Candy Crush Saga from King has been dominating the top grossing charts for a very long time now. The game mechanic itself is not new or particularly innovative and is of similar type as Bejewelled that was originally released in 2001 – long before the iPhone was invented. What is it that differentiates CCS from the pack and keeps it at the top of the charts?
CCS was originally released as a Facebook game, and was later re-written for mobile. Much of the virility aspects is a result of this heritage. It is and was a key aspect of the games distribution and marketing. I’ll come back to the social integration later in this post.
Art and Design
The first thing you might notice is that the game has a very unique and recognizable art style. This branding helps it stand out in the clutter of a Facebook news feed. The game’s UI is consistent, with smooth simple animations. The theme of the game is attractive to a wide audience of casual players.
The UX for the menus and dialogs are designed to reduce confusion. In most cases there are very few decisions to be made. For instance the start view contains 2 obvious buttons: “Play”, and “Connect with Facebook”. Settings and extras are hidden to reduce clutter and focus the player on the actions King would most like you to take. (The Facebook button disappears once signed in)
The design of the levels map clearly shows progress in a way that is more difficult to visualize in a flattened list of levels. The integration of Facebook friends into the map is particularly interesting (I’ll discuss this more later).
For the match 3 game itself there are no obvious issues. One thing I might change is to encourage the use of power-ups to help players learn to use them. The colors provide good contrast needed for this type of visual search game. The various goals, power-ups, special blocks, and levels keep the game challenging, and interesting through the 400+ levels.
One nice touch is the consistent use of a squeeze animation on all buttons. This helps keep the UI feeling alive and helps indicate things you can touch. It’s simple, consistent and goes a long way to improve the look and usability of the game.
The game has fairly short segmented levels. Players can play for 5 minutes at a time conveniently. However, a level on it’s own is not the core game loop…
The core of the game is based around hearts. You lose a heart when you fail to pass a level, once you run out of hearts you are presented with with options to get more. This is one of the places where King has pay walled the game. You have the choice of waiting for free hearts, collaborating with friends for hearts, or purchasing some.
I’m sure there are some key metrics that King is collecting to help optimize the levels. For each level they have a couple of levers to pull that can change the difficulty. After a level has been designed it can get a number of moves and thresholds for points needed to get the stars. On the backend these numbers can be tweaked to meet certain goals. The vast majority of levels would be tuned to say an average number of attempts before winning. Some levels on the other hand could be tuned to higher difficulty in order to encourage IAPs or to drive online discussions about tips and techniques to win. Still other levels may be artificially easy, for some positive feedback.
Being able to tune the difficulty easily gives King a way to provide just the right amount of challenge to players, which in turn keeps the game enjoyable.
With 400+ levels CCS needs a lot of variety to keep players interested. With most game updates they’ve managed to include some new pieces, power-ups, behaviours and goals to keep you learning and challenge you to think of new techniques to deal with the new levels. Constant investment in the game has helped extend it’s life and keep it popular.
You don’t get to the top of the top grossing list without nailing the monetization. One of the things you might have noticed is lack of an in game currency. Unlike what is popular in many other games on the App Store right now. CCS does not have IAPs for currency with large price points. Instead they present many opportunities in the game to make smaller $0.99 impulse purchases. This integration is rather ingenious in that there is no “store” in the game you have to go to to make a purchase. The IAPs are seamlessly integrated into the flow of the game and priced where they can be quick impulse purchases. On the other hand having a store and currency would add friction to the buying process – go to the store, decide on an amount of currency to buy, then find the place to buy hearts and make another purchase there.
CCS used to have ads in the game for additional revenue but removed them. This move places more focus on staying in the game (and running out of hearts) rather than getting distracted to go download something else.
There was also a small “Yeti Store” in the game for a while that sold some high priced non-consumable power-ups. This seems to have been removed. It’s likely that these permanent power-ups either made the game too easy or the revenue from these paying players would be higher with just the consumable power-ups being the only option.
There are many opportunities to buy things in the game. Before starting a level you get a chance to purchase power-ups, if you fail the level you get a chance to buy a few more turns to keep going, if you run out of hearts you get a chance to buy more hearts. When you finish a block of levels there is a paywall to wait or pay to unlock the next block of levels. All of these purchases are inexpensive impulse buys. This model of integrating the IAPs at the point where they are needed in the game, and otherwise hiding them is obviously working very well.
As you can tell King is not afraid of making significant changes to the monetization as they measure and experiment.
Being initially a game on the Facebook platform pushed King to deeply integrate the social aspects of the game. They have managed to execute well on both cooperative and competitive levels, as well as providing deep social proof and tools for virility.
The game changes dramatically once you connect your Facebook account. Suddenly all the friends in your social graph appear on the level map. At a glance you can see how many of your friends have played the game, and how far into the game they’ve gotten. It’s some powerful social proof of just how many other people you know play the game, and implies some competition for you to catch up to your friends.
For competitive incentive the top scores amongst your friends are presented before playing every level. The implied competition hopefully gets you play longer to beat their scores (and loose some hearts in the effort). Seeing photos of your friends baked into the game is kind a cool way to personalize the experience.
They have a system for gifting and requesting hearts. This appeals to the players looking for a more casual, cooperative approach. It’s also ties into their somewhat subversive way of blasting facebook with messages. Each message that goes out is yet another opportunity to get players back into the game.
Most games at the top of the top grossing list have taken to a strategy of fortifying their position through massive and aggressive advertising. With a massively profitable game like Candy Crush they have a huge budget to purchase traffic on ad networks. Persistent ads attract new players and remind existing players that the game is still installed. By spending a significant portion of game revenue on advertising they continue to buy their position at the top of the charts.
Keeping a game at the top requires constant attention. King has been consistently adding new levels to the game with new power-ups, goals, and obstacles. They now have over 400 levels.
The UIs seem to have been getting simpler over time. Monetization has been simplified to focus solely on IAP consumable items, ads have been removed, non-consumables have been removed. Small consumable IAPs seem to be working extremely well.
King is not sitting idle on just one game. They’ve discovered a formula that works and are busy replicating it. Pet Rescue Saga is essentially the same game with different graphics. This is an easy way to re-use the code, attract a different audience of players and build a network of similar games that you can cross promote while keeping things in the family.
If there are key lessons to be learned from an analysis of Candy Crush they are:
- unique and original gameplay is not required for success
- very simple UIs help make the game accessible to a wide audience
- tightly integrated consumable IAPs can generate more revenue than ads or non-consumables
- continuing iteration on the same game is critical to keeping it relevant
- making social part of the game add genuine cooperation and competition
- being able to easily fine tune the difficulty makes easy to get the balance just right