This time I decided to write about a game called “Marble Drop” (by M Square Development Group). It is also a mobile game and as the name might let you imagine: you drop marbles – but in an unique way.
Abstracted Childhood Memories
The game reminds me of the good old times (in childhood), where you collected all your colorful marbles and waited for the satisfying mix of feelings, sounds and smooth movements as a marble roles down the marble run. (By the way, especially the sound of the game reminds me of that one of a real marble run.)
In addition to that, the mobile version is a tricky physics, skill and timing based puzzle game. So the “simply drop a marble and watch it” behaviour got a new sense here.
Of course there exist also other/older versions that imitate marble runs, but they differ from each other. While older games like that one of 1997 also copy the visual style of a real marble run, the newer version has an abstract and minimalist art style and seems like a puzzle drawn on a blackboard with chalk – also another emotional connection linking to the days in school (?).
Game Mechanics and Rules
Drop it – But think before!
In general – and as a simple principle often used for mobile games as you can see in my last post – the player controls everything with only one action. He touches one of the (up to three) marbles on the right side and drops them into funnels, so they reach the same colored goal. Sometimes he has to align other elements – guess how – by one touch. It is kind of a mixture of a point-and-click and one touch game.
This very ordinary and you might say boring game mechanic however improves through another clever trick. It gets more and more complex with emerging components, functions and rules as well as the combination of them within one level.
In this first example you just have to put one marble into the right and another one into the left funnel. But the designers increased the difficulty with several other things, not only runways you have to analyze before dropping marbles into the funnel. Let’s have a look at some upcoming mechanics.
Changing Marble Properties
Small, colored fields on the runaway dye the marbles after contact. They continue their journey with the same color as the field has had.
As you also can see in this picture, the player can influence the speed of the marbles or more precise, of the world. This is used to get a better highscore (you are rated by time) and also to speed slow passages up. Controlling the speed might also be useful to time next moves.
After a few levels a small circle appears. In this, two marbles will be combined into one. If you touch the circle a color table appears (or it is drawn next to the circle as in the example in the middle), showing you which marbles result in which new color.
With this function the developers added a really complex system to the game. The amount of colors, the player can use, stays the same, but he always has to keep in mind, that and which combinations of marbles result in new colors. Later on, the player also learns that three colors create a grey marble.
World Influences and Movement Pattern
One of the components not changing the marble itself but influencing it in another way, is the trigger switch. It opens and closes after a marble runs over it or falls down the gap (left picture). An evolution of this is the combination with sensors. When a marble touches the sensor, the trigger opens or closes again (right picture).
Moreover you have some kind of different sized buckets to collect marbles temporarily. If a marble runs into the collector it is stored there until the bucket is filled. Afterwards it tips and the marbles run out in reversed order. This rule always has to be kept in mind of the player.
Also the movement of the marbles change with new functionalities. Here is an example of a canon, shooting a marble to a bucket. Touching the canon changes the shooting direction for the marble. The directions are preset and differ in each level (e.g. two to three directions to choose between).
Another example of changing the normal movement is the lift. When a marble rolls into it, it will get picked up and roll down a runway at the end of the lift.
Combination of elements
A last thing I want to show: all of the above mentioned elements are combined with each other and so form many more tricky, highly complex puzzles.
Here are some examples of combined components.
On the left you can see a marble canon, which has to be used with a color changer field to get the right colored marbles before running down the runway.
This level actually requires the patience and also timing of the player while the level in the middle asks for more careful consideration (trigger behaviour) to bring the marbles into the right order for reaching their goal.
The picture on the right shows clearly: the more things are combined, the more confusing the level gets and kind of hard to solve puzzles are created by the use of lift, trigger with sensor and color mixer.
Review and Tips For Creating Game Experiences
I think there are many more functions like this (I saw a gravity switch and teleporters for example in some videos). As I didn’t play the whole game, but got an overview of the main mechanics, I think this enumeration of things will be enough to get an impression of the game design of Marble Drop. Here are some “Lessons Learned”:
All in all, the game concentrates on getting complex over time and is a good example of a game with fast raising difficulty. For this, the actions of the player are not changed at all. The player is not able to do more than to execute the “one touch” mechanic, but is forced to be more intent before doing well considered and timed moves. Not the control possibilities make a good game. They should also suit the used device. Thousands of actions and buttons would not work for a mobile game, where you have a limited field of action. More clever is to change the abilities of the controlled game components itself.
This simple player mechanic is also mirrored by the style. It is very minimalist, but as more simple components are combined, the levels get kind of confusing and hard to master. The game designers created a really complex puzzle game, even if the player remains kind of passive in its action.
Probably the designers might also have made similar complex puzzles with less components. Notice: Complexity can be made by a few rules. Combined, they result in mighty game systems. Always think about every planned mechanic. Maybe one or another is unnecessary.
Depending on the device, I think, it was kind of hard to create puzzles, which not lose their clarity. The more elements got combined, the more unclear the game gets, because the size of the level can not differ too much due to the inaccuracy a player has, controlling a game by touch. So, always keep in mind a level should not get too messy (particularly when the device is small). The balance between a “too distinct solution” and a “crowded level” has to be figured out.
Moreover the game should get a characteristic. Define the feeling which should be created playing the game. In Marble Drop the player should think about his move. Simultaneously, the actions for solving a puzzle should be well timed. Actually the game is slow-paced, because one can think about a solution as long as needed, before starting the game. But as soon as a marble rolls, the game can become fast-paced and actions have to be well timed. This characteristics switch from mechanic to mechanic (a moving marble is fast-paced while a marble collector slows the game down again). The player is not always forced to be focused and gets chances to prepare for the next move.
Additional Ideas For This Genre
At last I asked myself, which consequence would follow if some rules of this game would change. What if…
…the player is more embedded into the actual situation?
For example he is just allowed to open or close, shoot or tip elements in real time instead of triggering their behaviour. This would change the whole game feeling and give more focus on the player’s ability and skill. I think, this would also require less complex levels, so one could solve puzzles in real-time. On the other hand the cleverness would be less addressed, because the components would not behave within a set game context and rule. Instead the states of the components would be changed on the will of the player, who gets an even stronger trial and error attitude.
…the player’s perspective would change?
Lets think about a third person perspective. The player is behind a marble and has to react to obstacles on its way. This also relates to the real-time reaction thought and and assumes a 3D room.
I found a 3D marble run example which uses this kind of system design. Here the player has to steer the marble through a level and bring it save to the goal.
…the time, the player can think about a solution, was limited?
The game requires partially very long preparation sessions, before it starts. So the player could be forced to start after a few seconds.
It could be used as another part for the highscore system (more points when the player uses less preparation time), but as the levels get more and more difficult, this would probably lead to a frustrated player.
The whole game has a huge potential for uncountable more levels (actually 60 exist). The potential of matching all components with each other could be exploited and related to this, maybe a slower increase of difficulty would follow. Nevertheless, this game hits the spot for puzzles fanatics.
Actually this was an example for a (mostly) slow-paced one touch game. In the next post I will present some more variations of this game genre.
(By the way, I didn’t mention it, but the game has also a free2play function where you collect coins to buy hints or a rainbow marble, that fits for any color.)