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Merge games as a fulfillment of the American Dream

GDC 2023: Big Fish's newly installed VP of creative Jason Mai explains how he approached EverMerge and a genre he didn't really know when he was hired six months ago

Jason Mai landed a job as VP of creative with Big Fish about six months ago, and while his history in casual and mobile games is extensive, he had never actually made a merge game along the lines of his new employer's hit EverMerge.

In a 'Game Designer's Notebook' session at the Game Developers Conference Tuesday, Mai acknowledged he landed the job without actually knowing much about the genre specifically.

"Once I got the job, I had to dive in and do what you always do: dig in, deconstruct the game, build some spreadsheets, read all the studies, the player surveys, talk to the designers and talk to the players," Mai said.

Merge games, as he explained, are built on a "pyramid of consumption." A player starts with, for example, an empty coffee cup. If they collect another empty coffee cup, they can combine them to make a full coffee cup. Two full cups of coffee become a fancy cup of coffee, and every new level of progression added to that pyramid dramatically increases the amount of merging required to reach the highest level.

"It takes something like 16,000 merges to get to the 14th level golden tea service," Mai said. "I don't expect you to tap 16,000 times, but it does cement the value of speed-ups, accelerators, any shortcut they can take to save 3,000 taps? 'Great, I'll pay a dollar for that.'"

Merge games come in a variety of flavors, Mai said, but he said they have something they in common besides the merging mechanic.

"I think at its core, all these merge games are trying to deliver a player fantasy about the American Dream"

"I think at its core, all these merge games are trying to deliver a player fantasy about the American Dream," Mai said. "Specifically, I just mean that merge games are sort of rags-to-riches stories. You start with these junk items – literally an empty, discarded coffee cup – and you work your way up to luxury golden goods. That drive is very much that tale of the American Dream."

He added, "Games are escapist fantasies, and this is the one I think we're scratching at when we're making a merge game."

Having explained the basics of the merge genre as he saw it, Mai then went on to detail the problem before him. As a designer coming in to help chart the future of a franchise like EverMerge, he walked the audience through some of the basic brainstorming he would expect any designer to do around a new project.

What works and doesn't work about the interface? If he wants to make something new, what elements can he break or move around? What give the game a "+1" to set it apart? How can he make that advantage even more advantageous? What brings people back? What causes friction that pushes them away? What sucks about the game?

On that last note, he pointed to a review guide for EverMerge that advised players keep certain things away from houses because they might inadvertently collect them by mis-tapping, which suggests there's an interface issue that could be improved.

He suggested opportunities to play with space and time in merge games, either by making the time it takes to merge items matter, limiting some merges to a certain season, or providing bonuses when merges are made in specific parts of the playfield.

Once the basics had been covered, Mai suggested developers come up with a list of "catalytic questions," essentially a brainstorming technique of rapid-firing 10 to 50 questions about a game or genre with no attempt made to answer them.

"What you find is by the end, the final questions start to be really good," Mai said. "For me, I kept coming back to that story, that fantasy of the American Dream. What could I do to push that further, or back that off? Those are the questions that worked for me and resonated with me."

"I want to feel like Scrooge McDuck. I want to have a vault full of coins, there's so many I can't even count them..."

One question he was particularly interested in was that of how a merge game could lean even further into the idea of the American Dream. He spitballed a few answers, starting by leaning into the greedy element of the fantasy.

"What could I do to make this game make me feel ridiculously wealthy, super rich," Mai wondered. "Like the Battle of Helms Deep was for the number of units that were in that battle, give me that in wealth. I want to feel like Scrooge McDuck. I want to have a vault full of coins, there's so many I can't even count them, I just measure how deep they go."

Or perhaps there was a different element of the American mythos he could tap into, something along the lines of The Oregon Trail.

"Skip the dysentery but lean into that 40 acres and a mule and let me merge my way from an open prairie to a thriving civilization," Mai said.

(It is worth noting that 40 acres and a mule was ordered to be allocated to some freed slaves and their families after the American Civil War. Not only was it rare for this land to actually be given, much of it was later restored to pre-war white owners)

Then there was what Mai called the Deer Hunter option, saying the 2000-era hunting franchise opened up a new audience of players on CD-ROM at Walmarts across the country.

Mai suggested a developer could "embrace Americana and that country-living lifestyle so that during harvest season, there's so much produce you've got to pickle and jar and can all your stuff. And then winter comes and now you're like, [using] your clothes to make a quilt and stay warm for winter."

Though he didn't detail it in his talk, Mai's slide also suggested an alternative MAGA approach: "Merge America Great Again, with guns & ammo."

Another possibility would be making it harder for the player to realize the American Dream goal, embracing a rogue-like design where people fail more often than they win. He suggested having a hunter merge board and a gatherer merge board, with additional boards for shepherds, farmers, priests, and so on that could be unlocked after a few rounds of play.

The same idea could be expanded to multiplayer gameplay, Mai said, with social elements and a sharded "almost 4X-like" world where players of different classes would be incentivized to trade with one another.

Mai also said he thought about the unhealthy aspects of merge games.

"If you look at a merge grid like this player's board, it looks like a hoarder lives here"

"Why are we so focused on material possessions? That's crazy," he said.

Mai showed an image of a standard merge gameplay session, saying, "if you look at a merge grid like this player's board, it looks like a hoarder lives here. This is nuts. This cannot be your happy space, right? You come here every day and this is how you relax? This is so stressful."

Instead, he suggested a Marie Kondo-style take on merge gameplay where players organize and minimize their material items, starting with a mess and ending with an orderly and clean merge board, likening it to old solitaire mahjong and card games.

"I parachuted into this world as vice president. I didn't know anything about merge but this is how I've gotten my bearings about it," Mai said, adding, "There are thousands more ideas out there. I don't know exactly which direction we'll take at Big Fish, and I couldn't tell you even if I did know, but I hope that's helpful."

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Brendan Sinclair avatar
Brendan Sinclair: Brendan joined in 2012. Based in Toronto, Ontario, he was previously senior news editor at GameSpot.
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