How the most lucrative mobile game on the planet is fighting to sustain Japan’s other whaling problem
On the fight to sustain Puzzle & Dragons, once the most lucrative mobile game on the planet
GungHo Online Entertainment was nothing before Puzzle & Dragons. The publisher owned a number of game companies, but the likes of Goichi Suda’s Grasshopper Manufacture, Tenchu developer Acquire and Grandia maker Gravity were hardly the biggest or most lucrative industry names. In 2012, GungHo launched Puzzle & Dragons, a free-to-play mobile game blending elements of
Bejeweled, Pokémon and Puzzle Quest. Within a year of its Japanese launch it was the top-grossing mobile game in the world and the first to make a billion dollars. Company financials for 2013 showed profits and revenue up by almost 600 per cent – and over 90 per cent of the company’s $1.5 billion income came from Puzzle & Dragons.
The game’s success was born of an immaculate blend of accessibility, depth and savvy monetisation, but as the years have passed, the first of those qualities has diminished. Competitors have borrowed
Puzzle & Dragons’ structure and surpassed it in the sales charts. User numbers have fallen. The game has changed as a result: once it was an innovator, but now GungHo pilfers ideas from the very games it inspired. And instead of seeking to grow the game’s userbase, the company’s approach is to make more money out of the players it already has. It’s still breaking new ground, in a way. Mobile gaming is still a young market, and a fickle one. Four years on from launch, Puzzle & Dragons is an intriguing case study in what happens when the most lucrative mobile game in the world suddenly finds itself fighting for survival. Back in February 2012, however, Puzzle &
Dragons (shortened to Pazudora in Japan, and PAD in the west) was a revelation in a nascent free-to-play mobile-game market where chart-toppers were mechanically slight and grubbily monetised. GungHo’s game offered the depth of a full-priced game, but for free, and hid its lust for cash well, rewarding daily logins with the game’s premium currency, Magic Stones, and making more available for completing dungeon sets for the first time. But it was the pleasure of simply playing the thing that catapulted the game up the charts; it’s easy to see a screenshot and dismiss it as a simple game of match three, but there’s so much more to it than that.
The action is set over a 6x5 board, containing six kinds of orbs: fire, water and wood (each weak and strong against others), dark and light (strong against each other but with no weakness), and heart (used to restore the team’s HP). You can move a single orb freely for four seconds, making as many matches of at least three orbs as you can until the timer runs out, at which point the team attacks. The higher the combo count, the greater the damage.
Teams are composed of five monsters, also referred to as cards, each with their own cooldown-governed active skill (change heart orbs to fire orbs; double the team’s attack for two turns) and one with a leader skill (a passive x3 for damage output, perhaps, or x5 if you match four specific colours). You head into battle with a second leader from your friends list – take the same leader as yours, and that x3 bonus becomes a x9. Those are the fundamentals of team-building in Puzzle & Dragons, but the possibilities are mind-boggling, and the hunt for the perfect team almost endless. There’s always a way to make a team stronger – a newly released card with a more powerful leader skill, an elusive team member with an active skill that offers perfect synergy with another monster’s – and tougher dungeons require more than just the best team you have, with various status effects and gimmicks requiring that you tailor your approach.
As fun as the theory-crafting side of Puzzle & Dragons is, none of that would matter were the process of sweeping an orb around the board, making match after match, before watching everything disappear in a shower of sparks and rapidly rising damage values, not so tremendously satisfying. It is, whatever your team or skill level, a wonderful game to play.
Equally, however, it isn’t simply by being fun that a free-to-play game makes a billion dollars in two years. Early on, Puzzle &
Dragons is tremendously generous with its premium currency. After the tutorial, you’re given a free go on the Rare Egg Machine (REM), which contains the game’s most
YOUTUBE HAS PLENTY OF EVIDENCE OF PLAYERS SPENDING HUNDREDS OF POUNDS HUNTING FRUITLESSLY
powerful monsters. It normally costs players five Magic Stones, which cost 69p individually and are available in bundles of up to £44.99.
A disciplined player can hoard their free stones for a special occasion, such as the fortnightly Godfests, when the Rare Egg Machine offers increased drop rates on powerful God-type cards, or when a licensing deal brings a time-limited REM with unique monsters (recent examples include Final Fantasy, Batman Vs Superman and Taiko No Tatsujin). But that really does take a strong will. As mobile-game best practice dictates, PAD has a stamina bar that you spend by entering dungeons; the higher the difficulty, the greater the cost. Spend a stone, and you refill your stamina. Die, and you can spend another to continue.
So those that want to progress through the game at their own pace will soon spend their stock of stones, whether on stamina refills, continues, or a chance to improve their teams at the Rare Egg Machine. The latter is an infamously cruel mistress – the rarest Godfest exclusive cards have a base drop rate of around 0.3 per cent, and YouTube has plenty of evidence of players spending hundreds of pounds in a few minutes hunting fruitlessly for some newly released beast.
Yet the longer you play Puzzle & Dragons, the less you rely on the REM, since over time you’ll naturally amass a suite of strong cards. You’ll continue less, because you’ve naturally improved at the game through practice. And you’ll have less need to refill stamina, since its maximum increases as you rank up by playing the game, and because GungHo has progressively lowered the time it takes to refill – from ten minutes per unit at launch to just three minutes now.
With the game ageing, supplanted at the top of the charts in Japan by other similar games – chief among them Mixi’s Monster
Strike, from which PAD has since pilfered an ill-suited multiplayer mode – GungHo has found itself having to focus on making more money from existing users, instead of seeking out new players. And so the past 12 months of the game have seen the company add a suite of new features aimed almost exclusively at not just keeping the big spenders filling the coffers, but also bringing thriftier players up to their level.
The solutions are manifold, but are perhaps best summed up in a single phrase: power creep. Puzzle & Dragons is not really a game of hunting monsters, but numbers, of building teams that can put out damage in the tens of thousands, then the hundreds of thousands, and eventually the millions. First, GungHo began to give existing cards new, more powerful forms, improving their stats, tweaking their active and leader skills. New REM monsters offered dramatic leaps in damage potential compared to what was available before. But the most game-
changing addition was the Monster Shop, powered by a new currency, Monster Points, accrued by selling off unwanted cards. A normal dungeon drop would fetch just one MP; a boss up to ten. REM cards could be sold for at least 3,000 MP, rising to 50,000 for one of those 0.3-per-cent-chance Gods. At launch, the shop mainly offered up evolution materials, an escape route from the daily dungeon grind for the impatient. But right at the end of the list, stickered up at 300,000 MP, was a brand-new card. Shiva Dragon offered a x5 attack boost to any firetype God card – rising to x25 when paired with another from your friend list.
This was unprecedented. Previously, the only route to a x25 fire team was a dungeon boss whose multiplier would only activate when the team had less than 20 per cent health. Shiva Dragon’s was unconditional. The card was available for a month, then rotated out with another, and the multipliers grew still further. In April, GungHo introduced the latest fire-type MP card. A team with dual Xiang Mei leaders can now reach a damage multiplier of x81.
The idea of the Monster Shop was, clearly, to give even players with a collection full of powerful cards a reason to return to the Rare Egg Machine, since now even duplicate cards had value. But the system didn’t quite work as intended. Some players had been stockpiling duplicate cards for three years, and could easily afford each new flavour of the month.
Clearly Gungho needed more flavours. Currently, there are six shopexclusive cards available at a time – four permanently available, and the other two rotating every fortnight. And the company introduced a new mechanic designed to make players think twice before selling off duplicate cards. Skill inheritance lets you transfer one monster’s active skill to another – though the donor cannot be used in any teams while the transfer is in place.
These changes, while clearly designed to keep the whales a-whaling, at least feed into the two vital components of Puzzle &
Dragons’ appeal: team building and damage output. But GungHo is swimming against the tide. The company’s revenue and profit fell in 2015 for the first time since Puzzle &
Dragons’ launch, and while the game is still GungHo’s most important asset – it brought in almost 90 per cent of sales last year – it’s past its peak.
Unlike its App Store competitors, GungHo currently has no game to take
Puzzle & Dragons’ place. A sequel would simply risk upsetting the base game’s userbase too much, since few would take kindly to their considerable investment in
Puzzle & Dragons being made redundant overnight. It means GungHo is a victim of its own success in a way that is extraordinarily rare, not just on mobile but in the industry as a whole. It has made one game that is so good, and so good at making money, that the company seemingly has no choice but to keep making it for ever, the monster count swelling indefinitely, the damage output rising into the tens of millions and beyond.
Guerrilla dungeons are the most efficient way of levelling up your monsters
It’s gods, not just dragons, that make up most of PAD’s bestiary. Zeus and Hera, shown here, have various forms
Awakenings are passive skills that unlock once a card is evolved. Liu Bei is defined by his three Two-Prong Attacks, which combine to give four-orb matches a x3.5 multiplier