To celebrate the studio’s latest release, King games invited us out to their Barcelona studio for the launch of Bubble Witch 3 Saga. An impressive, four story office in the heart of the Spanish capital, King’s Barcelona studio have been responsible for Papa Pear Saga and the entire Bubble Witch series.
After a whistle stop tour of the studio, I had the chance to sit down with Nacho Pintos, who has been with King for the last four years and is a senior game designer of Bubble Witch 3 Saga and talk about the new game. After playing a decent amount of the game, I delved in and asked Nacho what they had done to keep this third entry into the formula fresh. He started by discussing the wider mobile market. “We analysed what was going on with Bubble Witch 2 and how we can make this more appealing to a wider audience. The match three market is so wide, but the bubble shooter market is not as wide so we delved into the design to find the sources of frustration and looked at how we could stop that.” These frustrations as Nacho called them, are blocks which would prevent a casual player from enjoying the game. “We extended the aiming line so that aiming is no longer a matter of skill; you can aim anywhere and shoot your bubble anywhere on the board. Then we have these chain reactions, adding a chance element of you destroying more than you expected. Also in the bubble queue the colours are more balanced, so you won’t get three or four of the same colour in a row”.
Whilst not as much of a household name as Candy Crush Saga, it’s fair to say that Bubble Witch Saga is one of King’s most popular franchises so I asked Nacho what exactly it was that he thought made the games resonate with players. “Players find it relaxing, they find it a nice world to chill out from their daily duties in. It’s a nice game to spend ten minutes of your day to unwind with. Also the characters are nice, colourful and non-violent much like all King games; even though they are all adult orientated they offer a relaxing and entertaining experience for players.”
With an impressive pedigree and several IPs under its belt, the most pertinent question for the King team seemed to be why another Bubble Witch game, rather than a new IP or sequel to another title? “Bubble Witch 2 was a tremendous success and even two years after launching it’s still one of the strongest King franchises so we wanted to build on that player base. The players are still interested and they want more content. We also wanted to strengthen the franchise, so we have the characters and the world but now we’ve put these characters into a proper storyline and the world is more magical and alive than before so it’s a more immersive experience. Actually you can still play Bubble Witch 2, so there are two Bubble Witch games but they feel very different; they compliment each other. There is a lot of variety in Bubble Witch 3 that will appeal to Bubble Witch 2 players.” Nacho seemed to genuinely love working on the Bubble Witch franchise, but given the gargantuan nature of the King empire, and its place within the greater Activision-Blizzard family I had to ask if the decision to make a sequel to a popular game was their own or if it had come in from on high, a suggestion quickly dismissed. “No definitely, that was decided here by the team, by the studio head of course but it was the decision of the Barcelona studio.”
One of the most interesting and unusual additions to Bubble Witch 3 Saga has been the stronger narrative focus; don’t get me wrong, it’s no Citizen Kane but there is a story to progress through, something that had been lacking in previous King games. “I have to admit that I’ve always wanted to do something like that because I’ve written the narratives here so far. Saga games have typically been a bunch of levels, maps and maps and maps so we wanted to bring a context and a purpose to completing the levels. In Bubble Witch 3 you’re completing all these levels because Wilber is creating all these bubble troubles around the world and you must clean up after him, trying to catch him. To make a strong franchise you need a strong story and strong characters to build on. We have all this. So Stella is responsible and yet sassy, while Nero is the cowardly sidekick, which is a funny visual thing.”
Another new feature is the addition of Stella’s house. Mild, very early game spoilers here so stop reading if that sort of thing bothers you. In your first confrontation with Wilbur, a spell is deflected and it destroys Stella’s house, leaving the player to rebuild it. I mentioned in my questioning that this was obviously another method to add a feeling of progression for the player and the game designer in Nacho perked right up. “Exactly yes, that’s a very game design term there, progression. As you earn stars you will gain stardust which you can use to rebuild Stella’s home and in return you will receive boosters or lives to help you progress further into the game. So this creates a nice loop, which is completely optional for the player, if you don’t want to play around with Stella’s home you don’t have to but it’s a way of measuring you progression in a visual way. In all King games you measure progress by the level you are at, now you also have Stella’s home.”
Nacho spoke earlier of removing frustrations for the player to make Bubble Witch 3 Saga more accessible to new players, but some of the talk of removing skill from the game to satisfy new player had me worried. I asked him if there was a danger that they would make to game too easy in the process of drawing in new fans. “Not really. You may find if you’ve played bubble shooters before that the initial levels are too easy for you, but that’s because we want players new to the genre to have a smooth entry to the game but removing these frustrations doesn’t prevent us from making hard levels or challenges. You’ll see as you play more. The difficulties come from a more strategic side, they become puzzles that you have to solve instead of tests of skill and hand-eye co-ordination. We have a lot of new mechanics in the game too to challenge players in new ways.”
Free-to-play games draw a lot of heat, especially from more traditional gamers who are used to the PC and console experience. With that in mind, I asked if Nacho had trouble balancing the need to make a rewarding and entertaining game with the need to make a profit from it. “Not really. The secret to making money with a free-to-play game is to have a fun game, so as long as the game is fun, some people will be willing to pay and some people will be willing to spend a little more time getting past a difficult level. So I don’t find myself frustrated when I make new levels or design new mechanics because at the end of the day, it’s as simple as that; make the game fun and people will pay. It seems like there is a dark science of free-to-play games but it’s not dark at all.” Nacho went on the assure me that as with all King games, there is absolutely nothing in the game that can’t be earnt or unlocked through play. Finally, I asked Nacho if he had a message he’d like to give to potential players. “If you like Bubble shooters, you’ll love Bubble Witch 3 and if you don’t like them, or have never played them then this game is made for you. I encourage you to download it and try it, it’s free after all.”
That last note was definitely a company line, but Nacho seemed to hold a genuine passion for the work he did and the games he and the rest of the studio were making and it’s fair to say that this passion comes out in their games. There must be a reason that King are the Kings of free-to-play and having passionate and dedicated developers who love their work might well be it.
In the interests of disclosure we would like to state that King flew us out to their Barcelona studio for the Bubble Witch 3 Saga launch event at their expense. Bubble Witch 3 Saga is available now on iOS, Android, Amazon & Facebook.