Supercell's Spooky Pop and the Six Rules of a Hit Puzzle Game


UPDATE: Spooky Pop didn't get past the soft launch and has been canceled. This deconstruction details why the game didn't hit the KPIs.

Spooky Pop is Supercell’s latest game to reach the soft launch phase. After going three for three with, Hay Day and Boom Beach, the expectations for Spooky Pop are immense, to say the least. Supercell is known to quickly kill game projects and only a few make it to soft launch. In fact, the last Supercell game that was canceled in soft launch phase wasBattle Buddies back in September 2012.

What makes Spooky Pop especially interesting is that its Supercell’s first puzzle game to ever reach the soft launch phase. And because of the company’s marvelous success in conquering both farming and village defender genres, game companies around the world are holding their breath in fear that Supercell will stake their claim on puzzle games as well.

The 6 rules of a hit puzzle game

In my mind, there are six key elements that are essential for any casual puzzle game to succeed. Nonetheless, covering all six elements doesn’t guarantee success, while failing at even one of them will prevent the game from reaching the top.

Rule 1: New Puzzle Mechanics

The first rule shouldn’t surprise anyone: you can’t hit a homerun without offering players something new. You need a truly new puzzle mechanic that is fun to play - over and over again. This is a rule that King follows successfully through their portfolio of “same but different” games.

For example, Candy Crush Saga has a triple match mechanic that has been further evolved in games such asFarm Heroes Saga andCandy Crush Soda Saga. At the same time, King has steadily introduced other puzzle mechanics such as the bubble shooter in Bubble Witch Saga, bouncy drop mechanics of Papa Pear Saga and tile destroying mechanics of Pet Rescue Saga and Diamond Digger Saga.

Spooky Pop has a truly new puzzle mechanic that can be best described as Plants vs. Zombies (PvZ) meets Puzzle & Dragons (P&D). The PvZ elements are clear from the beginning. The game features five lanes and at the end, each lane stands a character controlled by the player. Player's goal is simple; destroy all attacking monsters. The key difference compared to PvZ is that the defending characters do not automatically fire at the approaching waves of monsters. Instead, the action is turn-based and requires players to match colored tiles, which cause defenders to fire at the monsters. The puzzle mechanics is essentially exactly like in P&D: when a player attacks approaching enemies by matching 5 different colored elements based on the colors of the defenders.

Spooky Pop's puzzle mechanic is inspired by Plants vs. Zombies and Puzzle & Dragons.

Personally, I’ve noticed that the gameplay is quite intensive. As I move a tile, I have a couple of seconds to move another one. Whereas inCandy Crush you can make one match and hope for that lucky combo bonus to appear from the candies moving around, such a strategy simply doesn’t work in Spooky Pop. Instead, I have to think up to five moves ahead before touching a tile and execute all those pre-determined moves in split seconds. Failure to think ahead and execute under time pressure results quickly in a failed level. What I’m saying is, playing Spooky Pop is not casual and delighting. Instead, it’s intense and challenging. In addition to the time pressure, you're being attacked and constantly losing against waves of monsters.

Rule 2: Turn-based Gameplay

One key element for the tremendous success of puzzle games on mobile is that they can be played practically anywhere, anytime. They don’t demand uninterrupted sessions or precise controls because the action is turn-based. The turn-based gameplay simply makes puzzle games perfect for killing time.

Spooky Pop is a turn-based puzzle game. Every time a player makes a move, it’s followed by a counter action from the attacking monsters. What the counter action actually is, depends on the monsters. Some of them take a step closer to the player's defending characters. Some of them fire a shot, and others use a special power, such as spawn more monsters, heal them or lock players’ tiles so that they can’t be matched.

Even though Spooky Pop has turn-based gameplay, the levels are not gated by maximum amount of turns. Instead, a player's goal is to beat all the waves of monsters.

There’s no maximum amount of turns per level in Spooky Pop. Instead, a players’ goal is to always destroy all enemy waves. So instead of running out of turns, a player fails a level if even one of the defenders takes too much damage from monsters.

Rule 3: Energy Mechanic

It’s no surprise that we, the players, don’t like energy mechanics. It cuts off sessions, forces us to spend money to continue playing, or even worse, asks us to spam our Facebook friends for energy.

Yet without an energy mechanic, puzzle games bear a risk of becoming boring, or even worse – quickly running out of content.

  • Without energy, there would be no incentive to attempt to finish a level. For example, original Angry Birds doesn't have energy. So if a player misses her first or second throw; she doesn't try to finish the level by slinging the other birds. Instead, the player simply restarts the level. In Candy Crush Saga, on the other hand, you always tend to play till your last turn because you might just pass the level. And why should you restart a level if it costs energy just like a failure?
  • Secondly, without an energy mechanic, there's no natural end to a session. If there was no energy mechanic, a player would continue attempting (and failing) a level for ever and ever, eventually just hating the game. Instead, the energy mechanic distributes failure. You fail only five times to cool down for a few hours while you energy reloads, and you come back with five more attempts.
  • Thirdly, energy mechanics increase the stakes of every attempt – fail and you’ll lose energy, win and keep playing.
  • Energy is also an important retention mechanic as it pushes players away from the game only to get them back in an hour or so after the energy has been refilled.
  • Finally, an energy mechanic slows down player progress by limiting the number of games per day. Slowing down progress is extremely important because, without it, you’ll work a month on 20 levels only to see your engaged players breeze through them in a day by playing non-stop. Trust me, I’ve been in that content treadmill…
The energy mechanic is the driver of retention, social interaction, and monetization.

Spooky Pop uses energy mechanics just like all the benchmark titles. A player has five energy points. Every time a player starts a level, she consumes one energy point. To refill the energy bar, the player needs to wait 100 minutes. And just like competitive puzzle titles, Spooky Pop ties social to energy by encouraging players to request and send energy to their Facebook friends.

Rule 4: Social Map

Playing a game with real people, preferably with one’s friends, is simply essential for retention and monetization. A social level-based map shows a player’s progress in comparison to their friends and gives that nice feeling of not being alone in the game. What’s best about a social map is that it doesn’t matter if a player’s friends haven’t played in ages, as they’ll still see them on the map. A social map is also an important piece of monetization because monetization is driven by competition. It’s not about being the best version of you. It’s about being better than others.

The social map in Spooky Pop doesn't really stand out from the competition.

Spooky Pop’s map is pretty much the standard version of the puzzle game genre. After connecting to Facebook, a player immediately sees her friends on the game board. I personally think the social map in Spooky Pop is repetitive. Unlike in competitive titles, there’s no big visual goal on the map. For example in

Best Fiends there are clear visual gates after which the art style of the map and levels evolves giving players the sense of visual progress.

The social map in Seriously's Best Fiends is probably the best one I've seen. It's not only appealing and fun to interact with, but also offers clear visual progress through the landscape changes.

There’s also nothing new to the level-specific leaderboards in Spooky Pop, which I personally think is underutilized in puzzle games. A level-specific leaderboard is shown every time a player enters or completes a level. The goal of the leaderboard is to compare your score to that of your friends on that level. In Spooky Pops's case, there’s no incentive to be the best player of a level. There’s no reward in getting a better score and no way to let your friends know that you beat them.

Rule 5: Pay-to-Continue

Just like in good old arcades, pay-to-continue is the main source of monetization in puzzle games simply because the levels are designed for players to fail multiple times. And this mechanic works. You’re about to beat a level that you’ve been trying to pass for a week now and you fall a move short. Want pay a small sum to for a few extra turns to beat the level? I thought so.

The pay-to-continue mechanic is also supercharged through the social map that compares a players’ progress to that of their friends. In a situation where you know, based on the map, that your friend has beaten the level you’re stuck on, spending a coin or two on beating a level doesn’t sound like a bad idea.

Spooky Pop uses pay-to-continue mechanics to a tee. Every time even one of a player’s defenders falls due to attacks from monsters, the player fails the level. At this point they are presented with an option to either restart the level, given they have energy, or spend premium currency to refill health and continue the level.


Arcade style pay-to-continue is the main monetization mechanic in Spooky Pop.

Unlike some puzzle games on the market; in-game purchases in Spooky Pop are made using premium currency. Replacing direct payments with premium currency increases the average revenue per paying player through bundle pricing. Even though a player needs only a few pieces of premium currency they are incentivized to purchase larger quantities that feature lower unit prices.

When you purchase a bundle of currency, you are also more likely to use that currency. If you have 100 units, spending 5 isn't devastating.

Rule 6: Wait-or-Pay Gates

In a puzzle game, a players’ progress is typically halted with a gate after a specific amount of levels. There are three ways to pass the gate. The first one is simply to wait it out, which means not playing for a couple of days. The second option is to open the gate by spending premium currency. And the third option is to replay levels to earn enough stars to unlock the gate.

These hard stops are solid monetization mechanics though the overall revenue from them is generally limited. The limit in revenue is due to simple math; there are only a set amount of these gates that developers can monetize through compared to the large number of levels that all incentivize players to pay-to-continue. But even though the revenue share from gates is small, this mechanic is great in driving conversion. Halting a player's progress with a gate once she is engaged, prompts her to make that important first purchase.

Gates stop a player's progress, forcing her to wait or pay. Unlike in other similar games Spooky Pop doesn't employ Facebook requests as unlocks.

Spooky Pop uses the gates mechanic just like other puzzle games, though with one key difference. While many puzzle games employ Facebook request flows for unlocking gates, Spooky Pop has opted not to, which I personally think is a very good call. I’m ok with sending energy as it creates a request loop but having requests present at the gates just hurts the conversion-to-pay, while increasing unwanted spamming.

The Missing Elements

To summarize: a new and fun mechanic, a social map, an energy mechanic, turn-based gameplay, arcade-like pay-to-continue mechanics and progress gates are pre-requisites for a hit puzzle game. Yet as we all know, crossing off feature pre-requisites is never enough for a top ten hit title.

I feel that this is the case for Spooky Pop. The game has all the essential mechanics but it just doesn’t seem to, well, pop. In my mind, there are still three key elements missing from the game.

Missing Element 1: Randomness & Luck

What makes King’s games so addictive is that the levels are always different as the puzzle pieces are randomized every time a player restarts a level. This means that there’s never an optimal way to complete a level and there’s always an incentive to give the level another go – just in case the player gets lucky and the pieces fall more favorably this time.

Spooky Pop is missing this key element, which really hits the replay value of the levels. In my mind, the lack of randomness also hurts the fun of Spooky Pop as the harder levels force players to play in a specific pre-designed pattern.

The game also suffers from a lack of luck. For example in Candy Crush Saga making a simple combination has a good chance to turn into a string of combos. In Spooky Pop these lucky moments are in few, as the game gets gradually more challenging and intensive.

Missing Element 2: Offline Gameplay

Turn-based gameplay is one of the main pillars of puzzle games as it allows the game to be played anywhere and anytime. In addition to turn-based design, the best puzzle games are also fully playable when the player is not online.

Sadly Spooky Pop doesn’t have an offline mode, making the game inaccessible when traveling or has a poor connection. I personally believe that the team at Supercell should add this mode before possible global rollout. Without it, they offer too strong of a competitive advantage to all the other puzzle titles on the player’s device every time they’re offline.

Missing Element 3: Lack of Metagame

After playing through all of the 80 levels that Spooky Pop currently has in soft launch, I’m not waiting for more. The reason is simple; the lack of depth makes Spooky Pop repetitive and uninteresting. There’s no change to levels as they all have same mechanics, same goals, and same visuals.

Both Plants vs. Zombies (PvZ) and Puzzle & Dragons (P&D), which are the muses for Spooky Pop, offer plenty of depth as well as visual progress. For example, in PvZ a player purchases new defenders as they progress. Players are also engaged in the metagame by making conscious decisions on which defenders to unlock and employ before embarking into each of the levels. P&D, on the other hand, goes to extremes with its character progression metagame, which implements the gatcha mechanics (read the deconstruction: How Puzzle & Dragons Does It).

Mind Candy's World of Warriors is a great example of simple yet evolving and engaging metagame. It adds depth to the game without making it difficult.

Weirdly enough the lack of depth in Spooky Pop seems intentional. For example, a player is introduced to all of five defender-characters one by one as she progresses through the levels. Yet none of the characters have any player+controlled progression mechanics such as leveling up, improvement of skills, or unlocking of new special powers. A player is also forced to play with all five different characters instead of choosing from a larger selection of collectible characters. Not to mention that the only difference between characters is their one special skill that is activated by combining a set of color tiles often enough. I personally miss the color element, where a certain color has special powers over another one. For example in World of Warriors fire (red) warriors get a boost when attacking forest (green) warriors.

Is Spooky Pop good enough?

In all honesty, if Spooky Pop wasn’t made by Supercell, I don't believe we would be talking about it as much. Yes, the game has covered all the basic rules of puzzle games and it has all the potential to reach success. Yet we have accustomed to expect more from Supercell. Games like Hay Day, Clash of Clans and Boom Beach have all taken proven browser games onto mobile with a unique twist.

Spooky Pop, at this moment of soft launch, still lacks that Supercell twist. It’s like one those King’s puzzle games that hit the top10 positions at launch and then steadily descend to somewhere in top50. In other words, Spooky Pop is a game that any other company except Supercell would love to have. It remains to be seen if the game makes it out of soft launch, knowing Supercell’s passion for top-notch quality.

The best thing about Spooky Pop is the music. Seriously, you have to play it with sounds.

Please take a look at these deconstructions of top puzzle games:

Deconstructions of Supercell’s games: