By Keith Stuart | The Guardian

Smartphone gaming is a tough business – even for the companies at the very top. Candy Crush Saga developer King has struggled to develop new games beyond its hit “match-three” puzzler, while Rovio announced more than 200 lay-offs in August as part of an attempt to restructure and refocus its increasingly bloated business. The app stores are dominated by a handful of longstanding titles, and that makes developing, marketing and launching new IPs even more expensive and risky, especially as it can take several months to start seeing significant returns.
It’s a problem Rovio is about to face head-on. The Finnish company’s latest title, released this week on the Apple and Google stores, is Nibblers, a match-three puzzler featuring a cast of aquatic creatures. As ever, players need to line up similar pieces of fruit to clear each level. Unlike the company’s other recent attempts to explore new genres – including Angry Birds Stella Pop and Angry Birds Go – there are no furious avian creatures or porcine antagonists. The cast – if not the design concept – is entirely new.

According to executive producer, Teemu Hämäläinen, the development process hasn’t been straightforward, despite the familiarity of the genre. “Rovio is all about the characters,” he says. “Everybody knows that Angry Birds is about the birds and the piggies. We looked around and thought, what do we need to do to have the characters right in the centre of a game – actually on the game board itself? You see a lot of puzzle games where the characters are at the very sides of the screen, but you’re not playing with them.”

Last year, a small team of 10 staff started the prototyping process, toying with the fundamentals of the match-three genre. “We played with ideas that let us combine a game board with the characters, within a set of game mechanics that balanced skill and luck,” he says. “We built more than 20 prototypes, but often we just couldn’t get that balance right – it was a long journey.”

Eventually, the team had the idea of including characters among the fruit as gameplay elements. In Nibblers, the heroes are a bunch of amphibian creatures who stumble onto a beach and find lots of delicious fruit, unaware that fish-eating reptiles are watching. In each level, then, the board features not just fruit to match, but also reptilian enemies who have to be dispatched by matching fruit nearby. When the player matches more than three fruit in one go, a friendly fish character pops up onscreen offering a power-up, which can be used immediately, or saved. Match four fruits and you get Coral, who can be swiped vertically or horizontally across the screen, destroying all fruit and enemies in her wake. Five or more matches earns Octo, who stomps through three rows of fruit in one go. Players can even unlock a giant battler called Bouncer who can splat a whole screen in one landing.

It’s a series of special-move mechanics taking from the fighting game genre. Although it’s not exactly a revolution, it’s a neat skill-based addition, accentuated by a combo mechanic that lets you combine the abilities if you have multiple characters on screen at once. As you progress the enemies start eating Nibbler characters and breaking up fruit chains, adding more sense of peril. The game even adds end of level boss fights between different map areas, including a giant snake that sucks up fruit and fish – these need to be hit with multiple fruit matches to defeat. Some of the enemies also move around the board, adding a timing element missing from most match-three titles. “The game is full of surprises,” says Hämäläinen. “We wanted to create a living environment with small movements and animations, even in the backgrounds.”

So why just Nibblers? Why not Angry Birds Nibblers? “We did ask ourselves: do we want to launch another Angry Birds game or do we want a new IP?” says Hämäläinen. “We felt we needed to be more daring. We wanted to create a wider cast of characters. In Angry Birds it’s clear that Red is the leader – we wanted it to be less clear this time. It’s more about the group. We also wanted characters that aren’t too childish – that are likeable but not as much huggable. They’re not too cute or over-polished. But we thought a new IP would allow us to take more liberties – we didn’t need to be worried about the brand or other constraints.”

There’s doubtless something else behind the decision, however. Through its cartoon-style character design and relentless merchandising, Angry Birds has become very much a kid’s brand – but the match-three genre tends to be aimed at an older demographic. Candy Crush saga has proved a huge hit with female players – its key demographic is women aged between 25 and 45. Nibblers had to take a bit out of that sector, so its characters are cute but not childlike.

nibbler game play

The game was soft launched in Canada, Australia, New Zealand and Finland in January (the latter so the development team’s friends and families could play). Rovio watched how the design was appreciated, but also how well it monetised. Unlike Angry Birds, a premium game with an upfront cost, Nibblers is swimming straight into the free-to-play ocean, with players able to buy extra moves or new characters when they’re stuck. Rovio is also toying with the currently trendy “incentivised video advertising” model: if you fail a level, the game asks if you want to look at a video advert in return for a free power-up at the start of your next go.

In terms of the gameplay, the big lesson has been to introduce the fresh gameplay elements slowly – match-three puzzle titles don’t usually have characters that move about the board, or boss baddie encounters – these are small but important shifts toward more “hardcore” gaming content.

Apparently, the priority for the development team – now up to 20 people – is to ensure a fast flow of new content. Free-to-play games have to battle for retention in such a crowded market place and allowing a title to stagnate for even a few weeks will see players moving on elsewhere.

“We want to make sure we can produce a lot of levels in a very short time frame,” says Hämäläinen. “You have to keep giving your audience more things to play. We’re launching with 200 levels, and the first update will be two weeks later when we’re giving an extra 60 levels, and then we’re releasing more content every fortnight – more levels, new islands, new opponents or new game play types. That’s why we have a big team.”

Nibblers certainly resonates with typical Rovio qualities: the visuals and sound are super-polished, with lots of smooth animation and the usual over-the-top victory displays at the end of each stage. And the slightly more complex play dynamics may well bring back match-three fans, who have grown tired of the genre’s staid and limiting properties.

It is, however, still fundamentally a very recognisable game type in a massively overcrowded market, where everyone is using similar visual feedback systems and cunning compulsion loops to ensnare bored commuters. “Competition is fearsome,” admits Hämäläinen. “Launching games is not simple – we have to be humble, it’s always a risk.”