Matchington Mansion - You Won't Believe the Truth
We’ve all been talking about Matchington Mansion during the past year. There are several reasons why Matchington Mansion is on our lips:
Firstly, it’s because the game is raking in over $15M in net revenues a month.
Secondly, it’s because the game was able to challenge Playrix successfully in their own game. After all, there are barely any significant differences between Homescapes and Matchington Mansion.
Thirdly it is because of the war for players that ensued between Playrix and Firecraft Studios as both ramped up their marketing engines.
And finally, it’s because Matchington Mansion is a game from an unknown developer that has no previous shipped titles and has only three people who have worked or are working at Firecraft Studios. That’s a lot of work for so few…
Here’s how we’re going to break it down for You. First Miska (Michail Katkoff) is going to talk about the market. Then he’s going to analyse the studio that made the game. Or at least, supposedly made the game. Miska will continue with a deep dive into the marketing after which comes the main course, the deconstruction of Matchington Mansion and Homescapes. The deconstruction will be served by the powerful Niek Tuerlings.
So please, enjoy the post! And don’t forget to give our writers a shout out if you liked or contact them for more info / counter arguments.
The $3Bn Match & Blast Category
Match & Blast games is the biggest sub-category on mobile with $3Bn in net revenues in 2018 and a year-on-year growth of revenues at whopping 28%. This sub-category has traditionally been dominated by King. And yes, King still is the dominant player with its forever-franchise Candy Crush Saga. The hard fact is that King has struggled to keep up with the growth of the category, losing pieces of its dominating market share year-after-year to new competitors. These new competitors have grown into contenders and are on a pace to become rivals. These future rivals are Playrix, Peak and as of late, Firecraft Studios.
When analysing the top Match & Blast developers, we can identify (and significantly simplify) three distinctive approaches to grab a piece of the $3Bn market:
First mover advantage in the form of a massive playerbase and defacto puzzle saga franchises
Conquered and saturated the market initially relying on the design frameworks to build, cross-promotion power to scale and the analytics to operate multiple similar type of games aimed at a similar audience.
Innovated by implementing visual progression and storytelling to replace outdated saga-progression
Negated laborious content treadmill demanded by a visual progression through a cheap cost location of their studios
Aimed, much like King, to saturate the visual progress based match-3 category by releasing follow-up titles with female first themes (gardening, decoration/renovation and zoo-keeper)
Ruthless focus on a single type of puzzle mechanic of tile-blasting
Small, agile and extremely hard working teams
LTV driven by level optimisation and social mechanics
CPIs reduced with familiar art style (Toon Blast / Looney Tunes) and use of celebrities
And then there’s Firecraft Studios approach…
Firecraft Studios - WTH???
Here are some facts:
Matchington Mansion was created by Firecraft Studios, an Ltd located on the Cayman Islands
Firecraft Studios has no other shipped titles. Ever.
Firecraft describes itself as “a small team with a big crush on puzzle games and huge passion to create them!”. On Linkedin there are only three people who have worked or are working at Firecraft Studios.
Firecraft Studios is located in San Mateo, a few miles South from San Francisco. The address points the location of the studio at Patio Coffee Shop.
Matchington Mansion was launched at approximately the same time as Playrix’ Homescapes
I’m going to let you, dear reader, to arrive at your own conclusions when it comes to Firecraft Studios. The thing is, we’re not out here trying to expose the makers of the game. We’re here to deconstruct what allowed Matchington Mansion to succeed in an incredibly competitive environment.
IPM is the new LTV
MM was launched at approximately the same time as Playrix’ Homescapes. As mentioned before, the two games are incredibly similar featuring the same theme and the same core gameplay. Thus it is safe to say that these two games compete for the same players with essentially the same products
Homescapes came out of the gate guns blazing racking up tens of millions of installs in a couple month. Clearly they felt confident about scaling up so fast due to all their learnings from Fishdom and more importantly, Gardenscapes. Firecraft one the other hand made a first push to scale in late 2017, few months after MM was launched. After the first push it took almost a year before they started scaling up MM again. We can also see from the graph Playrix defending their position. To stop MM from scaling, Playrix pushed their installs at all time high and thus flooded the market with increased in CPIs in defense of their market position. In other words, there was a war for the same female player base that ended causing collateral damage:
“Starting in early February, we saw a significant uptick in aggressive UA campaigns from two casual game publishers. This had the effect of driving up CPI costs for Design Home, Covet Fashion and Kim Kardashian: Hollywood. As a result, we've dialed back our UA spend for our female-centric titles, and this has impacted bookings for these titles in the first half of 2019. We expect Design Home and Covet Fashion to collectively be flat from the first quarter to the second quarter. We believe it is in the companies and shareholders' best interests to not drive short-term bookings growth via unprofitable UA campaigns.”
One the revenue side the total revenue for the three rivals increased initially driven by the massive launch of Homescapes but as seen from the data, it actually took a year Matchington Mansion started increasing its revenues. And most interestingly that growth of revenues came at the expense of Playrix’. And as Playrix went on full offense with installs the overall revenues grew driven by all of the additional players. This offense also forced Firecraft Studios to back down.
As you’re comparing the install and revenue graphs, you can immediately see that the revenue doesn’t drop despite the games drastically decreasing the volume of installs. This, as well as relatively high Revenue/Install ration give a whiff of the high retention and strong monetization ability of these games
With two products very similar to each other a lot comes down to marketing. We talk a lot about CPI (cost per install) versus LTV (life-time value) but personally, I like to break it down to just a step further and talk about IPMs (installs per 1000 impressions). The reason is he formula below. From the studio side we are always working on increasing the LTV by improving and optimizing the game. But the other side of the coin is the CPI. And while we don’t really have a direct influence on the CPM, as it is something that the channel and current market dictates, we do have an influence on IPM in form of the ad creatives.
I talk about IPM because it’s something that Firecraft Studios clearly found competitive advantage in. Just look at the ads below. While they may not be entirely truthful (or truthful at all) they accomplish the goal, which is getting players to install and play the game.
Regardless of the fact that the ad doesn't represent the core gameplay at all, it does something really well. It makes the viewer think they can do it better. "What do you mean 'so hard', you just messed it up!" With ads like these, Firecraft has persistently managed to lower their CPI so substantially they started to be able to compete with the big boys for those sweet sweet high-LTV players. In the process, they have worked tirelessly on their marketing strategy, not shying away from controversy.
And we know these ads worked because Playrix followed with identical ads. And not only the ads. Playrix also copied the icon and pretty much the whole store page from Matchington Mansion.
In fact, the marketing of the two titles is identical. Except of one peculiar detail: Playrix doesn’t seem to be using AppLovin as a marketing channel, unlike Matchington Mansion that heavily relies on it. This is interesting because AppLovin is one of the largest mediation platforms that has curiously enough ventured out into publishing games itself through Lion Studios. An interesting coincidence.
Matchington Mansion isn't the only game trying to take a bite out of Playrix' apple; Family Zoo (Plarium, Aug 2017), Home Design Makeover (Storm8, Feb 2018) and My Home - Design Dreams (Zentertain, Aug 2018) have been making attempts, but have all reached nothing but a fraction of what Firecraft Studios has accomplished. Newcomer Lily’s Garden (Tactile Games, Jan 2019) even uses a different core-game (tile-blast instead of match-3) with the same visual progression and narrative driven progression.
Matchington Mansion vs. Homescapes
After talking and speculating about Matchington Mansion's marketing successes, there are still quite some unknowns, especially given the cloudiness of Firecraft studios it's hard have a detailed account of what happened in that aspect. What's easier to analyse is the game itself and see why the game performs the way it does. Word on the streets is their ARPDAU indicates to be roughly double that of Homescapes. Which parts of the game's design make it such a lucrative product?
As a creative, it's safe to say I'm not a fan of clones. However, after playing Matchington Mansion for about 120 levels, the Game Designer in me is relieved. It's not only just a clever marketing ploy. Defying all of my initial expectations, Matchington Mansion is actually a decent game! The reason why it kept players playing and paying after all that marketing is because it has done quite a couple of things better than Homescapes, although the devil is in the details. Read on to find out.
The Core Gameplay
The meat of any match-3 game is still, and will always be its level design. You can have an amazing meta-game, but if your levels play badly, your players will leave. Both Homescapes and Matchington Mansion have high quality level design, but their play styles feel very different. Take a look at the following example:
For comparison’s sake, I took two consecutive Homescapes levels with very different level design. In level 82, which could be characterised as “puzzly”, the player has a relatively limited space to create supergems (the exploding ones that are created when matching more than 3), even though they are essential to reach the (apple) blockers in the bottom corners. Levels like these are usually configured to have a lower amount of different colours, providing limited possibilities for the player to create matches. This forces them to have longer thinking breaks between their moves to find a way to create those horizontal rocket supergems necessary to clear the corners.
Level 83 is much more open and at start clearly foreshadows the feeling of the level by placing gems of the same colour in each half of the level. By starting in the top middle, the player opens up more and more space by blasting their way through the checkerboard-patterned blockers. The more space that is created, the easier the level gets. Levels like these are configured to have more matching possibilities (and therefore more auto-matches) and blockers with a higher amount of layers (hit points) since there is going to be much more supergem action.
For the average match-3 player, “blasty” levels like level 83 involve a much more attractive play style, psychologically. There is less thinking involved since it matters less which exact supergems are created (all of them will do).
Having done a lot of match-3 level design and analysing the performance data for most of these levels, I can say that the amount of auto-matches has a sweet spot. Levels with an average of X auto-matches per move retain best. Configure too many colours and the player won’t have enough match possibilities (agency), configure a too low amount of colours and the level will play itself because it will generate too many auto-matches. Blasty levels are by definition much closer to this sweet spot than puzzly levels.
Don’t get me wrong, puzzly levels are enjoyable, but only to a certain extent. They usually make for a great palette cleanser after having had a couple of blast levels but I would refrain from making the bulk of your match-3 levels puzzles.
Now here’s the kicker. Compared to Matchington Mansion, Homescapes’ level design is much more “puzzly”, it’s noticably different. Both types of levels appear in both games, but an average Matchington Mansion level is usually much more “blasty”. This is confirmed by the different supergem that gets created by their ‘square’ matches.
In Homescapes, this match results in an airplane gem. When matched, the airplane flies to a pseudo-random spot anywhere on the board to explode in a plus-shaped manner, always targeting a useful objective in the level. This is a common technique used in level design to give the player some influence on what happens elsewhere on the board or break up possible “dead areas” without matches. Because Matchington Mansion’s levels require less tactical hitting of faraway objectives, the game’s designers decided they don’t need this behaviour, which is why Matchington Mansion’s variant of this supergem doesn’t fly before exploding.
The Meta Game
What are these games about? Exactly, home decoration. And here as well, Matchington Mansion has a system that’s more engaging than Homescapes.
In both games, when a part of the player’s house (furniture, wallpaper, carpets, anything) can be decorated, the player is presented 3 options to choose from. This way, each room can look totally different for every player.
The radical difference between Homescapes and Matchington Mansion is that the latter has used these different options to their full potential by adding a collection mechanic. Participating in events and visiting a friend’s mansion unlocks more decorative options. A brilliant addition.
And this brings us to another essential difference. In Homescapes, the player chooses one out of the three options they like, but if they afterwards decide they don’t like how their Red Armchair matches the carpet, they can change it at any point.
In Matchington Mansion the options also stay available, except they charge the player for every item they want to change later. Purchasing it adds the option to their collection permanently. So when the player visits a friend and is being told they “Got Warm Leather Couch”, the game actually means “You’ve now unlocked the possibility to buy it”.
“But what about being friendly towards the player?” I hear you say? Isn’t the fact that players can freely change the looks of their entire room a much better way to make them happy? Being facilitating to your players sounds like the winning strategy here. Well, it isn’t.
By giving the player the other two options for free, the importance of choosing between different styles of furniture is nullified. It’s now a purely cosmetic judgement in which only players intrinsically motivated by home decoration might still see meaning. Matchington Mansion on the other side, gives the first choice as a reward for winning a level and presents the others as purchasable options the player can collect afterwards. By adding different prices to different options, the player’s perception of their value is enforced even more. Now I’m beginning to see where that difference in monetisation comes from.
While in 2018, Playrix has been struggling to create meaningful and deep events in their game, Matchington Mansion again has taken more initiative. In Homescapes, one kind of event has been a competitive tournament with leaderboard rewards. While playing levels, performing as many specific actions (e.g. matching to create airplane supergems) as possible ranks players against each other so they can compete for rewards. Nothing revolutionary from a live-ops perspective and not very interesting for non-competitive players.
Another type of event in Homescapes is the one they call ‘Furry Tales’. It’s an 8-level saga-style sequence of levels where players need to reach and win the 8th level without losing 3 times. This one has been successful, leveraging your game’s core gameplay and a sequence of specifically catered levels is never a bad idea. Original? Not so much.
In Matchington Mansion, players are given the option to be teleported to entirely new areas (away from the mansion). From private islands with pristine beaches in summer to cozy cottages in winter. Firecraft effectively caters to their players in areas they know there’s interest; fixing up locations to make them look pretty. Visual rewards, especially involving seasonal content can never be underestimated.
The novelty effect created by moving the player to a whole different area they can start renovating is pretty strong. No frustrating saga-sequence of levels is needed, simple and peaceful decorating seems to work well enough.
Lastly, I have to say the story in Matchington Mansion has been much more enjoyable in my (subjective) point of view. Austin the butler has never interested me much. He leads a pretty dull and sad life at first, where the main two characters he interacts with most are his parents.
Technically, Homescapes’ story lacks some depth as well. The hook “Fix the mansion to persuade my parents not to sell it” doesn’t work as well as the antagonist-driven “That capitalist jerk is trying to turn my sweet granny’s mansion into a casino”
Additionally, Matchington Mansion’s early story also includes a love interest (the handsome maintenance guy) which results in much edgier dialogue.
Especially this last point is highly subjected to personal preference, but it can be said that narratively, Matchington Mansion’s story has more ingredients to make it engaging.
Great Game with even Greater Marketing
Even though both games have an identical theme and core-game, there are still enough differences between them when zooming in. It’s a very interesting rivalry to keep track of, especially now Homescapes has released their social system last week, introducing ‘teams’ of players to work towards common goals and compete against other teams. As this is something that Matchington Mansion lacks entirely, it opens up unique possibilities for Playrix to keep players engaged by connecting them to each other. If done in a meaningful way, a live game’s lifetime can be extended by years.
In any case, it has to be seen how Matchington Mansion keeps performing during the next months to see if Playrix should be worried. They still have the huge cash advantage their wildly successful Fishdom, Township, Gardenscapes and Homescapes IPs provide, to continue buying ever-increasingly expensive players. But with Matchington Mansion’s monetisation potential, Firecraft’s snowball can continue to keep rolling, and who knows for how long. As is mostly the case in this segment of the F2P market it will come down to long-term retention.