Imagine a friend came up to you and said: “You know what would we should do? Let’s find one of the most succesful and profitable mobile game companies in the world, clone their flagship title and compete with them and their towering marketing budgets in the highly competitive Casual Free-to-Play market! We didn’t make games before, so what could possibly go wrong!?” What would you say?
From the outside, this is exactly how it sounds Matchington Mansion came into this world. Playrix, a trendsetting company with 15 years of experience making puzzle games has been subjected to countless attempts to having their games cloned before, but I’d argue none of these were as blatant and on-point as the case of Matchington Mansion.
Read on for my take on their marketing strategy and Game Design.
Matchington Mansion was created by Firecraft Studios. A company with zero previously released games, an Ltd. on the Cayman Islands, exempt from a LinkedIn or Glassdoor page and only 2 publicly open former employees.
It’s hard to not call the sheer impertinence in which Firecraft studios seems to have taken on Playrix and their Homescapes title at least impressive. Launching only a month after its “inspiration” (which was an instant hit) Matchington Mansion has steadily but slowly been growing.
Matchington Mansion isn’t the only game trying to take a bite out of Playrix’ apple; Family Zoo (Plarium, Aug 2017), Home Design Makeover (Storm8, Feb 2018) and My Home – Design Dreams (Zentertain, Aug 2018) have been making attempts, but have all reached nothing but tiny fractions of what Firecraft Studios has accomplished. Newcomer Hidden Hotel (WhaleApp, Feb 2019) even uses a different core-game (Hidden Object instead of match-3) but the meta-game is the same in all mentioned titles.
But sometimes, fortune does favor the bold; after less than 2 years they did it. Last February, Matchington Mansion surpassed Homescapes in terms of revenue. Having seen tremendous growth in Q4 2018 and especially Q1 2019, Firecraft have pulled off a pretty profound stunt. February’s huge jump in rank boosting Matchington Mansion to the top charts is the culmination of their innovative marketing strategies. If you have been playing mobile games and watch ads from time to time, you’re probably familiar with this ad:
Regardless of the fact that this ad doesn’t represent the core gameplay at all, it does something really well. It makes the viewer think they can do it better. “What do you mean ‘so hard’, you just messed it up!” With ads like these, Firecraft has persistently managed to lower their CPI so substantially they started to be able to compete with the big boys for those sweet sweet high-LTV players. In the process, they have worked tirelessly on their marketing strategy, not shying away from controversy.
Their efforts have been so successful that Playrix has started copying back many of Firecraft’s marketing creatives. Mostly for Homescapes but for some of their other games (e.g. Township) as well.
As a creative, it’s safe to say I’m not a fan of clones. However, after playing Matchington Mansion for about 120 levels, the Game Designer in me is relieved. It’s not only just a clever marketing ploy. Defying all of my initial expectations, Matchington Mansion is actually a decent game! The reason why it kept players playing and paying after all that marketing is because it has done quite a couple of things better than Homescapes, although the devil is in the details. Read on to find out.
The games themselves, a comparison
After talking and speculating about Matchington Mansion’s marketing successes, there are still quite some unknowns, especially given the cloudiness of Firecraft studios it’s hard have a detailed account of what happened in that aspect. What’s easier to analyse is the game itself and see why the game performs the way it does. Word on the streets is their ARPDAU indicates to be roughly double that of Homescapes. Which parts of the game’s design make it such a lucrative product?
The Core Gameplay
The meat of any match-3 game is still, and will always be its level design. You can have an amazing meta-game, but if your levels play badly, your players will leave. Both Homescapes and Matchington Mansion have high quality level design, but their play styles feel very different. Take a look at the following example:
For comparison’s sake, I took two consecutive Homescapes levels with very different level design. In level 82, which could be characterised as “puzzly”, the player has a relatively limited space to create supergems (the exploding ones that are created when matching more than 3), even though they are essential to reach the (apple) blockers in the bottom corners. Levels like these are usually configured to have a lower amount of different colours, providing limited possibilities for the player to create matches. This forces them to have longer thinking breaks between their moves to find a way to create those horizontal rocket supergems necessary to clear the corners.
Level 83 is much more open and at start clearly foreshadows the feeling of the level by placing gems of the same colour in each half of the level. By starting in the top middle, the player opens up more and more space by blasting their way through the checkerboard-patterned blockers. The more space that is created, the easier the level gets. Levels like these are configured to have more matching possibilities (and therefore more auto-matches) and blockers with a higher amount of layers (hit points) since there is going to be much more supergem action.
For the average match-3 player, “blasty” levels like level 83 involve a much more attractive play style, psychologically. There is less thinking involved since it matters less which exact supergems are created (all of them will do).
Having done a lot of match-3 level design and analysing the performance data for most of these levels, I can say that the amount of auto-matches has a sweet spot. Levels with an average of X auto-matches per move retain best. Configure too many colours and the player won’t have enough match possibilities (agency), configure a too low amount of colours and the level will play itself because it will generate too many auto-matches. Blasty levels are by definition much closer to this sweet spot than puzzly levels.
Don’t get me wrong, puzzly levels are enjoyable, but only to a certain extent. They usually make for a great palette cleanser after having had a couple of blast levels but I would refrain from making the bulk of your match-3 levels puzzles.
Now here’s the kicker. Compared to Matchington Mansion, Homescapes’ level design is much more “puzzly”, it’s noticably different. Both types of levels appear in both games, but an average Matchington Mansion level is usually much more “blasty”. This is confirmed by the different supergem that gets created by their ‘square’ matches.
In Homescapes, this match results in an airplane gem. When matched, the airplane flies to a pseudo-random spot anywhere on the board to explode in a plus-shaped manner, always targeting a useful objective in the level. This is a common technique used in level design to give the player some influence on what happens elsewhere on the board or break up possible “dead areas” without matches. Because Matchington Mansion’s levels require less tactical hitting of faraway objectives, the game’s designers decided they don’t need this behaviour, which is why Matchington Mansion’s variant of this supergem doesn’t fly before exploding.
The Meta Game
What are these games about? Exactly, home decoration. And here as well, Matchington Mansion has a system that’s more engaging than Homescapes.
In both games, when a part of the player’s house (furniture, wallpaper, carpets, anything) can be decorated, the player is presented 3 options to choose from. This way, each room can look totally different for every player.
The radical difference between Homescapes and Matchington Mansion is that the latter has used these different options to their full potential by adding a collection mechanic. Participating in events and visiting a friend’s mansion unlocks more decorative options. A brilliant addition.
And this brings us to another essential difference. In Homescapes, the player chooses one out of the three options they like, but if they afterwards decide they don’t like how their Red Armchair matches the carpet, they can change it at any point.
In Matchington Mansion the options also stay available, except they charge the player for every item they want to change later. Purchasing it adds the option to their collection permanently. So when the player visits a friend and is being told they “Got Warm Leather Couch”, the game actually means “You’ve now unlocked the possibility to buy it”.
“But what about being friendly towards the player?” I hear you say? Isn’t the fact that players can freely change the looks of their entire room a much better way to make them happy? Being facilitating to your players sounds like the winning strategy here. Well, it isn’t.
By giving the player the other two options for free, the importance of choosing between different styles of furniture is nullified. It’s now a purely cosmetic judgement in which only players intrinsically motivated by home decoration might still see meaning. Matchington Mansion on the other side, gives the first choice as a reward for winning a level and presents the others as purchasable options the player can collect afterwards. By adding different prices to different options, the player’s perception of their value is enforced even more. Now I’m beginning to see where that difference in monetisation comes from.
While in 2018, Playrix has been struggling to create meaningful and deep events in their game, Matchington Mansion again has taken more initiative. In Homescapes, one kind of event has been a competitive tournament with leaderboard rewards. While playing levels, performing as many specific actions (e.g. matching to create airplane supergems) as possible ranks players against each other so they can compete for rewards. Nothing revolutionary from a live-ops perspective and not very interesting for non-competitive players.
Another type of event in Homescapes is the one they call ‘Furry Tales’. It’s an 8-level saga-style sequence of levels where players need to reach and win the 8th level without losing 3 times. This one has been successful, leveraging your game’s core gameplay and a sequence of specifically catered levels is never a bad idea. Original? Not so much.
In Matchington Mansion, players are given the option to be teleported to entirely new areas (away from the mansion). From private islands with pristine beaches in summer to cozy cottages in winter. Firecraft effectively caters to their players in areas they know there’s interest; fixing up locations to make them look pretty. Visual rewards, especially involving seasonal content can never be underestimated.
The novelty effect created by moving the player to a whole different area they can start renovating is pretty strong. No frustrating saga-sequence of levels is needed, simple and peaceful decorating seems to work well enough.
Lastly, I have to say the story in Matchington Mansion has been much more enjoyable in my (subjective) point of view. Austin the butler has never interested me much. He leads a pretty dull and sad life at first, where the main two characters he interacts with most are his parents.
Technically, Homescapes’ story lacks some depth as well. The hook “Fix the mansion to persuade my parents not to sell it” doesn’t work as well as the antagonist-driven “That capitalist jerk is trying to turn my sweet granny’s mansion into a casino”
Additionally, Matchington Mansion’s early story also includes a love interest (the handsome maintenance guy) which results in much edgier dialogue.
Especially this last point is highly subjected to personal preference, but it can be said that narratively, Matchington Mansion’s story has more ingredients to make it engaging.
Even though both games have an identical theme and core-game, there are still enough differences between them when zooming in. It’s a very interesting rivalry to keep track of, especially now Homescapes has released their social system last week, introducing ‘teams’ of players to work towards common goals and compete against other teams. As this is something that Matchington Mansion lacks entirely, it opens up unique possibilities for Playrix to keep players engaged by connecting them to each other. If done in a meaningful way, a live game’s lifetime can be extended by years.
In any case, it has to be seen how Matchington Mansion keeps performing during the next months to see if Playrix should be worried. They still have the huge cash advantage their wildly successful Fishdom, Township, Gardenscapes and Homescapes IPs provide, to continue buying ever-increasingly expensive players. But with Matchington Mansion’s monetisation potential, Firecraft’s snowball can continue to keep rolling, and who knows for how long. As is mostly the case in this segment of the F2P market it will come down to long-term retention.