This summer, you won’t have to go far to find a Candy Crush player. There they are: begging lives off strangers on the subway platform, bonding with fellow acolytes at the DMV, taking time off work to focus on what matters—literally wearing their lack of productivity like a badge. "Sometimes I just go into the bathroom and sit on the seat and play," a colleague confessed, describing some quality in-office downtime. "I don't tell many people that . . ."
Grown, human adults are choosing to pay 99 cents (over and over again) rather than wait 30 minutes for another life, to say nothing of the power-ups that help you climb the Candyland board, your disembodied avatar teleporting past the faces of poor Facebook suckers stuck on the levels below. Players are so willing to pay that last month, Candy Crush stopped trying to make money from ads and yet the game as still held on to the coveted top-grossing spot in the Apple App Store.
But while collective humble-bragging about the depths of our obsession (and spendthrift side habit) is great for software companies, the obsession doesn’t last long. So-called casual gamers are fickle as fuck. Bejeweled, the original Candy Crush, has dropped from its top-grossing status. A newer iteration of the game (Bejeweled Blitz) is hanging out down at no. 30 among money-makers in the Apple App Store, up from no. 47 earlier this week. Dots was another game of the summer contender, until it doubled the price of a vital tool for accruing higher scores. Then there’s Draw Something’s cautionary acquisition tale.
Nonetheless, based on the success of Candy Crush Saga, King.com (the software development company officially called Midasplayer.com Ltd.) is planning to implement its golden touch in the public markets, reportedly hiring bankers to prepare filing papers for an IPO.
Valleywag spoke to Tommy Palm, King's Stockholm-based "games guru" about what makes it Candy Crush Saga so addictive and why the company, which was recently accused of “coercive monetization,” is so devilishly good at getting a player and her money to part.
Have you beaten Candy Crush?
No, I'm at level 98 currently and I'm struggling with that level immensely, but it's fun. Even though Candy Crush has been my job for more than a year, I still really enjoy to play.
In New York, most of the people I know started playing in the past few months. But overall, globally, when did you start seeing the biggest increase of users?
It started picking up really fast in November of last year when we released the mobile version of the game. Ever since it's just been faster and faster. If you go to Google Trends and google for Candy Crush you will see how popular it has been searched on the web. There you can really get a feel for the curve of popularity.
Does King employ anyone to make the games more addictive or engaging, like behavioral economists or teenagers at data miners?
It's a fairly straightforward games-making process. The difference is how we remove a lot of risk by having a team create the game for King.com and seeing how well it resonates with our target audience there; then, at a later stage, making it into a bigger game with all the levels and the kind of social envelope that we have on Facebook. We do have people working with data but it's mostly to stay informed of what is going on—making sure that people aren't getting stuck in a certain place.
Have you noticed that people got stuck on certain levels—there’s a lot out there about level 29…
TP: Level 65 is another notorious level. If you search on Instagram you will find a lot of funny fan art. We have made it so that the end level in an episode is harder to beat. Level 65 was even harder originally, with two layers of jelly on the sides instead of one layer, but we saw that too many people were dropping out so we changed it to one layer and that changed the dropout to 50 percent and then we felt we had a good balance.
Some people think that Candy Crush forces you to play a particular game a number of times before you get a good board. Is that true?
Most good casual games balance both skill and luck in order to complete a certain level. If it only required skills, the game would be either too hard or too easy for most people. It is true that the randomness of the candies have an impact on how likely it is to complete the level. But a great way of seeing how much the skill elements affects the game is to compete with a friend on, for instance, level 20. It will quickly become evident how much you can improve your ability to increase your score.
Recently Gamasutra wrote an article about using “coercive monetization techniques” that talked about how games maker look for “spenders.” Do you have an internal word to refer to people who spend money versus people that just play for free?
No we don’t focus on that much… we try to make sure from the beginning with Candy Crush that you should be able to complete the game without having to pay. Of the people on the last level (currently level 385) 70% of those players haven't paid to get there.
So that figure just refers to players who made it to the end, which isn’t the same as how many people pay overall. You mentioned that King makes the last game in an episode particularly difficult. The article said that Candy Crush is designed that way so if you have to cross a bridge to complete an episode or something, you’ll feel like, “Oh, I just defeated this really big thing, I only have to pay 99 cents to get to the next level.” Although, the game also gives you a chance to cross by playing quests.
Well, as you said, there are other alternatives where you can get your friends to invite you onwards. The concept of having the last of an episode be more difficult is more about the level of thinking—with the old-school games—that it will be more challenging to complete it and once you succeed you will be very happy that you did it.
Is there anything else you can share about coercive monetization techniques? According to article, "once a consumer has been marked as a spender, the game difficulty ramps up massively, shifting the game from a skill game to a money game . . ."
That was somebody speculating on Gamasutra. There is no evil scheme behind it. It's more of a traditional scheme where we focus on making a great user experience.
When people do pay, do they tend to buy power-ups or more lives? Which is better?
It varies a lot from person to person. I personally bought the paintbrush power-up and I have a lot of use for it, so I'm happy that I did.
I don't need hints, Candy Crush Saga. I'M MY OWN MAN, GOD DAMMIT.
— Drew Magary (@drewmagary) July 12, 2013
What about when you haven't made a move in a little while and candies will flash to indicate a place where you can match three in a row. Some people think that’s a trick, that really there's a better line of three to be made somewhere else.
There is not evil man behind that either, it's just prompting randomly: what is a move so you won't get stuck completely. It's important that people don't get stuck and frustrated if there is a move and they don't see it.
What about the music in the game? Did you do a lot of testing to find a sound that would be particularly soothing or make you want to play more, like casinos? I personally find it very captivating.
I'm glad to hear that! There is an experienced composer behind it and he got it very right from the start. When it comes to the sound effects, we have a fun story there—you know the "Delicious" the voice [that happens when a player is on a hot streak or wins the game]? Originally it was a funny French accent, but that wasn't appreciated, so we changed it and we did kind of a petition on the website to have different people trying it and found this rather deep voice that felt really good in the concept.
Who didn't appreciate the French accent?
The original people we tested the game on. It was meant to be humorous but it felt a little bit odd, from what I heard. It was before I joined.
Can you say which countries the game is most popular in?
Generally we have been very strong in Europe, historically. Candy Crush has grown super-much. In Hong Kong, one of every seven people in the country plays the game on the daily basis. So one the challenges we've gone after now is the Asian markets and looking into the localization of those key markets such as Japan and Korea for instance.
Do players tend to breakdown along particular age or gender lines?
When it comes to King.com we have more clear target demographics there: women between 25-55 are over-represented, so we knew that the game worked really well with that target audience. But now when the game is available on all these different devices, it's kind of very equal across different age groups. And we think that part of that is that it's so easy to download the game to any device and play with your friends and family.
Sometimes I imagine pill-popping house-wives just playing Candy Crush over and over. Do people tell you that there is a particular drug that they like to take when they play Candy Crush?
[Laughs] No I've heard nothing like that sort.
Selling merchandise around a brand is another way that games like Angry Birds or Draw Something have tried to make money. King recently started selling Candy Crush socks. Is that something you guys will continue to do? Will there be Candy Crush candy? A Candy Crush movie?
Right now it's just the Candy Crush socks and we're very happy about our collaboration with Happy Socks. We have said that we want to have smaller exclusive approach to merchandizing where we do things that our fans feel is fun and makes sense.
What’s the internal pressure like in the gaming industry—just to keep a hit going? Do you think you're at the peak level for interest in Candy Crush?
One of the things that we have at King is the recipe about how to make things, so we remove a lot of the risk element of the game making process, but of course that massive social phenomenon that Candy Crush has become is nothing that we anticipated originally and we're very happy to see that it's up there. Recently we have released another game called Pet Rescue Saga [currently no. 6 in Facebook apps].
Do you worry that you might end up like a Zynga where you've had one real success and then you're tweaking it a little bit to repeat the formula?
We've seen from the audience at King.com that casual player, which is most of the people in the world, enjoy playing games in many different of these subgenres, whether it's a simple puzzle game or a card game.
So there is no sense of anxiety about what happens when you're not the hit game of the summer?
No, we don't have that type of pressure in the company, we're all very happy where the game is where Candy Crush is now. And we'll continue. Before we had a big hit of a game called Bubble Witch Saga, which was topping the charts and that game is still in the top 20 charts on Facebook and it's been out since 2011. So with this type of casual audience it's not so much a short hit thing, the lifespan of the games is actually quite good.
In the past, companies that have gone public like Facebook or Zynga have had trouble to transitioning to mobile. Is there any issue with that?
That's where a lot of my work came from originally. We had some things that worked in our favor like the games being formatted in a square, so that worked really well to transfer them into mobile and make sure you can play the games both in landscape and in portrait. But by no means did all the games on that site that we've been making for ten years now work as a core mobile concept.
I spoke to one venture capitalist who had played the whole game. He said when he finished it, he felt like he'd paid too much money and didn't feel good about the game or the company afterwards. Is that a worry?
Not in general. We have a constant dialogue with our fans throughout the fanpage on Facebook, for instance. And a lot of the people on the last level say they're happy to have beaten the game and are waiting to get new levels, which are coming out on a bi-weekly basis.
Do people ever tell you they eat more candy because they play the game?
Well I heard some fans saying that they want to eat candy when they play the game, they make that connection. And some people asking if we hate chocolate because the chocolate is kind of evil in some levels.
No, no not at all it was just a good visual element for something that sticks together.
What would your advice be to players who want to get better? Should you focus on the bottom? Should you take your time?
One thing, as you said, is really taking your time. Most of the levels are not timed and you have a little number of moves. Another thing that multiple people have found out is if you have four in row vertically and you match them, the stripes will pop all the candies vertically. The same goes for the paintbrush. If you buy that thing then you can decide which way you want the stripes to go.
Do you ever think: my job is contributing to a loss of work or productivity or people just spending their lives in front of their phones?
I think for most people it's a really great way of relaxing and coming down if you're stressed with something else. It's a great way of not thinking about what the stress of something else. It’s a good way of spending one minute if you had to wait in a line for instance.
Do you have any children? Do they play the game?
Yes, I have two daughters. One of them is called Saga and yeah, she has seen the game and tried it with me. But it's not primarily a game for children, of course.
Did you say her name was Saga? Like Candy Crush Saga?
You named her after the game?!
No, it was a coincidence. It means the same in Swedish as it does in English. She's eight so I named her eight years ago. That was before the game. But I haven't told her yet that the game is not named after her.
She thinks it is?
Yeah, of course.