The curious case of the game “Sheep a Sheep”

I’m on a late summer vacation and wanted to get back to writing. Sheep a Sheep provides an easy topic, even though it’s not usually the type of game I would comment on.

The short story: Sheep a Sheep is a hyper-casual match-3 puzzle game, available as a mini-program (roughly HTML5-based) within WeChat. The game has become a controversial viral sensation in China the past week. (Here’s a write-up about the game for more context.)

The controversy stems from a few areas. First, there is the question of whether this game is a copy of other works. The base gameplay is similar to mahjong solitaire. Many people have also pointed to the game 3 Tiles as the source of inspiration – indeed, 3 Tiles itself has shot up to the top of the App Store download charts in China on this unexpected tailwind (so, should they be thankful for getting ripped off?).

Second, the core hook of Sheep a Sheep is ethically shaky, to put it mildly. The game is labeled as an “ultra-hard puzzle game where only 0.1% of gamers can win.” After a quick tutorial level-1 where players are taught the match-3 mechanic, players are immediately presented with a procedurally generated level-2 that in vast majority of cases are mathematically impossible to complete. By watching ads – this is the game’s sole monetization -or sharing links to the game via WeChat, players can access a very limited number of power-ups that can improve their odds slightly – but usually this is not enough to actually win.

The game employs a proven bag-of-tricks to entice players to try for the impossible win. Even winning once is huge bragging rights, which plays right into the game’s viral referrals – “have you won once yet?” Furthermore, there’s a province-based leaderboard right on the game’s home screen, and by winning you contribute to your province’s rankings on this leaderboard. And winning games also gives you currency to buy cosmetic items, which of course are more avenues to show off and brag. All of these are battle-tested mechanics in China’s top games, and immediately familiar to players.

I’ve played maybe 10-20 rounds, and in a couple of tries I felt I was close to a win – but it’s hard to know for sure since the tiles can stack infinitely and thus you never know for sure how many tiles are left. Despite knowing that this game is in many ways a scam / hoax and the odds are hopelessly stacked against me, I felt compelled to play more, to just win once; and I gladly clicked to watch the ads which raised my chances by an infinitesimal amount (99% of the ads shown to me were for Pinduoduo). I guess this is similar psychology to people buying lottery tickets or playing slot machines.

In contrast – 3 Tiles is certainly a better-made game, with superior aesthetics and a traditional free-to-play puzzle-game difficulty curve. Like many other puzzle games, it has hundreds of levels and I cruised through the first dozen levels. My only complaint is the game’s high frequency of ads – an ad is played before every level and there are some UI “dark patterns” during the ads to trick click-throughs.

And this is where this “case” gets interesting for me. Comparing the 2 games, it seems like a no-brainer that players should choose the better-looking game where they can actually finish the puzzles, instead of the deceptive and poorly-made game where 99.9% of the time you are set up to fail. If you were to bet on the outcomes of the 2 games ex ante – say, you are a publisher or an investor looking at these 2 game pitches – it would seem crazy to bet on the latter. And yet, in this case we know the latter is the winning bet by far. What, if anything, should we take away from this case?

Well, “maybe there’s not much to really take away” is a reasonable answer in my opinion. No one expects Sheep a Sheep to have longevity – after realizing the game’s objectively bad (intentionally deceptive?) puzzle design, many people feel tricked and there’s likely a backlash.

At the same time, from a “jobs to be done” perspective, we should realize that 3 Tiles and Sheep a Sheep target entirely different needs (and thus different audiences): 3 Tiles serves the motivations of the traditional puzzle-game demographics, while Sheep a Sheep is about serving a flavor-of-the-month novelty to the Internet at large. The necessary ingredients of such a flavor-of-the-month novelty could be: illusion of skill, high element of randomness/luck, and a subversive x-factor that drives virality (“only 0.1% can do this – can you?”); it is coincidental that the 3 Tiles gameplay could be successfully twisted into this recipe.

For “serious” game devs, perhaps there’s some room to interpret Sheep a Sheep as yet another case for subversive design choices. Making the 2nd level of your game incredibly hard is a subversive decision, and maybe it does make sense in some very rare set of conditions.

[Sep 27 update]

I thought it was worth a minor addendum, one week after the original post above. A couple of things happened:

First, it seems the devs drastically reduced the difficulty of the game – by drastic, I mean that the odds of winning went from 0.1% to 5% (illustrative numbers, but you get my point). The net result is that in absolute numbers there seems to be a lot more players getting a win every day (in the above screenshot, there were already 500k winners during the day), but percentage-wise it still feels like a fool’s errand.

Second, I finally got my personal first win, after maybe 100 tries? Anyway I’ve played for ~10 days and this is the first win. With my win I got a cosmetic (the constructor sheep above). With this win, I also finally realized that the game also emulates Wordle‘s “a puzzle a day” format – once you’ve won a round, you have to wait 24 hours before you can challenge again, in effect setting up an appointment mechanic.

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