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The processes behind King's Candy Crush
The processes behind King's  Candy Crush
December 20, 2013 | By Christian Nutt

Candy Crush Saga is so huge, at this point, that it requires no introduction. If you want one, this bizarre Fox News segment will tell you everything you need to know about how far it has seeped into the popular consciousness.

It's easy -- and foolish, and cynical -- to assume that this kind of success is some kind of fluke, or that mainstream players don't know any better than to engage with King's games. The company has found repeated success, so it must be doing something right... but what?

What principles help guide King's game development? Recently, Gamasutra traveled to the company's Stockholm, Sweden headquarters to find out.

A Pause to Relax

Most game developers are avid players, and look at games quite differently from mainstream audiences. King's developers are no different -- but they also understand, first and foremost, what players want from their games. According to the company's chief creative officer, Sebastian Knutsson, that's "bitesize" two- to four-minute experiences.

It doesn't end there, though. Players of its games have a different expectation than the sort of immersion and engagement routinely evoked by core games. That short gameplay segment serves a purpose: "It's not about a chess move where you spend four minutes thinking," says Knutsson. It's a moment or two where you can "relax without thinking hard."

It's Okay to Fail

Kim Nordstrom, lead producer at King's Malmo, Sweden studio says that when developing new titles, "we can take the risk and it's okay to fail." Part of that is attitude (realizing it's okay to make mistakes) and part of this is the advantage of mobile: Games can be fixed quickly.

Nordstrom used to work for Sony, and he spoke enthusiastically about the way in which the mobile space allows developers to fix their mistakes quick, and take in player feedback and act on it.

"It didn't work, and we fix it -- and hopefully we can fix it," says Nordstrom. "We apologize and we fix it. We listen to the audience, and say, 'Okay, this is what they want. This makes sense for us.'"

When to Listen to the Audience

As Nordstrom says, you have to listen to your audience. And sometimes this even means going against your own instincts when it comes to how you design your games.

One example: Philip Lanik, game developer on Candy Crush Saga at King's Stockholm studio, has long wanted to put in a level skip option, because many players get stuck on more challenging stages.

It turns out that the players don't want it, however. "That's a very hotly discussed topic... We want to challenge players. We are all players ourselves," says Lanik. "We listen to our players... people feel like it's cheating."

Given that's the case, well, "skipping levels, I'd love to have it, honestly, but I'd probably get overruled by the team," Lanik says. The team knows to listen to its audience.

Everybody Has a Say

Lanik might get overruled by his team now and again, but according to Farm Heroes Saga producer Carolin Krenzer, from King's London studio, he should still get his say. Everyone should.

When the London studio was formed, its founders studied how things worked in Stockholm and then brought that culture to the UK: "We know that it works pretty well here, that the culture allowed people to be creative and create awesome games, and that's one of the reasons we wanted to make sure we learned from the people in Stockholm," she says.

"Making sure everyone has a say and can contribute, and having ownership, it has a massive impact on the quality of the product," says Krenzer.

Listening to everyone's voice is particularly essential when game teams are small. Tobias Nyblom, product manager on Candy Crush Saga, notes that the company "used crowdsourcing within the office to come up with lots of ideas for the levels, and tried to cherry-pick the best ones for a varied flow."

Staying Challenging

Given the mass audience for Candy Crush Saga, you might expect that the game would be a cake walk. According to developer Philip Lanik, the opposite is true: Candy Crush Saga "has to be a challenge and stay a challenge."

That's why the team needs to constantly seek new ideas from around the office. If they don't devise new types of challenges for players, the game will become dull: "playing all the time the same content is getting quite boring," says Lanik. "It has to be a challenge; it has to be a fun challenge," he says.

And yes, sometimes those levels are too tough for some players. That is inevitable, says Lanik: "We have to accept we're losing people in some levels as well."

You Can't Please Everybody

Losing players? Is it really okay? Yes -- because you can't please all the people all of the time.

Lanik also notes that when making a game like Candy Crush Saga, "you'll never find the right solution" for all of the players. "To find the balance is a really, really tough problem for us," he says. The team can only do its best, and accept that there's a limit to that.

"I'd like to see all the people progressing [through the game] in the same way, but with so many people you'll never see it," says Lanik. "The balance between fun levels and challenging levels, it's quite hard. A good mixture of different levels and different styles is very important."

The First User is Us

Great ideas for games come from within, not without. Ceri Llewellyn, a developer at King's London studio working on a yet-to-be-released title, says you have to trust yourself: "if you find it fun, generally people find it fun."

"Yes, you can think about this mythical person you can build for," says Llewellyn, but "the first user is generally us." In fact, his game was the winner of an internal King game jam -- people liked it so much that it was developed into a prototype and from there, into a full version. Without that seal of approval from King's internal developers, it never would have had a chance to make it into the wild.

Editor's note: King provided travel accommodations in order to facilitate these interviews.

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Tuomas Pirinen
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To create a game that has unrivalled 282 million active monthly users is a feat like no other in video games industry history. Whether you like casual/puzzle games or not, it is worth taking note of the achievement on the Swedish game studio and looking at how they managed to attract the mainstream (and largely female) audience to a video game.

Robert Green
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I find it really interesting that they'd consider a level skip option cheating, while selling extra moves and power-ups, which also circumvent the challenge to some degree, is perfectly fine. I wonder how many of the people buying those extra moves to beat a really challenging level consider themselves to be cheating.

Paolo Gambardella
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I think the good of those companies is that they brought the videogame to a different audience, compared to classic games companies. Now CCS is played by a broader audience, but I argue that at its start it was played mostly by aged women, like many social and casual games. I am also pretty sure that King is really good in tracking and data analisys to see what its players like and what not. Maybe "cheating" buying power-ups and extra moves is not seen like actually cheating from their player's base. Maybe because they are not actually players, they have not this feeling and gaming background, like you and me for example. My 2 cents.

Tuomas Pirinen
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I am with you on this. Those 56+ million likes on FB are no fluke, I think they track very closely what their player base likes and dislikes, and acts accordingly. It is just that their players have different perception of cheating than traditional hardcore gamer audience. And yes, games like CCS are bringing millions of people into gaming that would not have otherwise touched a video game with a barge pole.

Robert Green
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There are two ways to look at it Paolo. The optimistic way is to say that buying extra moves and powerups still doesn't win you the level by itself, so the player still gets to feel like they had to play well in order to beat the level. Ironically, if your perception is that the level was intentionally really hard, to the point where you couldn't realistically have beaten it otherwise, then this feeling of accomplishment is probably stronger.
The cynical way to look at it, is that since buying extra moves and powerups doesn't guarantee that you'll win the level, King can theoretically sell multiple IAPs to the same person to beat a single level, something which might be taken away by having an option to skip the level. You can imagine such a thing would be very hard to price - too low and there's no reason to buy the other IAPs, too high and it creates the impression that the other IAPs won't help you beat a level.

Paolo Gambardella
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I am with you on that. By the way is almost always like that. I mean, power-ups are accelerators, in a way. Just think to the Mario's mushrooms: they make you a little bit stronger and you will probably die later. Buy extra-moves (a pack of 3, if I remember well) is in a certain way the casual version of the same concept. I do not buy extra moves, because I have another gaming background and like you I consider it like a cheat. You have also to consider that 5% of players, more or less, actually pays in those kind of games, you have to study for what they pay, people in King do that really well.

Cordero W
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"We took Bejeweled and redressed it."

That's all they had to say and it would have saved me that read.