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.


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 

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 

Defending (Some of) the Cloners

Danc’s unforgiving essay against plagiarism in game design cuts close, a bit too close to my warm bones. My first instinct is to lash back with arguments such as “The Incremental trumps the Innovative” or “Repurposing lost greatness to reach the masses is saintly in of itself” or to urge him to just, like, lay off since there are Bills to Pay and Mouths to Feed.

My second instinct is to admit that Dan is 100% right. Like the too-rich landlord falling to his knees before a wild-eyed dustbowl preacher, I feel the urge to testify. To rend my suit and wail as I recount the Satanic thought process that has led me, more often than not, to bake my bread with the wheat of other people’s ideas.

But the reality is somewhat more nuanced.

I believe there are three distinct categories of game plagiarism. And since we’re making an ethical judgement here, it’s important to clarify:

  1. Reverse Engineering: If you have an edge on the means of distribution for a new ecosystem but need a “hit product” ASAP to distribute, then looking at another popular Game X and all-out cloning the sensibility, economy, theme, and user interface, has proven to be great business. Often this work can be done by a clever programmer with no background at all in psychology, storytelling, or economics.
  2. Synthesizing: If you understand the brilliantly-wired sources and sinks of Hit Game A, savvy viral design of Hit Game B, and beloved theme of Hit Game C and blend them together, then this is way to create something low-risk but still fresh. The world all-out canonizes people that successfully “steal but not borrow” this way, such as Picasso or Steve Jobs. This type of work takes the most discerning of design minds, a mind of pure and perfect taste that keenly understands exactly how to surgically combine the essential parts of each animal.
  3. Expanding: This happens when you love Game X so much you just want to build it yourself. As you build, you find yourself seeing flaws, prodding, tweaking, adding, excising, retrenching, and eventually stumbling out with something you genuinely like better than Game X. The outcome is familiar but has never quite been played before.

So the purist’s argument — Danc’s argument — is that the intention behind all three of these categories are fully guilty of Plagiarism. Yes, riches may flow to Savvy Reverse Engineers such as the makers of Farmville or Kingdoms of Camelot, epic audiences may flock to Master Synthesizers such as Millionaire City, and lasting cultural relevance may bless Expanders such as Bejewelled… but all of these companies and the people that toil within are Guilty, Guileless, and Unoriginal.

Speaking for myself, my career is actually more a dialectic between innovation and willful borrowing.

  • Feeling boundless and young, I tried to innovate. I found that it was hella difficult to finish something that was any good. So I picked a game and Expanded.
  • Feeling unfulfilled, I tried to innovate. I walked over coals. I fought armies of nay-sayers. Bloodied and weary, I delivered. The market crapped on me. I needed a quick, guaranteed recovery. I Reverse Engineered.
  • Feeling dirty, I tried to innovate. But being responsible for the livelihood of many others beside myself, I playtested and coldly, analytically began to understand what audiences who actually pay actually want. I Synthesized.

I’m hopeful, indeed — I am counting on the fact that some of the very out-there prototypes and half-formed ideas in my skull will one day be both purely innovative and widely enjoyed. But until then, I’m okay with delivering fun experiences based primarily on the hard work of those who have come before me as long as I’m changing things up enough to advance the genre and learn something from the process.

And so: I proudly defend Synthesizers and Expanders. It’s harder to argue for the ethics behind Reverse Engineers… but even there I have faith that, long term, those with a Reverse Engineering culture will find themselves unable to even slightly innovate. Those companies and individuals will stall out once they’ve ripped off all there is to obviously steal.

To flip things a little bit, Danc, I leave you with this challenge:

You have Truly Innovated (I friggin’ love Triple Town). Amazing, wonderful, unique, delicious work.

But is that enough? Whose fault is it if Triple Town doesn’t become a mega-hit and turn Spry Fox into a Billion Dollar company? What will it take for you to not only craft the New, but out-distribute the Reverse Engineers, pre-figure the Synthesizers, and beat the Expanders at their own game?

Go get ’em, Danc!

Pop Goes the Game Industry

A better phrase for “social games” might just be “popfast games”.

Start by thinking about pop music. Is the music that sells the most widely the “best” music? The most “inventive” or “innovative”? The melodic phrasings that took serious artistic risks or lyrics that tried to actually say something? Or is pop music, more than anything, the music that you happen to listen to? The music that plays in the background while you and your buds hang out, battling against crushing boredom?

Pop is everywhere, always, at once. On the radio/Pandora, on TV/YouTube, topping the Billboard/iTunes charts. Pop gets inside you, forcing your foot to tap before it remembers to be cynical, forcing the teenage-fangirl inside us all to shriek, “Gawd I luv this band!”

Sure, every once in a while an obscure, innovative song miraculously rises to the top of the charts and becomes naturally, organically pop. But more often pop is painstakingly manufactured by a very big industry. Few record companies understand the current gestalt well enough to produce a tune and develop a pop star both new-feeling and familiar-feeling enough to work across the broadest of audiences. But even fewer companies can take a nascent sensation and understand and manipulate the media machine and marketing ecosystem well enough to engineer the fact that everyone is listening to the same song at the same time.

Pop is also unique to the medium of music. Modern music is purely portable, able to be layered onto the rest of life – at work or study, driving or dining. There have been “pop art” and “pop film” and “pop fashion” and “pop fiction” movements, and other media certainly succeeds in manufacturing hits and using expensive marketing to make products feel ubiquitous. But only music can truly be pervasively pop.

Until now. With the mass adoption of the Web and smartphones, games too have become purely portable and able to be layered onto life. And with the dominance of Facebook games now have a context to live in involving chums and colleagues whose consumption habits you can continually follow like a wave carrying the same piece of flotsam in to shore, back out, and sometimes in again where it will, for a time, litter the beach of your consciousness.

With apologies to Wikipedia, check out this chart that clinically lists the characteristics of pop music versus those of social games:

Pop Music (via Wikipedia)
Social Games
An aim of appealing to a general audience, rather than to a particular sub-culture or ideology Ditto
An emphasis on craftsmanship rather than formal “artistic” qualities Yup
An emphasis on recording, production, and technology, over live performance The equivalent here would be an emphasis on well-measured systems vs. a consumable piece of creative expression
A tendency to reflect existing trends rather than progressive developments Fo’ sho
Intended to encourage dancing, or it uses dance-oriented beats or rhythms Substitute “clicking” for “dancing”

Of course the even greater potential and power of social games is that they are not media like a canned pop song – they are an ongoing service. So really the pop music metaphor breaks down once the player actually arrives at the game. A better metaphor at that point becomes a convenient place that people drop into out of habit, a place that nearly everyone passes by during their daily journey, a place with cheap, quick, addictive treats.

We’re talking ‘bout fast food.

So let’s review. For a company to succeed consistently at social games it needs to be masterful at:

  • The market research or raw skill capable of capturing or cloning a gestalt.
  • The technical and artistic prowess to achieve scalable, fast-loading productions.
  • Engineering the social network to make it seem like everyone is grooving to the same frequency.
  • Merchandising, branding, and the systematic measurement and control mechanisms involved with running and scaling a successful franchise.

Social game companies (and wannabes) are just now grappling with the magnitude of capital and breadth of expertise required to release and run a continual flow of hits. They are painfully realizing the need to weave discrete disciplines together and get it all running in lockstep.

We all – as human beings or companies – have things in our repertoire we truly know because of sheer experience; the knowledge is inherent and core to our way of thinking. And we all also have things we copy baldly from leaders and fake our way through. Most social game companies are deeply in the latter category – either stuck in boxed-game mentality or so focused on metrics and feedback loops that they are unable to branch out and experiment with even the simplest of innovations.

Few companies will make the leap to popfast.

And even fewer will really harness the full potential of popfast anytime soon. After all, pop music brings people together because it truly heightens emotion and becomes the soundtrack of precious memories. Fast food restaurants, meanwhile, feed a very essential human hunger (arguably unhealthily, but certainly cost-effectively). Popfast games have the ability to achieve true togetherness and give humans a platform through which to express and understand themselves in entirely new ways. The company that figures that out will dominate this new art form.

My Reese’s Moment

Nearly a decade ago, I took a leap to become one of the technical founders of a small company called NextGame — soon to emerge as iWin, Inc. What drove me was building innovative, quick-to-market experiments that:

  • Involved play
  • Told meaningful stories
  • Connected people

I believed that if I could hit on those three key notes in innovative ways then the things I helped build could usher in an entirely new form of mass market entertainment. I honestly believed in the power of play and that iWin’s games could significantly ratchet up people’s overall sense of happiness and fulfillment by stimulating their imaginations while forming real relationships.

Over the years iWin pivoted from skill-based online games to a downloadable games to social games,  from tournament-fee to in-game-ads to subscriptions. From Java to C++ to Flash. Working in conjunction with CJ Wolf, an imaginative, risk-taking, and market-savvy CEO, I spent most of my work days designing out “Version 1.0” products —  coordinating talented teams of  artists and engineers to take crazy ideas and, through a Frankenstein-like process of digital alchemy, make them live.

Some of the products I worked on failed miserably but most were viable little audience-builders and revenue-generators. A rare handful became big enough successes to spawn entirely new lines of business.  But looking back, almost none of the products hit simultaneously on those three idealistic notes of Play, Story, and Connectivity.

When Facebook’s platform opened up and “social games” began to gain momentum two or so years ago I saw a glimmer of hope in bringing those three forces together. I felt excited and charged-up in a way I hadn’t been since those early iWin years. And the eventual revelation that the virtual goods model was actually pumping out some serious cash was icing on the cake.

One of the new social games I helped tickle into existence using duct tape, spit, and static electricity was a little nugget called Family Feud. It combined a fantastic, classic game show format (one that makes unread people feel like champions of trivia), a truly together-with-family-and-friends social brand,  along with an original and meaningful viral hook. Tens of millions of players later, the game has done more than addicted a good chunk of Facebookies — it has become the focal point of iWin’s new strategy and I believe it will transform the company from a shrink-wrapped casual game publisher into a true contender in the social game — indeed, mass media — industry.

But an odd thing happened as a result of this success. My little “I-think-I-can” and “try a bit of this and a bit of that” company now needed discipline, focus… coordination. There was no longer a strong need for the mad scientist. The disruptor in me had to constantly bite his tongue and let the talented game-devs around me dig foundations deep and skyscrapers high.

Now… to digress a bit… an inspirational American businessman I hold in great esteem is George Washington Carver. Before Carver came on the scene, Southern agriculture  was basically monoculture — that is, focusing only on one crop: Cotton. Other crops were considered bad business.

Against all odds for a man of his skin color, this “Black Leonardo” combined his skills in scientific invention, hucksterism, agricultural engineering, and art to develop, teach, and build upon practical uses for peanuts, soybeans, pecans, and sweet potatoes. By understanding every aspect of numerous industrial processes he was able to combine wasteful by-products into hot new commodities. His vision ultimately expanded the overall economy and helped impoverished farmers grow more varieties. This meant families could rotate their fields to keep soil fertile, avoid catastrophe by relying on just one source of income, and overall break the downward cycle of cotton dependency. More to the point, Carver helped jolt the world awake with instant coffee and he spread mainstream the perfect, chunky deliciousness of peanut butter.

I don’t claim to be even a tiny peanut-shell-scrap of the man that George Washington Carver was, but I have had some success at shaking up monocultures and turning crap crop to peanut butter.

Enter into the story another American businessman I have long admired: One Trip Hawkins, the CEO of Digital Chocolate, founder of EA, and about as close as you can get to a real-life Video Game Titan. Trip and I occasionally bumped into each other throughout the years and had brief but deep chats about the directions of our respective companies, where the markets were going, and the pros and cons of various emerging platforms. Talk with him long enough and you’ll see that Trip is indeed an apt nickname. He’s got some Ideas with the capital-I.

The last time Trip and I met we were both in good moods. Much like iWin, Digital Chocolate has had an amazingly successful year due in large part to their own Facebook games such as Millionaire City. But Trip then spun a compelling tale about Digital Chocolate’s direction: A story that involved not just entrenching and building off their social game momentum but pulling back a bit, looking future-ward, and thinking through  bigger, badder, gapless ways that social networks, smartphones, TV, and the wider web itself can work in concert to give the world broader connected gameplay and deeper story.

And so… Peanut Butter… meet Chocolate.

As of November 1st, I will jump aboard as Digital Chocolate’s VP of New Platform Development. I’ll work with Trip and his world-class and world-strewn team, researching, interconnecting, and building upon cutting-edge game mechanics, business models, and technologies.

I’m certain it will be an unrivaled, and utterly delicious, education.

Pseudo-Interactive Game Design

There’s a trend going on in game design where the goal is to cheat the player into having a great time. What I mean by this is that many of today’s top games aren’t interactive, really — they are machines that manipulate a person to experience emotions best unlocked in us by the illusion of interactivity.

Now I know that’s some downright geeky “we’re all in the matrix” shizzle right there. Maybe I can clarify with some examples:

  • The Endless Tutorial: Most modern games have a tutorial where you are put on a track, learn the rules of how to interact, and plod along unable to really get hurt. You can’t fail most tutorials, just take longer or shorter times to pass them. But many best-selling games continue to automatically scale their difficulty based on my (usually crappy) performance. This is smart: It lets a hard-core player feel challenged while letting a casual player “skip” the hard parts and “play through” the story. You and I each take 2 or 3 wacks at killing the boss, even though you crafted a highly tactical, brilliant, trigger-finger-numbing approach and I just stupidly mashed buttons. Your game’s variables are not at all like mine but your experience is roughly my experience. The line between where the tutorial ends and “real” play begins has blurred.
  • Graph Games: Social games, as many have argued and ranted, are not games. Indeed, many of the top games can fairly be called a complicated series of pretty progress bars that simply give “players” an excuse to use (abuse?) the Facebook social graph.
  • Tuning for Everyman: The art of “playtesting” is to watch people play your game and tune it to achieve the best effect — so that the experience is frustrating in proper proportion to being rewarding. As audiences become mass market and our games try to capture them all, playtesting for every demographic becomes unfeasible. Tweaking a live game based on analytics certainly helps standardize it to the average clump of players. But ultimately, to appeal to the entire curve, our games itself must become smart enough to know when they are becoming unfun and react accordingly.

Think of it as a pure game of Pong versus handball in the holodeck where your robotic opponent — and even the very laws of physics — are fluid and will shift so that you are calculated to always sawtooth a bit ahead or a bit behind your opponent, except for the very endgame when your opponent bursts far ahead but then you amazingly catch up via series of spectacular moves in the utter nick of time. It’s a false victory, a totally stuffed ballot… But if it feels great, does it matter?

I’m not sure how I feel about this trend. There’s obviously nothing wrong with an engineered arc of emotion — that’s the whole point of narrative forms such as novels, movies, and even some music. In fact, some of the more artsy folk in our industry (weak hand up) have been crowing for years that games don’t provide enough raw emotion. Mastering the discipline of understanding our player’s psychological states and then manipulating it carefully and deliberately can finally make the impossible happen: Players can care so much about a game that they will cry — their webcams plus our whiz-bang facial recognition middleware will let us know the precise moment their eyes mist over.

We game designers need to acknowledge the path we are on, and the slippery slope it presents. I predict that over the next few years game design is going to officially bifurcate into two core disciplines: Interactive Game Design (i.e. creating rules for free play, like sports or board games) and Pseudo-Interactive Game Design (definitely needs a way better name than PIGD).

Take a real hard look at what you are working on with your latest game, what you are trying to achieve, what challenges you are working to overcome. Which type of designer are you slowly becoming?