Recently there's been a bout of compelling games using very simple mechanics. In particular, I'm going to use the mobile Marvel Puzzlequest game and Battle Chef Brigade as examples, because both create compelling and narratively-dense games using match-3 gameplay!
Using simple gameplay to make compelling games is far from a new idea. Every game does this. An RPG uses basic math. A shooter uses simple moving and shooting.
But what we're seeing these days is something a bit different. The play is more emergent than ever, and the emergent play is more narratively compelling than ever.
Everyone tells stories about that time something cool happened while they were playing a game. The ten-person raid that almost didn't work out. The time you drove a jeep into an exploding alien. When you did five no-scopes in a row. These emergent moments are extremely powerful draws, to the point where many games (like Overwatch) attempt to automatically highlight cool emergent moments.
But you don't need expensive content or complex mechanics to create those emergent moments.
For example, I just had a fight where Storm, The Thing, and Juggernaut fought Spider-Man and two of those Spider-Man variants or clones or whatever they are. It was an epic fight. Storm was about to die, but The Thing stepped in the way, took the blow, and went down himself. Even while unconscious, he shielded Storm as she called down a hailstorm. Finally she went down to a web-swinging kick, and it was just Juggernaut against them. The hailstorm helped take out two of them, but in the end, Juggernaut and the last standing Spider-man were going toe-to-toe. Juggernaut couldn't catch him, and was ready to fall over at any second. In a last, desperate attempt, Juggernaut slammed his helmeted head into Spider-Man and they both went down. A battlefield of fallen heroes. Well, the villains were stopped, and that counts as a victory for the heroes, even if they're all unconscious.
Here's the twist: that whole battle was a damn match-3 contest. There were very few visuals - just some particle effects and a few generic superhero poses flashed up from time to time.
Still, it felt properly epic in my head, and it was probably the best time I've ever had playing a match-3 game. Would it have been better with more graphics? Sure. But putting aside the juice, the fundamental play of the game allowed this story to emerge.
Regardless of anything else, we want our gameplay to allow for that kind of emergent narrative. How do we do that?
Well, first is contextual elements.
In the Marvel game, the context is really easy: the various characters on each side of the fight. We are familiar with most of the characters, or at least their templates, and therefore we can easily picture how things are unfolding. Even the assists have a character attached.
In Battle Chef Brigade, the characters on each side certainly have context, but since you're always playing the MC, that's not really a factor. Instead, it's the ingredients and judges you learn to identify. This takes more time than Marvel's context, because we aren't really familiar with the elements in BCB, but it's the same basic idea.
Context is mostly established at or near the beginning of a match. You know who's fighting, who the judges are, which ingredients are available, etc. Context can change over the course of a fight as well, but the starting context is critical. Here I think BCB does well: the various statistical effects are incorporated into high-context items like fun pots and strange knives. The Marvel game isn't quite as good, since they're just called things like "blue/green boost".
Endings are important, and not just statistically.
In the Marvel game, the end of the battle isn't just a win/lose. There's also how many resources you expended, and how long injured heroes will take to recover. But more than the statistical elements, there's the question of how the victory unrolled. Who gave the final blow? Who fell, when? I don't think that the Marvel game plays this up as much as they could, but it would probably hurt their monetization if they tried to push this any further.
In BCB, the ending also isn't simply win/lose. You are judged by several judges each. This not only gives a final win/lose, but teaches you more about the judges and what you should serve them next time. In addition to that, the dishes themselves are fun. You've created the dishes out of high-context ingredients, and seeing those transform is fun. Put in a lot of eyeball monsters, the final dish is an Eyeball Saute.
How things end is the capstone of your narrative experience. If the arches are in the right spot, the capstone holds everything together and you get a great result. If the arches aren't right, or the capstone isn't placed, the whole thing collapses into rubble.
Although Marvel's game can give us great fights with cool endings, that's not the norm. Normally fights fizzle out without much of an ending. This is made worse by the fact that the difficulty is front-loaded: the ending is almost always the easiest part of the fight, when you have the fewest enemies and the most resources to deal with them.
This isn't universally crappy, though. The statistical results of fighting mean that a battle's conclusion feels real and solid even if the ending was pedestrian. For example, if you win without taking a hit, you don't have to heal anyone and can immediately move forward, and that feels pretty great even if you were a set of level 100 heroes against a set of level 3 baddies.
BCB punches up the endings a bit better, because rather than constantly bickering with the enemy, it's a race against yourself, a race against the clock. You can feel the ending getting closer and closer, and the tension naturally rises as you move into various phases of play, judging for yourself how much time you can spend in each phase. On the downside, the enemy isn't really in your face as much. Trash-talk, interfering on the hunting grounds, and so on might help to alleviate that distance, but in the end it is an indirect conflict.
There are a variety of potential avenues towards making something like Marvel's game have better endings, and it all involves building mechanics that pace the ending better. Some of those mechanics might be in-match, such as enemies gaining resources or hitting harder as they get injured or lose team mates. Some of those mechanics might be meta elements, such as a penalty for taking overlevel characters into battle against weak enemies. Either way, they're just imaginary, there's no way to tell how well they would work without trying them out. There is a risk of locking the player into overly strict progressions, which would be just as bad as ending on a fizzle.
Midgame Management is another important element.
When you are playing a match-3, there's a lot of focus on the nature of match-3 play. Not only do you want to line up 3s, you'd like to line up 4s and 5s and double 3s and cause chains and so on. If there's no time pressure (like in Marvel's game) hunting for the best move can be as slow and careful as you like. For games with a timer (like BCB), the focus is typically on smaller grids and heuristic approaches.
Both games make "tending" the battlefield critical. In Marvel, enemy heroes get to take a turn, so it's important not to accidentally leave them with a good move. Done well, you can even trick them into destroying their own attack tiles! While there are only a set number of colors, the weights vary: some times you'll need to absolutely set up greens to insure you can stop rocket attacks, while other times you may want to hunt down that fist icon on that yellow tile. By layering effects on top of colors, the fundamental matching stays the same, but the weight of each color or region of the map changes dramatically.
In BCB, you add all the colors yourself, more or less. With a smaller battlefield and self-chosen colors, you'd think it'd be easier to manage. However, they take a Threes approach: blue isn't always blue. When you match some blues, they turn into a bigger blue that only matches with other tier-2 blues. And so on.
Suddenly the smaller battlefield is not "easier" but "more cramped". Every match you make leaves you worrying about how you'll fit in the next ingredient, and whether you can afford to temporarily knock those two tier 4 blues apart so you can make a tier 3 red... or will the pot overflow before you can recombine them?
These are very different approaches, but they both work. One creates midgame management by adding layers of meaning to various tiles or colors, whereas the other creates midgame management by steadily adding in more and more colors as you make matches.
Of course, neither is completely focused on their approach alone. In BCB specific colors do have different weights depending on the judges or the main ingredient, and in Marvel's game you do get special tiles like criticals that pop up from time to time.
Either way, adding depth to the core gameplay is an important part of keeping the player engaged. Both in terms of adding a difficulty curve and in terms of making context pop.
For example, when you are adding in your ingredients in BCB, you're thinking about whether you can get them to congeal correctly... but you're also thinking about them as Things That Exist. "Should I add more eyeball?" is a question that has both statistical and contextual meaning, and your decision will change how you think about your dish.
There are many ways of adding depth, too. For example, in addition to everything else, in Marvel's game, whoever has the best "attack value" with a given color makes an attack when you match that color. This also leaves them on the front line, and they'll take any damage thrown at your team. This makes managing high-power attackers with low health a fun challenge which evolves over the course of the game as health values fluctuate.
Mix-ins are a big part of making simple gameplay support complex contexts.
In Marvel, your heroes (very high context) are given additional context by their powers. As you make matches, you earn points of various colors, and the various heroes have powers that cost points or are affected by specific colors in various ways.
The diversity of powers is enormous. For example, The Thing has a power where he'll step in front of squishier characters and also create protection tokens, only moderately affected by board state. Kraven the Hunter will diminish enemy tiles and steal mana if there's a lot of enemy tiles. Hawkeye can create a critical, or wipe out a row of tiles. Storm and Juggernaut both have a green ability to smash tiles: Juggernaut smashes more tiles, but Storm earns mana from smashed tiles.
These modifications are not technically part of the match-3 game. They're another game layered on top - they affect each other, but are separate kinds of play. The link between the two is quite tight in this case, largely because there's no time pressure, so the player can just sit and think for a bit about the various options.
In BCB, the alternate game mode is much more distinct: you go out into the wilderness and hack apart monsters for ingredients. Since there's a lot of time pressure, the modes only loosely interlock. That way the player can stay focused - trying to stir your food pot while hacking up a wolf would be considerably more stressful and difficult.
In an RPG you sometimes think of these sorts of things as the other play loop. Like, you explore a dungeon, fight random monsters, get treasure, level up - and each of these are distinct elements.
However, in these simpler games we're seeing, the mix-ins are literally mixed in. They weave in and out of the normal play loop. It'd be like if you leveled up mid-fight and had to choose exactly what bonuses to take before the fight continued. In a classic RPG this would be a bit weird, because the battle system is engineered to keep your whole focus the whole time, so bopping off to do something else for a moment would break your groove.
But with these simpler games, you can wander in and out of the main play without really losing too much focus, since a glance at the board will remind you of where you stand. Moreover, this wandering can be used to radically increase the context of the play and provide additional story beats. When Storm summons hail, it's Storm summoning hail. It's not just a statistical effect: your board and play state is now coated in Storm's story beat. Similarly, killing an eye monster and bringing it back to throw in your pot adds a ton more context to your pot, much more than if you just had a giant stack of eyes on a shelf to throw in.
I used match-3 games as an example, but I think this can be done with any kind of gameplay. You can even dissect existing complex gameplay as two or three kinds of simple gameplay mixed in - running and gunning is [running] and [gunning]. RPG battles are [initiative] and [math]. It's a fun thought, although I'm not convinced it's a good universal framework.
But it can be fun to analyze that stuff with this new eye. If your game is [initiative] and [math] mixed together, can you use the lessons learned here to punch up the context, the ending, the midgame management, and the mixin? It might be really interesting to try to create an RPG that's been re-engineered from scratch to focus on in-battle emergent narratives.
Anyway, those are my thoughts. What do you think?