Zuma Blitz and the Kukui Cup

I’ve been playing a fair amount of Zuma Blitz on Facebook. Zuma Blitz is a Flash game from Popcap, makers of many popular Flash games, including the original Zuma. While playing, I have been thinking (occasionally) about what we can learn from “normal” games like Zuma Blitz.

Zuma Blitz mechanics

Zuma Blitz involves a frog that you control in the center of a game board. You can rotate the frog in any direction, and clicking the left mouse button causes it to fire a ball of a particular color (chosen randomly). The game board has tracks on it, and balls of 4 colors are released onto the board at varying rates. The balls follow the tracks, and if the balls reach the end of each track, then the game is over. When the frog fires a ball at the balls on the tracks, if a match of 3 balls in a row of the same color is made, those balls are removed from the board. In addition to the normal balls, there are special balls such as multiplier balls, time balls, etc. Matching these balls affects game play in some positive way. This might sound very complicated, but after about 20 seconds of game play you will see how it works.

Each game lasts for 1 minute, so game play is highly frenetic. There is no time for strategy, balls must be fired very quickly for good scores. The game records 3 different values for each player: score, mojo, and experience points. Score is recorded for each game played, and the highest score for each player for each weekly tournament is displayed in-between games. A histogram of scores (in 50K increments) is recorded, with each bin associated with a different “spirit animal”, and as additional scores are accumulated in each bin, the player achieves different “levels” of spirit animal. This provides a little additional interest for the player, and also shows a historical record of the player’s scores.

Mojo and experience points (abbreviated XP) are accumulated at the end of each level, based on how many balls were matched (which is different but correlated with the score achieved on a game). Mojo can be used by the player to buy powers that can be used to make game play easier, but the cost is recurring for each game they are used in. Powers generally cost more mojo than the player can earn each game, so powers must be used sparingly.

As XP is earned the player reaches different levels. Upon reaching a level, something new is awarded to the player (a new power, a new spirit animal, etc. See this list of levels for more details). Since XP is awarded after each game, no matter how low the score, less skilled but persistent players can improve their scores by achieving higher levels. Zuma Blitz also has idols that are awarded for reaching an XP level, and the idols can be used to buy things in the store (extra lives, mojo, etc). For impatient players, idols can be purchased using Facebook credits (bought using real currency), this is presumably one revenue stream for Zuma Blitz.

When starting Zuma Blitz, the player is given 5 lives, and each 1 minute game takes one life. These lives regenerate based on real world time (starting at 8 minutes). This prevents the user from playing more than a certain number of games in a row, as the lives have to regenerate. Higher levels award the player more lives and reduce the length of the regeneration timer.


Zuma Blitz parallels and lessons

Surprisingly, Zuma Blitz (ZB from here on) has several parallels with the Kukui Cup (KC from here on). Among the ones I have noticed:

  • Players cannot play ZB continuously due to the lives and regen timer. This requires them to come back later to play. Many KC activities require a human administrator to verify that the activity was completed properly, requiring players to return later to see if they got their points. We have worried that this delayed gratification might be off-putting to KC participants, but ZB has deliberately picked this approach (though this is for continuation of the game, rather than the awarding of points).
  • ZB has 3 different metrics being collected (score, mojo, XP) that are interrelated but different. KC has both points and lounge energy usage, which are different and we hope are interrelated. We have been concerned about the complexity of having 2 metrics, but clearly popular games can be similarly complicated.
  • ZB is also based on weekly tournaments, the way KC has weekly rounds. The layout of the ZB game screen (where the tracks are, background image) changes each week.
  • ZB has a store and idols, which is similar in some ways to our raffle and raffle tickets that are earned through points.

Some potential lessons from ZB:

  • The special balls that appear on the board disappear after a certain period of time. If you manage to match them a couple seconds after they have disappeared, you still receive the special value for the ball. In essence, there is a grace period. As a player, this kind of generosity is greatly appreciated, something frustrating (missing a special ball by 1 second) becomes enjoyable. KC already has this generosity in some ways, for example all lounge residents receive points when the lounge makes their energy goal, even if they did not participate in any way. We should continue to look for ways to make KC “generous”.
  • When you first play ZB, it shows all your Facebook friends that have also played the game, their highest score this round, and their stats. It would be good if KC could scan participants’ Facebook friends to see if there are any matches among the residents of the participating dorms. If there are matches, the participant could be given the chance to message them on Facebook to encourage them to participate. You could even get points for doing this, perhaps (or will that just encourage spamming?)
  • Unlike the plan in KC, ZB does not post things automatically to the player’s Facebook wall. Instead, for every interesting event (new high score, winning weekly tournament, new spirit animal), there is a button that says “Share” (or “Gloat” if you win the tournament), and that prompts for text to go along with a post to your wall. We had briefly considered and rejected this technique in KC (I believe I rejected it out of hand by saying something like “are we going to have a Share button in every dialog box??”), but if ZB is doing it then perhaps they know what they are doing. One difference is that ZB is runs in perpetuity, while KC is focused on a 3 week period. A compromise might be a single daily automatic post from KC, and then share buttons provided for noteworthy events.
  • ZB’s changing weekly game layout is another way that ZB encourages players to return frequently. Perhaps we could have a different color scheme or background image for each round. Perhaps the rounds could have names/themes?

That’s all I can think of so far. It might be interesting to look at other Facebook games to see how they make use of the functionality of Facebook, as well as their own game design.

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