Whether or not you play Candy Crush Saga yourself you’ve got to admire it. While most indies struggle to get our games noticed, it seems like EVERYONE is playing this game. It’s the #1 top-grossing app on the App Store, with estimates at over $800,000 per day in revenues, according to ThinkData. On Facebook, AppData counts over 46 million MAU (monthly active users). Refinery29 calls it “Tetris for the App age.” Wouldn’t it be great to design a game that addictive?
I resisted playing myself until I stopped in at a panel discussion at Casual Connect in San Francisco a few weeks ago. On the panel were die-hard players of Candy Crush Saga. The topic: why they love playing the game so much. (One panelist was up to level 400-something.)
As I watched one woman’s eyes light up as she talked about what each color candy would taste like, I thought to myself, I have to see what this is all about. I fired it up that night. I’m now stuck on level 92. I absolutely hate it, but I still play it.
To answer that question, and perhaps find some clues about what you and I can add to our next games to make them as addictive as potato chips, I did what any Candy Crush Saga player would do: I asked my friends for help.
What makes Candy Crush so addictive for you?
1. At First, It’s Easy.
“After the first levels give the user a feeling of success, then they keep success just barely out of reach. If it seems too hard, people won’t stay around. If they feel like they ‘just’ miss winning a level, they’ll keep trying. (That also likely motivates some to pay the money to keep going on a level rather than just losing.)” –Jone Johnson Lewis, Women’s History guide at About.com
Jumping in to the game for the first time is easy, even for non-gamers. The rules are deadly simple: match three candies, the same color and shape. The mechanic, swapping one candy for another adjacent one, is as basic as it gets. The game lets you get through several, even dozens, of levels without even losing a life. Players are lured into a false sense of mastery.
2. Then, It’s a Challenge.
“I think because the creators made the game difficult it’s a real challenge. There were so many levels that I missed completing by just one move so it was more than a coincidence. They are brilliant in making people buy moves. And did I mention the way they penalize you [with timeouts]? Who the Eff thought of that?!” –John E. DiScala, JohnnyJet.com.
Once you blow through the easy levels, things get interesting. Gameplay gets switched up with jelly that has to be cleared, chocolate lava that takes over your board, holes and barriers in the way. You are given fewer moves to get a tougher job done. The infamous Level 65 is so hard (I was stuck for a week), it has its own Instagram tag.
The variety keeps boredom at bay, since you are constantly required to adapt your strategy to the new challenges. It’s not just a question of moving faster or getting more and more points, as you might see in similar games. In Candy Crush Saga’s higher levels, match-three moves are no longer enough. To survive, you have to match four and match five, match in special patterns, and combine powerups. And even if you play brilliantly, you still won’t win.
“I do think its challenging, and then once you finally beat ‘that’ level, you think, hmmmm….I can beat the next. Like gambling” –Kacey Keating
3. It Rewards You!
“To be honest, I’m one of those people who are seconds away from removing the app from my facebook because it is so infuriating…But I did get to level 100 or so so there’s gotta be a reason why I even bothered to stay that long even though it makes me want to chuck my laptop out a third story window. I have to say it’s the instant gratification that it provides. Being able to match three, seeing the candy disappear or matching some candy bombs and seeing half the board disappear feels pretty good. That being said, having you lose the level even though you’ve made so many matches feels less good. The art and special effects is really what makes the game. It feels rewarding.” –Tiffany Dao, artist at Iron Galaxy Studios
The Exchange sums it up well: “First, much like a Las Vegas slot machine, the game features unpredictable rewards. For instance, candies with special powers pop up or a single move leads to a cascade of other explosions across the whole grid, accompanied by silly sounds and cartoon. Psychologists call the tactic the partial reinforcement effect.”
I’ll admit to a thrill the first time I was able to combine two sprinkle-covered bon bons and every single square on the board got hit with a blast that set off chain reactions, popping candies and music (I still failed that level). The rewards are unpredictable. Some matches complete, and that’s it; others set off explosions and unpredictable reactions that can totally change your odds of winning. It’s that expectation, that hope for the next move being spectacular, that spurs you on to make one more move, just as a slot machine player in Vegas pulls the handle one more time.
4. You Want to Beat Your Friends.
“When I first started playing, I saw all my friends were playing so for lack of anything better to do at the moment I tried it. I really thought it was a silly game and wasn’t going to play anymore. Then….I hit a level that was a bit more challenging and refused to let the game get me. Now at level 279 I have a few friends ahead of me and I like the challenge of trying to catch them. If I ever do I may stop playing.”–Holly Gordon
The game board, laid out like a cartoon version of a board game like Candyland, puts game peices with your friend’s profile pics inside. You can see where they are–and how many levels you need to beat to catch them. Every time you play, you see a list of your friends, ranked by high score. The competition is spurred on not just by scores–which can vary widely, thanks to the random elements of the game–but by something even more basic. “If SHE can do this level, dammit, so can I!”
5. It’s Everywhere!
“I play on my phone mostly. When I need more lives, I send a request to my wife’s account on Facebook. Then I go to the computer, log in as her, and send the lives. She doesn’t actually play, so while I’m there I play her lives. Then I’m back on my phone for more.” –Anonymous
You are never far from Candy Crush Saga. The game is on Facebook, your iPad, iPhone, Android phone…and all versions are sync’d up to one another. You can play on your computer and pick it up right where you left off on your phone. This is a tough task for an indie to emulate, but it definitely speaks to the need to be on as many platforms as you can.
Even if it’s not your kind of game, I definitely recommend checking it out first hand to see what lessons you can grab from this well-tuned game’s design. And when you come up for air, let me know what level you reached in the comments.
I’ll leave you with part of Neil Gaiman’s short story, Virus:
I wonder what happened to the TV. There used to be a TV.
I wonder what will happen when I run out of canned food.
I wonder where all the people went. And then I realize how,
if I’m fast enough, I can put the black square next to the red line,
mirror it and rotate them so they both disappear,
clearing the left block
for a white bubble to rise…
(So they both disappear.)
And when the power goes off for good then I
Will play it in my head until I die.