Last weekend, I got to play some Candy Crush Saga on my friend’s phone. It was interesting enough, and different enough from Bejeweled, that I decided to download it and give it a more thorough try.
Here’s the short version: the game isn’t necessarily bad. However, since it’s free-to-play, the designers have made some choices that I don’t agree with. They’ve created a game which requires strategy to beat, but luck can mess up all of your strategy. Their monetization strategies are also finely tuned to really eke money out of the players, for better or for worse.
Gameplay: Crushing Candies or Crushing Souls?
The game is a match-3 game along the lines of Bejeweled. The basic mechanic through which the player manipulates the game is the same as that of Bejeweled, in fact: you can swap two adjacent candies’ position as long as at least one of the swapped sweets results in a line of three or more candies, which then disappear and give the player points. Also like Bejeweled, when you match more than three candies of the same color at once you create special candies that do different things. More candies drop in from above to fill in empty spaces, sometimes causing point cascades as falling candies create more lines, and the player continues to swap candies around after the dust settles.
With the mechanics being so alike, the real difference between Candy Crush Saga and Bejeweled is in game modes. Bejeweled has a few different game modes to it, but all of them are really about getting the highest score you can before reaching some game-ending condition — you run out of moves you can make, or run out of time, or what-have-you. (Zen mode, which is designed never to end, being the exception.) The player can freely choose which mode he or she feels like playing and play it for as long as he or she wants.
Candy Crush Saga, on the other hand, has a finite set of premade levels, each designed to present a different experience. Boards come in different shapes, which affects how candies fall. Some levels, for example, require you to achieve a certain minimum score within a certain number of moves. Sometimes you have to get fruit and nuts to the bottom within a certain number of moves. Sometimes you have to remove all the obstacles and/or remove jelly from certain spots by making matches on top of them. Oh, and that also needs to be done within a certain number of moves.
The limits on the number of moves combine with the layout of each level to allow the designers to create harder and harder levels as the game goes on. That’s not inherently a bad thing. Each type of level requires certain types of strategy to overcome, and as you get better at each type of level, you can overcome harder ones later on.
The problem I had, and the reason I stopped playing the game myself, is that there is too much luck involved for a game where strategy is such a key element of success. It only took a few times of cascades — a good thing in any other match-3 game and still a score-booster in Candy Crush Saga — completely ruining my chances to finish a level for me to decide I had had enough of the game. I love a game that makes me think, and luck can add a bit of spice to an otherwise predictable game, but the luck element is too heavy handed and in my experience was almost never in my favor.
What’s more, I believe that making luck such a huge part of the game is part of their monetization strategy.
Warning! Tricksy Hobbits Want Your Money
Candy Crush Saga is a free-to-play game, and like most of them uses some tricks to eke money out of players. An article on Kontangent had the following to say about why their monetization works so well (and it is working well — they’re making fat bank on this game):
Candy Crush’s virality and compelling goal-oriented gameplay make it built for monetization. Its players just don’t know it. They’re too busy trying to outdo their friends and/or finish every level. So to them, throwing down a few dollars here or there isn’t that big of a deal.
This is organic monetization and it works.
…Moreover, Candy Crush doesn’t give players the option to buy unlimited lives. It’s one of the few freemium games to do this and by doing so King has ensured an endless flow of new revenue. They’ve created a win-win situation for themselves. Either players boost King’s profits by spending 99 cents to replenish their spent credits, or they drive Candy Crush’s customer engagement and retention metrics by requesting lives from their Facebook friends while waiting for a refill.
Organic is a good word for it, I think. When you play any Zynga game, the monetization strategies are ham-handed and annoying. With Candy Crush Saga, though, they lever competitive human tendencies with simple gameplay to create a compelling experience.
All that bad luck that turned me off the game is just one more bit of encouragement to spend money on the game — on boosts and on more lives to keep playing without having to wait. The game is so finely tuned in many respects that I can’t believe the amount of luck involved is an accident. I only had the game for three days and I couldn’t tell you how many times I could have finished a level if I’d had just a few more moves.
One aspect of the developer’s monetization strategy is hidden from most users, though, and this is why this section is labeled the way it is. It seems that if you make any in-app purchases in Candy Crush Saga, the game difficulty ramps up much faster. This article on Gamasutra explains it pretty succinctly:
A game of skill is one where your ability to make sound decisions primarily determines your success. A money game is one where your ability to spend money is the primary determinant of your success. Consumers far prefer skill games to money games, for obvious reasons. A key skill in deploying a coercive monetization model is to disguise your money game as a skill game.
King.com’s Candy Crush Saga is designed masterfully in this regard. Early game play maps can be completed by almost anyone without spending money, and they slowly increase in difficulty. This presents a challenge to the skills of the player, making them feel good when they advance due to their abilities. Once the consumer has been marked as a spender (more on this later) the game difficulty ramps up massively, shifting the game from a skill game to a money game as progression becomes more dependent on the use of premium boosts than on player skills.
Note that the difficulty ramps up automatically for all players in CCS when they pass the gates I discuss later in this paper, the game is not designed to dynamically adjust to payers.
If the shift from skill game to money game is done in a subtle enough manner, the brain of the consumer has a hard time realizing that the rules of the game have changed. If done artfully, the consumer will increasingly spend under the assumption that they are still playing a skill game and “just need a bit of help”. This ends up also being a form of discriminatory pricing as the costs just keep going up until the consumer realizes they are playing a money game.
The article says that all players eventually get to the same difficulty, and to be fair I haven’t played through the whole game or played through it once without paying and once with paying, so I can’t go into detail, but it’s something to consider.
The Kontangent article I linked above said that 70% of players complete the game without ever spending money. The article took that to mean that 30% of players pay something, which is an insane percentage of paying customers, but I don’t think they took into account people who don’t pay and don’t complete the game, such as myself.
Either way, with it being the top-grossing app on the iOS store at time of this writing, they’re clearly converting a lot of people to paying customers. So beware.
You can play the game without paying anything and still reach the end, and it won’t even be the worst game you’ve ever played. But I don’t think it’s a stellar game and I quit playing it after only three days. The monetization is subtle and can lead to a harder game to play, which in turn leads to more money spent… so be careful about choosing to make in-app purchases.