Next time you’re on a bus or a train, do a little experiment and take a look around to see what the rest of the passengers are doing with their smartphones and tablets. It’s very probable that more than 50% are putting together brightly colored candies and cursing about the fact that they don’t have more hearts available to get another fix of their latest addiction. As of several months ago, Candy Crush Saga, the social videogame from the studio King.com, is the most downloaded videogame for mobile devices in the world. How does a game like this become a social phenomenon? How has it managed to unseat titles like Angry Birds or Farmville 2 from their unshakeable positions at the top of the social videogame podium?
The data is in: King.com has now beaten out the heavyweight Zynga to become the leading social videogame company and Candy Crush has hit the top 5 of the two most important app download marketplaces, the App Store and Google Play. More than 7 million people are now playing Candy Crush Saga every day, generating daily revenues of more than $600,000, or, put differently, $230 million a year, not to mention the more than 45 million past users who have played the app on Facebook. The figures are just dizzying.
Its business model is based on in-app purchases, with the game itself being totally free; you can play the entire game without paying a single dime. Even still, the numbers are astonishing when it comes to the app’s enormous conversion rates: Fully 30% of those who finish the game end up spending money in it. All this data might make us think that this resounding success has been the result of both luck and a forceful marketing campaign given how basic the game’s premise, but it’s actually nothing too far-fetched. The game’s development studio lasers in on the psychological aspects of its projects, adding a sprinkling of challenge, addictiveness, and reward with the same skill as the other experts in the realm, such as Rovio and the aforementioned Zynga.
King.com was founded in 2003 in the United Kingdom, and now has 365 employees divided among its offices in London, San Francisco, and other teams scattered around Europe. Although on its official webpage you can find more than 45 online games of various sorts, its strong point lies in its integration with social networks, with 15 games now available that can be played through Facebook. Only three of these have made the jump to mobile platforms: Candy Crush Saga, Bubble Witch Saga, and Pet Rescue Saga.
The Italian Ricardo Zaconni is the company’s co-founder and CEO, and his practical and direct commercial vision applied to the business model and to very concept of the games themselves is possibly one of the reasons behind the remarkable success of the project. Even the King development system turns out to based on resource optimization in search of the ideal product: Several work teams, each with a very small remit, spend three months trying to create a videogame prototype to launch. After that period, the product’s viability and potential is internally audited. If given the green light, the game is launched to swell the ranks of its title list; if not, the whole project is binned and a new one started from zero.
The immediacy I already mentioned with regard to development also applies to all the games King launches. The average round of Candy Crush Saga might last all of three minutes per turn, and although there are now 485 levels, the idea is that the game is played as a long marathon with pauses that create an indomitable urge to keep coming back. In each level you have to move colored pieces on a gameboard in order to make them explode so you fulfill different objectives. You can accumulate a maximum of five lives, and when you use them all up you have to wait thirty minutes for one of them to “regenerate” and get another shot at completing the level you’re on. Even that little delay is for a reason.
Tom Stafford, professor of psychology and cognitive sciences at the University of Sheffield, did a study on the addictive element of the game, based on the Zeigarnik effect phenomenon, which takes its power from our urge to remember half-finished tasks. Human beings are organized and hierarchical, meaning that not being able to finish a task can come to obsess us. Not being able to pass a level on Candy Crush Saga and having to wait 30 minutes before you get another chance can become a terrible agony that can start to verge on obsessive-compulsion… or can convince you to reach into your pocket and “buy” however many lives you want—with real money. In effect, it shows that recreational withdrawal syndrome applied to electronic entertainment does actually exist.
This urge to complete tasks can reach unexpected extremes when combined with a social component. Because the game is integrated with Facebook, you can see at any time the most recent levels your friends have completed as well as how many points each of them has earned, meaning you always have in front of you the possibility of overtaking your rivals on the scoreboard that displays your progress. Also, there are certain dead ends that will halt your progress until you manage to get X contacts to interact with you through the well-known social network, with your progress being published on your wall and the whole thing quickly snowballing into an exponential chain reaction that’s ended up creating the current situation: Basically everybody in the world is now playing Candy Crush Saga, whether we like it or not.
So, to sum up, there are three fundamental pillars: a straightforward concept, total compulsive obsession, and competitiveness with other players. Obviously nothing lasts forever and just like other games based on the same philosophy that had highly lucrative but finite lifecycles (like the Zynga games and other “Freemium” releases), nobody doubts that King.com will go back to the drawing board to turn its hackneyed recreational ideas into the Next Big Thing. The same studio has since launched similar games like Pet Rescue Saga with results that get nowhere close to the enormous success of Candy Crush Saga. But maybe it won’t be too long before we see the new hit that mixes the formula for success in just exactly the right measures. Meanwhile, we’ll all just have to keep crushing that candy.