The selection committee stood aloof in the corner, scribbling on clipboards as they evaluated the group of boys trying out for the coveted hockey club team in the ice rink.
Up in the stands, parents watched with tense expressions — some standing apart and others pacing, more anxious than the kids themselves. And then, as if unable to bear any more tension, they pulled out phones to take refuge in their tiny screens.
As my son raced to the puck, colliding with another player, I turned away hoping to commiserate with a friend. But she was looking down at her phone, oblivious to the tension and noise in the rink.
“What are you doing?” I asked. She seemed so relaxed.
Her eyes glazed over as she looked up from a colorful game blipping on her screen.
“Candy Crush — you want to play?” She held the phone out at me.
“Here, watch me and learn — it’s a great distraction.”
I’ve dabbled in games before — at home with Wii Tennis and out and about with “Angry Birds,” so my tentative response wasn’t outright rejection. Besides, peering over people’s shoulders in the subway and at doctor’s offices, I’m aware of the growing numbers of social gamers.
Nobody is exempt, as Sen. John McCain (R., Ariz.) illustrated when Washington Post photographer Melina Mara snapped a photo of him playing iPhone poker during a hearing of the U.S. Senate Committee on Foreign Relations.
Today, everyone plays games to fight boredom, nervousness or to simply pass time. But something about Candy Crush made me leery. The catchy bubbly music drove me crazy, I felt overloaded from friends begging for “lives,” and I’m naturally skeptical about wildly popular trends. But apparently, I’m in the minority.
Released in 2012, Candy Crush Saga is a simple “match-three” puzzle game for Facebook, smartphones and the Web. Similar to rival Bejeweled, players match “candies” to score points and complete levels, which are grouped into challenges like clearing jelly from the screen. By combining regular candies to make special striped, wrapped and rainbow treats, you get new moves to help you move to other levels.
If you fail to pass a level, you lose one of the five lives granted at the start. And when they’re all gone, you have to wait up to 30 minutes for a new one… unless a Facebook friend throws you a life or you break down and pay for more.
In July, game developer King passed Zynga, creator of FarmVille, to become the top Facebook developer by monthly active users. In fact, research firm AppData revised early estimates after its algorithms were unable to measure the game’s explosive growth.
“[Candy Crush] in the stratosphere,” Scott Bialous, general manager of the San Francisco research firm, told the Wall Street Journal.
I went to Facebook — what better place to find Candy Crush enthusiasts? — to find out why people were so hooked. The friends who responded said they usually play every day, with times ranging from 15 minutes to two hours.
Rachael, a thirty-something school-teacher who prefers the more specific term “crusher” to the more general “gamer” moniker, told me nearly all her Facebook friends play the game, joining the over 130 million others who crave the Crush.
“It’s more entertaining than television and I can play whenever and wherever,” Karrie, a stay-at-home mom, told me. She appreciates that she isn’t “playing against anyone who bothers you to make a move,” which often happens in group games like “Words With Friends.” She also likes that she can put aside the game when necessary and “go back and pick up right where you left off later.”
All of them touched on a similar theme: an almost indescribable quality in the seemingly simple game that compels them to keep on playing.
“I like the feeling of accomplishment when I pass a level after failing many, many times,” Karrie added.
“Games let people tackle challenges in an environment where it is okay to fail. We think in real-life we have to do everything perfectly, but in games we can do it badly and still survive,” he told me. “Getting a ‘D’ in real-life is horrible, but in gaming you can get a poor grade, go back and try again and improve.”
I noticed something with my informal survey of Facebook friends: almost all of them admitted to buying in-app upgrades at some point. That puzzled me: after all, Candy Crush Saga is a free-to-play, or F2P, game. It costs nothing to download or play, but you can buy extra moves to enhance your skill or extra lives to avoid the 30-minute wait. Those payments range from $1 to nearly $20 for an ultra-protective “charm.”
“Games like Candy Crush are free initially, but it is troubling that they include micro-purchases to let players buy their way out,” Gage said.
Paying for a game is one thing — or even paying for levels or elements. But paying for enhanced performance? I knew there was something about it that didn’t feel quite right. Didn’t performance enhancing drugs cause the ruckus in baseball? When kids hit the ice in the game of hockey, coaches teach them how to avoid a hip check and fake-out a defenseman — not how to buy moves to make them better players.
The Candy Crushers I interviewed regard these purchases, called “monetization,” as just part of the game. Chris, a 48-year-old office worker, estimated spending $16 last month in strategies.
“I hate you jerks for making this game. It’s costing me a fortune,” a reader of the Wall Street Journal article posted. “Cigarettes are cheaper.”
Crushers jokingly complain about in-game purchases, but it begs the question: is buying an advantage fair? Nobody would embrace the notion that a hockey player could buy a “charm” to make sure he’ll score a goal, but on ice rinks across the country, kids from affluent families shell out over $300 to buy premium skates, while rivals wears hand-me-downs.
“That idea is nothing new in the real world,” Gage said, pointing to other examples where we spend money to improve our moods or performance, like shopping and eating out. “But it is a relatively new idea in gaming — and it’s troubling.”
After all, an underlying principle of many games is their reward of achievement. In addition to fun, games develop skills. But Candy Crush has upended that notion since you can succeed at the game with cold, hard cash. Need another life? Need an extra move? Just buy it.
Beyond fairness, there are other drawbacks to the monetization of gaming. “It is dangerous for designers when it informs the way they set up the game,” Gage said. He added that if monetization influences the “nitty-gritty of design choices” it becomes unethical and destroys the idea of gaming as a refuge where you can try and fail.
It’s not that money has no part in gaming, he added — designers and developers still need to make a living. Besides, there are many games built around money, like Poker. “But they are different because they only work with money,” he said. “In some of these F2P games, they are making design choices not because it works with the game, but because a team of designers decided, ‘This is a good place to monetize the game’.”
Gage, though, predicts that gamers will reject titles that revolve around monetization. “People get sucked in to enjoying one aspect of a game to find it changes up on them. They get halfway down the rabbit hole and instead of being allowed to feel proud, they are asked to pay.”
Was it always that way? After all, popular games have always made money, ever since the first video game hit the scene in 1958. Physicist William Higinbotham created Tennis for Two at Brookhaven National Laboratory, and the Cold War invention provided whimsy and diversion at a time of national uncertainty.
The rudimentary game paved the way for quarter-hungry arcade games, where people paid a small, nominal amount of pocket change to play. Nostalgic arcade titles like Centipede, Asteroid, Donkey Kong and ’80s personal favorite Pac-Man were hugely successful, turning arcades into destinations, because you had to go somewhere — the mall or local pizza parlor — to play them. And it worked. Kids pumped spare quarters into machines to get their fix of fun, accomplishment and challenge.
As gaming moved from the arcade to the home, popular titles featured increasingly deep and intricate gameplay. But still, you paid for the privilege of gaming, buying up titles and turning them into successes whose revenues competed with Hollywood blockbusters.
But all that changed in 2007 with the introduction of the iPhone and its App Store. People who didn’t hang out at pizza parlors and couldn’t distinguish an Xbox 360 from VCR player bought smartphones, which double as portable game consoles. Those handy device democratized entertainment and gaming, opening up a large audience to new game developers.
“Instead of just passing their work around to one another on blogs, independent game designers suddenly had a way to reach everyone — not just hard-core gamers, but their mothers, their mailmen and their college professors,” according to the New York Times.
With the gaming floodgates open, consumers were treated to a never-ending stream of newer, cheaper and more diverse casual games that could be explored at home or on-the-go.
“The mobile revolution is great and the industry shift to smaller indie game companies is fantastic,” Gage said, adding that app stores take care of many burdensome elements for designers so they can focus on the game.
The problem with the paradigm: how to make money. Game designers have a larger audience than ever — but games are often cheap or free. Developers can lean on mobile ad revenue, as well as in-app purchases to open levels, buy new characters or otherwise expand a game’s universe in some way. Or, in the case of Candy Crush, you can buy your way out of a tight spot or a performance plateau with a skill, a move or a charm.
Even with the advent of F2P games, Gage believes mobile games can be both “casual and deep” and as gamers become more sophisticated, they will begin to demand it.
He compares Candy Crush to Zynga’s once hugely popular F2P game, FarmVille. “Candy Crush is far more complex than single-environment FarmVille, with elements like its map and differing level requirements.” In this way, gamers are already playing more sophisticated challenges.
When gamers become even more literate and understand the mechanics and can appreciate the significance of how the game works, they may not find F2P games as interesting anymore, and decide to pay for more sophisticated games at the onset.
“It’s like movies,” Gage explained. “You can just go enjoy a movie, or you can appreciate the elements like the cinematography, the costumes,” which leads to richer productions and experiences.
Games like Minecraft show how gameplay can improve the way we learn, work and solve problems. The growing legions of fans learn from their own experience, talking to others and browsing online to find ways to succeed. And best of all, there are no in-game tricks for buy to bypass the hard work of developing observation and perseverance. It’s an example of what gaming guru Jane McGongigal has thought for some time: we could live in a better world if we played more video games.
“I think there is an interesting middle ground to be found in F2P games between gameplay and monetization, but right now we aren’t having that conversation,” Gage said. But it may be around the corner.
Will Candy Crush stay hot next year, or even three months from now? King CEO Riccardo Zacconi told CNET he had other games in the pipeline.
Similar in design to Candy Crush, two games — Papa Bear Saga, which is an aim-and-shoot game, and Farm Heroes Saga, a matching puzzle game — were recently revealed at a launch party. The titles are poised to help fill a void created by those who’ve soured on Candy Crush, but we may develop a taste for something different to challenge the notion of paying for that sense of achievement.
After all, in sporting games, there is constant debate over changing the rules to improve gameplay. Several years ago, the National Football League ran a few plays with new instant replay technology before figuring out a way to integrate it into the game. Fans were outraged that early attempts to integrate instant replay got in the way of the game, and officials took note, revising the policy. Gage believes, as gamers appreciate the complexity involved in gaming, they too will play a greater role in dictating the rules of play. ♦