Myr, which is perfectly reasonable: bosses should be intimidating. However, there are healthy ways to create disempowerment, and there are unhealthy ways to do it. This debuff falls into the latter category.
Just like how time extensions make the game more fun, time debuffs make the game less fun. Disempowerment does not need to be unfun: that is what causes people to become frustrated and potentially leave the game. Instead, disempowerment should present a situation that can be overcome, and the process of doing so is fun. But there is nothing to overcome when you have less time to move your orbs. All you can do is be faster and more accurate… and if you could do that, then you would have. It works against your muscle memory.
Ther are plenty of disempowering mechanics in Puzzle and Dragons that are quite healthy. Lakshmi’s jammers in the Ultimate Arena, or the Twin Mask Curse in the mythical Wednesday dungeon. But how could you make one based on a time theme, without using a time debuff? Gungho’s answer was to implement a new mechanic called “time warps.”
Myr’s time warp forces players to start their combo with a specific, randomly decided orb, as shown in this video by LazyPAD. This is a mechanic that doesn’t seem to be impactful until it happens. Deciding where to start is an important factor when making combos, and Myr can take that agency away from you. What if you were setting up to deal a lot of damage, and then Myr ruined your plans with a time warp?
In order to make this less disruptive, Myr also streamlines your objective by pairing the time warp with an orb change. She generates a set of heart orbs, which let you heal, and a set of jammer orbs, which do nothing until you match them and clear them out. This makes it clear that clearing these should be your immediate objective, because she hits hard and you want to recover as much as you can before her next attack. Forcing players to start from a single position limits the number of things they can do, so Myr also limits the number of things they want to do.
It’s a little awkward, but it’s standard practice to introduce new mechanics in a narrow context. Zelda games are the typical example, where whole dungeons are designed around a new item you picked up at the entrance. As players slowly get used to the mechanic, designers can start juxtaposing it against other mechanics. Maybe the time warp could force you to decide between healing or attacking.
The problem is, it’s only standard practice to do that in single player linear games. In a mobile game where players will grind the same dungeon over and over, the new mechanics become old. Myr’s time warp might be a surprise for someone who’s encountering it for the first time, but after a while it becomes completely negligible.
Players get used to the mechanic, but it continues to be used only in a narrow context, so their skill outpaces the difficulty of the situation it is required in. I’m sure it’s not a problem with the time warp mechanic itself: it’s a problem because it is only ever used together with the heart/jammer orb generation. But the way it stands in Myr’s dungeon, the time warp feels more like a gimmick than a proper game mechanic.
Even though this problem is unique to the mobile game medium, it could still feasibly be solved through traditional linear design. Introduce the time warp mechanic early in a narrow context, then slowly open up the range of possible situations as the dungeon progresses, until you’re at the end and you’re tested on how well you can juggle the time warp with everything else you need to be managing. It feels like Gungho tried to do this with Myr’s first form, but players usually burst through that one anyway.
Myr’s dungeon is in a strange place where it is ridiculously hard for players entering for the first time, but it is ridiculously easy for players who know everything and have a farm team. “Hard to learn, easy to master” is not the mantra that a game designer should live by. And when you’re introducing a character as hyped as Myr, designers have a duty to make sure the content is as fun as it can be. I feel like Gungho tried, but mobile free-to-play design still hasn’t evolved far enough past pay-to-win.