Why Is Snap Struggling to Scale? It’s the Vertical Progression, Stupid.

The original games industry consultant

Snap is doing…ok! It peaked at 10K Steam PSU and 14M mobile downloads. But for all the innovation and press hullabaloo, shouldn’t Snap have higher expectations? After all, Vampire Survivors, from a team of one, wrapped up the year moving 2.5m copies at $5 a pop, with zero budget. And lest we not forget, Snap’s launch marketing war chest is now dryer than an FTX’s office party. Downloads have fallen from ~800k a day in October to ~50k in January; DAU will soon follow suit. It’s too early for a title of Snap’s caliber to see DAU softness!

Second Dinner’s successful unshackling of the mobile design paradigm is also the source of Snap’s struggles. Vertical progression or the ability of players to increase their power level 1 guarantees a relationship between time spent and progress. The more a player plays, the more the player will progress. No such connection is guaranteed in horizontally dominated games like Snap. 

Outside of RPGs, players acquiring more and more powerful items in a PvP title amounts to HD design sacrilege. Guns in Call of Duty are at least intended to offer different experiences, but not more or less powerful ones. The same applies to Operators in Rainbow Six Seige or Heroes in Overwatch. Horizontal progression bets the progression house on players “mastering something new,” like the timing of a new Rainbow Six Operator ability or the optimal lineup of an Overwatch team after introducing a new character. CCGs, too, embrace “mastering something new” by giving players an expanding collection of cards to solve novel puzzles. Ben Brode proclaims,

“Part of the fun in Marvel Snap is being put in new situations that you have to puzzle your way out of. If you’re in the same situation over and over again, there’s less puzzling, less thinking on the fly, and less problem-solving. So I think having a lot of variance there is really important.”


But puzzle-solving is a skill with sharp diminishing returns; most players reach puzzle-solving skill equilibrium in weeks, not months, and certainly not years. In a PvP game, the inability to improve at puzzle solving (signified by a 50% win rate) signals the end of progression. The player’s response to a lack of progression is churn.

King’s now-defunct experimentation team operated on a central thesis: if we want to understand how something matters, remove it. Things will break in interesting ways if it’s as essential to the player experience as we’d expect. This is akin to removing the vacuum pump 2 from a car – the car may still function, but the vacuum’s absence reveals connections and mechanics not evident at first sight. So what happens if we remove the ability for players to pay? How does the ability to pay matter? How is it wired to progression?

Match3 players spend hard currency in three ways: extra lives (arcade quarters), extra boosters (win probability), and extra moves (win probability). Spending tied to increasing win probability forms the overwhelming share of hard currency sink. Match3 level design operates a sharp oscillating difficulty, so players spend to flatten the troughs and crests.

What comes after a “Hard” level? A SUPER Hard level, duh.

If players can’t pay, they can’t buy extra boosters or moves, so their win probability declines. And without progression, players churn. We’d likely see the same result for FIFA Ultimate Team or any power progression game after the Netherlands banned loot boxes – player churn.

However, pivoting to vertical progression in Snap is beyond the pale and simply infeasible. Previously, I argued,

[…] cards don’t have RPG mechanics like health or armor to use in micro-dosing vertical power, and the card abilities are too carefully designed to absorb a radical re-balancing of card power between every player. 

Snap’s scaling solution is the same as Magic the Gathering: double down on horizontal progression with new modes like drafting (three birds, one stone?) or Commander-type modes. The enhanced randomness of the mode distributes “luck” more equitably and expands the type of puzzles for players to solve. The top constructed and draft players differ in Magic the Gathering, reflecting different skill sets to succeed. It’s not clear that Snap’s newly announced “Battle Mode” will create a new pool of winners.

  1. …to over 9000?
  2. The vacuum pump is responsible for providing vacuum pressure to various systems in the car, such as the brake booster, the HVAC system, and the power steering. Without a functioning vacuum pump, the brakes would become harder to press, the HVAC system would not function correctly, and the power steering would become more difficult to use. As a result, the car would be harder to drive and control, especially in situations such as low-speed maneuvers or parking.
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