Puzzle Bobble Clones: Bubble your bubbles tobubble!

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[The following text is part of my upcoming master’s thesis on the use of game mechanics in therapy games for children. This is just a rough first draft, and I gladly welcome all critique and suggestions – be it on a content level or regarding my use of language.

As part of my master’s thesis I am analysing already existing games that are commonly known to be addictive. A lot of those games are Facebook games. As it is paramount for the business model of Facebook games to keep players coming back to play again and again, they need to be built for a high retention. In my analysis of some of the most played Facebook games, I would like to figure out the secret ingredients that make those games so “good”. The analysis of some of those games will be published on this blog, including an overview of the usual “social mechanics” at play that are usually claimed to be of special importance in Facebook games.]

Most Facebook games are not original, but part of a long line of descendants of other games. This is especially true when it comes to “Bubble” games, which are all based on the rules of the Japanese arcade game “Puzzle Bobble” (Nakakuki, 1994). Nowadays, there are countless clones out there: Zynga with Bubble Safari (2012), King with Bubble Witch Saga (2011), Wooga with Bubble Island (2010) and various other, smaller publishers (“Bubble Land,” n. d.; Peak Games, 2012; Smartron5, 2012). Some of them even just reskin their game and publish it under another name, as happened with Bubble Epic, which is also available as Bubble Bikini (6waves, 2012), with, obviously, racier graphics, but the same basic mechanics and levels. These Puzzle Bobble clones matter insofar as another clone named Woobies (neue kreative, n. d.) is being played at the rehabilitation centre.

Puzzle Bobble games play like a mixture of Bejeweled (PopCap Games Inc., 2000) and Chain Shot (Moribe, 1985): the board is filled with coloured tiles (“bubbles”) placed on a hexagonal grid. The player is not free to click on any of those tiles, but has to shoot a coloured tile from the centre bottom and aim to place that tile adjacent to two or more tiles of the same colour. These tiles will then disappear and give a score, depending on how many tiles have been destroyed. Tiles of other colours that have no connection to other tiles to the top of them (i. e. bubbles that are “hanging in the air”) will then also drop and give even more points. From there, games start to diverge slightly.

Woobies, designed as an advergame before the Facebook game craze hit, doesn’t go much further than the previously explained mechanic. The player shoots tiles (in the form of furry, fluffy balls with eyes, called “woobies”) with a slingshot upwards. Woobies with the same colours disappear, unattached bubbles drop to the bottom and disappear as well. In the case that the player manages to remove bubbles three times in a row, he is awarded with a bomb that removes all bubbles it touches when played. The player has to remove all bubbles in order to win the level. When ending the level, the player receives bonus points for dropped tiles as well as a time bonus for finishing the level especially fast. This is the essence of the game how it is being played at the rehabilitation centre.

The Facebook game studios, however, usually teach their ponies some more tricks. In some games, additional buckets are placed below the board. When bubbles are being dropped, they will give a different score, depending on into which bucket a bubble falls (King, 2011; Smartron5, 2012; Turmell, 2012). Just like in Woobies, managing to make tiles disappear several times in a row pays off as well: in Bubble Epic, the score each bucket gives increases with each successful shot; while in Bubble Witch Saga and Bubble Safari pegs appear, not unlike on a pachinko board, that increase the chance that the bubble will drop into the bucket with the highest score, and which apply additional multipliers along the way. In contrast, Bubble Land and Lost Bubble (“Bubble Land,” n. d.; Peak Games, 2012) turn the dropped bubbles into bonus objects that can be collected by hovering over them with the mouse and that then give additional points.

Except for Woobies and Bubble Island, all Puzzle Bobble clones use distinct, pre-made levels, which are spatially laid out on a map, similar to the previously analysed Candy Crush Saga. All these games try to produce a narrative arc through simulated exploration, even though in most cases, the only thing to “explore” is a different background image every ten levels. Woobies has pre-made levels as well, but gives no way to access them directly, the player always starts at the first one in his chosen difficulty.

The winning condition is also different in various versions. In Bubble Island, the only clone where time and speed matters, the goal is to get as many points as possible within 60 seconds. In Bubble Witch Saga, the goal is to remove at least 10 of the bubbles of the top-most row. In Bubble Land and Lost Bubble, the goal is to drop one or more special tiles to the bottom of the board. In both of those cases, the number of bubbles one can shoot is limited, and once the player runs out of bubbles, the level is lost. It is interesting to see that all these winning conditions are less “strict” than the one of the older Woobies. It might be explained by the fact that clearing the board is usually the least exciting part of the game: with only six or seven bubbles left, the challenge is gone. Compare that to Bubble Witch Saga, where the remaining bubbles are released all at once, and will fall through the pegs into the buckets, followed by the remaining bubbles that give bonus points as well. The effect is that of loud, colourful and flashing fireworks – quite a contrast to removing the last triplet of “woobies”, which are then simply gone, a somewhat anticlimactic ending.

In conclusion, we can see that most Puzzle Bobble clones play quite similarly, with their graphics being their most distinguishing feature. The outliers are Bubble Island, which adds the element of time pressure into the mix, and Woobies, which comes from another era of online games, and lacks most of the additional game mechanics the Facebook games use. This core mechanic can be expanded upon, allowing the Facebook game studios to find ways to monetize the game. The game is easy to pick up and is equally well playable with any input device, be it a mouse or a track pad, making it an obvious candidate for a casual game. It is deceptively simple to play: aim, shoot, aim, shoot, with hardly anything that takes the player out of the flow. As a therapy game it works because the game does not require pixel precise accuracy, and can easily be played without the need to plan several steps ahead, making it accessible to a broad range of patients.