Chances are that you’ve been there. The screen popping up and informs you that you cleared all but one jelly, or missed one last combo. For just 99 cents, you get another shot at finishing the level, but you will probably press end game and try again from scratch. Yup, that’s right, I’m talking about Candy Crush and unfortunately for my productivity, I am one of those people that play it quite regularly.
What is it that makes Candy Crush so addictive, to the point of luring users to spend not only their time but also money in the game? Allow me to briefly take a break from playing the game and write something about it instead. I believe Candy Crush’s success can be attributed to three factors: simple to understand and play, difficult to master, along with an increasingly large role that luck plays as you get higher up in the levels.
Candy Crush was not the first game of its kind: Bejeweled came along much earlier, and were just as addictive to players. The concept of combining swapping two pieces in a grid to form combinations of three of a kind or more is simple and straight forward, and requires no sophisticated hand-eye coordination or mechanical skills. This combined with some decent graphics allows the game to be attractive to all age groups.
The goals of the game vary by level, and the reason I say that it is difficult to master is because of the combination of different patterns that exist. To a certain extent, you are able to examine the board and attempt to create favorable patterns that result in more powerful candies, but unlike in chess or another board game, the board can be altered entirely in a single move, resulting in having to completely re-analyze the board each time that happens. Candy Crush is largely a game of pattern recognition, and those who are able to recognize not only the patterns to create the special candies, but one or two steps ahead the potential moves that could create those patterns will tend to do better. As such, some skills are involved and one cannot simply win the game by playing random moves.
That being said, the largest factor Candy Crush relies on to keep people playing, as well as paying, is the huge amount of luck it injects into the game. Another way to look at it is that on average, as you advance in levels, the probability of you finishing the level within the allotted time/moves decreases. And here’s why I’m saying that.
If you look at an average player starting out with Candy Crush, you will see that they typically breeze through the first dozen levels or so, and rightfully so because the purpose of those levels is to teach you the game, not to make it overly difficult for you to get past. Once you’ve gotten a hang of it though, on average the higher levels will take you more tries than the lower levels, and there are a few levels where many people have declared to be nearly impossible without special candies. The many attempts drain lives, as well as patience, and that’s where Candy Crush cashes in, and it does so in a very smart way.
Allow me to elaborate with an analogy – Candy Crush to gambling. Both involve luck in addition to skill, and although they have different stakes here (winning money vs. passing a level), they are comparable in the sense that you have to achieve the objective (have the winning hand, if we take poker as an example, vs. passing the level in Candy Crush). Now let’s look at how Candy Crush smartly monetizes its increasingly difficult levels.
The simplest monetization opportunity is to allow players to buy lives. Though I’m not sure how many players actually do it (given that there are many ways around it), it is equivalent to loaning someone money to buy back into the table. Fresh set of lives, fresh set of chips. Only difference is the money in your pocket that went to CCS/the casino.
Slightly more sophisticated to offer power-up candies at the beginning of the game. This is equivalent to being guaranteed dealing say at least 8 or higher in one of your two cards. It doesn’t guarantee you a win, but it does improve the odds slightly. Paying a little in advance to improve your odds sounds like a good proposition, right? To the makers of CCS, very much so.
Finally there are the extra moves/time/stop bombs from exploding when the level finishes and you have not achieved the objective. What does that represent in gambling terms? It’s similar to having the opportunity to re-pull any one of the five cards already on the table. Given that you already have a good hand but not the winning hand, here’s your chance to improve your hand and have a shot at winning.
The smart thing about CCS is that it does not simply allow you to buy levels. If it does, the monetization opportunities would be quite limited and everyone who’s willing to spend a bit of money would be at the latest level in no time. In exchange for your hard-earned (or perhaps not so hard-earned) dollar, it is providing merely the opportunity to finish the level/improve your hand. And once you use up those extra 5 moves/seconds, it charges MORE for the next set of extra moves/time. Despite the initial spending being a sunk cost, some of you are now attached to this particular game and are now spending even more money on this game, with only a chance of finishing the level and moving on. Eventually one of two things happen: you’ve spent a fortune to beat the level, or you realize that you no longer want to keep throwing money at the level and you quit. Either way, CCS has earned their share from you and now you’ve got a new level to beat or have to restart again for the current level.
So I’ll take back what I said before and re-phrase it slightly. CCS does allow you to buy levels, but it does so at typically extraordinarily expensive prices. Even when you see a way to beat it, it merely offers the possibility, and no guarantee, all as the odds get worse as you go up in levels.
Why do I say that? Let’s examine some of the new “features” introduced in the latest levels. We’ve got candies that swap between colors, candies that become either special candies or hindrances, and my latest discovery: freaking tornados. I said earlier that CCS is a game of pattern recognition to make those special candies and win the game, well guess what, the patterns you recognize are now easily disrupted by all of these special candies, which may or may not help you. In stat terms, if you’re looking at the normal distribution for the probability of beating a level, the standard deviation just increased significantly, and in turn the probability of beating the level just went down significantly as well. No matter how skilled you are at pattern recognition, all of it is wasted if random tornado/candy disrupts the current pattern.
And there I think lies the drawback of the game. As you introduce more and more of these “randomizers” to make your game harder, there will eventually be a point where the odds are so terrible that the users no longer bother playing because the reward is still the same – beating the current level. If every hand of blackjack you played had the same odds of winning some small lottery but with the same payoffs, how much time would you spend at the blackjack table?
The game’s social interactions are present but are largely limited to giving lives/moves and helping others to pass levels. These interactions do not require large social circles and are not nearly as viral as say the social interactions in games like Clash of Clans. If two or three of your closest CCS friends stopped playing, it becomes harder for you to get those extra moves/lives and passes for levels, and it’s rather easy for you to quit as well.
While CCS has been extraordinarily successful, the model is cannot be sustained in perpetuity. The monetization can only continue to occur by enlarging the user base, which will be limited due to its existing social interaction features, or increasing levels, which has diminishing returns for the users as they get harder. The lack of direct competitive social interactions in CCS’s existing model will cause it to be replaced by another game some time from now. After all, the internet is never in a shortage of new attention grabbing games and people’s attention spans are only growing shorter…
Now that I just spent 30 minutes writing this on the plane, it’s time to watch a movie, and if I have time before the plane lands, yes, attempt to beat Candy Crush level 419… Le Sigh.