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Why  Candy Box  became more social than 'social games'
Why Candy Box became more social than 'social games' Exclusive
May 7, 2013 | By Leigh Alexander

May 7, 2013 | By Leigh Alexander
More: Social/Online, Indie, Design, Exclusive

Over the last week, the Twitter feeds of game creators and fans alike began to fill with a peculiar wave of notices about candy. Things like: "I've maxed out at 100 lollipops a second," and "I've now thrown 1000 candies on the ground, why am I throwing candies on the ground," and people answering frog riddles and upgrading their swords into better swords. It looked a lot like a Facebook game.

Except Aniwey's Candy Box, the source of the craze, isn't a Facebook game, or even a "social game," per se. It's a tiny, free, ASCII stat-based grind played in a browser tab, and for a hot second there, it was all the rage.

This in spite of the fact that it has the same kind of "empty" grind mechanics players have derided in social games for years now: Your resource counts increase simply with time spent, which means scores of people bragging about how they left the game open all weekend at the office in eagerness to return to a candy bounty.

When you spend resources on an upgrade, you have to wait to interact with the upgrade system again. You can undertake a quest, but need to wait about two minutes until you can do another. There's even a dual currency system (though no real money is ever involved).

It's a spreadsheet, really, a numerical climb, and yet it spread virally entirely on the volition of participants, the same kinds of players who would have opposed forced notifications and newsfeed spam as a "game mechanic." People loved the shared experience of participating in Candy Box, and since the game's surprisingly full of mysteries and secrets with little direction or feedback, that social component became actually-essential to progress for many.

The success of Candy Box is fascinating on several levels, the main one being that it proves that it isn't actually the hooky, skinner box-ish grind of Facebook games nor their rampant virality that is inherently offensive to gamers, but probably the platform and the presentation instead. And the purveyors, maybe -- Candy Box began burning up fan attention right after Zynga reported continued declines in its Facebook game business.

Chatter about Candy Box died down almost as quickly as it sprung up -- the main game is relatively short all-told, and players can (and did) devour it in a few days of all-consuming obsession. But the little game that could is sure to be memorable, and leave lessons in its wake. Here are the things that worked best:

Sense of discovery.

Candy Box opens with an incredibly minimal interface: The 'Candy Merchant,' actually an ASCII graphic of the "fourth Doctor," is on the screen. He is obsessed with candy and wants to trade you lollipops. The player's candy count begins ticking up slowly.

At first, you have two purposeless choices: Eat the candy you're accumulating with every second you look at the screen, or throw it on the ground. The average person could look at this screen, see nothing of import, move along.

But Candy Box is built on continually surprising players by rewarding patience and curiosity. After a few minutes of throwing candy or interacting with the merchant, more things appear: A farm where you can plant the lollipops you've bought, with the promise they'll produce more lollipops. More items appear in the Candy Merchant's menu, including a sword. And then you earn buttons to view your inventory and to undertake a quest, and then you're off.

Even that simple "world" opens up further from there: Completing quest areas rewards you with maps that take you to intriguing helpers that will bestow upgrades, like a riddle-slinging frog or a lollipop-crazed sorceress. Every additional discovery adds meaningful variation. And then the game gets meaningfully hard, redoubling the player's investment in the grind. It always feels like there's something new and whimsical around the corner.

Traditional "social gaming" experience.

The game gives the player very little direction or feedback, aside from an FAQ provided to answer very common sticking points. It's so minimalistic that it recalls a beloved earlier age of games, when all of them were opaque and mysterious, and the only real way to progress was to share playground lore.

In the early stages of Candy Box, it seems impossible that there should be a dragon somewhere in the game, but while you're still counting candies and fighting tree trunks for practice, seeing on Twitter that people are planting trees and using acid rain spells against a castle beast sounds like a myth you're determined to see for yourself.

As childhood gamers, everyone always had that friend with the false boast about what happens later in a game you yourself can't conquer. Or you learned about secrets and easter eggs through rumor and conversation, things you never thought to try for yourself.

Candy Box is loaded with easter eggs -- it might never occur to you to click on the Candy Merchant himself until he reacts, but there's a small reward to be found by pestering his hat or his beloved lollipop accessory, and you wouldn't know that unless the rumor had spread from someone who'd figured it out. Gamers often fondly miss the days when gossip and lore were the only real direction through a forbidding, mysterious interface, but Candy Box brings that back.

Total accessibility.

Candy Box is incredibly low-stress, requiring only an open browser tab. You can save your game just via a bookmark button. You're racking up resources just by leaving it open while you work or read or compose emails at your computer.

Since the game allows you to make investments to speed up your resource production, only a few clicks can make just the act of leaving the game on increasingly-gratifying. Actual gameplay, like questing, making purchases or preparing potions and spells in your cauldron (a relatively-later gift) takes only a couple minutes at a time, and then you basically have to leave it alone again.

Social games have depended on these kind of time mechanics to craft experiences intended to be pleasant background noise. But while most designers and critics found Facebook city-builders to become demanding, addictive nuisances constantly intruding, less than an hour with Candy Box illuminates the appeal of having a low-friction game as a kind of daily companion, one tab over from your work, rewarding you quietly in the background.

Candy Box never makes a demand on your time -- no alerts, no notifications, not even a humble pop-up asking players to share the game with friends, even though its opacity makes it a game most successful and meaningful when shared as part of a community experience and discussion.

It seems like if you don't force players to engage others, and don't try to moderate their use of time, a game can be viral and time-dependent on a purely voluntary basis. That's a powerful thing.

Charming minimalism.

No doubt Candy Box's ambiguous author, charming old-school ASCII art and use of only one window helped earn player loyalty and imagination. Imagine the same exact game with brightly-colored, cartoonish customizable characters, illustrated words and animations. Even the addition of sound effects would have impacted the experience negatively.

Its visual innovation is to be reserved yet creative within constraint, and through that choice it never gives the impression it's going to overwhelm or burden either players' attention or their device performance. Half the fun of playing Candy Box is discovering what its mysterious creator will invent next with such simple visual resources. The most lightweight, handmade look and feel possible seems to benefit games that aim to provide simple but deep distractions.


The Candy Box craze is already ebbing, having hit peak fervor after only a few days. That's because it's easy to feel "done" -- the main game only takes a couple days of sustained attention to complete, and while there is an intimidating end game, only the most obsessive players seem to persist with it, since there is a sense of actual accomplishment and fulfillment to be found after a reasonable degree of investment.

The game doesn't seem motivated by the desire to keep people staring at it for as long as possible, and feels comfortable with creating a meaningful arc within a relatively-simple system. That may fly in the face of the conventional need to keep players doing something for as long as possible, but that Candy Box doesn't overstay its welcome or become a genuinely-unfriendly time suck is part of why there's so much goodwill still hanging in the air toward it even after the fervor dies down.

What about monetization?

"Aniwey," the game's creator, could certainly parlay that good will into other projects, now. The creator says there's already a sequel underway, but a good hunch suggests that in the event they decided to solicit donations of some kind as a show of support or to enable more single-tab ASCII adventures, satisfied players would respond. I definitely feel like my time with Candy Box was worth a few dollars; if thousands of others felt the same, the creator could be on their way to launching a formal community.

It's often the games that seem either disinterested in or oblivious to "best practices" of traditional design, particularly in the systematized and alienating social arena, that become accidental overnight hits. In Candy Box we now have an important lesson -- people don't necessarily hate grinding. Or social play. Or timed engagement, or even games that are basically spreadsheets skinned with a graphical interface. They just hate nearly everything the social games business has tried to feed them so far. Looks like something a little bit sweet can go a long way.

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Mike Rentas
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Game of the year.

Joseph Moore
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The psychology of the game wrapped its tendrils around my fragile mind and would not let go until I had experienced everything on offer... I had to resort to cheating just so I could move on in a timely manner... Let go of me, you beast! (Absolutely brilliant, charming, and humorous. To the developer I say, "well done.")

E McNeill
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The article starts by stating that Candy Box proves the "hooky, skinner box-ish grind" isn't offensive to hardcore gamers, but is that really the core of this game? I suspect not. Candy Box is more a subversion of grindy mechanics than a celebration of them. The entire rest of the article neatly explains the real appeal of the game to hardcore gamers. It's far more like Frog Fractions than Farmville.

august clark
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On the other hand, at least some people (like myself) tried this game, recognized what it was about 5 minutes in, and then quit. Frog Fractions played with the player's expectations, with the primary barrier to progress being how committed the player was to adhering to the implied rules of such a game. Candy Box seems more like a variation of Cow Clicker.

I suppose CB's ability to ensnare people, more arises from how much a given person is interested in discovery versus wanting to play with a game system. I saw a lot of waiting and this proved a greater detriment to my interest than my curiosity as to what would happen if I kept waiting.

Kody Robison
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Unfortunately you cannot properly recognize what Candy Box is within the first 5 minutes. I'm guessing that this is a bit of hyperbole...? The very fact that they take a normally mundane social gaming activity (Accruing wealth through active clicking) and just allow the wealth to tick up on it's own regardless of your intervention makes it far removed from something like Farmville or *cough* Cow Clicker.

You are correct though, Candy Box is about exploration. There is little to no guidance within the game and though it's a linear experience from beginning to end, each discovery made by the player feels like something they've dug up off the beaten path. It feels uniquely yours when you answer the Frogs riddles. The waiting in between bouts of gameplay is essential to it's approachability.

I really think people can learn a lot from the design and content curve of Candy Box.

Raph Koster
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"In Candy Box we now have an important lesson -- people don't necessarily hate grinding. Or social play. Or timed engagement, or even games that are basically spreadsheets skinned with a graphical interface. They just hate nearly everything the social games business has tried to feed them so far. "

As I mentioned to Leigh on Twitter:

Actually, "people" didn't hate any of those things. The mass market rather enthusiastically embraced them, and for a lot of very good reasons. It was really more a segment of the developer community that hated them.

- Grinding has been a component of many genres of games for years, including ones that appeal to hardcore gamers, such as MMOs. It's an accessibility tool; it allows less engaged players to make progress against tasks without requiring them to ramp up hugely on skill.

- Social play has been a component of games for centuries. So really, what she's saying is that forced social spamming is different from doing it voluntarily. One thing that this elides is that even in the most oppressive social games, a lot of the social messaging is voluntary on the part of the players. Negativists see only the spam function; players who love these games see "help my friends" even while aware of the marketing tactic. Don't underestimate the player -- they know they are being manipulated. At the same time, they ALSO see the value of the social play, and like it.

- Timed engagement has been a feature of games for a very long time -- anyone remember having to wait until the moons were at the right phase to go through a moongate in the early Ultimas? -- as well as of games that are "gamer darlings" like Harvest Moon and Animal Crossing. We can easily regard things like sports as timed engagement, too. Or bingo night or bowling Thursday or whatever.

- EVE is often accused of being a spreadsheet with a graphical interface. Certainly most economic sims are. In fact, just about any game can be put into a spreadsheet form and simulated in there.

I'm not really disagreeing, of course. :) Just pointing out that saying that these features or design choices were somehow anathema to "people" isn't really right. It's more that this combination of features overall didn't appeal to a specific audience. Candy Box shows us a way to make these features acceptable to a sophisticated gamer audience, which is valuable.

Carlo Delallana
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Grind + Purpose = Meaningful Play

A lot of worthwhile activities are grindtacular....for me, learning to play guitar was grindwork. But I was motivated by a sense of purpose, a desire to master the instrument that brings me joy when I play with it.

benn rice
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but then you always have that real life guitar skill, IN your real life.....for the rest of your real life.

its not the same with working towards some virtual accomplishment in a game. where your accomplishments/accruals completely vanish the second you quit playing the game.

sure, you might decide the enjoyment you had during that time was worth it. but how many people would enjoy the process of learning to play guitar if all that hard work disappeared after 2 days, or 30 days (or however long you play a game before you're done with it)

Carlo Delallana
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I could lose all ability to play the guitar tomorrow and I would never think that 20 years of self-taught play would be worthless. My motivation to start playing guitar was extrinsically driven. I wanted to achieve a status. But after putting in the time to get good my reason for play wasn't about any kind of end goal, I just played because it made me feel good. This switch in motivation actually lead me to play better!

There will be a time when I won't be able to play Journey anymore but my experience of the game and my many playthroughs will be part of me for a long time. Lets face it, Journey is a grind after your first few plays but in the end it still feels good to be immersed in that world and that immersion, that feeling lingers long after I have played the game.

There are experiences and accomplishments in games that we play that stick with us for a long time, maybe even defines us on a certain level. Just because there is nothing tangible in the end doesn't mean that we cannot be affected by our game experiences in profound and meaningful ways.

Pallav Nawani
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Don't think it is a 'social' game at all. In fact, it has more in common with roguelikes than it has with farmville.

Craig Stern
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Come on. Other than its use of ASCII art and fantasy setting, this game has *literally nothing* in common with roguelikes.

Arnaud Clermonté
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Not sure what "intimidating end game" you're referring to,
but every time I think I passed the end, there's something else.
( now trying to beat Chuck Norris )

Marius Holstad
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I must say I really enjoyed Candy box ! The simple "triforce" of motivation is well balanced: candy-power-adventure. Gaining candy so you can buy powerups, so you can quest to find more candies and powerups, so you can move on.

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