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.


You Too Can Fail at Multiplayer Games

These days literally hundreds of companies are promising to deliver the next big Massively Multiplayer Online tour de force. But it may serve us well to remember that even the simplest of multiplayer games usually ends in more whimper than bang. In fact, the commercial success rate for multiplayer games and game communities is downright dismal. As a person deeply involved with several epic failures (as well as a hit or two), I will present design, technical, and business techniques you can emulate to ensure that your multiplayer game becomes a party nobody shows up for.

Slides and MP3 here: http://www.casualconnect.org/content/Seattle/2008/foxsea08.html

And a Little Amsterdam to Boot

A full day layover in Amsterdam before being taken back to the real world. Can’t beat that!

Started with a funnel of fries and a fairly nasty curry sauce (should have stuck with mayonaise):

Then a walk for six hours around the entire tourist-part of the city. Fun avoiding the legion of bikes, stoned tourists, and trams. Cars are easy.

I know it’s lame to fall in love with something as obvious as Amsterdam, but I could keep weaving through the circular streets for another six if I had to. The black canals plus “I’m beautiful without really trying” architecture just works.

Ended the last night in Europe with a vomit-inducing carnival ride — up a few stories then upside down and fliperoo! How cool is that: I got to see the whole Dam Square upside down!

Final Kiev Night

A final dinner with the whole gang at an Azerbaijani restaurant. It was so good with so many courses and so much pomegranite and Georgian wine that we actually forewent the conference’s hyped disco-bowling-a-go-go party.

There were also some special surprises:

I’ll avoid telling you about how we barely escaped with our lives after winning a few hundred American Buckolas playing Russian Poker at the seedy hotel casino. What happens in the Ukraine stays in Ukraine. (I think Stalin came up with that slogan.)

Biz biz biz

Today was all about meetings. A breakfast meeting, coffee meeting, lunch meeting, impromptu cigarette break meeting (I didn’t smoke, but the smell of my skin and clothes, I might as well have), not including the many official meetings set up beforehand. Overall, many utterly talented, utterly reasonably priced, utterly strong worth ethic’ed, utterly dealable companies and individuals to make games with.

The live sessions have a great UN feel to them. 99% of the audience speaks Russian, so most sessions involve me nodding into my live-translation earpiece and laughing at jokes a few seconds after everyone else. My company gave a group panel on why Eastern Block developers (that term is not preferred here) should publish with us. A drunk guy approaches me later and said that my English is “Wow… Way cool. Wow.” I think he means I slur and mumble.

We then put on a cocktail party in a bar hidden snug beneath the conference floor. The signature cocktail was something I call a flaming-upperclass-mudslide (they called it a B-52): a striated admixture of black Kahlua at bottom, white Baily’s in the middle, and crystalline Grand Marnier atop — lit quickly and flaming blue and drunk by sticking a straw deep in the bottom of the shot glass and slurping from dark to light as quickly as possible.

Next was a “Slavic Dinner” spread put on by one of the hosts. A weddinglike display of little treats (mostly meat oriented) as well as vodka a’plenty.

Finally — a party at a club called Botcha (beer barrel) where I downed much of the aforementioned homebrew and was, much to my surprise, highly entertained by the Swingin’ trio band flanked by an upright bass and led by a tattooed, Elvis-voiced drummer who sang, with heavy Ukrainian accent: “Sixtee-an tons and whattooyoutooget? Udderday oder and deepain det.” I then tried to follow the goings on of some Ukranian Renaissance Fair refugees putting on a contest to find the most valiant knight. Competition included proposing to a maiden by getting on your knees and singing, a jousting match with no horse and giant Q-tips, and archery across the bar.

Back at the hotel, Alexander and I desperately looked for playing cards to start up a game of poker. There’s a certain stage of drunkenness where you get an idea in your head and single-mindedly pursue it at all costs. Usually it involves sex, drugs, or violence, but in this case it was just some innocent gambling. Alas, though we tried to steal, bribe, and wheedle, there was not a pack of playing cards to be found.

One last warm beer, a clinking of bottles, and to bed.

Crypts and Reactors

Being thrust into the unknown, shedding your spoken and written language, losing your body’s inherent sense of time, no idea how you connect to the larger picture — it’s all a wonderful thing. It leaves you knowing who you really are without the benefit of society to lift and carry you in its mighty currents.

I’m a child.

A childlike joy in new foods and sights.

A childlike trepidation of dark corners, conquered by a childlike willingness to keep marching.

I take a keen child’s pleasure in sounding out the Ukrainian words and, every so often, actually understanding their meaning.

Today was:

– Cave monastery. Kievo-Pecherskiy Lavra. The underground crypts are kinda cool, but the real highlight is walking through a thin tunnel-like building hugging the hillside being hawked religious necklaces, pocket-sized Mary and Jesus icons, holy water, anti-abortion plastic fetus sculptures, and other goodies.

– Home style lunch at Ukrainian fast food joint. Borscht and Kashi, with a mushroomy salad. Mmm mm good.

– Chernobyl museum, where what’s on display is are the human extremes for scientific cleverness generating civilization out of split atoms versus a massive PR attempt at saving face to the point putting the entire world at risk. Some of the displays are actually still a bit radioactive:

– Funicular ride up the mount to St. Sofia’s Cathedral. It’s friggin’ beautiful, gold-domed splendor, but in the end just another Cathedral Tourist Attraction. Too many gilt trimmings to really draw out any specific detail.

Kiev – Day One

No real sleep in the last two days — I’m on autopilot, going off a collection of stolen naps. We meet up with Alexander and his girlfriend Natalia (her level of English matches my “special ed kindergartner” Ukrainian).

Off to the famous metro, where for a few kopecks you get to ride interminable escalators down to the bowels of the earth, hypnotized by the faces of those going up the other side. The station by my hotel is one of the ugliest in the city — certainly an indication of today’s Kiev as opposed to the Soviet era — every spare inch of tunnel plastered with billboard-sized day-glo poster ads. It’s like walking through one of those old-fashioned GeoCities web pages designed for nothing except milking useless ad impressions.

We cram into a solid-looking train that speeds away breakneck fashion. Though I don’t hold on, I don’t need to worry about falling — too many bodies pressing me in). We exit at Khreshchatyk station — ah! This is much nicer, what I’ve been waiting for: Brass chandeliers, fluted archways, and marble tile. Later on, at another station, I even get treated to a huge brass bust of Lenin.

Independence Square is everything a big city square should be: Gold statue atop a tall column (check), open stairstepped plateaus (check), important looking Greek-revival buildings (check), big-ass fountain (check), and a glass-fronted ship-shaped mall (check). The boulevard itself is lined by palatial highrises (banks and post offices) haughty in their Terra cotta eleganced modesty, very Champs De Elises meets Fifth Avenue, the most expensive real estate in the Ukraine.

The side-street sidewalks are cluttered with parked cars, especially a huge number of black E-Class Mercedes (“The car someone will buy if he needs to feel like a big man,” Alexander scoffs.)

Up some steps into a park — leaves just beginning to get rusty with autumn — to the Friendship Arch and some great Soviet-era granite statuary of stern-faced men pounding their fists to the sky.

Disco music blares from a shut-down bumper car concession. Beneath the arch, a great overview of the city: The wide River Dnyper, white sands of the island beach, most buildings and streets hidden in a canopy spreading out in a rainbow of greens. “You can see Chernobyl from here,” Alexander says, knowing my obsession with the abandoned ghost towns and badlands populated by camps of radioactive fugitives hiding from the law. Indeed we see a smoking pair of reactor towers, but we’re not sure if it’s part of the official Wormwood complex.

Across the Bridge of Love — couples write their vows in graffiti then seal the kiss with a padlock — and past the being-renovated Presidential Palace. The temperature has dropped and my thinned-out Californified skin is shivering. We cut back to the Globus building — an underground ring-shaped mall — and find a cafe on the second floor overlooking the square. Hot red wine soaked with cloves. Nice.


We navigate moneyed streets around a giant park. Dinner is at a place I ripped out from the Air France travel magazine. Japan meets The Ukraine. Highlight: A rose-shaped unfilled blintz, pastry rubbery yet crispy, topped with sour cream and beluga caviar (with a side of salmon caviar spooned from an oyster shell).

I stay up until 2 checking e-mail and grab 4 hours of sleep. Not bad.