Why Candy Crush is so popular

Why Candy Crush is so popular

Why Candy Crush is so popular

We want to talk about Candy Crush, but not for the reason that you’re probably thinking. We had to talk about Candy Crush Saga sooner or later. It makes over a million dollars a day on just the app alone. It eclipsed Farmville as the most popular Facebook game, and it’s almost certainly the most played game of this year in terms of raw hours spent. Yes, if you put together all the ours spent on Call of Duty or League of Legends, I’d wager it still pales in comparison to the total amount of time humanity has spent poking away at Candy Crush.

The thing we actually want to discuss today is this. Why is Candy Crush so popular? After all on the surface it just looks like another bejewel to clone. How come it’s doing so much better than Pop Caps owned by Bejeweled Blitz? Which while it does quite well isn’t clearing anything like the astronomical numbers Candy Crush has been. Let’s dig into this.

First we have to talk about pacing. In a previous episode we talked about differences in kind and how they’re used to modulate a player’s interest curve. This is something that Candy Crush does substantially better than most of its competitors. In Bejewel-ed’s main play mode you’re fundamentally performing the same set of actions level after level. You’re simply matching things in order to hit a score goal. Candy Crush gives you a plethora of goal types from level to level. That combined with Candy Crush’s hand crafted stages means the player experiences something different every level. Each new stage is intended to invoke in the player the thought, I wonder what the next level will be, which is immediately followed by the thought, I’ll try it once just to see what they do. Which is of course immediately followed by 30 more minutes playing Candy Crush.

Now as a designer, when we look at Candy Crush it’s important to note that the crafting of the stages is just as important in delivering the interest curve as varying up the goals. One of the things that sets Candy Crush apart from many of its competitors is that they freed themselves from only using a rectangular play space for a bejeweled type game. This in turn meant that they were able to have actual level design in this game which is essential to Candy Crush. Otherwise, they would have to introduce new game play elements too quickly and it would have resulted in information overload for their audience.

“From there directly integrating their game design and their monetization, rather than viewing them as two separate things, took them over the top.”
If every time they wanted to modulate the interest curve they had to either present the player with new goals or give them some new mechanic to play with. It would, at the very best, prevent the player from ever really getting comfortable enough with specific set of mechanics to truly experience depth of play. At worst it would just fall into the incoherent and overwhelming space that many games do when they toss new mechanics at you or change up your goal continuously in a desperate attempt to keep you interested. Candy Crush provides far better modulation of their interest curve than most match three games, because they’re aware that getting cherries and hazelnuts to the bottom of the screen in a level that’s shaped like an inverted pyramid, feels much different than trying to do the same thing in a level that’s just your standard rectangle.

None of this would work without the random factor. Very often you will see match three games include puzzle levels. Those levels always start with the same pieces in the same places. They are simply a logic problem for the player to work through. The genius of Candy Crush is that they have crafted puzzle like boards for the player to play on, but the starting set of pieces the player gets to solve the pieces with is randomized. This means that when a player loses instead of getting frustrated or just deciding that they don’t know how they’re supposed to beat the level and giving up, they’re much more likely to hop right back in hoping that this time they get a better draw. It also means that every time a player has to replay a level, they’re presented with a new and interesting problem to solve. The player doesn’t have to figure out how the designer wants them to solve the problem, but rather has to assess the board they’ve been provided and figure out how they want to approach the challenge ahead of them.

All right, Candy Crush manages a much better interest curve than most match three games through judicious use of play modes coupled with wildly varying board types. That still doesn’t explain how they monetize so well. Well, it comes from the fact that Candy Crush may be the most exquisitely balanced free to play game I have ever played. Ask any Candy Crush player and they’ll tell you that often they’ll end up losing the game when they’re very clearly only one or two moves away from a win. That’s really hard to achieve in a game that involves this level of randomness. Of course, the goal of that balanced design is monetization. You see, when you loose a level in Candy Crush they offer you a few extra bonus turns. While they don’t make the numbers publicly available, I’d wager that this is one of their best selling offers. This isn’t chance either.

If you look at the two main game play modes in Candy Crush, it’s quite clear that this is part of the core design of the game. In most match three games the player’s goal is simply to achieve a specified score on any given level. Not so on Candy Crush. In Candy Crush score is secondary. The two main game play modes involve either getting specific pieces to the bottom of the screen or making matches in specific squares on the grid.

candy-crushYou now what’s special about those two types of mode? What ties it in to their monetization so well? It’s the fact that it’s incredibly easy to see exactly how close you were to winning when you run out of turns. Score is a nebulous thing. It’s not easily trackable especially with all sorts of bonuses and modifiers to factor in. Plus it’s generally not the thing you’re staring at the entire time you’re playing. With modes like these, it’s right there in front of you. You can’t miss it. You were so close. Two more moves and I would have had it. With victory so tantalizingly near you’re way more likely to consider buying those bonus turns.

There’s a lot that went on in terms of marketing and corporate strategy to make Candy Crush the phenomenon that it is today. Looking at it strictly from a design sense, the game’s success comes from the fact that they created a much better interest curve than most of the competing match three games. By abandoning some of the standard conventions of the genre, and having custom designed levels with enough randomness to allow players to want to play them again and again. From there directly integrating their game design and their monetization, rather than viewing them as two separate things, took them over the top.

Hopefully that answers some questions for those of you pondering Candy Crush’s success and I really hope it goes to show how valuable building ways to modulate your interest curve directly into your systems and mechanics really is. I also sincerely hope that by the time this comes out Candy Crush has also proven that being a complete jerk and wielding copyright law like a club against smaller developers is a great way to loose your sales, destroy your company’s reputation, and prove to the world that you’re worth nowhere near the seven billion dollars you value yourself at.

How to make an open world game

How to make an open world game

How to make an open world game

Today, we’re going to go over the same problem because it lets us to talk about something we rarely get to discuss, the fact that sometimes when designing, the most important thing is how you conceptualize the problem you’re approaching.

People can approach the same design problem and choose to solve it in radically different ways depending on their perspective of the problem, which in turn, results in radically different games. If you think of jumping over a pit is being about precision, you get Super Meat Boy, but if you think about it as being about speed, you get an Endless Runner. If you view Action RPG combat as a way to make the player more connected to the character rather than seeing it as a weigh station between moments of character development, you get Demon’s Souls instead of Fable III.

So, it falls on us as designers, when we have the luxury, to examine our premises before we dive into the thick of the actual design process.

So, Open World games: There are at least two fundamentally different structures for thinking about how to construct an Open World game. You can conceptualize it as a game made up of town, dungeons and Open World encounters or you can conceptualize it as a game made up of modules in the old D and D sense.

“I’m looking forward to seeing a game crack the problem of providing modules and many adventures and tiny cohesive stories in a seamless Open World design.”
In the first structure, you build out towns, dungeons and encounters and then you slot them into the world as they fit. In the second structure, you compose the world as a patchwork of loosely defined areas, that each have their own adventures running through them. We end up using the Elder Scrolls series as an example a lot because it’s the biggest budget, most marketed, longest running fantasy Open World series out there, but it’s a good example of the first design philosophy.

None of us have worked with Bethesda before, but I’d wager that even their team structure is set up along these lines with different people making the dungeons, towns, and encounters and not a great deal of time is spent coordinating between the groups to make areas of the world feel like holistic zones with their own adventures and multi-quest micro stories running through them.

Baldur’s Gate, on the other hand, is an excellent example of the second design philosophy. Because the game itself is coming from a D and D pedigree, it makes a lot of sense that they look at Open World construction in this manner. If you look closely at that game, you’ll find that each of the zones on the map feels like a unified place with a mini-narrative running through it.

Personally, I feel like the second approach gets you stronger result, as it lends itself more toward interesting encounters rather than simply hack and slash combat problems. It creates a framework that allows designers to craft a strong narrative and an Open World environment without losing the freedom of exploration that’s so essential to Open World design.

Of course, the problem with the module approach is that it’s a bit tougher to pull off from a production standpoint. First, you have to organize your teams so that they’re working together on entire zones, which requires a lot more communication and a lot more management overhead.

Second, it means that while you may be able to salvage some stuff here and there, you are a lot more likely to have to completely scrap a bunch of work if one of the teams falls behind or their area just isn’t coming together.

This method also creates two design challenges for you. First, is the obvious fact that creating holistic micro adventures requires more work from your designers. The alternative of simply creating the constituent parts of those adventures, the dungeons, towns and encounters, and then scattering them about the world doesn’t require as much design staff. The second challenge is in how you delineate the boundaries of those adventures within an Open World framework.

Baldur’s Gate took the technologically necessitated but also simpler design approach of simply dividing the world into separate zones. They had boundaries between these zones and whenever the player crossed them, the game would pause to do a bit of loading. This gave them an easy way to delineate the module or adventure space. That is much harder to achieve with the Elder Scrolls seamless world.

Dark Souls II, which feels less like an Open World game to me, but I’ve had enough people insist to me that it is that I’ll use it here; anyway, Dark Souls II also creates clear zone delineations, but they do it through visual aesthetics, and by having the zones actually all be spokes off of a central hub rather than a truly free roaming space.

Dragon’s Dogma, on the other hand, provides a more module based experience than Skyrim within a true Open World by having its contents seemingly designed as areas rather than as pieces. It’s basically an Elder Scrolls type of game with a more Baldur’s Gate ASCA Module philosophy for their Open World design, but even they didn’t truly go all the way in creating the module-like feel of old Black Isle games. Instead, they settled for giving each area a unique sense of theme, tone and design, but eschewed the series of quests and encounters that would make each area a small adventure in and of itself with its own story to tell.


Actually, some of the best modern examples of module-based Open Worlds come from MMOs. If you look at World of Warcraft, many of the zones there, especially later in the game, feel like unified adventures with little stories of their own, but they, too, couldn’t do it without clearly defined zones.

On the production side, I think all of these problems are soluble so long as you go into the project thinking of your world as a patchwork of modules rather than simply a collection of dungeons, towns and encounters.

On the design side, it’s something you’re going to have to play around with in pre-production. It’s easy to do the module thing with clearly defined zone borders, but without zone borders or artificial gating, making these adventures feel natural and keeping the player from getting lost in a mish-mash of overlapping modules as they inadvertently cross between them, is something that will probably require a unique solution for your game, as there’s not a whole lot of successful examples to draw from.

Before we go, I wanted to say something about Sandboxes. Often we seem to use the term, Open World game and Sandbox interchangeably. They’re actually not though. Sandbox games are games where you, the player, create part of the fun yourself by playing around within the world the game presents you. Games like these may benefit less from module-based design because it’s not simply the adventure itself that makes these games engaging. It’s also in finding new areas to mess around in and new ways to play with the systems the game gives you.

Grand Theft Auto games get more mileage out of just building cool bits and socketing them into their world than a lot of fantasy Open World games because in GTA, a well-placed ramp is a new toy for you to experiment with. You could spend hours trying to use it to land your car on an impossibly high building or just enjoy throwing cars off it and laughing yourself silly, whereas, a random troll camp in an Open World fantasy game simply can’t be played with in the same way.

If you’re thinking about creating an Open World game, consider what your design approach should be. Do you want to conceive your world out of a patchwork of modules or would you rather create a single huge space and sprinkle dungeons, towns and encounters all over it? They both have advantages and they both work, but I’ve got to say, I’m looking forward to seeing a game crack the problem of providing modules and many adventures and tiny cohesive stories in a seamless Open World design.

Design Teaches Us Without Words

Design Teaches Us Without Words

Design Teaches Us Without Words

Do you ever wonder why when you walk up to some doors, you don’t know whether to push or to pull to open them? Whereas with other doors, it just seems natural how they’re supposed to open. That’s often because of how they are designed.

The next time you are at a public building, look at the doors. If both sides of the door are the same, it is confusing, but if one side of the door has a bar that goes horizontally, and the other side has a bar that goes vertically, you intuitively know what to do. This is because your body knows how to interact with these two objects. The vertical bar is just natural to grip, and it’s much more ingrained to pull something we’ve grasped with one hand than it is to push it, especially if it is the size of a door. Conversely, the horizontal bar matches the breath of your body and practically asks you to put both hands on it. Once you’ve done that, the only intuitive thing to do next is to put the weight of your body into it and push, rather than try to back up ad pull with both of your hands fixed on the door.

So, why do we care? Because that’s what we call an affordance, and they are an important part of game design. You see, affordances in traditional design are things built to be naturally, almost physiologically intuited. The most common example is the handle of a teacup or a tea pot. Without being taught it is the part of the object you’re supposed to grasp, it is the first place a persons hand goes because, well, in the simplest terms, it is a hand shaped hole. Clearly for something meant to contain hot liquid, that is an important feature. That is just something you need people to get. Well this is a concept we have taken in game design and run with, extending far beyond our physiological understanding.

“You see, affordances in traditional design are things built to be naturally, almost physiologically intuited.”
We’ve had to work hard to get players to intuit things in a virtual world by trying to link them to their understanding of the real one. This pervades every part of game design, from controls, to mechanics, to narrative. The first, and the most obvious example, is simply modern controllers. We’ve tried to do everything we can to get players to naturally put their hands in he right place on a controller in order to play games based around moving, looking, and shooting simultaneously in a 3D environment because, while this may be second nature to most of us at this point, getting 3D shooters to feel even remotely right on the console was a huge challenge at one point. In fact, I would argue that most of modern controller design is based around that problem. Look at how the shoulder buttons have evolved to make it more intuitive to rest your fingers there instead of gripping the side of the controller. Look at how the thumb sticks went from being bowed out, to being curved in so they naturally seem like the place to rest your thumbs.

The concept of affordance in games goes well beyond this. We use it anywhere where form implies function. How do you know that those crazy sci-fi guns in your game, set in the distant future, even are guns? Well, they share a shape we already have associations for. How do you know to drop that boulder in that hole? Because the hole is boulder shaped and heck, getting back to controls, how do you know that the right trigger is used to accelerate and the left trigger is used to break in pretty much every game with vehicles there is? Because they are matched to the petals in your car. This is just the most basic level of affordance. It is important, and if you don’t think of it as a designer, you’ll fail to produce intuitive games. It is completely essential for puzzle design, and the lack of it was one of the biggest stumbling points for old school adventure games back in the day, but that’s just the beginning.

Let’s blaze through some of the more interesting uses. First, navigational affordance. We’ve talked about this a little in a previous episode, so I’ll keep it short, but how do you get your player to go where they need to? By making it the natural place to go; by implying where to go with a path, or a doorway, or a break in the barbed wire, or a brightly colored carpet, or whatever, directing a player down a specific path. Then there is environmental affordance. This is one of the most fascinating ones and I can’t take any credit for it. Harvey Smith turned us onto it a few years ago at a South by Southwest. Before the generation of super high res video gaming, designers often had to get you to understand what blurry textures or awkward graphics were supposed to be. In fact, the player has to intuit those things to stay immersed in the world.

Even today with third person games, we’ll often have objects that are simply too small for the player to see clearly, and yet, they’re the little details that make the world feel whole. So how do you get someone to understand what these things are? Affordance. Green rectangles and silver circles mean nothing to a player on their own, but if you put them next to an overturned cash register, wallah! Suddenly, they become dollars and coins in the mind of the player. Understanding how to use the objects in your environment to give definition and to make distinct the pieces of the environment that might not otherwise make sense, is a huge boon as an artist or a designer.

Lastly, let’s talk about systemic affordance. Spearmen beat horsemen, horsemen beat footmen, footman beat spearmen. How do you know? Because it just makes sense! Of course you could use a system like this without calling the units spearmen, horsemen and footmen. Technically the systems would be the same no matter what you call them. They could be broccoli, bean sprouts and a beluga whale, but no, you call them horsemen, spearmen and footmen because simply by labeling them in this manner, we offer the player an affordance. Instead of having to understand all of the math underlying your game upfront, the player can instead intuit how they should play.

There are hundreds of other examples of affordance in games, I’m sure you’ll easily pick out as you play, because as designers, we’ve got to do everything we can to make this inherently strange and remote task of playing a character on a screen, feel intuitive, and even natural. It has become even more important as we explore the uncanny world of touch-screens and motion games. We can’t do the concept justice here, but I hope I get you thinking on how to use it and how it’s been used on you in games. If you want to dive a lot deeper, I recommend a reading, The Design of Everyday Things. It is about physical design, but I think it’ll get you thinking about game creation in whole new ways.

How to design games for kids

How to design games for kids

How to design games for kids

This is a topic which is becoming increasingly important in our industry and one which is too often ignored. Surprisingly, in an industry that has for years been labeled “just for kids,” most of the products we’ve put out aimed at kids clearly haven’t had a lot of thought put into how to approach creating games for young people. Unfortunately, for years many of the “kids'” games out there were licensed titles, and these games relied on the idea that the parents buying them wouldn’t know anything about games, and so wouldn’t know a good game from a bad one.

The expectation was that the parent would walk into the video game aisle in their local Toys ‘R Us, and before them would stretch a sea of colorful boxes that meant nothing to them. Then they’d see one with Spiderman or G.I. Joe on it, and they’d think, “Hey, I know what that is. My kid likes that show. I’ll get them that.” This unfortunately meant that a company could sell almost as many titles of a licensed kids’ game by kicking it out the door as cheaply as possible as they would by creating something actually engaging and good.

Thus, often kids’ game production became about lowering production costs rather than raising quality. In fact, this is a big part of why licensed titles in our industry have such a bad rap today. Luckily this has been changing. Now that many people who grew up with games in their homes when they were kids are having kids of their own, games for children can no longer sell on box art and ignorance alone. Today these games have to better cater to their audience, and that’s one of the most difficult things when creating games for kids.

“A game which is great for a 4-year-old may not be very good for a 7-year-old and is almost certainly going to be a total miss for someone who’s 12 or older.”
You see, we often mentally lump ages 14 and up as one group when creating games. Most of the games you play probably fall into this category. People in this range may fall into many different demographics, or target audiences, and they may have vastly different underlying things which appeal to them, but age specifically isn’t usually considered a huge differentiator beyond 14. In fact, it’s only been in the last few years that we’ve started creating games specifically for the 25 and up audience, because most of the time a great game is equally appealing if you’re 14 or 45.

That’s much less true for an audience under 14. In general, you have to break them up into dramatically different demographics based on age alone. Generally it’s broken down as ages 4-6, 7-9, 10 and 11, and 12-14. With even a moment’s reflection, you can see how wildly different those groups are. A game which is great for a 4-year-old may not be very good for a 7-year-old and is almost certainly going to be a total miss for someone who’s 12 or older.

There are exceptions, of course, like Minecraft, which is catching on with kids of nearly every age, but games like that are pretty rare, which makes understanding these age demographics essential to the creation of quality children’s games. Understanding things like the fact that in the youngest demographic you can’t guarantee that your audience will know how to read or that the oldest group is much more socially aware than children just a few years younger than them. Knowing stuff like that is essential to targeting your game. This turns out to be much easier said than done, as many developers I’ve known originally thought they were creating a game for one age group, only to find out that they’d aimed too high or too low, and that is fatal to a project if not discovered early.

Good children’s games also build in multiple levels of success from the outset. You need your game to be easy enough that any child can play on their own, with or without a parent, but you also need to provide a broad enough experience that you’re not talking down to the child with your game play. This is actually one of the keys to the success of things like Angry Birds or even Skylanders. Any child can play them just by mashing buttons or tapping on the screen, but a child who thinks through the mechanics and understands the game is rewarded for doing so, for thinking more deeply.

Additionally, you have to be more aware of the different ways human beings learn when building games for kids. We touched on this a little in one of the episodes about how to build a good tutorial; in fact, we could, and probably should, dedicate a whole episode to the theories around different types of learning. While by our teens we’ve been trained to learn in ways that have become standard in our society, what will stick with or make sense to a younger child is much more vague. Actually, just to go on a quick tangent, there’s a lot of debate around learning styles in education. I’m kind of hand-waving it here; but, if we do a full episode on learning methods in games later, we’ll go into some of this and how learning styles relate to games.

The short version is, you should teach the player in every unobtrusive way possible, and, where you need to, a few obtrusive ones, too. While I don’t know about the breakdown or efficacy of any given learning style for people, I do know that games that use more of them tend to get more people to understand what they’re trying to teach. Who knows? Maybe that’s because people learn differently, or maybe it’s just a repetition thing, but this is one of the few universally true things James can say about the games he’s worked on.

Anyway, back on topic, the last difficulty in making games for kids that I want to bring up is the idea of not talking down to them, not only in your mechanics, but in every aspect of your game. We seem to have this societal bias that children can only handle pablum, banal or puerile things, and that’s absolutely false. Everything from SpongeBob to Wall-E has shown us that children can appreciate challenging ideas and humor. The best children’s books we have don’t shy away from leaving the child with something to think about, so the games we make for them should take up this mantle as well.

Here James has only one piece of advice. It’s what works for him. Perhaps it’s just what helps put him in the right head space and it won’t make sense to anybody else. When James works on experiences for children and, in fact, in general when dealing with younger people, he simply thinks of them as adults with a lot less experience. If you can build that ramp that goes from things that children already understand to the concepts you want to explore with them, I think you’ll find that children are capable of quite a lot. Everything from Winnie the Pooh to The Little Prince, Toy Story to The Lego Movie, do this, and games are perhaps even more capable of allowing children the opportunity to explore and ponder new things by bridging that gap.

I hope that helps some of you get a sense of the pitfalls of designing for a younger audience. The original question was, what are some of the difficulties designers encounter when creating for children? Of course, there’s a much larger question to be asked of how to actually design a good game for kids, which is something I’m not sure we can tackle, but hopefully this will serve as a start. Just remember how much a small difference in age can change things and how much value there is in having different levels of success in your game so kids can grow with it, and kids of different skill levels and attention spans can all have something to play. Beyond that, it’s just a matter of not talking down to your audience. As easy as that is to say, that may be the hardest thing of all. Good luck and good creating.