Skip to content

Month: March 2022

Mental fatigue, boredom, and allowing time off for better performance

For the past two weeks, I’ve been feeling an expanding unwillingness to do the work—a strengthening of resistance towards game development, writing, and creative output in general.

At first, my daily productivity halved through a week. I went from 6 focused hours to 3-4 scatterbrained hours a day.

Then, the following week, those hours became a mess of distractions and boredom. What little was left of my focus grew hazy, my performance turned disjointed, and random internet surfing became frequent.

This wasn’t quite burnout. I still had some desire to do something. Just not the same writing & game development routine I’ve been doing for months. I felt bored, uninspired, and agitated by a slow sense of progress. I needed a break. Yet, taking a break always feels like a betrayal.

Two voices in my mind pulled me in different directions.

On the right, there’s Steven Pressfield, the author of The War of Art. His strict, authoritarian mantra clearly demands:

The most important thing about art is to work. Nothing else matters except sitting down every day and trying. 

Steven Pressfield

In his book, every day is a battle in a war against resistance. To fight it, the artist must harden and immerse themself in their work with absolute dedication.

But the war is never-ending, and resistance is ever relentless. Ammunition tends to run out if one doesn’t take care to refill the stock.

On the left is the voice of Julia Cameron, the author of The Artist’s Way. Her ethereal, relaxed demeanor whispers:

The creative process is a process of surrender, not control. 

Julia Cameron

Her book, on the other hand, is all about letting go. To refill the creative well, the artist must relinquish rigidity and allow themself rest and playfulness. Allow the whims of both the internal and the external worlds to surprise and inspire.

The two authors are not the polar opposites I’m framing them as. However, I can’t help but feel a sense of Yin and Yang in their approaches. I find both books complement each other well, catering to the same artistic truths. Recommended reading if you’re not averse to intuitive, unscientific thinking with sometimes religious overtones. Or even if you are (averse) but want to develop creative faculties further and challenge your openness to ideas.

Though both books cater to the artistic label, the ideas are applicable outside of art. No matter what sort of creative or thinking work you’re doing, the processes are similar and mentally tasking. With Solomeow’s Magic Blast, I’m focused on creating pure entertainment, not video game art. But to me, doing the work, there’s little difference.

Burnout sucks

I’ve encountered burnout before. An ugly thing. It takes you out of commission for long stretches of time, replacing creative joy with apathy. You get enveloped in a complete lack of desire, loss of motivation, detachment, and defeat.

Each time it happened, I’ve previously been stuck in a hypnotic rut. Ignoring signs of fatigue, I was pressing on. The anxiety born of incompleteness and failure fueled me. Once the excitement and creative desire run out, anxiety is all that’s left. Perhaps I was over-compensating for all the times in my life I spent procrastinating or wallowing inside a cushy comfort zone like a piglet in mud.

Sooner or later, even that fuel source would run out, and I’d just stop.

Turn inert.

Hard to prod to action again.

But, with a listless detachment from anxiety, despite my goals, I would finally rest. For months.

Eventually, vigor would return, and I’d be back to organizing a new productive routine. A little wiser for the wear.

I’ve since learned to pay heed to fatigue and allow myself frequent breaks; especially when anxious thoughts arise, which seek to condemn me for being lazy. Those make it really hard to break the rut. Needing rest but refusing to is life-draining and always leads to an increase in procrastination. 

This time, instead of waging war against resistance, I raised a little white flag and retreated from the battlefield. A week or two off, right away, are far better than months of despondent burnout down the line.

Two of the most popular methods in The Artist’s Way, to regenerate creativity and cultivate growth as an artist, are:

  • Morning pages (three pages of unedited, stream-of-consciousness handwriting, done every morning)
  • Artist’s date (going way outside of your routine and rewarding yourself for one day each week)

I’m not a fan of morning pages. Writing by hand agitates me, and I already journal often. Typing out thoughts freely and indiscriminately is indeed cathartic and self-exploratory.

The artist’s date, I love. Taking a day off from daily routine and deliberately going outside of your usual zone, works wonders to refuel the mind. But occasionally, you need more than a day. You need an Artist’s leave.

Unplugging for a week of active (mental) recovery

Rest doesn’t need to be total inactivity.

One useful concept physical exercise taught me is the active recovery approach. Moving the body following high-intensity exercise speeds up the recovery process. This movement needs to be gentle enough for muscles and the central nervous system to recover but active enough to amplify blood flow.

Unless dealing with total burnout, I find the same works with mental recovery. Instead of sedating myself with gaming or TV, I prefer to dive into hobbies and activities far removed from my work. A vacation away from home would also work well, but I don’t do those often.

First, I unplugged my workstation and picked apart the GPUs and CPU. It was time to wash the fans and heat-sinks anyway, with the added benefit of not being able to habitually jump into my usual routine.

Instead, I used mobile devices to further my knowledge of weight-lifting and various exercises. I’ve wanted to start a more aggressive workout routine for a while and to move away from my 3/week full-body approach. I settled on this Pull Push Legs split.

Reinvigorating the mind through physical exertion

There’s something great about moving the body. I find a long, daily walk calms and focuses the mind. While vigorous exercise, over time, increases energy reserves, mental resilience, and overall dedication.

Then there’s the release of endorphins (the feel-good hormones) and a general reduction in cortisol and adrenaline (the stress hormones). Plus, a better quality of sleep and higher attunement with the body.

Cortisol, in particular, is a big one. Spending your days sitting, thinking, and (eventually) worrying; being fueled by copious amounts of caffeine; having poor sleep hygiene—all lead to chronic stress. Which often means elevated cortisol levels.

Regular exercise helps improve sleep quality, reduce stress, and improve overall health, which can help lower cortisol over time.

It has also been associated with greater resilience to acute stress and may lower negative health effects associated with stress. 

From on Exercise’s impact on cortisol 

Exercise itself is a welcome respite from hard mental work. I used to hate it with a passion. A fact my midsection and poor posture clearly betray. But today, I welcome it. Greedily.

Exercising has done more for my creativity and craftsmanship than any amount of hours spent “soaking in knowledge” through idle research.

There’s no room for conceptual problem-solving or worrying when you’re out of breath or when you have to take care not to injure yourself. While possessing explosive strength and stamina feels good on its own.

This is not to say exercise is a mindless activity. Prolonged exertion is mentally tasking and can reduce both cognitive and exercise performance. Likewise, pre-existing mental fatigue makes exercise harder.

As I usually workout in the afternoon, I used this off-week to move throughout the days. Aside from the 6-day PPL split, I went on several long hikes and a couple of short runs alongside my usual daily walks. It culminated with a 40km mountain hike on Sunday.

Zagreb’s Medvednica is always beautiful, but especially this time of year. New spring washes it with warm sunlight while patches of old snow remain, magnifying a sense of freshness and vitality.

My knees were spent from overuse, so the following Monday was a couch-potato day. While I didn’t feel like moving at all, my mind felt refreshed. Firing up Unity and fiddling with its abstruse UI systems no longer bored me.

The PPL split proved good, though time-consuming. So, for now, I’ll utilize it every other week as I figure out how to better juggle the increased physical load with game development.

Game design elements of the most popular match-3 games and subgenres

The match-3 genre has its roots in early tile-matching games, the likes of Tetris and Dr. Mario. But it properly emerged in the 2000s, with Bejeweled and various bubble shooters. Since then, the genre has been on a steady rise. With the advent of mobile devices, it exploded and took over the world.

Everyone has heard of Candy Crush Saga—the match-3 game topping mobile and online charts since 2012. The game started the match-3 era on mobile and spawned countless clones. So much so that it caused developer King to attempt trademarking the word candy. Even a decade after its release, it still sits in yearly top ten lists of highest-grossing mobile games.

As other mobile genres gain popularity, match-3 games innovate to remain relevant. Though, actual gameplay evolution is slow. More often, it happens through the addition of meta-game layers. Many games incorporate elements from other genres (role-playing, base building, character collection, etc.), or social play. Gardenscapes, for example, focuses more on garden renovation and story than match-3 play. These meta-game layers provide more engagement (often through busy work), increasing player retention.

The most stable way of retaining players is pumping out fresh content. While new match-3 titles keep coming in, old fan-favorites grow. At the time of writing this, Candy Crush Saga sits at staggering 11285 levels. Every week, the game adds 45 new levels! Which it has been doing for the past 10 years. Other popular titles (Toon Blast, Gardenscapes, etc.) follow suit.

Addictive simplicity

The hallmark of the best match-3 puzzle games lies in their simplicity. They are easy to play but challenging (or varied) enough not to bore the player. This accessibility, coupled with broad appeal and gratifying gameplay, attracts players of all demographics. Hardcore gamers and casuals, young and old alike.

Beneath the simplicity, these games hide surprising layers of complexity and variation. The gameplay is easy, repetitive, and gorgeous looking. It provides an almost meditative, stress-relieving state of play. While constant explosions of color give them a fireworks-enjoying quality. Even being stuck on a level for weeks (frequent among non-paying players) tends to feel enjoyable. Somewhat.

Match-3 games are very addictive. Effortless play and incentivized frequent interaction, ensure long-lasting habit loops through dopaminergic design. But more on that in another article.

Core game design elements of Match-3

Matching puzzle games are all about removing objects from the playing field (board). Removal or clearing happens through the process of matching. That is, by grouping three or more adjoining, same-color objects. The match groups get cleared when they fill the game’s matching criteria.

Match-3 consists of several subgenres. Each with its distinct rules on how matching and player input work. Despite differences in gameplay, most share several design elements.

Two prevalent subgenres are tile-swapping and match-2. Fairly similar to each-other, they both utilize a grid-based pattern and share a lot of gameplay ideas. The design elements defined in the following text will largely relate to those two subgenres. I’ll be using my match-2 game, Solomeow’s Magic Blast, to illustrate concepts.

Primary Objects

These are the objects that get matched by the player. They drive gameplay and are often the only object type that can form match groups. Example: candies in Candy Crush Saga or pebbles in Solomeow’s Magic Blast.

Primary objects in Solomeow’s Magic Blast

Primaries come in several flavors/shapes/colors but otherwise share the same properties. They are the core objects players interact with.

Challenge Objects

Challengers stand in the way of victory, making the player’s life harder. They can’t be matched or directly interacted with. Each has unique properties and needs a specific approach to clear it. Some get cleared by matching adjacent primaries. Others by utilizing powerups and abilities. Others yet by more strategic play, as they can have health, phases or conditional rules.

Wooden box challengers in Solomeow’s Magic Blast

Chocolate in Candy Crush is a notorious example. The player can break it with adjacent matching and powerups, but it grows back every move when not broken.

Challengers are the most abundant object type in grid-based match-3. Ongoing games rely on frequently adding new ones to maintain player engagement.

Powerup Objects

Powerups are rewards for clearing larger match groups. Their main purpose is fun and reward for clever play. Also, clearing various objects (especially challengers) and rearranging the board. Powerups are the fireworks aspect of a match-3 game. Fun and flashy with an element of subtle trepidation. Will they cause a favorable board arrangement?

Example: Special Candies in Candy Crush or Elementals in Solomeow’s Magic Blast. Powerups are often the only other object type (beside primaries) the player can directly interact with.

Powerups example
Powerups trigger each-other in Solomeow’s Magic Blast

A lot of matching games share a similar powerup design. Bombs (area destruction) and color bombs (clearing same-color primaries) are standard. Row or column cleaners are also frequent in grid-based games.

Often, games allow combining powerups for more potent, flashier effects.


Primary objects are randomly generated. This can make the same level a cinch to beat or excruciatingly difficult, depending on how favorable RNGesus feels.

Random elements are well received in all match-3 subgenres except for bubble shooters. Since shooters rely on higher skill, players get easily frustrated when stuck on a level due to bad luck. Whereas in tile swapping, which scantly relies on skill, getting unlucky and stuck is accepted as a normal part of progression.

Moves or Time

The typical loss condition in levels is running out of allotted moves. Examples: Candy Crush Saga deducts a move for every player action.

Other games utilize time. Whether through actual timers or by some mechanism that forces the player to speed up. Bubble shooters, for example, often shrink the playing area as levels progress.


Victory conditions vary. In some games, the goal is to clear the whole level of all objects. Others have a set amount of specific objects that need to be collected.

In Candy Crush Saga, levels have a score requirement. The player must accumulate a requisite amount of points to win.

Solomeow’s Magic Blast requires collecting objects by bringing them down to the bottom row.

Object collection
Key collecting in Solomeow’s Magic Blast


Aside ads, the most common monetization approach is selling boosters to players. These are cheat-like, optional items that make the levels a breeze to beat. Boosters range from granting extra moves to serving as powerful or precise types of powerups.

Boosters are notorious when they don’t feel optional.

Mobile games, in general, deliberately frustrate players with unreasonable challenges. The aim is to coax players into buying In-App Purchases to alleviate imposed frustration. Match-3 games act the same. Tiresome levels with not enough moves to beat them beg to be boosted.

Match-3 Subgenres

Object Swapping (aka Tile Swapping)

Popularized by Bejeweled and Candy Crush Saga, object swapping is the prevalent genre. Other notable games include Cookie Jam, Gardenscapes, Royal Match, Fishdom, etc. Also, games that use a well-known brand to garner popularity, from Harry Potter: Puzzles & Spells to Simon’s Cat: Crunch Time.


Tile swapping match-3 gameplay
Object swapping, example gameplay

To form matches, the player must swap the positions of two adjoined primaries. A match forms when a group of 3 or more same-color primaries lines up. Match groups get cleared automatically. The objects will usually revert to their original positions if no match is formed.

Match groups of 4 or more grant a powerup, depending on the group’s formation. Different formations produce different powerups, irrespective of the group’s color.

Matching and powerup generation in Candy Crush Saga:

  • Combining 4 candies in a line produces a striped candy that clears a row or a column—depending on whether the match-4 line was horizontal or vertical.
  • Combining 5 candies in a line produces a color bomb—a powerup that destroys all candies of a select color.
  • Combining 5 candies in an L or T formation produces a wrapped candy. This is a bomb-type powerup, which clears an area around it.

Powerups activate by swapping them with adjoining objects. The effect will vary depending on what they get swapped with. Swapping a color bomb with a primary determines which color it will destroy. While swapping two color bombs will combine them into a whole-board explosion.

Due to the automatic destruction of match groups, object swapping games tend to fall into loops of automated play. The player makes a match > it gets destroyed > new objects spawn and fall > another match forms > it gets destroyed > rinse and repeat.

Automated play can be annoying or desirable, depending on other design elements. It works in Candy Crush Saga due to higher score accumulation from chained matches.


The re-emergence of old color pop games, this subgenre is sometimes referred to as Collapse or Blast. Although the blast keyword is an ill fit, as it is often used among other match-3 subgenres. Well-known examples include Toon Blast, Toy Blast, Pet Rescue Saga, Angry Birds Blast, and Hay Day Pop.


match-2 gameplay example
Match-2 gameplay in Solomeow’s Magic Blast

Match groups form automatically but don’t get destroyed like in object swapping. The player can destroy any group of 2 or more matching primaries. Powerups are (usually) granted when a destroyed group has five or more objects. Larger groups give better powerups, and the group’s pattern does not matter.

Toon Blast design approach:

  • A group of 5 blocks provides a random-direction rocket. It destroys either a row or a column.
  • A group of 7 blocks provides a bomb (area clearing).
  • A group of 9 blocks provides a disco ball (color bomb).

Powerups activate by tapping on them. Adjoining powerups form combination groups. Tapping on any combines all nearby powerups and produces a more powerful combo effect.

Often this is undesirable, as combinations require 2 powerups at most. Any surplus is wasted.

Solomeow’s Magic Blast design approach:

  • Groups produce star clusters of 1-3 stars, depending on the size of the group. Adjoining clusters group together. Tapping collects the whole group and adds stars into the reserve.
  • Stars serve to cast spells or to create powerups on the board.
  • Powerups differ in effect depending on which primary color they were made from. They don’t combine. Instead, they generate chain explosions by activating each other.


Before Bejeweled and modern match-3 games, there were shooters. These can be further divided into bubble shooters and Puzz Loop clones. Pioneered by Puzzle Bobble in 1994, bubble shooters are the prevalent gameplay form that remains relatively unchanged. A notable exception is Puzz Loop, which flipped the bubble shooter formula on its head and spawned popular clones like Zuma.

Shooters rely on precision and timing more than other subgenres.

The player has to shoot bubbles (or spheres, balls) into an existing field of randomly arranged bubbles. All bubbles stick to each other, and when three or more of the same color touch—the group gets destroyed. The goal is to clear all the bubbles from a level. Skill shots are valued while misjudging an angle can severely impede progress.

Similar to Tetris, an element of time pressure is often present. Poor play fills levels with bubbles, shrinking the play area. Additionally, many shooters implement mechanics which provide further pressure.

Bubble Shooters

Bubble shooter
The classic Bubble Shooter

The player shoots bubbles from the bottom of the screen into a large bubble field sticking to the ceiling. Bubbles can be launched upward at different angles or at sidewalls to have them bounce up, a la breakout.

Famous examples include Bubble Witch Saga, Angry Birds Pop, Bubble Mania, and Panda Pop.


In Puzz Loop, time pressure is more apparent. Balls roll around the screen on a given path. The player has to shoot into the traveling balls to clear them (by matching) before reaching the path’s end. If they reach the end, the game is over.

Zuma, the most popular Puzz Loop clone

Popular clones include Zuma and Luxor. In contrast, games like Potpourri bring further innovations.

Chaining (or linking)

In chaining games, matches form by tracing a continuous polygonal chain across matching primaries. Diagonal matching is usually valid (whereas other grid-based subgenres accept only adjoined matching).

Chaining a match in Puzzle Craft

The chaining subgenre’s popularity is dwindling, but it was never a top design approach in the first place. Example games include Jelly Splash, Best Fiends, and Puzzle Craft.

Closing thoughts

Some innovative, match-3 games don’t have a precise subgenre fit. Traffic Puzzle, for example, doesn’t have swapping, chaining, or blasting. Instead, it lets players control where objects enter the board.

Rovio games, such as Sugar Blast, are experimenting with a freeform variation of match-2. There, instead of objects sitting on a grid, they fall freely. Groups form as usual (when primaries touch), but levels are irregular and objects spherical—which maximizes contact areas and simplifies physics.

Even though the old playstyles of Bejeweled, Candy Crush and co. are becoming stagnant. The luck infused, relaxed nature of the genre is hypnotic. Sedative even. This narcotic quality, coupled with straightforward game design (for developers) ensures match-3 is here to stay. With or without actual innovation or meta-game layers on top.