Deconstructing Lily’s Garden

In the beginning of last year, Tactile Games released their newest and most ambitious game ever. For a small ~50 person studio without top grossing titles on its name, diving into one of the most competitive segments of the mobile games market must have been a scary endeavour, but the bold and controversial execution has paid off.

Editor’s Note: This post was originally published by  Niek Tuerlings writer at Ludocious.com. Game Designer on June’s Journey at Wooga, Berlin. Disclaimer: The article is the author’s own professional view on Lily’s Garden. Wooga GmbH isn’t affiliated with this assessment in any way.

It’s about time for an inquiry into why Lily’s Garden has been crushing it. What is Lily’s Garden, you ask? Isn’t it just another dime a dozen puzzle game with a redecoration meta-game slapped on top? Actually, it isn’t!

At its core…

With Lily’s Garden, Tactile has combined a Collapse core-game with the highly popular redecoration meta-game. Over four years ago, in these excellent series of articles, GameRefinery outlined what was needed to make a successful match-3 puzzle game by distinguishing between single-dimensional and multi-dimensional games, and it still holds up.

Lily’s Garden has been floating around the top 50 grossing during the last quarter of 2019. As always, metrics below were gathered using GameRefinery. <3

During Q2 & Q3 this year, Lily’s Garden has been closing in around the top 100 grossing.

Collapse versus Switcher

For their first dimension, Lily’s Garden doesn’t use the traditional match-3 Switcher mechanic but instead uses Collapse. Right now, Lily’s Garden is the highest grossing multi-dimensional Collapse game out there. Knowing Toy- & Toon Blast have their own solid player base, Tactile smartly thought to tap into that segment instead of competing with traditional Switchers.

Choosing this less (but still very) popular core mechanic to cater to a specific sub-segment of the match-X audience can be worth the trouble it inherently brings, but it’s important to be aware. For example, as already illustrated in the previous article, having a core mechanic that doesn’t feature auto-matches isn’t beneficial from a psychological standpoint.

When playing Lily’s Garden, the Collapse mechanic sheds light onto another problem that isn’t present in most other matching games; the direction of the line rocket (the most common power-up). Since Collapse players don’t swipe to match but simply tap, the directional input that usually gives the player agency over the direction their rockets is missing. This is when Lily’s Garden gives you a line rocket with a random direction, horizontal or vertical.

Using rockets during gardening has always been a widespread practice.

This means there is a 50% chance players get the rocket they want. Sounds fair, doesn’t it? Not really. Leave it up to a player’s negativity bias to start thinking they are extra unlucky. Even with equal chances, players will remember the times they didn’t get the right rocket much more vividly. Throw a bit of confirmation bias in the mix and you have players concluding they are out of luck, or even worse, that the game is rigged against them.

Clearly, tapping the bottom-right orange block should result in a horizontal line rocket, but alas…

Even if the line rocket generation in Lily’s Garden is completely random, a 50/50 chance for the right rocket is not enough to make this a pleasant experience. Smart logic that checks for obstacles in both axes of the newly created rocket would have been appreciated here.

Other, more specific problems like the fact that more than 2 adjacent line rockets still merge when fired, even though their power isn’t boosted could have been reconsidered, but it’s not something that stands in the way of Lily’s success.

Meta Matters

For the second dimension, Tactile decided to add the highly popular redecoration meta-game, which is not uncommon. Wanting to be the best Multi-dimensional Hidden Object game in the redecoration genre, WhaleApp has been aiming for the same with Hidden Hotel. Many others have jumped the bandwagon as well.

Hidden Hotel, Matchington Mansion, Vineyard Valley, Gardenscapes, Royal Garden Tales, Manor Matters, Homescapes, Lily’s Garden, Gallery: Coloring Book & Decor (click to enlarge)

Lily’s Garden has been doing things differently compared to the other featured games, though.

Scandalous!

But first, about that elephant in the room… Even if you’ve not been following the mobile games market (but somehow managed to stumble onto this article), you could have easily heard about Lily’s Garden.
Never before in the existence of mobile game advertisements, a game’s ads have stirred up such controversy as Lily’s have. Tactile almost broke the internet by touching onto highly sensitive topics. Here’s the one that started it all.

Lily’s most controversial ad. See it to believe it.

If you’re intrigued by these videos, you should watch more of them, especially the one revealing a big plot twist after the video above. But these are by far the only ones. There are video ads with Lily miming sizes of men’s… anyways, wait, look at this one where Lily slapping her mom because she was kissing her ex! Anyways, here’s a YouTube channel with all of them.

Lots of varying opinions were uttered about these ads and if they were appropriate, considering kids and young teenagers also play mobile games. One thing that’s certain is they have worked very well.

The need for narrative

Articles about Lily’s controversial ads have been written, the core game is solid but far from revolutionary, what else is there? Well, the biggest reason why Lily’s Garden is doing so well that has not been elaborated on much yet, is its story. I would go as far as claiming that Lily’s Garden is the only successful story-driven matching puzzle game out there.

Unlike in Gardenscapes or Homescapes, where players often have trouble identifying with the protagonist because of a lack in their personal development, Lily’s Garden has a scarily realistic story. I believe this is one of the most important reasons it’s performing so well. It is the truly revolutionary element that should put this game in any mobile gamer’s ‘to try’ category. Afraid to distract from the player’s fun, earlier puzzle games have shied away from difficult, adult topics like child custody, divorce and even death. Not Lily’s…

Regina, Lily’s friend is cautious around Lily’s recent courter, Luke.

It turns out that having four writers on payroll can give your game’s story the depth it needs to evolve the game from casual entertainment to heartwarming narrative immersion. Who would have thought!

That time during Christmas when the cute little pet goat died.

Other games implement the redecoration meta-game purely from a mechanical point of view, which results in a lot of clapping because the player has chosen “the best aquarium”. There is no clapping in Lily’s Garden. I’m tired of the clapping. Please, stop the clapping!

‘Story development’ in Hidden Hotel

I don’t know if the constant fourth wall breaking that is usually done in games like Homescapes and the likes is the greatest idea. “Don’t you think this is the best looking kitchen counter ever, Niek?” – well if you put it that way… I honestly couldn’t care less.

Players confirming retention & acquisition uplifts because of Lily’s story

World building

Tactile clearly marketed their game to having adult themes. Their ads extend the game’s world and actually exaggerate it quite a bit. There’s romance, there are cheeky comments, there’s sexual innuendo. The marketing reflects that. Sometimes it’s subtle, sometimes a little less subtle.

Oh my…

To support the game’s immersive narrative, many strides have been taken to create a smooth experience. The game features almost no pop-ups on game start and has zero ad integrations. Truly a respectable choice in favour of the game’s elegance. I wonder how long it will stay this way, given the game shows some serious potential to monetise from a product standpoint.

Live-ops

Wait, if there are no ads, and players can just enjoy the story without paying a single dime. How is this top 50 grossing material? Well, tactile has understood that most monetisation in puzzle games still comes from the end-of-round sequence. The game bets fully on the player’s Loss Aversion. It does this by focusing heavily on “events” working together to keep the player from losing their winning spree. “Events” because currently, these mechanics are active very frequently, practically all the time.

Philip’s Ice Cream

As almost all top grossing puzzle games do, Lily’s Garden allows the player to snowball their way through levels if they keep winning by rewarding a 1, 2 or 3+ winning streak by spawning up to three power-ups at the start of a level. One line bomb, one blast bomb & a colour remover.

Snowballing

This works very well because losing a level means not simply having to start over, it means having to start over without those power-ups you had last time!

Luke’s Rocket Ruckus

Lily’s Garden features a hyper-competitive event called Rocket Ruckus where players have to fire as many power-ups as they can and submit (permanently lock in and reset) the total tally after winning a level or choose to play another level to increase the tally. If a level is lost, the tally resets to zero.

How Rocket Ruckus amps up the pressure

The pressure builds up pretty high if the player gambles to try and add one more level’s worth of power-ups to the tally and the next level turns out to be a ‘Hard Level’.

Combining the two events works like a charm for competitive players who aren’t highly skilled. These players will have to use or purchase in-level power-ups or more moves to avoid losing their competition’s tally and winning spree.

One side note to these two mechanics is that the rewards for winning are simply ‘more power-ups’. For more skilled players this means they can keep hoarding power-ups without ever running out. Giving other players an edge against these champions wouldn’t be fair as it’s a competitive system. But alternatively, to reduce the player’s stock of power-ups, a different single-player event with dynamic difficulty could be scheduled in between these competitive ones. The only question is, what can players be rewarded during those events? Next to (expensive to produce) narrative bits it’s difficult to come up with more reward space in puzzle games like these.

It’s the time of the season…

It’s nothing new but Lily’s Garden also offers seasonal events that make the game feel alive and boost engagement during the holiday season, when more people have time to play. As in other redecoration games, players get to keep redecorate a specially themed area (away from the garden) why playing through a specially catered sequence of levels. If the player completes the area before the time is up, they can keep revisiting it after the event ends. Usually this is enough of a reward but in Lily’s Garden it’s extra rewarding, again, because of the narrative. The (optional) Christmas event content, for example, uncovers why Lily doesn’t want to celebrate the holidays with her parents and does so in a dramatic manner.

Even the side stories are full of character and lots of drama.

The level of engagement to complete the area before the event ends is questionable. Tactile has been very forgiving to their players by giving them more than enough time to complete the 57 levels that encompass the Christmas storyline. Given the narrative’s quality, I believe more pressure could have been placed onto players as they have more time to play and lots would be willing to put down some money if it was needed to complete this special content. Alternatively, level difficulty could have been increased as well.

To conclude

A combination of the following four points explain why Lily’s Garden is doing so well:

  • Aptly chosen, high quality core game, catering specifically to Collapse fans
  • Deepest narrative ever seen in matching puzzle games
  • Spot-on marketing, doubling down on adult themes & story
  • Effective & elegant live-ops with full focus on loss aversion

I really like the shift towards a more meaningful player experience and applaud Tactile’s choice of tone. Some people might think it’s too much but I believe that telling a meaningful story by far isn’t done enough in casual games of today and Lily’s Garden definitely pushes the needle into the right direction.

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