Mind the Gap

The title applies to a lot of things. It’s been a loooong time and a loooot of twists since I last wrote here. I’m not sure how you managed to go so long without a post from me given how empty the rest of the Internet is, but I will try to kick it back up.

To start with, an easy one: Here’s video of a talk I gave at this year’s Casual Connect about cross-platform frameworks. Geeky stuff. But if you’re actually about to embark on a game and thinking seriously about launching it somewhere other than the death trap that is the iOS app store, give it a skim!


Why Candy Crunch Saga is the Gameplay Equivalent of Crack

Everyone here is familiar with the sugar-soaked juggernaut that is King’s Candy Crunch Saga. This “silly little puzzler” has been holding steady for months at a time as a top grossing title on Android, iOS, as well as Facebook.

Miska Katkoff, wrote a great analysis about how CCS has some of the best Mobile/Facebook viral and monetization design of any game out there. But while the elegance of those features makes the game long-lived and spendworthy, what makes the game itself so purely addictive is its near-perfect level design.

And when I say near-perfect, I mean neurologically and psychologically, viscerally and logistically, brain-in and balls-out, the near-optimal blend of challenge vs. release.

For starters, there’s something elementally brilliant about the Match 3 mechanic, first invented by Eugene Alemzhin as the DOS game ShairikiThe Balls. As with Tetris (man, what is it about those Russians?), the match 3 ruleset combines simple color, geometry, and gravity giving players the ability to work from a base of pure randomness and triumph or fail across a wide spectrum of possibilities, all the while flexing but never mastering caveman-brain skills of pattern matching, thinking ahead, and quick reflex.

I know a thing or three about match 3. iWin’s Jewel Quest is probably the 2nd most successful match 3 franchise, after Popcap’s masterful Bejeweled. In fact, many of the mechanics found in Candy Crunch Saga were first prototyped and invented by iWin’s game design savant Warren Schwader:

  • Turning background tiles gold to win so that where you match matters as much as how quick you are.
  • Different shaped boards, with hard to reach nooks requiring the clever pre-positioning of jewels.
  • Gaps in boards create narrow, unmatchable corridors and channels.
  • Unmatchable squares.
  • Moving elements from top to the bottom by removing jewels beneath them.
  • Special bonuses for matching four or five jewels.
  • Special bonuses for matching horizontally and vertically at once.
  • Etc. Etc. Etc.

But while Jewel Quest‘s level balance and design relied on the singular brilliance of Warren and other designers (along with a bit of level-reordering and time-tweaking based on results from a beta test or two), the creators at King have truly crowdsourced their balancing act, using metrics to be sure each level is barely solvable but increasingly tough. Numbers they are obviously looking at and tweaking constantly are:

  • Number of failed attempts at a level before success.
  • Number of moves made before success.
  • How much failure is too much, leading to game abandonment.
  • The blend of failure/success leading to the highest percentages of players returning and, ultimately, purchasing.

Using these metrics, they scientifically balance the difficulty and layout of each level so that most people are just one or two matches away from a win, inspiring the purchase of a few more moves, lives, or “get me out of any tough spot” candy hammers. The trick is to bring players mere paces away from the gates of heaven before plummeting them back down to the fiery abyss.

But is there more that King could be doing?

What if, instead of counting on randomness and aggregate stats, they came up with algorithms to tune each level and distribution of candy on the fly, so that the game intelligently reforms itself to bring players to the Golden Almost, the inevitable “just one more game” twitch. Why not pre-plan the layouts and new candy drop-downs to match each individual player’s style, progressively making levels either a touch more difficult or easy, in a way that reacts to that specific player’s strengths (good at looking ahead) and weaknesses (bad at speed). Like having your very own personal Product Manager.

Diabolical? Hell yes.

Fun and yet profitable? You know it.

Possible to do? Definitely. At least for a simple rule set like match 3.

It’s impossible for an outsider to tell whether King is already doing some more advanced heuristics like this, but based on my own frustrations of being stuck on some levels for waaaay too long, I don’t think so.

Then again, I am still playing, ain’t I? So maybe data-driven intelligence doesn’t even need to be that nuanced for most suckers.

Clone Home: Seedy Biz #3

(Part three a series looking at the seedier side of game business. Part one and two are here.)

[In my best Seinfeld voice:] What’s the deal with What’s the Word?

What’s the Word is a simple, single-player game. You are shown four pictures and must guess the word that all four have in common. The game by Russian developer Red Spell has been riding high on the iOS “all apps” charts this month, and even grossing in the top ten. The art and overall UI looks like it was designed by the same dude that programmed it over a Stoli and Red Bull-fueled weekend, but try it for a while and this game definitely compels — a near-mindless, perfectly bathroom-break-sized stock photo snack:

But then, today, what ho! A new game coming up as #3 on the charts also called What the Word!

Update: Name was changed to "4 Pics 1 Word - What the Word" on Feb 12

Yes — everything from the title on down is identical to the Red Spell version. The photo puzzles are different, but it would be nearly impossible for a casual player to tell the difference between these two products. The German company behind this masterwork is LOTUM GmbH. (Perhaps that stands for Lord of The Unembarrassed Misappropriation?)

But wait! What’s this?! A new What’s the Word title on Android by a group with the punk-rock meets STD name of Itch Mania. The icon looks the exact same as Red Spell’s, but the interface is a bit different:


Companies like Zynga have long been criticized for cloning or “fast-following”, but this… this is something else…

Digging in a bit, seems that the Red Spell’s What’s the Word came out on iOS January 25, 2013 and Android a few days later. LOTUM’s game hit iOS on February 4 and launched on Android a few days earlier on January 22. And Itch Mania’s came out the 27th of January.

What in tarnation is going on? Who is cloning who?

It’s pretty difficult to tell, but it seems as if LOTUM actually created the initial game, and then was cloned within a week. Perhaps LOTUM contracted a group in Russia to build their game, without stipulating that the code couldn’t be reused? Or perhaps such stipulations don’t matter much in the Land of Putin? There are already three or four more different What’s the Word games shooting up the charts as well.

The same thing happened with the game Logo Quiz a few months ago.

So there you have it, ladies and gents. We have entered a brave new world whereby if a game is simple and addictive enough it can be cloned and out-gunned via aggressive distribution within a matter of days.

All the more reason to make a game that requires some actual technical and creative chops to build. Oh… wait:

1. Wordblitz by Games for Friends GmbH (subsidiary of LOTUM) 
2. Ruzzle by MAG Interactive
3. Scramble with Friends by Zynga

Of course, all of the above games ripped off Boggle (which I’m sure itself was lifted from an ancient Sumerian game involving cuneiform letters on stone cubes).

The Zombie Tunnel O’ Money: Seedy Biz #2

(Part two a series looking at the seedier side of game business. Part one looks at evil user acquisition tactics.)

For those game-crafters of a certain bent (i.e. burdened with the desire to provide fun user experiences), it’s tough to use the term “monetization” with a straight face. The very word conjures up the image of a forlorn soul stumbling through a slimy, dark, corridor while ganglia of detached zombie arms pluck as many shekels as possible from the poor sucker’s pockets.

But of course, the best designed free to play games make the transaction a core part of the experience. The tapping in of the “verify purchase” password becomes the launch code of a super-weapon, and the minor pain of the spend only amplifies the joy of victory when the investment pays off.

But some apps aren’t quite as sophisticated. Take a “quiz game” like Vampire or Not by the ironically named Free.Kompany.

The experience starts with a modicum of actual artistry and intrigue:


Answer some stock multiple choice questions, pulled from a circa 1990 web quiz.

“Do YOU like the morning or the night?”

Then… wait for it… the “player” must pony up $2.99 to get the answer. A green arrow guides you to the proper choice in case you are in doubt:

Surely a small price to pay to learn the dreaded truth about your Transylvanian bloodline.

The grossing ranks aren’t up there with Clash of Clans, but indicate that a good percentage of people are unwary, drunk, or little-kid-pestering-harried-mom enough to tap BUY.

Looking at the ratio of grossing over chart rank, Vampire or Not‘s conversion rate kicks the ass of most other games, giving a lifetime customer value high enough to support the cheap flow of ad bids. Buy off a few fake reviews to balance the torrent of pissed off consumers, and… Instant profit!

This tactic must have really cleaned up back in the day, before re-entering your iTunes password was required to unlock the In-App Purchase.

So the game bites. I’m not suggesting, however, that apps like this shouldn’t be approved by Apple or should be banned. It seems to fall within the boundaries of the rules, and all’s fair in free market warfare.

On one hand, this shows how easy it is to monetize — just friggin’ ask!

On the other, though, it highlights the precariousness of the whole venture. We need to tread carefully. Even if it doesn’t take much cleverness to pluck shekels from players, we’d be well-served to craft our monetization systems and the experiences they unlock as the gently outstretched hand of a pal offering his buddy a good deal… Because once a player gets bitten by too many zombies or vampires, he’ll stop opening up his door at all to strangers lost in the night.

Continue on to Part 3: Clone Home 

Drill, Baby, Drill! – Seedy Biz #1

NOTE: This post is part of an ongoing series looking at the seedier side of the game biz.

A few weeks ago, an app called “Dental Surgery” took a chomp out of the charts, reaching the top position and holding on (by its teeth!) as a top five game for nearly two weeks:


The app was then promptly removed from the iTunes store (though several copies are still around on Google Play).

Here’s my best guess at piecing together what went down:

1) The app itself had assets stolen outright from a popular branded game (Glenn Martin, DDS) on Shockwave.com. The developer probably spent a day or three of engineering getting the basic gameplay working, but with tons of bugs and zero finesse.

2) Tens of thousands of accounts were orchestrated to download the app in a short period, boosting the game up the “Top Free” charts. Once the app broke the Top 10, it was exposed to hundreds of thousands of people and simple “WTF – a dental game?!” curiosity took over (leading to thousands of 1-star reviews).

3) The revenue came from a simple AdMob banner, gracelessly plastered over the game interface. But making a few tens-of-thousands from ad traffic may not have been the main motivation. The larger coup might have been in proving this can be done.

The biggest mystery, of course, is that it requires roughly 50,000 downloads per day to reach the top of the charts. Where did the tens of thousands of initial installs come from? Some possibilities:

  • Bots: Last year’s method of choice. Just write a script to create thousands of fake accounts then write another script to point all of those accounts towards one app. Doubtful that these bots are still prevalent, since Apple now explicitly sniffs for accounts with bot-like characteristics and it’s tough to create new accounts without a valid credit card (especially in the U.S.)
  • Crowdsourcing: Payola, baby. Give a small monetary or other reward to tons of legit users if they take the time to download and even rate an app.
  • Hacked Accounts: Simply put, thousands of old iTunes accounts with weak passwords may be under the control of zombie botnets, which have the ability to quietly download a free game — something the account owner would never notice or really care much about.

My guess is a clever new mix of Bots and Crowdsourcing: Combine a cheap and plentiful labor force (most likely in China), set up each employee with some macros, use VPN and spoofed IP addresses to have each person fake a few dozen U.S. accounts, and then let the download frenzy begin.

So, even though Dental Surgery’s triumph was short-lived, the next contender was Nose Surgery, which surfed the chart-top until January 1. Nose Surgery’s publisher info links to the profile of a 78-year-old woman. Maybe there’s a geriatric hit-game development genius out there. In truth, though, it seems that this party once again “borrowed” an identity as well as its assets — this time from a plastic surgery training site.

UPDATE: Apple kicked the app out on January 1. 
We'll see what comes next.

So in other words, the gentlemen (and/or women!) behind these escapades combined every naughty trick in the book:

  • Shameless cloning, down to outright IP theft
  • No-holds-barred, brute force growth hacking (perhaps combined with actual black hat hacking)
  • Egregious and intrusive ads

So as long as the iTunes charts continue to be the key method of app exposure and the algorithms remain easy to game, buckle on in and strap on the nitrous!

Continue to Part 2: The Zombie Tunnel O’ Money

A Walk on the Wild Side

In today’s big-time game business, we’d like to think that user acquisition and monetization techniques are above-board, requiring terabytes of data, sharp-minded analysis, and serious financial modeling. The biggest hack isn’t a hack at all, says the Panelist X from Megacompany M: It all revolves around high quality entertainment experiences original and engaging enough to keep players excited.

But speaking as a natural-born hacker and peon indie developer trying to get discovered in an ever-crowded app store, one can’t blame me for letting my eyes wander to the dark side…

The dark side has always been here. Let’s look at the brief rise and fall of social games: Early Facebook apps hacked the feed by claiming in so many ways that your friends really truly wanted you, ultimately routing millions of users to offers for permanent toolbars or subscribe-by-accident-and-sell-me-your-first-born-to-unsubcribe-ware. It is from this primordial ooze that most of the top social gaming organizations evolved.

The seedy stuff makes for fascinating study. We all love the image of the down and dirty underdog who thinks outside the box… The Wire‘s Omar or, to be more literary, Oliver Twist‘s Fagan… the small-time crook worming his way up the ladder using nothing but cunning and chutzpah, unbound by trifles such as platform policies, common decency, or federal law.

But the black-hat toolkit is also important to understand because it foreshadows and informs many of the more legit and celebrated design, sales, and marketing practices. It’s similar to how many of the aspects of a glued-together milk-can carnie sideshow can be applied to the business of running a grand theme park. The differences are in sophistication, style, and scale.

That’s why I’m kicking off a series of blog entries exploring some of the shadier techniques out there today. I hope these essays serve as interesting reads and cautionary tales… not so much outright tutorials. 😉

Part 1: Drill Baby Drill!

Part 2: The Zombie Tunnel O’ Money

Part 3: Clone Home