Cinderella Free Fall was Amber’s first dive into making a game from scratch and remains, to this day, the longest living title by Amber, having been downloaded more by more than 10M players. In many ways, it also represents the steepest learning curve we went through, and in some respects, this was our baptism by fire.
In the article below we’ll be sharing our learnings, casting a critical look at the decisions we made while building the game.
What is Cinderella Free Fall?
We built this game for Disney Interactive with one thought in mind: make something that’s strong enough to sit next to the previous two titles in the franchise: Frozen Free Fall and Maleficent Free Fall. These are both Top Grossing / Top Free To Play ranking games in the mobile world so we were already looking at a steep ascent to hit their standards.
We built the game in a little under 7 months, as it had to be ready by the time the movie would hit the screens; at launch we had a game in which you get to be the slipper-misplacing princess herself, Cinderella, with a story unfolding over 100 challenging levels.
Since the previous two titles had used up the swipe mechanic we decided that our game had to pivot towards a new way of matching. This is how we came up with the connect mechanic. To win you’d have to match luminous butterfly jewels in long strings. To make things even better, players would get help from powerful wish magic and the lovable animal friends Gus and Jacqueline.
We had no clue of what would happen next: The game hit 1 million downloads in the first weeks from launch. We eventually ended up building an additional 30 updates for it, spread across two years of development, 700+ levels and a ton of fun game development stories.
But more important, here’s some of the things we learned.
This is a question that bugs a lot of developers. In the first few days of the project we tried to get our heads around one question: how wild should we go? We had two voices in the dev team: the more courageous wanted innovation and authenticity; the seasoned vets wanted to play it safe and were willing to trade authenticity for success and a beaten path. Truth be told, there is really no guarantee that innovation or no innovation whatsoever will give you a successful product as the success equation is a very complicated one. We knew that this was the 3rd game in the franchise so people wanted something new. We also knew that the market at that point was dominated by Candy Crush so the trend was quite clear. That meant that there was a ton of people out there who knew match 3 and probably wanted more of it. At the same time, in such a saturated market it would be hard for us to hook people to our game if we would not bring something new in the core mechanics. Enter the Mere Exposure theory.
In the 1960s, Robert Zajonc of the Stanford University developed a new theory, that would later be termed Mere Exposure Theory.It demonstrated that people have an intrinsic liking towards stimuli they are familiar with. Zajonc’s observations showed that repeated exposure to a stimulus brings about an attitude change in relation to it. He focused on processes involved in social behavior, with an emphasis on the relationship between affect, or emotion, and cognition. For example, he found that participants reacted more favorably towards the nonsense words zebulons and worbus through repeated exposure. That is to say, we are more likely to play, and enjoy games that we are familiar with rather than ones that are strongly differentiated.
For us this meant a decision that favoured a pivot in the game’s design, albeit a small one and a change in our product philosophy. For the game, it meant that we would stay in the match 3 realm but we came up with a new way of blending the gems: connecting. Players would Connect strings of same-colored jewels to make a match. Longer lines of matching gems would unleash Wish Magic for powerful effects; Connecting jewels in circles and other forms would release even more exciting combos. This way we stayed true to the match 3 DNA of the Free Fall franchise and also create a differentiator that would make people say “Ah! That’s clever!”
For our future product philosophy this would create the slogan: “Innovate? Differentiate!” To this day, this slogan keeps our design grounded, accessible and creates healthy doses of innovation.
By the end of the second week we knew that our game would differentiate in the core gameplay mechanic to bring some freshness in the match 3 space and we knew how to do it. We also knew that others, before us had done similar changes in the match 3 space, like Two Dots and Jellysplash but we had no clue if that would work for us. The Free Fall franchise had a very specific ingredient in the mechanic which was “the cascade effect” in which after a good set of matches the board would detonate special gems that would cause the pieces to reshuffle. You could see this in the “Freefall!” sequences especially. This was in direct contrast with our connect mechanic that was tailored towards a more laid back, slow paced gameplay.
To mitigate for this, we decided to prototype the core mechanic alone to play and explore the game better. Truth be told, even the best designers can only foresee so much when creating gameplay and usually software is the best place to test game design theory. Prototyping early also means that you can catch a lot of wrong assumptions before going to production. This can spare you a lot of pain and suffering when building the full game. Plus, the team can get accustomed to the game very early, ideally before you hit the Concept stage. This means a lot more in-depth thinking from the very beginning of the project.
For us prototyping meant that we quickly found a way to bring Free Fall and the Cascade Effect into our connect game. We ended up allowing users to connect diagonally as well and adding a couple more special moves, named “Wish Magic” in our game, to the player’s arsenal. This sped up our game and created more reshuffle opportunities on the board.
Approach your design rationally…
Design is something that is highly personal and, to be honest, I have no problem with that. I have seen many unique and diverse approaches that generated amazing game mechanics or game content. However, growing up as a game developer I found there is a certain mysticism that seemed to surround effective design practices in most of the companies I had worked for. I’m a producer by trade, with a long period focused on operations, and the whole “feeling it right” design was not something that I was crazy about; moreover, while we were building this game we were still a start-up and “shooting from the hip” did not really sit well with us for obvious budgeting considerations. We eventually found that eliminating “zen” design practices, veterans like Dan Cook, Steve Swink & Jesse Schell had already made significant cognitive leaps. One of our lead designer, Ionut, introduced us to work that was focused around turning alchemy into science. It was called Rational Game Design and in the next few months we had fully embraced it.
We used RGD to plan our game in terms of mechanics distribution, difficulty curve and general level design.
While using RGD, we learned that it’s fundamental perk is to eliminate unnecessary information, making your design plan inherently readable, understandable and efficient. This makes the game a lot easier to digest for the players and guarantees introduction of mechanics in an orderly manner. It also allowed us to easily model the learning and difficulty curves of a game, creating a macro flow even before we went into content development. Having this meant we had a guaranteed engagement model that we could connect to our meta loop.
Google, it, learn it, love it!
Design for retention
When we released it, our game had none of the classic retention features like daily rewards, online push notifications and time limited events. It had all been planned for, but because of the short development timing we could not bring them into the game. We knew that this would happen so instead of trying to drop everything in at the last moment we focused on two things alone: on-boarding and progression. This, coupled with a strong macro flow allowed us to get a strong base line for Retention from the very first weeks of the soft launch. The rationale, for this was simple: if players are onboarded right and the progression creates a healthy challenge they will come back even without the classic retention tools.
Building a good Onboarding sequence, or First Time User Experience (FTUE), is your guarantee that people are willing to learn your game. Mobile gamers are renewed for their short attention span & short gameplay sessions. So, keep in mind that you have about 3 minutes to get players interested in your game. With Cinderella, to ensure that players get it we planned for several completions of the core loop in the first session of the game. This means that each of the first levels were a good balance of rewarding and challenging, all in short time spans. Having this, allowed us to get players invested in our game while gradually introducing more advanced notions of gameplay.
Healthy progression is the second aspect of a good retention baseline. You should know when to push the player off the cliff of difficulty and give them a challenge. Easy games are the ones that players label as boring and never come back to. Hard games are frustrating and alienate the players. The trick is to know when to challenge the players so that they either invest attention in your game or fail but remain challenged enough to come back. Free to play games excel at this with a good mix of progression and energy mechanic. After measuring play sessions, we learned that level 12 was the best time in our game to challenge players. This is the game’s first gameplay gate where skill really makes a difference. We soon found out that even when failing, players would come back to our game once their energy had been replenished. Obviously, this was also a huge “Phew!” moment for us.
The lesson here is that while classic retention tools are good to have, your focus should be in designing a gameplay experience that generates retention.
Plan for monetization
Because we did not plan so well. One of the missing role in our team at kick off was a Product Manager. We were confident in our design skills, all of us had some previous free to play experience so we decided to take our chances.
The plan was to keep it simple, one currency, four types of merchandise, five price points. We had no clue how bad this would hit us after launch.
By update four we learned that even though we had good retention our audience was reluctant to pay and more willing to grind our game. Some brand audiences are like that: they come for the brand, stay for the game but have low conversion. This was not something we had planned for and meant we needed a more granular and complex micro economy. This meant adding a more granular currency: Magic Dust. Having two currencies in the game deepened the engagement and eventually increased LTV.
However, introducing the new currency alienated a lot of our core audience.
Lesson here: have scalable micro economy in your game from the earliest of stages so that you can embed it into your game.
Know your IP
If you are building a game off a movie you are in for a balancing act: how much do you give away vs how much do you save for future content? Moreover, how much is your licensor willing to give away in your game vs how much are they saving for the big screen? Truth be told, there is no right answer. You can bet on one thing: most people will download your game because they love the IP and will stay for gameplay. Eventually they will become so invested in the game itself that it becomes a hobby. Ubisoft’s Jason VandenBerghe has a whole theory about player motivation that I invite you to read. He also has 3 talks at GDC that further dissect the problem.
No matter how much access you have to plans regarding the IP you are working with, you should know it well enough to create content that plays to its strengths. Also, should be congruent to the expectations of your audience. You want people to come back into your game because they love the gameplay but also because they are going back to a universe they already love and identify with.
While building Cinderella Free Fall we learned this quick enough, from the very early stages of concept. Our initial release would tell the story leading up to Ella meeting the Prince, which counts for about 30% of the story. The rest were planned for future updates.
However, there is something deeper to understanding your IP than just content development and building and that is creating meaningful content. In many ways, this is the plague that marks IPs that cross-over from the gaming world to cinema and the other way around. People who articulate the same intellectual property in different mediums don’t fully understand it.
Have fun while building it
Easier said than done, there is no middle way about it: if you don’t have fun making games your games won’t be fun. So, go ahead, embrace it!