Candy Crush Saga: A Sweet Journey into Monetization
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.
Foreword: Why Write this Article?
The industry is changing, and we are all trying to keep up. Now I should mention, I don’t claim to have all the answers and may have missed some things. If so, please let me know – I love to polish my work. With that out of the way, read on brave adventurer…
By itself, Candy Crush Saga is a solid Chain reaction/Match 3 game. It has fun, well designed mechanics and contains engaging gameplay pacing. In my opinion it currently stands at the pinnacle of the match 3 genre. (And if you were to look at market saturation, I think the public would agree) I could easily see myself spending 99 cents or more as a “retail” game. But the game does not cost a cent; it is free – or more accurately put, it is Freemium.
I could go into depth on what makes this game so entertaining and its game design, but that is not what this article is about. We are here to talk monetization and this game is a shining example of systems design and why the Freemium model works. So let’s get to this!
Approachability. Everyone loves candy!
Candy Crush Saga is extremely approachable visually, with cute characters, bright colours and satisfying fanfare. If makes the game extremely approachable for anyone.
Yup.. like I said, it’s damn cute. 46 million active users per month agree.
Game Design meets Social and Monetization Systems Design
Alright, so I said I wouldn’t mention game design so I’ll keep this short. Candy Crush is a game built with its monetization and social system integrated into its core experience; not the other way around. So many freemium games today are designed in a backwards way of either:
A) Creating a game and then trying to push in a Freemium strategy as an after thought
B) Having a monetization strategy and trying to build a game around it.
B is more effective than A but both of these approaches tends to lead to a hollow sort of design/experience and the market reflects that. Candy Crush is a well rounded, coherent design that takes in a “sum is greater than the individual parts” approach. It works well… So well that it currently (at the time of me writing this) makes well upwards of $62 million per month.
Conversion Mechanics: Monetization System in Detail
That’s right, the game contains the dreaded Zynga life model… But that’s okay. It is a system that works and keeps the game fresh by restricting/limiting gameplay sessions. This system helps increase engagement, reduces burn-out and gameplay fatigue. While the game only offers 5 lives initially, it is usually more than enough to pass by time on that short subway or bus ride.
The life model also feeds into the other monetization and social systems of the game. A player can both send and request more lives from friends or can simply refill the life meter for a mere 99 cents.
The game offers 35 levels before gating the player with a social checkpoint. What’s a social checkpoint you ask? The social checkpoint is another mechanic that has a multi-tiered function. It covers multiple aspects of retention, conversion and attempts to increase daily/monthly active users. I will cover more aspects of the social checkpoint in later sections.
But for now I’ll just highlight the mechanic, it does 3 main things:
1. It gates the player from progressing further and gives them a goal – Unlock the next chapter!
2. If the player wants to overcome this obstacle immediately and keep playing, they can pay 0.99 cents
3. Alternatively a player can ask 3 friends to send them tickets to open the next chapter. The player will then have to wait for their friends to respond to continue on. There are another 2 points here that I should mention:
a. Sending ticket requests to existing friends performs a social callback (this is covered in more depth in the retention section). This encourages active players to come back more frequently.
b. There is a chance players will invite new friends to the game which would help increase the monthly active users count. New users mean new chances at having a customer that will convert.
Note: This is an evolution of the Pay Wall. Pay Walls used to require players to pay to continue playing. Pay walls were short lived as they drove engagement and retention down drastically.
The Impulse Purchase – I WAS SO CLOSE!
So you play candy crush… you’ll understand when I make the statement “Oh god I was so close! I would have beat this level if I had one more move….” This is usually followed by brief internal swearing. Well you can buy 5 more moves so you aren’t stuck on that pesky level for another 2 weeks.
This is easily the most monetized aspect of the game driving the majority of player conversion. Anyone who has played the game past the first 35 levels has surely run into this… multiple times. The impulse “5 Extra moves” purchase works hand in hand with the life system and more importantly the difficulty pacing of the game. When the player hits a difficulty spike, they can easily spend days or weeks trying to beat a level.
When they finally get close, get that surge of excitement and then fall short, it is much easier to convert them to continue playing.
P.S. Please kill level 97 with fire.
Even the Menu is Built to Drive Player Conversion
Have you noticed that the continue button changes colour depending on the situation? On levels where the player’s fail state is to run out of moves (Clear Jelly, Drop the ingredients or Earn a certain score) the continue button “Play On” changes from its usual pink to green. This is a small change but it entices the player to press the button subconsciously. I know I have done this action more than a few times. Like I’ve mentioned in my past article, you can never underestimate the power of the human subconscious.
Consumable power-ups can help offer an advantage over those difficult levels. These can be purchased right before pressing the Play button to enter gameplay. Consumables can count for up to 60% conversion in many games. Candy Crush offers all of its consumables into bundles of 3 for added value to the player. There are 3 main power-up bundles available for use on mobile:
Start the level with a Color Bomb. Color Bombs can clear whatever colour they are matched with or can be combined with other candies for even bigger effects.
Start the game with a Striped and Wrapped candy power-up. Wrapped candies detonate twice , destroying a 3 by 3 grid around them both times. Striped candies clear rows when matched.
Add powerful Coconut Wheels to the to the candy mix. Coconut Wheels move in a random direction and create power-up candies along the way.
Charms the Durable Whale items (Warning: For the hardcore Candy Crushers only)
Charms exist to greatly reduce the difficulty of the game. If a charm is purchased by a player, it will reduce the likelihood they will encounter some of the other conversion mechanics currently built in. In other words the player will have an easier time beating levels and they will encounter the life system, 5 extra moves option less frequently. With that in mind, Charm upgrades are priced at a high value.
Note: Pay to win is acceptable in a single player game. Don’t like it? Don’t pay.
- The Charm of Life
Alright, you play a lot. You are totally invested in this game. You are the Lord or Lady of crushing poor innocent candy. But wait, 5 lives just isn’t enough to carry on your candy smashing madness? Maybe you want to get more lives in that life pool? No problem!
You can purchase a charm to give you more lives permanently in your life pool. This charm is aptly named: The Charm of Life. It increases your life pool from 5 to 8.
- Charm of Stripes
Once a game, change any candy to a striped power-up candy. Match it to clear a row, or combine it with other special candies for even better effects. Why is this charm so expensive? It’s better than 5 extra moves and can make clearing levels a breeze.
- The Charm of Frozen Time
Any time based level you play, the time doesn’t count down while you look at which gems to match. This charm negates essentially the most difficult aspect of timed Candy Crush levels.
Candy Crush levels are short, typically between 30 seconds to 2 minutes long. It’s bite sized gameplay that you can indulge in even in the smallest windows of boredom.
There is actually a story in Candy Crush and while it’s not going to be winning literary rewards any time soon; it is important to note that there is one. Basically the story is as follows: A little girl is travelling through a land of candy. As she does, she encounters and assists its denizens along the way.
It’s not much and it isn’t compelling but it gives the player another progression goal: Discover the rest of the story.
Progression and Goal-oriented Play
There is always some challenge to overcome or something new to achieve. The player is constantly driving forward. This constant progression brings the player back to the game almost impulsively.
Some of the goal-oriented play is as follows:
• Beat a level
• Beat “that frustrating” level
• Get 3 Stars in a level
• Beat a chapter
• Unlock a new chapter
• Get 3 Stars in all the levels of a chapter
• Beat a friends high score
• Catch their friends on the map
And so on… Candy Crush is a progressive endless game which can be scaled easily.
The map plays an important psychological role for the player. It gives the player a better sense of their progress. Where have they been? Where are the going? Where are their friends?
Social integration into the map also breaths in a small competitive spirit amongst friends as you can see exactly where they are and what levels they are currently stuck on. It makes you feel good passing a level with ease that your friend has been stuck on for 2 weeks.
Difficulty Pacing reduces Player Burnout
Another game design note. At its core Candy Crush is built around its difficulty pacing. Those oh-so-frustratingly difficult levels are immediately followed up with usually 5-6 easy to medium difficulty levels. This peak and valley difficulty pacing keeps players engaged and coming back. A sense of accomplishment is a primary driver of progression and player retention.
Overburdening the player with too many difficult levels in a row drives retention down.
Complete and Utter Social Integration
If your friends are playing, you’ll likely be playing. Simple as that. Candy Crush has integrated Facebook into almost every facet of its design:
• Friends scores are displayed on every level.
• Facebook profile pics of your friends litter the world map with their latest progress
• Social upgrades and power-ups galore to be sent to and from your friends
• Gifted lives so you can keep playing
• Social Checkpoints give your friends added value
It goes on, but needless to say: Gameplay is improved with your friends. Also another great thing to note is that Facebook integration is seamless and very smooth. The player does not even need to leave the app to receive or send Facebook requests. This seamless integration ensures maximum engagement. By keeping the player in the game, the designer ensures that the player cannot get distracted by their social media. In other words, not leaving the game keeps the player around to invest more time and possibly spend more money.
Players can brag, send consumable power-ups and help their friends unlock new chapters. Side note: I hope you like Facebook alerts. Your friends will repeatedly drag you back into the game to help them (or help you). Even if you quit Candy Crush, your friends will bring you back in there to help them and hey, once you’re there, why not crush some candies. Annnnd you’re back.
Social Checkpoint – 3 Game Challenge
Social Checkpoints at their core, give the player a goal. Unlock the next chapter.
So I mentioned social checkpoints and their evolution from the horrible pay wall. But don’t get me wrong, social checkpoints have flaws as well – they still drive player engagement and retention down. If the player waits too long for tickets from a friend and don’t want to pay the 99 cents, they are likely to abandon the game.
To address this, King.com recently added in the ability for the player to “Play to Progress”. The player is offered the opportunity once a day, for three days, to beat a simple challenge. Once the third challenge is overcome the next chapter is unlocked. This mechanic helps solve some retention issues with social checkpoints.
The Sweet Sweet Summary
I know I’ve missed a fair bit but as you can see Candy Crush Saga is a deceptively simple design with many layers of thought and consideration put into every aspect of its game design, social and monetization systems.
The game monetizes so much yet it still manages to find that sweet balance between fun gameplay and monetary conversion. So what do you think? Does Candy Crush offer enough sweet gameplay without needing a trip to the dentist?
Thanks for the read!