Ding Ding Ding! – Rewarding Sound Design in Tsum Tsum

Scholar Karen Collins provides a historical exploration of the history of arcade game audio in her article, “Game Sound in Mechanical Arcades: An Audio Archaeology.” Beginning in the 19th century and continuing to the present, she studies the role audio plays in furthering the enjoyment and novelty of carnival and arcade games. After reading this historical examination of arcade sounds, I concluded that Tsum Tsum draws heavily from a history of simple games with rich audio effects.  In particular, the audio of Tsum Tsum is critical in enhancing immersion and in creating the sense of reward and accomplishment so commonly associated with casual games.

First, let’s examine the sounds of Tsum Tsum.  I’ve included a video below of the game-play to give a sense of the audio effects of the game.  As you can tell by watching it, the audio in Tsum Tsum is highly rewarding.  Each Tsum makes a pleasant, popping sort of sound when you connect it to another, and for each chain of Tsums the player connects quickly, the pitch gets higher and higher, creating a sense of excitement.  Using the power-ups from the character in the bottom left-hand corner (in this video, Anna from Frozen) also creates pleasant and exciting noises.  Although it’s hard to tell because this player moves so quickly, the soundtrack also changes during the game’s “Fever Time,” becoming even faster and more upbeat.  The game’s audio tracks overall are bright, fun, and pleasant, enhancing the enjoyment of playing the game.

Tsum-Tsum, as a casual game, has a fair amount in common with arcade games.  The game is not narrative heavy, rounds are short, and the mechanics are relatively simple.  Collins highlights the importance of audio in attracting players to arcade games and making them a rewarding experience, so it only makes sense that a casual, arcade-style game would follow the same pattern.  Collins cites Dren McDonald, a freelance casual game sound designer, who explains that “If you’re doing a game, say, like a Bejeweled type of game, everything in that game is to reward you and make you feel like you’re really accomplishing something.”  Tsum Tsum certainly follows this philosophy.  Just like with the arcade games Collins studied, the simple gameplay is accompanied by a rich audio landscape, making the play experience highly rewarding.  Additionally, Collins identifies that as early as the 1930s, designers used sound effects to enhance a game’s immersive qualities. Tsum Tsum’s audio definitely accomplishes this goal.  Like Jamie Madigan identifies, a good match between the visual and audio components of a game makes the play experience more immersive.  Hearing the popping sound as the player connects the bubble-like Tsums on her screen makes a more complete and immersive sensory experience.

While casual mobile games are a relatively new technological development, Karen Collins proves that rich sound design has been a component of arcade and carnival games since their inception.  Tsum Tsum is descended from this tradition of immersive, stimulating audio in simple games.  The delightful popping sounds and upbeat soundtrack of Tsum Tsum are but one instance in over 100 years of deliberately rewarding game sound design.

A video of Tsum Tsum gameplay.  Source

Works Cited

Collins, Karen. “Game Sound in the Mechanical Arcades: An Audio Archaeology.” Game Studies, vol. 16, no. 1, Oct. 2016.

Madigan, Jamie. “The Psychology of Immersion in Video Games.” The Psychology of Video Games, 20 Oct. 2015, www.psychologyofgames.com/2010/07/the-psychology-of-immersion-in-video-games/.

Tsum Tsum – The Ultimate Casual Game?

In reading “What is Casual?,” Jesper Juul’s chapter outlining the typical characteristics of casual game design, I was struck by how perfectly Tsum Tsum fit into all the stereotyped expectations of casual games.  Juul identifies five components of casual game design: positive fictions, usability, interruptibility, lenient punishment, and juiciness.  Tsum Tsum, as I will explain, displays every one of these characteristics.

First, let’s examine the positive fiction.  Casual games, Jull explains, are usually set in pleasant environments and have positive storylines.  While a hardcore game may center around killing zombies, escaping an evil laboratory, or fighting a war, casual games are more likely to have much more positive fictions, such as exploring new worlds or finding buried treasure.  Tsum Tsum has a very positive fiction.  The game’s premise is that the tsum toys have all fallen off the shelves in the Disney store, and the player has to help arrange them in time for the shop’s opening.  This premise involves helping solve a benign problem, cute toys, and a company that markets itself as the “happiest place on earth.”  It’s difficult to conceive of a more positive, pleasant storyline.

Second, we’ll consider the game’s interruptibility and usability.  Rounds of Tsum Tsum are only a minute long, and there’s no penalty for quitting mid-game.  The player doesn’t have to reach a save point and never risks losing more than a minute’s worth of play.  Clearly, the game is highly interruptible, perfect for playing while waiting in line at the supermarket or riding the bus.  Juul defines usability by the intuitiveness of the controls.  In short, what the player does with her body should translate in obvious ways to the actions in the game.  In Tsum Tsum, the player uses her finger on a touch screen, connecting similar tsums.  The movement of the finger correlates precisely to actions in the game world.  The game, therefore, is highly usable.

Third, the lenient punishment and juiciness.  In Tsum Tsum, getting a negative outcome is nearly impossible.  The player can only accrue points.  Performing poorly in a round of the game simply results in a lower score, but even a low score enhances the player’s overall stats.  The game does have a limited number of free plays per day, but after running out of turns, the player merely has to wait twenty-four hours before playing again.  The game’s lenient punishment is countered by its extreme juiciness.  While very few negative outcomes occur if a player performs poorly, very positive ones occur when she performs well.  I wrote about this juiciness in a previous post, so I won’t repeat everything here, but suffice it to say that Tsum Tsum rewards the player with all sorts of lights and sounds for a positive performance.

Although I didn’t do particularly well in this round, my overall score still increased, exemplifying the games near non-existent punishment

After reading Juul’s chapter, I was left to conclude that Tsum Tsum is the quintessential casual game.  Juicy, pleasant, and very easy to use, the game meets all of Juul’s criteria for casual games.  However, as Juul identifies, the simple nature of the game and the intuitiveness of the controls don’t correlate directly with easiness.  The pattern recognition and quick reflexes Tsum Tsum requires take time and effort to develop, like the skills for any other game.  Although being very bad at Tsum Tsum is difficult, so is being especially good at it.

Aw, so Cute!: Extreme Juiciness and Obvious Gender Roles in Tsum Tsum

Tsum Tsums, for the unacquainted, are plush toys of any of characters from Disney’s three main properties (Disney, Marvel, and Lucas Films).  Originally Japanese, they’re round and very cute.  And, like most things in the modern world, they have an accompanying app.  

Some Marvel mini Tsum Tsums. Aren’t they adorable? Source

The game, simply called Tsum Tsum, is of a simple, familiar design.  Tsum Tsum icons appear in a jumble on your screen, and with your finger, you connect chains of three or more similar Tsums to clear them.  The more Tsums you clear, the higher your score.  In short, a very simple way to kill a few minutes.

A jumble of Tsums on the screen. Connect similar characters to clear them! Taken as a screenshot on my phone

 

In my initial exploration of Tsum Tsum, two main elements of the game stuck out to me: 1. Its remarkably juicy interface and 2. Its obviously gendered demographic.

First, an overview of just how juicy Tsum Tsum is. “Juiciness,” as Jesper Juul writes, describes the visual and auditory rewards produced by a game.  The more exciting, pleasurable things there are to see and hear, the juicier a game is. Tsum Tsum is one of the juiciest games I’ve ever played; it’s a veritable smorgasbord of lights and sounds.  Every time you clear a row of Tsums, they burst with satisfying pops.  Fun, exciting music plays in the background during your play sessions.  When you clear enough Tsums quickly enough to achieve “Fever Time,” lights flash all around the border of your screen and music even more exciting and fun than the standard soundtrack plays.  With all these enjoyable lights and sounds, Tsum Tsum really activates the reward centers of your brain, making you justify just one more minute-long game.  Juul writes that extreme juiciness is a common feature of casual games such as Tsum Tsum.  They bring a great deal of pleasure for relatively little time and energy invested.  The juiciness of this game is the most striking element to me.  The game design itself is very simple.  The concept is hardly original.  But the sheer juiciness makes it near-addicting to play.

The second element of Tsum Tsum that really struck me is its clearly gendered demographic.  Young women are not the target demographic of most conventional console games, but they certainly are of Tsum Tsum.   Using Disney characters is one obvious clue, as grown men are generally a bit more reluctant to admit to enjoying Lady and the Tramp and Tangled. The “Ready… Go!” at the beginning of each game is spoken in a high-pitched Minnie Mouse-sounding voice.  I noted this largely in contrast to a sister game I used to have, Marvel Tsum Tsum.  While Disney Tsum Tsum’s interface is light blue, Marvel Tsum Tsum’s was near black.  The Minnie Mouse voice of the Disney game was a low, robotic one in the Marvel version.  In the Marvel game, you can battle villains, but there’s no fighting in the Disney version. And of course, the characters for Marvel were superheroes, not princesses and talking animals.

Even the language at the start of the game appears differentiated by gender.  In case the text is too small to read, the message says “Welcome to the world of Tsum Tsum! It’s almost time for the Disney Store to open.  The Tsums, all tuckered out from a long night of playing, are rushing to return to the shelves.  Oh no! They can’t do it by themselves!  Can you help them get back in time?” The Marvel one talked about battling villains, while the Disney one is about getting the store back in order.  Also a screenshot of mine.

Those obvious assumptions about which gender would be drawn to which property interested me.  I’m a young, feminine woman who would’ve preferred the Marvel game to the Disney one (the Marvel one appears to have been deleted from the App Store, so I settled for my second choice).  I think this gendered marketing is potentially a pitfall of many video games.  Assuming women won’t be interested in superheroes (or fighting zombies or slaying orcs) and therefore not endeavoring to market to women, perhaps by failing to include female playable characters, seems to me to be a big oversight.  I’m not advocating for totally gender neutral things (I like cute games!), but rather suggesting that assuming the gaming market falls into such strict binaries may not be the best business model.