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:

Image

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:

dnetal

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 

Photo Phrase LIVES

I am ecstatic, excited, and exuberant to announce the launch of Double Coconut‘s first game: Photo Phrase. The idea is Pictionary meets Charades meets Hangman. No… it’s Draw Something meets Instagram. No, wait… it’s…

Well, what it really is, or at least intends to be, is a way to get people out of their shells and getting creative within the shared hallucination of sacred silliness.

We give you a witty caption. You then get to use a set of easy tools to craft an instant masterpiece to fit that word or phrase, using either your camera, digital fingerpaint, or a collection of stickers. Friends can then get your picture and guess the answer via a simple but slick game of Scramble or Hangman.

You can also just flick through the gallery of other people’s images, seeing how people of all stripes from around the world, for instance, interpret the phrase “pole dance.”

Photo Phrase is definitely inspired by all of the excellent games and apps mentioned above… but I hope you agree the experience is something fresh. We’re all very proud of the outcome. Our hope is that the game becomes a meaningful new way for you to crack a smile each day with the people you like, love, and/or barely tolerate.

It’s currently available for iPhone, iPad, and iTouch. Android coming soon!

A Howl and Two Coconuts

The very first Ferris Wheel, built for the World’s Fair in Chicago, 1893.

A lifetime ago (2008) I gave a talk at the GDC titled “Beyond the Box.” The central image was a lonely Ferris wheel standing in the middle of a trash-strewn, dusty field. The point? Even the best digital games at the time lacked context, relevance, and human connectivity.

The talk was tepidly received, and rightly so, because it had a tepid conclusion. I said that the world needed a special place where people and their fellows could seamlessly interact and play… but I couldn’t quite paint a coherent picture of what that place would look like.

Then Facebook  happened. The lone Ferris wheel suddenly became a small feature of a rollicking, Rick-Rolling carnival.

Even a longer lifetime ago (2000), I co-founded a company called iWin with the belief that games were for everyone, not just teenagers who loved head-shots. iWin helped pioneer simple, addictive, all-embracing play via games such as Jewel Quest and Family Feud with philosophies such as making it impossible to really lose. People started calling the types of games we made ‘casual.’ Casual games were more than a market opportunity to me, but a real chance to make the wonder of digital play  relevant and accessible to the mainstream.

Then, from that fertile substrate of Facebook and Casual, the behemoth called Zynga was spawned, mastering the ability to beg, build, or borrow the best mechanics and all but take over the  social channels.

And so it came to be: 88.4 million people playing CityVille.

Everything I’d been preaching about and hoping for and working for had reached fruition…

It should have been a transcendant moment.

But I was disillusioned. I had gone way wrong somewhere, many twisty paths ago… and couldn’t figure out where.

The comparison gives me too much credit, but I suppose I felt a bit like Trotsky watching all he helped painstakingly build with the most humanistic of ideals become bastardized as the power structures grew to take advantage of what was most base and weak about humanity.

It was the unfunniest of Marx Brothers who said, “[History repeats itself,] the first as tragedy, then as farce.”

I didn’t really care, as so many industry vets did, that there’s hardly any true challenge or meaning in mass market games anymore. Experiments were tried. The mainstream has rejected the old paradigms of challenge.

Nor did it bother me that profit came from honing in on the deepest pathology of the most addicted — get bored onlookers to try. Get triers to use. Get users to share. Get sharers to spend. After all, the vast majority enjoyed these games absolutely gratis. And even the most cynical of these bejeweled Skinner Boxes are brightening an otherwise dull day.

My father trying to draw SWIG (when the word was actually SWAG). That’s so him!

No… what really stung was seeing the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical, nakedly a-cloning, fast-following, and pretending to grasp and control the almighty metric. It shamed me to see high-IQ analytical pattern-spotters, max-frame-rate programmers, edgy artists, and seasoned polyglot designers — working in unison with the noble goal of making a “gift wall” more viral….

It made me wonder for a time if the the right answer was to tear myself away from the carnival and retreat with the Hobbits back to the hard-core ghetto, where the Ferris Wheel rides are at least damned fast and fun.
Or get out of the games industry entirely and do something meaningful with life.
And it wasn’t just me having these thoughts. The massive Facebook audience that had, just months ago, so contently click-zen’d through CityVille felt the shallowness, too. Many argue that Facebook gaming’s audience decline was due to tightened newsfeed algorithms, but having lived through many market cycles before, I believe it was more audience saturation and then maturation.

Then the most amazing thing happened: Words with Friends came out. And I started playing it… a lot… with my mom. Who suddenly had an iPad. It was so friggin’ simple.. “just” another Scrabble clone. But the format fit perfectly and made the game into an accessible and ongoing layer of daily life.

Then Draw Something took over. And after a brief lesson, my dad got on board. We speak more genuinely through sketches and the game’s rudimentary chat feature than we do even the few times we get together in person. The game has made us laugh at, appreciate, and even better understand each other.

And so the howl of anguish turned to one of laughter.

Because as awesome as this new crop of truly social games are, they are missing a few important magic ingredients.

That’s why I’m extremely happy to announce the launch of a new mobile game startup called Double Coconut.We’re just a few souls at this point, but with the passion and know-how to make big things happen. I think we’ve finally cracked the code on achieving that perfect nexus of casual and social — and can’t wait to show you.

More to come soon!