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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
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    14 comments
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.

Brevity.

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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