New releases on Apple Arcade this month include Garden Tails: Match and Grow, a serene match-3 puzzle game where the main objective is to build a garden and fill it with cute little animals. In an environment filled with adrenaline-focused video games, this new Apple Arcade experience stands out as a quieter, more relaxing alternative.
To learn more about the game and its relaxing roots, we spoke to Sandra Honigman, game designer and leader of Dots’ Garden Tails, to learn more about where the idea came from and how she tries to keep things light for the player.
We talked about the game’s attempts to overcome some of the negative stereotypes of the match-3 genre, including the lack of monetization and some mechanics that help the player solve its puzzles. We also delve into how living in a big American city gave rise to the idea of a tranquil experience.
This interview was conducted remotely via Zoom and has been edited for clarity.
GameSpot: Match-3s like Garden Tails can be stressful, especially when the number of moves remaining drops to zero. Was the idea to set the game around a serene garden in an attempt to juxtapose that stress? Do you still want the player to feel some of that tension?
Sandra Honigman: We don’t need tension there, no. The guiding idea of Garden Tails has always been relaxation and peace, that’s why we have the zen gardens, the music, the sounds, the animals, etc. in the levels. We’re also not monetizing for level loss, so we can enhance that peaceful experience as we don’t have to stress about monetization, which is one of the biggest things other games in this genre do.
So the lack of monetization improves your overall vision of making this a relaxing experience. Is it simply because people don’t need to have a financial stake in the game?
Yes, exactly. We are not worried about monetization at all. Thanks to the association with Apple, we were able to launch it on Apple Arcade and make it a completely free game, one hundred percent.
In a medium like video games where explosions and bombast tend to be a focal point, developing a game focused on relaxation is a fascinating idea. Was that always the goal?
Yes, one hundred percent, that was always our goal. Even before we had our idea of the story and the animals that become characters, this game was always going to be about sitting down with your phone and playing a very zen game for a while. That has always been the plan.
So when did the idea of the zen garden come into play? Was that approach devised hand in hand with the relaxation motive, or did the general approach of being Zen lead you to the idea of the garden?
Our first idea was gardening, but the animals came into play a bit later in development. Once we had them, they shaped the entire personality of the game. Like other match-3 games, making certain matches creates special tiles, which in our case are the animals, and each of them has its own unique property.
When you were deciding which animals to include, like the bunny, the bee, and so on, were there any animals that you couldn’t incorporate?
We had an idea to make these little groundhogs appear instead of the rabbits, but we didn’t know how to make the groundhogs look good in the puzzle.
The groundhogs worked in the same way as the rabbit, sprinting away and taking flower mosaics with them, but the pile of dirt the groundhog would leave behind fell off. It looked like the little mound of dirt the groundhog came out of should have been permanent, but they couldn’t. be permanent, and that made him feel too busy for a moment that was supposed to be very quick.
There is a negative connotation around the term “match-3” that I’m sure you were aware of while developing. We already talked about monetization, but what were some of the other key obstacles you were looking to avoid in your match-3 game?
We strongly believe at Playdots in making sure that the experience of each level is as friendly as possible. With Garden Tails, that means having things that are useful to the player on the board, rather than things that are purely obstacles. There is a balance there; it’s a Zen game, but the player also wants to be challenged, which is something our previous game Two Dots does well. A lot of people who like that game are there for the challenge, unlike this game which is a more relaxing experience.
We wanted to keep players from thinking about every move in Garden Tails. Instead, we want them to go with the flow. For example, the bee power-up you can create by matching five or more flowers is the “exploding” mosaic trope you’ve seen in other match-3s. In our game, the bee explodes twice, which makes the game a bit friendlier and a bit more useful to you, the player.
We also wanted to make sure that the experience of the garden was just as important as the levels themselves, so we weaved them together in a similar way to other games, where you pay a certain amount of a specific currency in order to progress. However, instead of having something very big and wild, we just focused everything on the outfield, and I think that’s one of our strengths.
I noticed that the rewards they give you are very specific numbers. 230 of one currency and then 40 of another. Where did those numbers come from? Were they random choices or did they come from playtesting?
Those numbers are actually very important to the rate at which the player unlocks the garden. During the planning phase, we sat down with these big spreadsheets that acted as a baseline of how long we want a player to take to finish the garden, and that baseline correlates to the number of levels in each garden.
Our first level, for example, is the fastest garden to complete in the game. After one or two levels, you get enough money to buy a plant for your garden, but for the next one you’ll need to play a couple more.
I’m guessing going through that excel sheet is the exact opposite of the relaxation you’re trying to provide.
Yes! We will gladly take the stress.
Speaking of the relaxation part, you said earlier that all the elements in the game, from the animals to the garden to the music, play into this theme. What kind of research did you do to harness that feeling of relaxation or serenity? Did the team listen to relaxation apps, music, ASMR videos, or anything else while creating this?
A lot of it has to do with where we are: we’re actually located in New York City and we’re very surrounded around the city When you’re in a big city like this, where do you go to relax? Parks and gardens. Being New Yorkers looking for that peaceful experience, we took what we knew as the spaces where we can relax outside and tried to bring that to the game. For example, we would go to the botanical gardens, Central Park and other parks in New York City for inspiration. Basically, we would take the day off and go there with the team. We understand what makes people distracted, but we also know what is inside that distraction that can be peaceful.
What are some of the future plans for the game going forward? Will the updates provide more gardens and animals, or could there be a switch to a different style of “relaxation” like Beach Tails or something?
We launched last week, so right now we’re very focused on these first few days after launch, but we have a lot of big plans. We have multiple content updates coming up, including new gardens, new animals, new music, and new stories. We are also working on new features that extend the gardening experience, but these are still in development. As for when they will drop, we don’t have a specific time yet, but our social media will have the information available.
Garden Tails: Match and Grow is now available on Apple Arcade.
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