Thursday, July 25, 2013

Design lessons learned from Candy Crush

If you haven't been pulled in to the addictive mobile gaming wonder that is Candy Crush...I applaud and pity you. Congratulations on avoiding one of the most addictive gaming experiences I've had lately, and I'm sorry you haven't seen the brilliance and subtle evolution in its design.
I am here

Like any game that holds my interest for more than a couple days, I've taken some time to look at the elements of what makes me keep going back. We could all learn from the simple design strategies and application of cognitive science that makes Candy Crush a bar-setter for micro-transaction social games.

1. Don't introduce (or force) the social component until people are really invested. 
One of the things I hate about most social games is that they want you to get social right from the beginning. When I start a game, I don't know if I'm going to be playing it tomorrow, so what are the chances I want to invite my friends to a party I'm not sure I even want to be at yet? Candy Crush lets you keep playing and playing, and offering you to connect to Facebook, but waiting until late in the game to really push that incentive.

One of the things I don't like about the design is that after I did eventually connect to Facebook, my only options to move up a level were to ask my friends to help me or to pay $.99; I lost the option to play the mini-games gated every 24 hours to get to the next level. It pissed me off...and has resulted in my paying up. So maybe it's not a bad design decision after all...

2. Designing the social component around "help." 
One of the things that I find interesting about how Candy Crush pushes the social element is by framing social connection around helping other players. At each log in, the game recommends 5 of my Facebook friends who I can send a life to; more often than not, I say yes. I'm not giving up anything by sending friends lives, and it makes me feel good, like I'm helping someone out. It's also nice to see when people send you a life - like an unexpected pick-me-up to let me try to clear the jellies one more time.

To level up, you can also ask your friends for help. It doesn't cost them anything...they just have to send you a life. From a design standpoint, this giving and requesting doesn't impact your game play, but it DOES impact how often you log in. The more you log in, the more you play. The more you play, the more likely you are to get into a situation where you are compelled to make a microtransaction.

3. Leveling doesn't need to be a steady, consistent build.
I'm not going to lie, there have been some boards on Candy Crush that have taken me DAYS to pass. In the triumph of completing one of those boards, I have gone on the the next and beat it on the first try. My response? Hell yeah! I'm awesome! And then I realize that I'm falling right into the design strategy...Make me really work for some levels so that I feel like there is a big challenge I've overcome, then continue that "win high" with quick successive victories that eventually lead me to the next big challenge. When I'm stuck for days, it is the combination of those hard won victories and quick wins that keep me engaged and playing.

4. Social "shaming" can promote micro-transactions. 
One of the interesting design elements I mentioned previously is that once you connect to Facebook, you don't have the option to unlock the next episode through a 3-step game path that requires a 24 hour wait to start the next board once you've completed a board, in essence making you wait at least 48 hours to unlock the next episode. Instead you have the option of asking your Facebook friends for help in unlocking the next episode, or you can pay $.99.

When I first realized this, I was indignant and was NOT going to pay for the episode...I sent out a request to my friends. Shortly thereafter, I received from my friends the lives I needed to unlock the episode and on I played. Then I finished the next episode, and was faced with the same decision: ask friends or pay. I paid. Why? For one thing, it was quicker...paying immediately unlocks the next episode. For another, I really didn't want to be "that girl" asking my friends for help in unlocking episodes all of the time. It's one thing for me to send extra lives to my friends when I log in, but it's another to be begging for help. In the balance, $.99 seemed a small price to pay to leave my friends out of my game play.

5. Offer buy-outs at the highest point of need.
One of the common themes you'll hear from Candy Crush players is that when you get to the last move on a board that's particularly challenging or that you've been trying to beat for days, and you're one or two moves away from beating the board, you will pay the $.99 for 5 more moves. In that moment, you are weighing the dollar you could spend against the hours you've already invested, and the potential more hours that you might spend to get that close to winning again. Almost everyone I know has done it and when I've asked, the sentiment is consistent: it's worth it.

6. If the challenge seems surmountable, people will stay engaged.
Candy Crush is just a next gen Bejeweled, right? Let's be honest, we're just talking about matching candies on a board and trying to overcome each board's unique challenge. But, it's just a matching game. It's not rocket science, and it takes about 3 seconds to figure out the navigation and how to play. This is a game that is easy to start, easy to drop, can be played in small moments and that has established a well-balanced challenge-reward ratio. In other words, the challenge is not in figuring out how to play, it's in persistence and managing the time tension. These are attainable by everyone, making playing Candy Crush appealing to just keep on playing.

7. Use time as a tension point. 

The perceived value of time is important in promoting desired behaviors, like offering buy-outs at the time of need, described above. My time is valuable and I'm investing it in playing a much is it worth it to me to pay for a next episode instead of waiting for my friends to help me out? How much is it worth it to pay for a few extra moves to beat a board versus playing that board over again, especially as you invest more and more time into beating a challenging board. The more you play a board, the more valuable that extra moves microtransaction becomes in saving you additional time to try again. The crying heart taunts you with the countdown clock of when a life has regenerated so that you can try again, creating another aspect of tension around time.

8. Make your success social. 

Candy Crush has a "Candyland" like progress map that shows you how far you've progressed along the path in comparison to your Facebook friends. I'm not going to lie, I look how far ahead of me some people are and strive to pass certain people (hey, I'm competitive! What can I say?). For each board, it shows you who has achieved the top 3 scores for that board from your friends as well. That helps benchmark what winning scores look like, as well as add in some competitive elements. When I see my sister on the top of a score board, I inevitably think, "Oh I can beat her!"  This one-two punch of a social progress bar, and a leaderboard for each game board keeps my competitive side active throughout the game, even though actual social interaction through the game is limited to providing help to others. It prompts both the "I'm going to beat you" and "here, let me help you" emotions that satisfy different types of game player motivations.

Every once in a while a game comes along that really hits the sweet spot (pun intended) of challenge and engagement that creates a pool of rabid fans. The design decisions implemented in Candy Crush should be a lesson for all designers who are seeking behavior-driving strategies in their designs. As with all design, it's important to know what behavior you want to elicit and design towards those metrics. From a product management perspective, I'd love to see the product plan for Candy Crush. From a learning designer perspective, it's important for me to identify what emotional responses simple design decisions in a matching game can elicit.

PS. I'm stuck on level 147. And that's my sister at the top of the leader board. Please send me an extra life, thanks.


  1. great review.
    totally agree with these observations.

    1. thanks so much for commenting! glad you liked it!

  2. Really important information to follow:

    Disconnect Candy Crush from Facebook when you are at the $pay level. (Settings gear from the "play button" screen) and remove the app from your Facebook account. Close out of everything and reopen Candy Crush. NOW you will get the option to play the mini-quests without having to pay to level up.

    Once through, simply connect back to Facebook and your advancements (and brilliance) are shown socially again. I'm on level 77 and haven't paid a dime or waited for friends to send me tickets.

    New levels according to Facebook connection-$.99
    Price of Starbuck's Latte to stay up ridiculously late playing-$4.75
    Getting the secrets to move through addictive games via your social media friends - Priceless!