In my match-3 game—Solomeow’s Magic Blast, fundamentals are objects which make up the basis of the game. Both thematically (serving the lore) and as the game’s core gameplay elements.
The fundamental objects are Pebbles, Elementals, and Stars. They drive the gameplay loop and are the building blocks of all levels. The player arranges and uses them to progress and gain access to abilities. Here I’ll write about their visual and gameplay reiteration during development.
Fundamentals as the core principles of magic embody the 1+7 essences. The one universal essence—Mana, aka Stardust—from which everything sprung forth; and its seven permutations: Fire, Water, Air, Earth, Nature, Electromagnetism, and Psyche.
Pebbles are the primary objects with which players interact. They get matched on the screen and provide players with control. Looking at other match-3 games: in Candy Crush Saga those would be candies, Toon Blast has its blocks, Bejeweled its gems.
Elementals are powerup type objects, created from pebbles. When utilized, they cause helpful effects, like various explosions or granting extra turns or coin. Elementals are akin to bombs in Gardenscapes or special candies in Candy Crush Saga.
Stars are rewards for matching large groups of Pebbles. Once collected, they function as the game’s mana system. To exert more control over a level, the player can utilize spells and abilities. Each of which has a star cost.
Designing and refining pebble visuals
To make Solomeow’s Magic Blast stand out from the competition, I had to find an uncommon object theme. That meant no candy or other foods, no blocks, toys, plants, jelly, jewels, toys, etc.
The criteria for gameplay objects were to have them be:
- Easy to draw
- Supporting the theme of magic
- Distinct from other games
- Preferably not cliché
Drawing inspiration from rune stones, I came up with pebbles. They fit with the theme of magic and would be simple to visualize. More importantly, I haven’t noticed them in other popular match-3 or similar games.
However, I did end up going with the elemental magic cliché. I created six pebble types: Fire, Water, Air, Earth, Electromagnetism, and Psyche.
To have these primary objects easily distinguishable from one another—different shapes, colors and symbols were utilized.
Months later, another pebble joined the rooster. The green one seemed more like Nature/Life, so I was missing an Earth element.
Seven also felt like a good number. Thematically it is well established as a magical number. Both in pop culture and being a part of many mythologies and spiritual practices. Gameplay-wise, the more pebble types a level allowed, the more difficult it would be. Large level grids could easily host all seven types without ramping up difficulty too far.
For two years, seven was fine. Then feature creep started rearing its ugly head, and I decided the game needed two more pebbles: Light and Darkness.
Nine types also made perfect sense, solely for being a feline number. Funny how the brain seeks patterns to justify desired actions and decisions.
Luckily, common sense (or laziness?) prevailed, and I never began implementing these two. Instead, Air pebble’s visual design has been bugging me for a while. Its shape and color always felt off while playtesting, so I changed it.
Initially, the symbols on pebbles were large, sharply contrasted, and overly detailed. That resulted in too much visual noise, making the playing field hard to read. Scaling down the symbol and reducing contrast fixed the issue.
I also tweaked the colors often, in part for better readability. But also to find more appealing colors and better color harmony.
Powerups in match-3 games
Match-3 puzzle games are all about manipulating objects to remove them from the board. Often by creating groups of adjoining same-type primaries, called matching. These match groups get destroyed if they fill the game’s matching criteria.
A common design approach is to reward players with powerups when clearing matches. How this works varies a bit between match-3 subgenres. Object swapping games rely on specific object formations in the group, to decide which powerup to reward. While collapsing (match-2 games) reward powerups depending on the number of objects in the group.
The powerups are quite similar among various games in the genre. There is always a bomb (area destruction); a row or a column cleaner; and a powerup that clears all objects of the same color. Commonly, there is also the ability to combine powerups to get better effects. Strongest of which is usually whole-board destruction.
Elementals and gameplay evolution
For Solomeow’s Magic Blast I wanted more gameplay novelty. To achieve it (initially), I decided to have distinct powerups with more possible combinations. Each pebble type would produce a unique powerup called elemental. So a group of fire pebbles would create a flame, nature pebbles a plant, air pebbles a cloud.
Each elemental would create a different effect. The flame would explode, clearing objects in an area; the cloud would shuffle nearby objects; the plant would grant extra turns, and so on.
Combining elementals would produce more powerful effects. Two flames would cause a superior explosion. Combining a flame and a cloud would explosively shuffle nearby objects, destroying some. Combining three elementals would cause even stronger effects, while combinations of 4 would clear the whole board.
The initial visual design was real bad. Elementals were hard to notice on the board. They got visually drowned out by colorful pebbles, and the triangles were too thin and odd.
Instead of using them as placeholders, I decided to chase a better look. To stand out, they needed to look more striking. I accomplished that by animating them and adding some bolder colors.
Soon after drawing them, I decided to replace powerups with a spellcasting system 😅. Since I had already finished them, elementals would become spell ingredients instead. Waste not, want not.
Now, the player would collect elementals and use them to discover new spells. The game would consist of about 20 spells, initially unknown to the player. Randomly combining elemental ingredients would lead to spell discovery. I was aiming for the feeling of Magicka’s spell system or Diablo 2’s Horadric Cube. Also, the feeling of playing Dota’s Invoker (or Wizard in Gauntlet).
Before prototyping, it made sense to get the GUI design out of the way. Mobile games have limited screen estate; I needed to make sure everything would fit in neatly.
And it could. But…
I introduced a lot of stuff vying for attention on the screen. And a necessity for an additional ingredient-mixing screen, where players could test (and waste) elementals, attempting to discover new spells.
It seemed like too much clutter while not being very fun at all.
Introducing Stars as a mana system
The “waste not want not” approach defined Solomeow’s early development. I had ample graphic assets from defunct projects, so I regularly scoured them for something to reuse. One star animation gave me the idea to replace elemental ingredients with a mana system.
All spells would now be available to the player, each with a specific star cost. An in-game currency would allow the player to acquire spells, permanently. And stars would be collected and spent, in levels, to cast them.
Destroying a pebble group would grant a star cluster. Depending on the number of pebbles in the group, the cluster would contain 1 to 3 stars. Clusters get picked up by destroying them while adjoining clusters form groups (just like pebbles). Meaning they all get destroyed together. This grouping of clusters speeds up star gathering and lets players plan and optimize their moves.
The stars system went through several iterations. At one point, I consolidated it with moves. So that players would use the same resource for spellcasting and taking other actions. But, during playtesting, that proved either too stressful or too easy. It also made spells a less desirable mechanic.
Abandoning the elementals felt bad, solely for the animation work that went into them. So one of the first spells made was—transfiguring any pebble into its elemental type. I got to use the work I’ve done; the player got more gameplay options; the game got a layer of complexity. Win, win, win. Well, except for the increased development time.