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Bears are Jerks: The Evolution of Triple Town

Adam Gauntlett | 22 Jun 2012 13:00
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Now, I'm no bearist. Some of my best friends are excessively hairy and grumpy, but I've played Triple Town, and I know from experience that the last thing you want to see on the grassy knoll of your new settlement is a Grumpy Bear, taking up space and scaring the colonists. Sure, they look cute when they first turn up, with those button eyes and butter-wouldn't-melt-in-my-mouth faces, but before long they've stopped you from building houses or died somewhere inconvenient, leaving a tombstone right where it wasn't wanted. And that's just the basic bear; the evolved Ninja Bear escapes all traps, leaping from point to point like a bloodthirsty bouncing ball. Triple Town bears are the jerkiest of jerks.

The designers tried to create a mechanic and discovered that there was a story consequence in their design choice.

Or so I thought before I talked to David Edery, author (with Ethan Mollick) of Changing the Game: How Video Games Are Transforming the Future of Business. He's also one of one of the two leading minds behind Spry Fox, makers of Triple Town and a small tribe of other games. To hear him tell it, bears are misunderstood misanthropes, sources of points and coin as well as being the victims in an ever-changing story about colonialism.

The thing you need to understand about Triple Town is, at its core it's a match-3 game on a grid. Everything follows from that. Strategically the player needs to be thinking many moves ahead because if not, the board soon gets cluttered with random, useless stuff. Most players manage to think their way around that problem with a little practice. So a random element was needed to keep the game interesting, the first version of which was Evil Barbarian (basic) and Wizard (evolved). They appeared in the Kindle release, and they functioned in exactly the same way the bears do in the iPad, Facebook and Android releases. However a random element is all they are, and despite being described as Evil (or Grumpy) they could be anything: birds, abstract shapes, whatever.

In fact, before they were Bears or Barbarians, they were kids.

In the test version, which never saw public release, the randomizers were little boys (basic) and girls (evolved). "They didn't look evil; they looked normal," Edery explained. (Further proof, if it were needed, that girls want to be Ninjas when they grow up.) But there was a real problem because, just as with all the other iterations of Triple Town, when the randomizers are trapped and can't move they die, becoming tombstones. The testers were horrified. "The universal feedback was, 'Oh my God, you're making me kill little boys and girls!'" It was a clash of mechanics versus story; the designers had tried to create a mechanic and discovered that there was a story consequence in their design choice. It was all the more unanticipated, according to Edery, because the project lead was very much a systems guy who "thinks 'I want to mix three things together and make a higher level thing'. Then he figures out the story to fit that." It didn't matter what the things were, it mattered that they combined to make something else. So there was a complete disconnect between what was happening onscreen and what was happening mechanically.

Faced with this problem they realized they could either go completely abstract, or they could try to weave it into a theme. Making the randomizer an abstract object with no emotional weight wasn't workable, because "We'd have had to describe why this thing is getting in your way," which would have been clumsy storytelling. That meant they needed a theme, and the best theme was evil, since the players initial reaction to the randomizer was going to be dislike. This despite the fact that the randomizers are great earners; once the player develops even a little skill the churches and cathedrals the matched tombstones build are high point value items, and the treasure chest formed by matching three cathedrals is worth a lot of in-game coin. That coin can be used to buy more stuff including vital terrain-clearing machinery or crystals that help match items, both of which are key to late-game progress. Still, evil worked, so Spry Fox went the barbarian and wizards route and everyone was happy.

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