The last time I talked about the modern Match-3 game, I said there was a lot more than just a shift to move limits. The biggest identifier of the modern Match-3 is that it has level design. I’d like to demonstrate that by breaking down level 65 of Candy Crush Saga. When Candy Crush Saga first launched, it had 65 levels. Level 65 was notoriously difficult, and it’s been altered to make it easier. I’d like to go over what made it so difficult, and how it was changed.
This post is going to be a long one, so bear with me.
This is the level as it was designed back in 2012. It takes place on an 7×7 grid with four additional spaces placed on each edge. Or you could say it’s a 9×9 grid with three spaces taken off of each edge. Same thing, really.
(As an aside, the 8×8 grid is the standard for Match-3 games. The first Match-3 game, Shariki, released in 1994, was built on an 8×8 grid. Bejeweled followed its example, and most modern Match-3 levels take place on an 8×8 grid or are deliberate departures from the 8×8 grid.)
I’m not going to assume that everyone is familiar with Candy Crush Saga, so I’d like to go over the special tiles. Let’s start with the level objective, the jellies:
Jelly is a property of the space it rests in. It does not affect gameplay directly, but levels with jelly require that you remove all the jelly to beat the level. To remove the jelly, you need to make a match with candy that occupies the jelly space. There are also more opaque double jellies. If you make a match on a double jelly, it becomes a regular jelly. In essence, to beat a jelly level, you must make one match on all jelly tiles and two matches on all double jelly tiles.
This level also has licorice locks and chocolate, which are not directly related to the objective, but they do throw in an additional challenge. Pieces in licorice locks cannot be moved. In order to remove a licorice lock, you must make a match that involves that tile.
Chocolate is a major obstacle in a player’s course. Chocolate tiles cannot be moved, and in order to remove them, you must make a match adjacent to the chocolate. However, chocolate also spreads. If the player makes a match that does not eliminate a chocolate tile, a new chocolate tile will be generated next to a pre-existing chocolate tile, destroying whatever candy might be in that space. It will not, however, be generated on top of tiles with licorice locks, and it only destroys candy, not jelly. If not carefully managed, chocolate can overrun a level and keep players from reaching the jelly they need to remove.
That about covers the obstacles. Now let’s have a look at level 65 again.
Level 65 circa 2012 has two goals: Score 120,000 points and clear all of the jelly in 50 moves.
The score, at this point in the game, is not important. Players will rarely, if ever, not make the target score, and it exists as a method to compare your performance with your friends and enhance the game’s social features.
To clear it, you need to get rid of the jelly. The 49 tiles of the main 7×7 grid are covered in double jellies. There are also four tiles above the main grid that contain double jellies. All six of the chocolate tiles also conceal double jellies. The left and right sides each have one licorice lock space with double jellies as well. That makes a total of 61 double jellies. There are also four single jellies, each placed roughly at each corner.
It might seem strange that the normal jellies are there at all, but this is a carefully-considered decision. The tiles with the normal jellies are in the corners of the level. The fact that they’re in the nubs alone makes it hard enough to match them, because they can only be matched in a single direction: horizontally or vertically. Other tiles can be matched any way. However, on top of that, these are in corners, where the player has much less room to maneuver tiles and set up matches. For the pieces along the sides, a player can maneuver pieces from the opposite horizontal side, above, or below to try to get a match. In a corner, the player can only maneuver pieces from the opposite vertical side or the opposite horizontal side. Making them into normal jellies instead of double jellies makes sense as a way to offset the extreme difficulty of matching them at all.
These pieces are also behind locks, so a player can’t just create a striped candy (a special piece capable of “matching” an entire row or column) and immediately eliminate the major defining points of the level.
So, let’s have a look at this. 61 double jellies, four single jellies, and four locks. In order to beat this level, a player would have to match 122 tiles to eliminate the double jellies and eight tiles to eliminate the single jellies and locks, for a total of 130 matched tiles. They have 50 moves to pull this off.
A hypothetical almost-perfect player who only matches three tiles at a time and never got combos or special candies would match 150 tiles in this amount of time. If they played absolutely perfectly and never made a match that didn’t chip away at jellies or locks, they’d beat it in 44 turns, leaving six to spare (roughly 12% of their allotted moves).
That hypothetical player doesn’t exist. The random selection of candies guarantees that the player will make sub-optimal matches that only clear, two, one, or even zero spaces with jelly or locks. Chocolate is going to spread, and the player will make matches solely to push it back. The locks and level nubs keep the player from being able to move all the pieces they could. The player is probably on their phone at a Starbucks or at a lunch break on work, and they’re going to be distracted. The player is going to be making occasional matches of four or five candies and using special pieces to match entire rows or columns.
I’d love to be able to crunch the game’s math more, but without actual research data about how many jellies are cleared per move made, or how many average tiles are matched per move made, my ability to analyze this is limited. However, even the hypothetical perfect player would use up nearly all of their turns beating this level. Level 65’s difficulty was legendary. However, it was eventually tweaked, and I’d like to present the modern level 65 alongside the old level 65.
Now, there are three major changes.
The first that’s immediately apparent is that the center double jellies have been replaced with single jellies. This removes 25 from the number of required matched tiles, reducing it from 130 to 105.
The number of moves has also been reduced from 50 to 40. That might seem a strange choice for making the game easier, but let’s take a closer look at the match. Before, you had 50 moves to make 130 matches. You’d have to make 2.6 matches per move. Now you have 40 moves to make 105 matches. That’s 2.625 matches per move.
That’s hardly an improvement in difficulty at all! On top of that, all of the jellies that were reduced to single jellies are in the middle of the map, where you can match them more easily anyway!
That’s true, but there’s one more aspect of the level design that was changed: The new version of the level doesn’t have yellow pieces. That’s one less color that players have to deal with, and many people don’t notice the color’s absence. This makes possible matches much more likely.
The 2012 screenshot had seven possible matches, and all of them are just matches of three.
The new version of the map has seven possible matches of three, but also a possible match of three that combos into creating a match of five to create a wrapped candy piece (created if you swap one of the purple pieces down with a red piece), and a match to create a match of four and a striped candy (move the lower right blue candy a space to the right), and even creating a match of four to create a striped candy that chains into a match of five for a wrapped candy (move one of the red pieces up to swap with an orange),
Just by eliminating one color, you go from a match clearing an average of three tiles to your match clearing an average of 5.25 tiles. It’s nearly twice as effective! You even create striped and wrapped candies capable of making even more powerful matches in the future.
I realize that this specific example is highly circumstantial, based only on one screenshot of each version of the level, but I do this to illustrate how the level was made easier, not to specifically highlight how much easier it became. I hope that this gives readers a better understanding of puzzle design and the thoughts that go into the decisions behind them.