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2021's Merge Mayhem

Monday, 13th of December 2021, 18:48 +01:00

It's the end of the year, which means we're reflecting on the times that have passed to make plans for the times ahead. In the same manner, a year ago, while helping out with Deconstructor of Fun's Puzzle Game predictions I wrote about Metacore's Merge Mansion: "While the game is showing to have some challenges to expand its board in the long term, numerous other studios are quickly catching up with their own version of this highly engaging loop. 2021 will show who will come out victorious."

At Voodoo Berlin we have been one of those studios; having worked harder than ever to lift Plantopia towards the top of the Merge charts, and what a journey it's been. Meanwhile I've been keeping a close eye on the Merge market, which means it's about time for a breakdown of what has happened in 2021 in this new and crazy market segment.

Over the last 12 months we have seen at least 16 new games with the Merge Mansion "Casual Merge-2" loop start scaling their User Acquisition. Its developers are all sticking to their guns as we see conventionally casual-focused companies betting the majority of their monetisation on In-App Purchases, while hypercasual companies Lion and Voodoo include interstitial ads and have Rewarded Videos more deeply wedged inside their game economies. An overview:

Casual Merge games in 2021. Overview sorted by lifetime revenue.

Surprisingly, total market revenue for games with Merge Dragons' "Traditional Merge-3" loop hasn't declined either (even though the number of downloads for these games did). The top dogs have been raking in a whopping $313 million (YTD); about 10% YoY growth in revenue, mainly thanks to EverMerge, Mergical and newcomer Merge Fables saving the day while Gram's isometric kingdoms of Magic and Dragons declined. It's important to not misjudge this situation though, as Merge Dragons still leads the race with almost 45% market share on its own.

Traditional Merge vs. Casual Merge in 2021

The Casual Merge segment is still very much Traditional Merge's little sister with roughly 60% of its downloads and 20% of its revenue. The sizeable difference in revenue can partially be attributed to a lower Revenue Per Download for its titles, as the Merge Dragons loop attracts a more hardcore audience because of its intrinsically less accessible gameplay with higher cognitive load. Additionally, the Traditional Merge market is fairly saturated while the Casual Merge market just seems to be getting started. This suggests that lots of monetisation potential within the latter market is still untapped.

While the segment seems to be a source for lots of potential growth, who (if anyone) will become the 'Evermerge of Casual Merge' has yet to be determined. None of the new games this year have seemed to be able to make anything but a dent in initial innovator Merge Mansion's market share. Looking back at 2017's Merge Dragons, it seems merge history repeats itself where being the first to market shows to be the major factor of success, guaranteeing at least a couple of years of growth and a shot at that $100M dollar league.

This year's rising stars.

Merging Games

Even though Merge Mansion can be crowned to be the initial innovator of the Casual Merge genre by having conceived the first profitable game using this loop, 2021 has shown that innovation never stops. The majority of the new competitors have tried to innovate further on Merge Mansion's formula in bold, original and meaningful ways to differentiate themselves from their predecessor.

The rest of this article focuses on noteworthy innovations in terms of design, as we've seen executed by the new competitors.

Simulation & Light Resource Management

Something that seems to work well for one of this year's challengers, Merge Mayor, is being able to include a sense of simulation to the game, making the game feel deeper than it actually is. While the game in essence still features a visual renovation-driven meta game, it conveys a different message to the player. For example; the lively 3D city contains moving targets that, upon tapping them, provide the player with some coins and the missions feel fresh and can compete with the ones you'd get in SimCity BuildIt.

Gotta earn them City Points!

With Plantopia we've taken the route of entirely decoupling the economy from the visual progression found in the renovation of the garden. This way the renovation can solely support the narrative without impacting the meta, which on itself is more in line with traditional resource management games. This allows the game to not require energy to play, as it has enough timers built in to gate the player.

Attached to this kind of meta game, the casual merge core can really shine through as an inventory management system where players navigate up to 6 different merge boards. While it's a challenging thing to pull off in terms of game economy, having multiple boards removes the often claustrophobic environment Merge Mansion and other single-board competitors suffer from. Combining this with crafting (the ability to combine different items with each other) outside the merge boards adds a whole new layer to a loop that initially only allowed the same items to be merged.

The same system, but executed within its several merge boards can be seen in newcomer Merge Mystery's feature set.

Allowing combinations of different items (L - Plantopia: DIY, R - Merge Mystery: Oven)

A big risk with hefty innovations like these is that the meta starts weighing onto the player's cognition quite substantially, potentially creating a dissonance with the core mechanic which was supposed to be casual in the first place.

Swap out that meta

While the previous examples make the games more complex, what could prove even trickier to design is going the other way and simplifying. Original's Merge Inn has impressively combined the Casual Merge core with a simple level progression instead of having to bother with visual progression like the rest of us. The game does feature a jigsaw puzzle screen that gives the player a tiny bit of new artwork once every blue moon but it's an admirable and very different approach that's very much recommended to be checked out.

Taking Merge Inn's meta game to the next level.

Now, one does not simply swap out metas or cores willy nilly, unless they're Trailmix or something, but it's an approach that could potentially be explored if one would feel up to the challenge. If not, there are definitely other approaches that add innovation in less elementary ways.

Going the other Direction

One of the classic innovation strategies in any artistic product is to change it up when it comes to theme and art direction. Among the most notable examples in this list are Love & Pies and Merge Mayor, who also turn out to be topping the table above. Coincidence? Perhaps, as it's definitely not a surefire way to success, but a distinct art direction definitely helps differentiate the game from the competition. If only it was easy to accomplish...

Uniqueness can pay off (L - Love & Pies, R - Merge Mayor)

Many people praise the award-winning Love & Pies for its beautifully unique style and ambience, and Merge Mayor's art style is a very smart choice as it nicely compliments its 3D world. Additionally, Merge Hotel has taken a room-based, Fallout Shelter-like approach with their meta game, but there are other, less inventive ways to Rome as well. Bigger's Mergedom has taken the unique and vibrant art direction also seen in Match Royale and used it to their advantage by implementing it into their merge title. Hey, no one said you can't take your renovation meta from games in other segments!

L - Mergedom resembling Royal Match, R - Plantopia resembling Animal Crossing

In Plantopia we've tried to create a more cosy atmosphere by taking inspiration from Animal Crossing's world by showing the garden much more up close and personal. A more practical reason for this choice was the game's orientation. Showing a lush garden in portrait ratio is trickier and requires some experimentation, but it does allow for one-dimensional, more casual camera control.

Theme & Fantasy

At this point there are more games about renovating some inherited mansion than actual, real-world mansions, so coming up with something a little more original could be a favourable direction. Two examples of developers in the list who would agree are the creators of Merge Master and recently released Merge Mystery: Lost Island, both of which feature more masculine thematics.

Developer MY.GAMES writes on Merge Master's store page the player will be able to "Embark on a journey full of honorable deeds, giant monsters, powerful wizards, flying cows, and other awesome epic adventures" while the fantasy of Merge Mystery is being "a young ambitious journalist who finds herself on a mystery island hidden in the middle of nowhere". Both games have art styles that fit their themes; Merge Master has gone for the mid-core characters and palette while Merge Mystery takes inspiration from games like Hidden City and other murder mystery-themed games. Shutter Island vibes guaranteed.

Exploration-based meta games (L - Merge Masters, R -Merge Mystery)

Another very surprising theme is featured in Lion Games' Merge Life where the player starts their life as a baby and sees their on-screen depiction grow into various stages of adulthood.

I have yet to figure out what happens when the player level starts nearing 90...

Just for fun, the tally of "things to renovate" in the Casual Merge games listed is as follows: 5 homes or mansions, 5 towns, 2 restaurants, a hotel, a farm and a garden. Even though the player has to decorate the scene for the character in Merge Life as well, it is way more refreshing that the fantasy is very different and much closer to real life than actually inheriting an old mansion to fix up.

Narrative

Getting the narrative right for mobile games is not an easy task. It requires an intriguing hook, humour, character development, relatability, a seamless theme fit and all of this delivered with just the right frequency using bite-size & snappy dialogues. Love & Pies has invested in getting this right and it's showing, but it's not the only one. Youngster DesignVille seems to have taken the Lily's Garden approach with a romantic hook at game start suggesting the guy you're starting a business with is actually your high school crush! And while we're comparing with Lily; DesignVille is the only Casual Merge game with a Landscape orientation, which it uses to its full advantage to get that extra immersive experience that are its fully customisable home makeover scenes!

Thank you, DesignVille, for finally letting me easily paste a single, well-fitting game screenshot in my articles again.

Other games like Gram's Merge Estate have tried spicing up their narrative with some player choices, as seen in Wooga's Switchcraft, although the game's story lacks some of the other aforementioned ingredients required.

While writing the narrative for Plantopia we've been trying our hardest to include a non-conventional storyline involving squatting an abandoned garden and all ethical dilemmas that one encounters doing so. While I surely had fun writing these dialogues, it eventually required so much narrative design that we had to invest time in finding and hiring a killer freelance writer to take over. What shouldn't be overlooked either are the supportive visuals that come with unlocking narrative beats in a game's meta. When committing to narrative, we need to be prepared to invest lots of time and money into it. Otherwise, don't bother; it's much better to just touch a general theme using some visual storytelling than adding lots of cumbersome dialogues without substance which will only interfere with the gameplay.

Try everything you can to write an engaging narrative on mobile.

Fidelity and Lean Execution

This whole article compares games like they have been made within the same budget, but they weren't. Another way to build a successful merge game is to be really lean on its execution. Even though this is a rather invisible part of game development it's possible to roughly determine how much effort a studio has put into developing their game. With Merge Villa, Merge Life and their newest Riverside Merge we know Lion Games usually skews their projects towards hypercasual scopes, while with other examples like Merge Friends we have informative podcasts confirming a similar cadence. These games simply don't have to bring in as much revenue as Love & Pies or DesignVille to count as commercial successes.

Lower fidelity games have lower profitability thresholds. (L - Merge Town: Design Farm, R - Riverside Merge)

A lot of words above have been spent on innovation, but as the last paragraph above describes it's also possible to innovate outside of the product itself and streamline its development process. Especially in that case, be sure to not innovate on anything inside the game, as it will nullify the effort of staying lean.

The right balance

You might have noticed me mentioning our own Plantopia in the majority of paragraphs above. This wasn't boasting (or maybe just a little) as it's actually a mistake to innovate on too many aspects of your product. It will most likely lose whatever has been working for its predecessor as it becomes too unique. As this will most likely attract a more niche (but highly satisfied) audience, it will also result in a lower average long-term retention, making it much harder to recoup that ever-rising CPI.

For more details about the areas in which we've innovated while developing our attempt at Casual Merge success at Voodoo Berlin, listen to episode 32 of the Mastering Retention podcast I recorded with the awesome people at UserWise last summer.

Sooo... Is there still time?

Still thinking about jumping that Casual Merge bandwagon? Carefully think about your strategy as the market segment is quickly saturating. Merge CPIs have been rising to sky-high levels, sometimes to as much as $10 per acquired player around this time of the year. That critical mass of players Metacore was able to sustain by scaling their game a year ago when these players were still costing $2 is the reason for their colossal market share within this segment. The game you develop needs to have at least 15% to 20% Day-30 retention, which should be possible if your game builds further upon Merge Mansion's success with some innovation in at least one of the mentioned areas. Possible, but like anything in game dev; it's no cakewalk!

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