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.

But the game caught on. When it was just a gleam in the designer’s eye nobody really knew who the target audience was, so the narrative hadn’t been planned with any real coherency. Now it needed polish, particularly since all the data indicated it was perfect for the casual market. That required a different art set and a better story, and when they looked at it they discovered that the game was starting to resemble a colonization tale. The player starts in an untamed wilderness, and transforms it into a bustling community, complete with churches, houses and eventually castles and cathedrals; turn that into the New World, with the player as Pilgrim Father sponsored by the Empire, and the narrative writes itself. In that backstory the randomizers had to be native to the environment, so they became bears, the local fauna that had to be tamed (read: trapped and killed) in order that the settlement could grow.

Edery would like to make games that help people express themselves “in a way that’s really powerful.”

The best thing about that narrative, as Edery sees it, is that there’s room for more change. Right now it’s a straight-up colonization story, but what about the future? One of the potential narrative twists could have the colonists revolting against the Empire, perhaps even joining forces with the bears. “Maybe,” he said, “the art would change but it would still be a match-3 game on a grid, with a levelling-up mechanic.” Everything follows from that one mechanical decision, and the exact nature of the narrative can be twisted however they like.

The other thing Edery’s proud of is that Triple Town is a game that’s impossible to lose. It does end, but even then the player has a settlement to show for all their hard work, and coin, which can be saved for the next game. This goes to the heart of a concept Edery explores in his book. “Two people, one with fifty badges and one with one hundred badges, are ‘a winner and a bigger winner’ not ‘a loser and a winner.'” (Changing the Game, Chapter 8, “Games for Work, Games at Work”). Edery doesn’t see Triple Town as a game that people lose, and in fact he dislikes the whole “you lose!” concept. “I don’t know what I gain from that. I don’t know what the player gains from that. I don’t know what anybody gains from that!” Of course all games have to end eventually, “so Ninjas help make that happen” but just because the story has a conclusion doesn’t mean the player has to feel like a loser when Ninjas finally prevail. There will be other New Worlds to conquer, and in the meantime there’s coin, awards and the gratitude of Her Majesty.

Edery would like to make games that help people express themselves “in a way that’s really powerful,” and admires Jane McGonigal, who he feels is on the right path. That’s one of the reasons why Spry Fox is experimenting with social games. Triple Town is just the start; Edry wants to “help people build beautiful things, teach them interesting lessons.” Focusing on the jerkiness of bears is one way of looking at Triple Town, but as he points out there’s more depth in the colonization narrative that meets the eye.

Bears aren’t jerks. Looked at mechanically, they’re a necessary randomizing element that has the added bonus of being easily converted into points and coin, rewarding the player for clever play; a resource with legs. Looked at from a narrative perspective, they’re as much victims as villains. Colonization has always meant bending the local environment to the colonizer’s will, but the bears refuse to go quietly. After all they didn’t know the Empire was going to turn their meadows into housing developments, in the process making churches out of their bones.
No wonder they’re grumpy.

Adam loves Triple Town Bears so much, he’s thinking of founding a new religion: The Church of St. Fuzzybutt.

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