GungHo Entertainment isn’t a name that springs to mind as a premiere software publisher. Yet the Japanese company has seen its stock rise 6000% over the last year, and currently has a market capitalization twice that of EA – and seven times that of Zynga. And earlier last month, it even nudged ahead of Nintendo.
The reason for all this madness is its iOS and Android game, Puzzle and Dragons. Since its release in February of last year, it’s become a cultural phenomenon in its home country, and despite little marketing or awareness, has been slowly, but surely working its way into the gaming market in the US. Currently boasting a user base of some 15 million players worldwide, and earning somewhere around $100m a month thanks to its in-app purchase system, this game is a juggernaut. And while I certainly wouldn’t argue with anyone saying things like “flash in the pan” and “stock bubble,” it does bear some consideration that this game is continuing to generate phenomenal revenue some 14 months after its release in Japan, and eight months after its inauspicious US debut.
So this thing does have staying power, as I can personally attest. Today represents my 161st login day since I downloaded the game last November, and I can’t see my daily routine of playing at least a few rounds ending anytime soon. Yep, this is my latest gaming crack, and I’ve become a long-term addict. And the main reason for this is because it mashes up a bunch of genres I like into one single package: match-three puzzling, dungeon crawling, monster collecting and RPG-style development.
Basically, you start with a little monster, that can be one of five different colors, representing either fire, water, wood, dark and light. Then, you jump straight into a dungeon, which is basically a series of confrontations with the monsters that reside within. To attack with your monster, you simply match three gems that match the color of your monster, and punishment is dished out. Additional gem combos of any color will boost that attack, resulting in devastating, and sometimes even one-shot kills to your enemies. There’s also a sixth gem type that heals health, vital for survival since enemy monsters attack you in between each puzzle-matching round.
So that’s the basic gameplay. Where it starts getting a little more complicated is that dispatched dungeon denizens sometimes drop monster eggs, which you collect upon completion of the dungeon. These then hatch, giving you more monsters to play with, which you can use them to build a monster team of up to five – essential for tackling higher-level dungeons.
Now things start getting even more complicated. Dungeons are generally aligned with one of the five elements (or a combo of them), and each of the elements has a counter-element in typical rock-paper-scissors style. So obviously, certain combinations of monsters in your team will give you a distinct advantage in some places, and a disadvantage in others. Thus, the monster-collecting part of the game becomes a really Big Thing, because success requires your team to have different monster combinations depending on what and where they’re fighting.
But wait, there’s more! You can feed certain monsters to other monsters to evolve them, making them more powerful and giving them special skills, which, when they are the leader of your team will give you additional advantages. Examples of these are having more time to make a move, reducing damage of a certain type or adding multipliers for specific attacks. There’s also another advantage that can be gained, which forms a part of the game’s social function. Puzzle and Dragons is an online game, and when you enter a dungeon, a random selection of other players' team leaders are shown to you, one of which you can pick as an allied monster. If you successfully complete the dungeon, you can then send an invitation to that player to become a friend – which is basically nothing more than adding that monster to a list that you can then use regularly. As with your own team leader, friendly monsters also grant bonuses that stack, letting you finesse your team even more with skills that will give you further advantages in dungeons. So pick your friends wisely.
Continuing to add yet even more depth to this outwardly simple-looking game is the fact that monsters have their own statistics and specializations. Healers add a healing boost, defenders make you more resilient to your monster’s attack – and usually have high health, enabling your team to take more punishment. And then there are attackers that obviously boost your offensive capability.
This makes team selection an interesting exercise, with a mind-boggling variety of different approaches and combinations available to the player. Fortunately, the game lets you keep five different team builds at once, which saves a lot of time dicking around, since you’ll likely end up with a couple of favored teams that have a high success rate, and a few that you’ll use as a basis for customization to enable you to tackle the later, higher-level dungeons.
In typical RPG style, successfully beating a dungeon awards XP, which improves the player’s rank – an important statistic that governs the number of friend slots given to the player, and the amount of stamina he or she has. And this is where we get to the crux of the game and its moneymaking system. Stamina is used every time a dungeon is entered, which slowly recovers over time (and is entirely replenished when the player ranks up). Play obsessively, and you’ll quickly run out of stamina, forcing you to wait an hour or two for it to recover. If you want to continue to play immediately, you can buy magic stones that let you recover your stamina instantly. Fortunately, you can also earn these stones by completing sets of dungeons, and the developer also quite generously dishes them out regularly to celebrate events or to reward your long-term play milestones (I got a whole bunch for hitting day 150). But while stamina recovery is useful, what is far more tempting is to use these magic eggs to activate the game’s bizarre slot machine – which spits out a random monster egg that can contain a super-rare, mightily powerful creature. My advice is, be patient, and use your eggs for monsters!
I imagine there’ll be a bunch of you throwing your hands up in the air at this point, decrying IAP, but to me it’s not been an issue. I play regularly every day until my stamina runs out, whereupon I put the game down and come back the following day. I have bought stones a couple of times when I really wanted to keep playing, but whenever I have, I didn’t feel ripped off in any way. I just wanted to play RIGHT NOW, so it was much more about my impatience than anything else. And anyway, considering the amount of man-hours I’ve put into this game, I really don’t mind giving up some cash occasionally. If you want to be frugal, you can play the game for free – you just need to be patient.
So that’s the game in a nutshell, and I imagine by now you’ll know pretty much whether you’ll enjoy playing Puzzle and Dragons or not. It’s free to download, so you can sample it no-risk - but be warned. If games like Pokémon have ever had you hooked, you’ll likely become very addicted.
Frankly, I’m stunned that this game keeps holding my interest, but it’s just brutally deep – as is evidenced by the huge array of Wikis, Databases and thriving forums that have cropped up to support this deceptively simple game. What monsters should I use to level up other monsters? Which monsters are the best to level up? How do I tackle dungeon X? They’re all questions you’ll inevitably have within a few hours of starting to play, and things just continue to spiral out of control from there. The game has hundreds of monsters, a vast amount of dungeons that get increasingly difficult, and all combine into a game that’ll quite happily consume many, many hours of your time. Even more so when you consider that GungHo regularly updates the game with features and new dungeons, and there are continual special events that give one-off monsters that players will definitely not want to miss.
So as you can see, Puzzle and Dragons is a long-term project, almost like an MMO. Leveling monsters requires farming dungeons – which some players definitely won’t like. And some dungeons are frustratingly hard, requiring a lot of experimentation, which can also be offputting. So I can certainly understand this game will leave many people cold. But if it turns out that Puzzle and Dragons does float your boat like it does for me, be prepared for a very long and highly entertaining voyage.
Oh – one more thing. Puzzle and Dragons is coming to 3DS this winter in Japan, and I imagine it'll hit the US shortly thereafter. When it does, I think it’s going to become absolutely massive. Just you watch.
The Nitty Gritty
- Visuals: While some of the beautifully-drawn higher-end monsters look like products of a particulalry potent combination of hallucinagens, generally speaking, this game is visually simple.
- Music: I’ve been playing for months, and had to turn the game on just now to remind myself just how forgettable the sound is.
- Interface: Simple. Well, too simple to be honest. The menus are basic, and get the job done - but this is a complex game, and the miserably meager in-game help will have you Googling for info almost immediately. Fortunately, there’s plenty of help out there.
- Lasting Appeal: You’ll know very quickly whether this game is appealing or not. But if it is, be prepared for potential long-term addiciton.
While Puzzle and Dragons is clearly not for everyone, there's a reason why it's a cultural phenomenon. Its mash-up of genres is fiendishly fun, deceptively deep and hugely addictive - which is why it's quietly become one of the biggest gaming success stories of the last year.