Japan’s top grossing free-to-play mobile game, GungHo Entertainment’s Puzzle & Dragons (P&D) for iOS and Android, is estimated to generate between five billion yen ($54 million) to seven billion yen ($75.5 million) a month in the country, according to the Japanese press as translated by industry watcher and analyst Dr. Serkan Toto. Despite the massive success in Japan, P&D hasn’t really succeeded to take over the Western market.
In this post I’ll go through the eight key mechanics which make P&D so successful in Japan. In my opinion, these same eight mechanics are also why P&D hasn’t had success in the US AppStore.
The core loop
P&D’s core loop is very simple. Player enters a dungeon which costs specific amount of Stamina, based on the toughness of the dungeon. Stamina reloads over time. Once the player has completed the dungeon, they earn XP, Coins (soft currency) and a few random monsters.
Leveling up requires players to sacrifice other monsters they own. Once the monster is leveled up to the maximum level, the player can then evolve the monster. Evolving requires the player to have a specific set of evo material (rare monsters). Sacrificing and evolving costs Coins and the prices rise steeply, hand in hand with the monster’s level.
The Eight Core Elements of Success
On the surface P&D is an extremely simple and rewarding game. Essentially, what the player needs to do is play a simplified match game and just make sure that the orb colors match the color of monsters they use.
Completing dungeons is easy and yet very rewarding, as there is always that element of surprise when a player opens up the monster eggs earned for completing the dungeon. The fact that you can play P&D with only one hand and that it requires very little skill adds to the simplicity of the game.
After the player has cleared a dozen dungeons, two things happen. Firstly, the player’s monster box starts to get full, forcing players to think which monsters they are going to keep and which they are going to sacrifice or sell.
Secondly, the player starts craving for tougher monsters, as dungeons get slowly but steadily tougher. Demand for better monsters results in players wanting to learn how to get those monsters and thus prepares them for the complex part of the game.
The complexity comes from the whole meta-game that swirls around a player’s monster collection. Which monster will I keep? Which monsters will I get rid of? What will my monster team look like? How to make the perfect combination of my monsters’ special skills? What evo materials do I need to find?
This meta game also starts to affect the playing behavior. Engagement improves, as playing is not just about fun anymore. Now every session has a clear target and players start playing more often to earn more monsters they can sacrifice or sell.
3. Stamina (Energy mechanics)
One of the key restriction mechanics in P&D is the limited Stamina, which is consumed every time the player enters a dungeon. There are few twists that differentiate P&D’s energy mechanics from the more common energy mechanics that we know from Facebook games.
The way energy mechanics are implemented in D&G is very well thought, as it enables fast progress in the beginning and slow progress once the player is more engaged. This is because in the beginning the player’s Stamina caps are very low and thus quickly replenished, but as the game progresses the Stamina caps will raise and so will the time it takes for the Stamina to be replenished. Slowing down progression is the best way to drive monetization.
Growing the Stamina cap also has two additional game design benefits. Firstly, P&D puts on different Stamina prices on different dungeons. By increasing a price to enter tougher dungeons, P&D limits the session length of experienced players.
Secondly, when there’s no worry that inexperienced players may wonder into tougher dungeons (they just don’t have enough stamina to even enter them) P&D can have those special dungeons visible for all players, thus creating a long-term target for even the most novice of players.
4. Monster Consumption
In order to improve their monsters, players need to first level them up and then evolve them. Leveling up requires players to sacrifice monsters they collect from the dungeons. Once the target monster is leveled up to its maximum level, the player can evolve that monster into something new and exciting. But evolving isn’t easy, as player needs to find specific sets of evo monsters from the dungeons in order to make the evolution happen.
Then there’s the issue of Coins, as both leveling up and evolving cost currency. The only way to get more Coins is to complete more dungeons. Players can’t even buy Coins with real money. So, in order to progress, players really need to invest time.
But what’s truly great about the well-functioning monster consumption mechanics is the fact that the monsters are both permanent and consumable, depending fully on what the player chooses to do with them. This allows the game economy to reward players constantly with dozens of different monsters.
And it also goes hand in hand with the best practice of F2P, which is rewarding players for the time spent playing.
5. Gambling Elements
In P&D players can’t buy the monsters they want or need. In fact, there are only two ways to get new monsters. The first one is by completing dungeons and the second one is by getting them from the Machine. New monsters always come in eggs, which are then hatched in front of the player, revealing a random monster inside.
The lack of direct monster purchase and randomness are what makes this game monetize so well. First of all, by taking away the possibility to directly buy the desired monsters, P&D increases the engagement. If players wouldn’t need to complete tens of dungeons just to level up a single monster they wouldn’t feel as invested to the game.
The lack of instant buy possibility also keeps the economy of the game working as players cant run through the dungeons with super powerful monsters they just bought. Finally the randomness also takes away the cap from purchases. Instead of buying that one monster player needs she’ll end up using the tens of dollars into Machine, which spits out random monsters.
6. Rapid content production
Basically all F2P games rely on new content delivered via updates. A good content update adds something new to the game that players will want and need. Something new that will encourage players to continue playing to earn this added content. Something new that will make some players want to spend their money to get it instantly.
But there’s a difference between adding new content on a monthly basis and finding yourself in a content treadmill. A content treadmill is that scenario where the development team goes into constantly adding new content just to keep the players away from boredom. And when you’re concentrating just on the content you will most likely fail to improve all the other aspects of the game, such as stability, graphics, UI, brand, social etc.
You can reduce the risk of ending in a content treadmill with improved game mechanics and game design. For example, adding social channels such as chat, groups and alliances is a good way to have players adding content to the game. Player vs. Player gameplay is another great way to avoid content treadmill.
The way P&D avoids content treadmill is by having extremely easily producible content. Players progress by beating dungeons and those dungeons are very easy to develop. Dungeons look pretty much identical, as only the color of the walls and the opponents change. So, adding few hundreds dungeons is not a big deal. It doesn’t even require a new build, just a simple server side update.
I’d say P&D is a social game in its own way. There’s no chat in the game, nor any player versus player mode. There’s no direct interaction with other people, no guilds and no social network integrations. Yet every time the player enters a dungeon, they enter it with another player as their helper and the amount of friend requests players send to each other is huge.
Before entering a dungeon, the player has to choose a helper, which is a monster from another player. Every time a player uses another player’s monster as a helper, the helper’s owner receives Pal Points, which are used for the Machine to get new monsters. The more often players play, the higher the chance to appear as a helper for other players and thus earn Pal Points.
After the player has cleared a dungeon, they can add the helper’s owner as a friend by sending them a friend request. Players can have a specific amount of friends based on their rank. The higher the rank, the more friends players can have. Using friends’ monsters as helpers results in getting more Pal Points as well as getting additional Leader Skills, which make you monsters more powerful. Having active friends is crucial, as players can use a helper only once, after which they have to wait until the helper’s owner logs out and logs back to the game.
In short, the social mechanics of the game drives retention by encouraging several logins per day. Social mechanics also drive players to progress, as the better the helper they have to offer, the more often it will be used, which will result in the player getting more Pal Points.
8. Special Dungeons (Events)
There are several limited time special dungeons open for each player to enter. Some of the dungeons are day specific, such as Monday Dungeons, while others are just there to provide a serious challenge for the players. But there’s one common element between all the special dungeons: in order to truly evolve their monsters, players need to complete these dungeons.
As discussed in the Gambling Elements section above, the only way to get better monsters is to evolve them, and evolving requires sets of very rare monsters, which players can earn by completing the special dungeons.
So, in order to progress, players need to play special dungeons and in order to complete special dungeons, the same players need to have powerful monsters, a high Stamina cap, as well as some very good helper monsters from friends. In other words, Special Dungeons fit perfectly within the core loop of the game.
The Special Dungeons are very tough. Just check out this blog describing strategies on how to beat Special Dungeons: http://puzzledragonsus.blogspot.fi/2012/11/legendary-mech-dragon-friday-dungeon.html
Bonus: Pay to Continue
Remember game arcades? Remember playing Time Cop or Virtual Fighter and losing? Remember seeing that 10 second counter during which you can insert a coin and continue playing? Well P&D has that mechanic and it absolutely rocks.
Why Puzzle & Dragons only appeals to the Japanese market
P&D has held on to its number one spot in the Japanese AppStore’s top grossing list since February. Yet, when you look at the grossing rankings of the US AppStore, P&D hasn’t been able to even establish itself in top 50.
It would be easy to say that P&D’s lack of success in the US market is due to the complexity of the game. Without prior experience in Japanese games that rely on evolving characters, this game is very hard to understand and enjoy. But Rage of Bahamut made it to the top. So did Marvel: War of Heroes. And both of them are far more complex titles with very similar game mechanics.
In my opinion the reason for its failure is a combination of complexity, theme mismatch and modest user acquisition strategy. You don’t see many monster and card collection games coming outside the Asian market because the Occidental players aren’t that familiar with the theme. Then, when you add the complexity of a distant theme, it all becomes even more complex for casual players.
Meanwhile, the more experienced players who actually understand how to play P&D are turned off by the lack of PvP.
Finally, I assume that GungHo Online Entertainment is not set to take over the US AppStore by any means necessary, unlike DeNA and Gree which both would buy their way to the top of the list, even if it means net loss.