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Mahjong Butterfly

I designed and produced Mahjong Butterfly while at Namco in 2010.  With this project, I created a delightful new experience by integrating the emotional process of raising butterflies into the well-loved mahjong solitaire mechanic.  

As the player matches mahjong tiles, they are actually feeding their caterpillars at the same time.  Once fully fed, the caterpillar enters the cocoon and waits for the player to match a pair of sun tiles before emerging as a beautiful real-world butterfly.  The player must match strategically - matching blue wind tiles causes damage to the creature. 

Design and Development Process 

Step 1:
Concept Approval:

I was given a clear goal and requirements for the game’s direction from the GM:

  • Design a flash game for an online gaming site
  • The game should be targeted to the casual audience (75% females, age 35-60)
  • The game needs to be sticky to keep people coming back to the site
  • Build the game in 3 months with 1 engineer and 1.5 artists

When I was done concepting, I presented 3 games as 1-pager concept documents.  I recommended we move forward with Mahjong Butterfly based on the success of mahjong games on popular online gaming sites and because of the obvious appeal of butterflies to the audience.  The concept was approved.

Step 2:  
Development Plan:

Next, I had to plan for development:

  • Flesh out the details of the concept
  • Write a GDD
  • Scope out what we could do in 3 months with 1 engineer
  • Scope out the art assets needed for a successful game
  • Scope out how to get the art done with 1.5 artists

After feedback on the GDD and confirmation that art and engineering could be done in the allotted time, my plan was approved and development was green lighted.

Step 3:
Production Start and First Playable:

Next, I needed to work with the engineer and artists to build the game to “first playable.”

  • The core loop must work – matching mahjong tiles, feeding butterflies, transforming into cocoons, hatching cocoons.
  • Placeholder art is OK, focus on the mechanics

During this process I realized that 5 “holding” slots would not work from a UI real-estate perspective.  I modified the concept to just 3 holding slots.  I presented the first playable build to the stakeholders and they decided we were headed in the right direction.

Step 4:
Art Lock and Feedback:

Next, I needed to get to “art lock.”  All final art must be in the game and gameplay features finalized.

  • This is where I tackled the look and feel of the mahjong tiles and their images.
  • I also had to work through issues with the background image – we started with fuzzy but that hurt your eyes, went to muted colors but it was not visually appealing, ultimately we ended on a stylized/vectorized scene with minimal colors.
  • During this phase I also designed the layouts of the mahjong boards and worked on tuning of the butterfly stats.

This was the most important feedback stage in the process.  We put the game in front of as many people as we could.

The major feedback:  the way I had implemented the penalty feature was not perceived well.  Wind tiles reduce the health of the butterflies.  If the health reached 0 the butterfly was lost.   Naturally, the players would avoid collecting wind tiles during the game and end up with a board of 2-3 wind tile matches with no desire to collect them.  However, the current design required their collection before they could move on to the next board.  Therefore, they were often forced into situations where their butterflies would die – eek!!  I made a quick change to make this experience better – if the player only has wind tiles left at the end of the level, the tiles are automatically removed from the board without penalty.

The art lock stage was approved with no difficulties.

Step 5:
Feature Lock:

I worked to incorporate the feedback from the art lock stage.  We made the changes to the wind tiles and made other minor adjustments uncovered during play testing.

The changes were approved and we were done building the game.

Step 6:
Polish to Gold Master:

Polish and bug fixing.  Here is where we added things like special effects and used the extra time to make the conservatory interactions a little better.

I had final approval from stakeholders and launched on time!

Final Outcome

The web version of Mahjong Butterfly was a hit!  It was the most played game on Namco's web portal by far.  After I had moved on from Namco, the company decided to further invest in Mahjong Butterfly by porting the game to mobile platforms including the Kindle, Kindle Fire, Android tablets and iOS.