New releases on Apple Arcade this month include Garden Tails: Match and Grow, a calm match 3 puzzle game where the main goal is to build a garden and fill it with cute little animals. In a medium filled with adrenaline-pumping 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 Dots’ Sandra Honigman, game designer and director of Garden Tails, to learn more about where the idea came from and how she tries to keep things easy for the player .
We talked about the game’s attempts to overcome some of the match-3 genre’s negative stereotypes, including a lack of monetization and a few mechanics to help the player solve their puzzles. We also detail how living in a big American city gave birth to the idea of a tranquil 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 turns remaining drops to zero. Was the idea of theming the game around a tranquil garden to offset that stress? Do you still want the player to feel some of that tension?
Sandra Honigmann: We don’t need any tension, no. The main theme of Garden Tails has always been relaxation and tranquillity, which is why we have the zen gardens, the music, the sounds, the animals, etc. in the levels. We also don’t monetize from level loss, so we can enhance this peaceful experience as there is no monetization to fret about, 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 that simply because people don’t have to have a financial stake in the game?
Yes, exactly. We’re not worried about monetization at all. Thanks to the partnership with Apple, we were able to publish it on Apple Arcade and make it a 100% free game.
In a medium like video games, where explosions and bombast take center stage, creating a game centered around relaxation is an intriguing idea. Was that always the goal?
Yes, one hundred percent, that was always our goal. Even before we had our story idea and the animals that become characters, this game was always 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 this focus developed 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 animals came into play a little later in development. Once we had them, they shaped the entire personality of the game. As in other match 3 games, certain matches create special tiles, in our case the animals, and each of them has its own unique property.
When you decided which animals you would like to include like the rabbit, the bee and the others, were there any animals that you couldn’t include?
We had an idea that these little marmots should appear instead of the rabbits, but we couldn’t figure out how to make the marmots look good in the puzzle.
The marmots worked just like the rabbit, sprinting away and taking flower tiles with them, but the pile of dirt that the marmot would leave behind felt felt. It felt like the little pile of dirt the groundhog had crawled out of was meant to last, but they couldn’t be persistent, and that made it feel a little too busy for a moment that was supposed to be very quick.
The term “Match-3” has negative connotations, which I’m sure you were aware of when developing it. We’ve talked about monetization before, but what were some of the other key obstacles you wanted to avoid in your match 3 game?
Within Playdots, we believe deeply in making sure each level’s experience is as friendly as possible. In Garden Tails, that means having things that are helpful to the player as opposed to things that are just obstacles. There is a balance; It’s a zen game, but the player also wants to be challenged, which our previous game Two Dots does well. Many people who enjoy this game are there for the challenge as opposed to this game which is a more relaxing type of experience.
We wanted to avoid players thinking about every single move in Garden Tails. Instead, we want them to just go with the flow. For example, the bee power-up, which 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 bit friendlier and more helpful for you as a player.
We also wanted to make sure the gardening experience was just as important as the levels themselves, so we intertwined them in a similar way to other games where you pay a certain amount of a certain currency to progress. However, instead of having something very big and wild, we just focused on the gardens and I think that’s one of our strengths.
I noticed that the rewards you get are very specific numbers. 230 from one currency and then 40 from another. Where did these numbers come from? Were they random choices or did they come from playtests?
These numbers are actually very important to the pace at which the player unlocks the garden. During the planning phase, we sat down with these large spreadsheets that served as a baseline for how long it would take a player to complete the garden, and this baseline correlates to the number of levels in each garden.
For example, our first level is the fastest garden to complete in the game. After a level or two you’ll get enough money to buy a plant for your garden, but you’ll have to play a few more for the next one.
I guess going through that Excel spreadsheet is the exact opposite of the relaxation you’re trying to induce?
Yes! We like to relieve 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 feed into that theme. What type of research have you done to harness that sense of relaxation or serenity? When creating it, did the team listen to relaxation apps, music, ASMR videos, or anything else?
A lot has to do with where we are: we’re actually in New York City and we’re very active surround from the city. When you’re in a big city like this, where do you go to relax? parks and gardens. As New Yorkers looking for that peaceful experience, we took what we know as places to relax outdoors and tried to bring that into play. For example, we went to the Botanical Gardens, Central Park and the other different parks in New York City for inspiration. Basically we take the day off and just go there with the team. We understand what distracts people, but we also know what can be peaceful in that distraction.
What are some of the future plans for the game? Will updates only feature more gardens and animals, or will there perhaps be a switch to a different style of “relaxing” like beach tails or something?
We launched last week so right now we are very focused on the first few days after launch but we have a lot of big plans. Several content updates are coming, including new gardens, new animals, new music, and new stories. We’re also working on new features that will enhance the gardening experience, but they’re still under development. When they fall we don’t have exact timing 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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