Time Ex­tend

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


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

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