Among the new releases on Apple Arcade this month is Garden Tails: Match and Grow, a serene match-3 puzzle game where building a garden and filling it with cute little animals is the main goal. In a medium filled with adrenaline-focused video games, this new Apple Arcade experience stands out as a quiet, more relaxing alternative.
To learn more about the game and its relaxing roots, we spoke to Dots’ Sandra Honigman, game designer and lead on Garden Tails, for more insight on where the idea came from and how it tries to keep things light for the player.
We spoke about the game’s attempts to overcome some of the negative stereotypes of the match-3 genre, including a lack of monetization and a few mechanics that help the player solve its puzzles. We also go into length about how living in a major American city birthed the idea of a quiet experience.
This interview was conducted remotely via Zoom and edited for clarity.
GameSpot: Match-3s like Garden Tails can be stressful, especially when the number of moves left whittles down to zero. Was the idea to theme the game around a serene garden in an attempt to juxtapose that stress? Do you still want the player to feel a little some of that tension?
Sandra Honigman: We don’t need tension there, no. The guiding idea for Garden Tails has always been relaxation and peace, which is why we have the Zen gardens, the music, the sounds, the animals, etc. in the levels. We’re also not monetizing from the level loss either, so we’re able to enhance that peaceful experience since there’s no monetization to stress over, which is one of the biggest things other games in this genre do.
So the lack of monetization enhances your overall vision of making this a relaxing experience. Is that simply because people don’t need to have a financial stake in the game?
Yeah, exactly. We’re not worried about monetization at all. Thanks to the partnership with Apple, we were able to launch it on Apple Arcade and have it be a totally, one hundred percent, free game.
In a medium like video games where explosions and bombast tend to be a focal point, developing a game centered around relaxation is a fascinating idea. Was this always the goal?
Yes, one hundred percent, that was always our goal. Even before we had our story idea and the animals who 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’s always been the plan
So when did the Zen garden idea come into play? Was that focus devised hand-in-hand with the relaxation motif, or did the overarching focus on being Zen lead you to the garden idea?
Our very first idea was gardening, but the animals came into play a little later on 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 is 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 the others, were there any animals you weren’t able to incorporate?
We had an idea for these little groundhogs to appear instead of the rabbits, but we couldn’t figure out how to make the groundhogs look good in the puzzle.
The groundhogs worked the same way as the rabbit, speeding away and taking flower tiles with them, but the dirt pile the groundhog would leave behind felt off. It felt like the little mound of dirt the groundhog crawled out of should have been permanent, but they couldn’t be permanent, and that made it feel a little too busy for a moment that’s supposed to be very quick.
There’s negative connotation around the term “match-3” which I’m sure you were aware of while developing. We spoke about monetization already, but what were some of the other key obstacles you were looking to avoid in your match-3 game?
We believe very strongly within Playdots in making sure that each level’s experience is as friendly as possible. With Garden Tails, that means having things that are helpful to the player right within the board, versus things that are purely obstacles. There’s 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, as opposed to this game which is a more relaxing sort of experience.
We wanted to avoid having players think about every single move in Garden Tails. Instead we want them just going with the flow. For example, the bee power-up you can create by matching five or more flowers is the “exploding” tile trope you’ve seen in other match-3s. In our game the bee explodes twice, which makes the game a little friendlier and a little more helpful to you the player.
We also wanted to make sure the garden experience was as important as the levels themselves, so we have them intertwined with each other in a similar method to other games, where you pay a certain amount of a specific currency in order to progress. Instead of having something very big and wild, however, we just focused everything on the gardens, and I think that’s one of our strengths.
I noticed the rewards you’re given 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 pace in which the player is unlocking the garden. During the planning phase we sat down with these big spreadsheets which acted as a baseline for how long we want a player to take in finishing the garden, and that baseline correlates with the number of levels in each garden.
Our first level, for instance, is the fastest garden to complete in the game. After one or two levels, you get enough currency to buy a plant for your garden, but for the next one you’ll need to play a couple more.
I guess going through that Excel sheet is the exact opposite of the relaxation you’re trying to bring?
Yes! We’ll gladly take the stress.
Speaking of the relaxation part, you said earlier that every element in the game, from the animals to the garden to the music, all play into this theme. What sort of research did you do to harness that feeling of relaxation or serenity? Did the team listen to relaxation apps, music, ASMR videos, or something else while creating this?
A lot has to do with where we are: we’re actually located in New York city and we’re very much surrounded by the city. When you’re in a big city like this, where do you go to relax? Parks and gardens. Being New Yorkers who were looking for that peaceful experience, we took what we knew as the spaces that we can relax in outdoors and tried to bring that into the game. For example, we were going to botanical gardens, Central Park, and the other various parks in New York City as inspiration. Basically, we’d take the day off and just go there with the team. We understand what makes people distracted, but we also know what’s within that distraction that can be peaceful.
What are some of the future plans for the game going forward? Will updates provide just more gardens and animals, or might there be a move to a different style of “relaxing,” like a Beach Tails or something like that?
We launched last week, so right now we’re very much focused on these first few days after launch, but we do have a lot of big plans. We have multiple content updates that are coming, including new gardens, new animals, new music, and new stories. We’re also working on new features that expand the gardening experience, but they’re still very much in development. As for when they’re going to drop, we don’t have specific timing yet, but our socials will have the info available.
Garden Tails: Match and Grow is available now on Apple Arcade.
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