Why Candy Crush Saga Succeeds (Guest Post)

This week’s guest post looks at why Candy Crush Saga succeeds as a hit game, and compares the King Digital Entertainment title against other Match 3 games.  This post is written by Matthew Hareford, the Founder of Dubit

Hareford’s analysis on why Candy Crush Saga succeeds looks into the Match 3 genre, and seeks to identify what makes Candy Crush Saga unique against other games in its genre.

Candy Crush Saga Narrative

Candy Crush Saga Narrative
Candy Crush Saga Narrative

Except for Bejewelled Blitz, all peer games compared feature a map and characters – possible foundations for narrative. Despite this, we’ve yet to find anyone who could tell us what the story is in Candy Crush, even with all of its animated cuts scenes. Of course, puzzle games don’t need a story, Tetris is the most successful puzzle game of all time and there was no narrative there whatsoever. However, considering the investment made in designing characters in these games, could a lack of story be detrimental to licensing opportunities? Angry Birds is the poster child of mobile game licensing, helped by the basic, but still evident, narrative of birds destroying pigs. More recently, Angry Birds Toons started telling proper stories with  Angry Birds characters. The game had a great mechanic and would have succeeded without a story, but the story has helped the game connect with children and it’s that which has helped Angry Birds monetize outside of the app.

Match 3 Social Features

Only Bejewelled Blitz and Candy Crush scored high for social, due to the lack of competitive social elements and competitive play in both Mania games and Juice Cubes. Plenty of articles discuss the importance of social functionality, not just for helping to market casual games but to also engage those who play them. It seems odd that three of our five games would miss such an integral feature. Could its inclusion in Candy Crush and Bejewelled Blitz be one of the key reasons behind the success of those games?

Audio

Match-3 Games Audio
Match 3 Audio

All the games investigated scored high for audio. Whether the audio included cute music loops or the now customary congratulatory messages, the audio in these Match 3 titles may be basic but is still used effectively. The only dropped points were applied to Candy Mania and Juice Cubes, as neither game uses audio to congratulate the player for impressive moves.

Match 3 Gameplay

Match-3 Games Gameplay
Match 3 Gameplay

Gameplay points were awarded based on the variety of the gameplay and the elements included, such as tutorials, lives and XP. All the games compared, except for Bejewelled Blitz, scored highly for gameplay with the use of tutorials, time limits and power-ups (both free and paid for) being used as standard. What let Bejewelled Blitz down was variety. Whereas the other games changed the objective of each level or introduced new items, Bejewelled Blitz is the same experience time and time again. Bejeweled Blitz’s competitors included more variety, as well as hundreds of levels.

Match 3 Monetization

Match-3 Monetization
Match 3 Monetization

Our monetization vector isn’t linked to the revenue or profit made by the app (all closely guarded secrets) but by the opportunities to spend. The most heavily monetized games are Candy Mania and Jewel Mania. Both of these apps heavily utilize cross-promotion and even include in-game rewards for watching adverts or downloading other games by the developer (Team Lava). With all five apps being free-to-play, it’s not surprising to see each opportunity to monetize explored to its fullest. The low score for Bejewelled Blitz is due to the lack of purchasable in-game items, such as power-ups.

Focus on Match 3 Games

For a different perspective we can look at this data on specific games.

Games

Further Observations

Just because it looks and tastes like Candy Crush doesn’t mean it is Candy Crush. Before I first played Candy Crush, I dismissed it as another Bejewelled clone only to find it was far from it. In my mind, it is a far better game. It’s like comparing Tetris with Columns, both use falling blocks and have the goal of clearing a screen, but they are very different games.

Candy Mania used the goal of having to match a certain number of candies before you finished a level, with each match made adding to the value of the surrounding sweets (it makes more sense in-game). This gameplay mechanic then followed through to a boss battle with each correct match sapping the boss of energy.

Juice Cubes, although looking like a tropical version of Candy Crush, plays very differently. Instead of trying to match-3 items together, the player is tasked with drawing lines between matching items – like a mix between Boggle and Candy Crush.

New Tricks

Candy Crush has a bad reputation for how it tries to monetize players, a criticism which isn’t fair when looked at against similar games.

For example, Candy Mania has a cute dog as a mascot who does very little until the end of a round. At this point, if you win, the dog gleefully jumps across the screen wagging its tail. However, if you lose he comes into view looking sad, with exaggerated puppy dog-eyes willing the player to play (or pay) for another go. While this is legal at the moment it does bring up ethical questions and would most likely fall foul of the guidelines put forward by the OFT. What’s more, the sad puppy is accompanied by a 10-second countdown, after which one would assume the game finishes. Instead the countdown does nothing aside from accelerate the player’s need to decide whether to play on or not. If the timer runs out the player can still choose what to do — the visual time limit actually has no impact on the player’s options.

Another tactic employed by the Mania games is to offer the player extra moves before the round is over. At this point the moves are priced at 10 credits (for example), of course the player doesn’t know if they will need the moves yet so buying them is a gamble. If they lose that round they are offered the extra moves again, but this time at a higher price, a tactic that tries to convince players to pay for items they may not need at risk of having to pay more when they know they do need them.

Last, while Candy Crush is often seen as not strictly being free-to-play, in that some levels are designed to be so hard the player needs to pay to get past them, at least the level’s difficulty is determined from the outset (as far as we can see). What became obvious during my playing of Candy Mania was that when it became clear I needed certain candy (red ones, for example) to finish a level there was a clear lack of red candies being added to the game board. This happened so often that it became clear the items were not random. There’s nothing wrong with this tactic but it does ruin the idea that you can beat it through skill alone.

And Finally…

From our research it’s clear there while there are some common traits in the Match 3 genre, such as the use of sound for positive reinforcement and level variety, there’s more to this genre than a bunch of Candy Crush clones. Indeed, while Candy Crush showed the power of social elements some similar games almost ignore this tool all together.

The one constant that we saw throughout our sample was the lack of narrative. Clearly narrative isn’t integral to a popular puzzle game, just look at Tetris. But in 2014, could a lack of narrative hold  games back from future merchandising or other extrinsic ways of money making? Only time will tell.

How We Did It

To build this analysis, we identified four of the most popular Match 3 games on the market, aside from CCS. The four titles were picked not only by popularity, but also by which games, on the surface, seemed to either influence or be influenced by CCS.

We picked:

  • Candy Blast Mania by Team Lava
  • Bejewelled Blitz by PopCap
  • Jewel Mania by Team Lava
  • Juice Cubes by Rovio

We then spent a couple of hours playing each game. To keep the comparisons fair we played all five games on an iPad. During the playthroughs we noted the mechanics and gameplay elements that made up the game – from the use of narrative to the number of levels. This data was put into two documents: ‘data’ and ‘findings’. The data comprised of five headings:

  • Narrative – How story played a part in the game
  • Social – How communication was factored into the game
  • Audio – The game’s use of sound
  • Gameplay – Elements included the number of levels, use of lives and challenges
  • Monetization – How the game attempted to make money

Each heading then had a number of elements under it, with each being scored from zero to three.

0 – Not present
1 – Present but not significant
2 – Present and used occasionally
3 – Present and significant

We then used a custom algorithm to give each of the five sections a score out of five and plotted the results as vector diagrams for comparison.

To accompany the vectors we also made detailed notes on how the games played. This allowed us to pick up finer intricacies that wouldn’t be apparent in the vector diagrams.

If you would like to be sent the complete spreadsheet, please fill in this form. You can view similar articles on our blog.

The author of this blog post is Matthew Warneford. Warneford is the founder and CTO @Dubit, a developer of iOS, Android and browser games for kids.

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Video game data and analysis from a consultant