Game Mechanics Research: What Makes Candy Crush so Addicting?

Candy Crush Game Mechanics

Candy Crush Game Mechanics

Every single month, there are over 42 million Facebook users play Candy Crush Saga by King. Are you one of them? The game is currently more popular than every other game on Facebook, including mega-popular ones like Words With Friends, Farmville, and Angry Birds.

So what makes the game so addictive and leaves players clamoring for bonuses like new episodes, extra lives, and charms and boosters?

The answer is actually quite simple. King has implemented aspects from all of the 8 Core Drives of the gamification design framework Octalysis into their game, and those drives work together to create an incredibly addictive experience that is currently earning over a million dollars every single day thanks to in-app purchases.

How are they hooking you, exactly? Let’s look at each of the core drives of Octalysis and see how Candy Crush Saga implements each one.

Game Core Drive #1: Epic Meaning and Calling

Unlike most games, Candy Crush Saga does not have a particularly compelling narrative that, on its own, convinces the participant to take action. True, you ride a little train solving problems in the magical world, but it’s mostly just funny problems such as helping a magical dragon bathe in candy, which is not a very strong “I’m doing this because it’s a mission bigger than myself.”

Instead, the epic meaning and calling comes from game techniques such as Beginners Luck, Destiny Child, and getting a Free Lunch.

Players experience Beginner’s Luck  (Game Technique #23) when they start the early levels, which allow them to easily get three stars for matching candies and crushing them.

As they continue playing, many players can go through the first 10 levels and get three stars on each on the first try. This makes them think, “Hey, I’m pretty good at this – I should keep playing.” They feel like they are destined to take this journey and see how far they can get without losing lives.

As they progress even further through the levels, players start to unlock charms and boosters that give them extra moves, special abilities, and cool new ways to crush candy. Now, eventually they’ll have to pay for these terms and boosters, but initially, they get 1 to 3 freebies that they can use during the game. This is the Free Lunch (Game Technique #24) that makes them feel like they are getting bonuses due in part to their performance.

Almost every addicted player feels these three mechanisms during the on-boarding process, which is in the first 35 levels. Not surprisingly, these first 35 levels are free and help players get acclimated to the game before the levels start costing money.

Gamification Core Drive #2: Development and Accomplishment

Candy Crush Saga, like most Facebook games and iPad apps, uses tons of rewards to show progress and demonstrate accomplishments to the player. As I mentioned before, on each level players earn up to three stars and also get a score based on how many points they earned throughout the level.

There are also Fixed Action Rewards (Game Technique #7) built into the game. The most obvious one is that if you beat a level with at least one star, you’ll unlock the next level. Of course, the next level is just another puzzle to figure out (an intrinsic motivation that ties to Core Drive #3), but the tangible reward is in the accomplishment of progressing through the map, which shows one long, continuous train track. The player always knows where she is on the track and always knows the next action she needs to take in order to move forward.

One of the most important things in any game design is to make sure the user isn’t stuck for too long. This is where they introduced the Glowing Choice (Game Technique #28). When the player doesn’t make a move within 10 seconds, Candy Crush Saga will offer a hint that appears to have no rhyme or reason. The goal of this is just to make sure no one is stuck at any point for too long without finding any next steps at all.

Additionally, the iPad app allows you to connect to Facebook, which automatically connects you to all your friends who are playing the game. At the beginning of each level, you’ll see a Leaderboard (Game Technique #3) which includes where you rank amongst your friends. The leaderboard gives you all sorts of metrics you can try to achieve, including what your friends scores for that level. This motivates players because they can see their own progress against their friends’ scores, stars, leaderboard positions, and number of levels beaten or progress within the game (This of course leans heavily on Core Drive #5: Social Influence & Relatedness too).

Finally, Candy Crush Saga is divided into episodes, most of which have 15 levels each (the first two episodes are the only ones with 10 levels). The last level in each episode is almost always the hardest and simulates the Boss Fight (Game Technique #14) that is typical of traditional video games like Mario Brothers or Donkey Kong. Beating this last level lets the player progress to the next episode, which gives players a huge sense of accomplishment.

Gamification Core Drive #3: Empowerment of Creativity and Feedback

Each level of Candy Crush Saga arranges the candies in a random order, which means that no two boards are quite the same. This allows players to use their own creativity to come up with the right combinations that will help them beat each level. When they create a cascade of matches, the game rewards them with words like, “Tasty!”, “Sweet”, and “Delicious!” This lets the player know that they are racking up points with each move.

The game also uses Step-By-Step Tutorials (Game Technique #9) to show players how newly introduced concepts work. These tutorials are incredibly important, especially during the on-boarding process, because they empower players with the confidence to learn by doing things and practicing the skills they just learned on their own.

Finally, because the game is almost entirely based on unlocking new levels, new boosters, and new episodes, there’s always a General’s Carrot  (Game Technique #11) dangling in front of them, which engages them to push forward through the game.

Gamification Core Drive #4: Ownership and Possession

Candy Crush Saga uses a few forms of ownership and possession to help their players, though they could easily add more of this drive to the game. The primary Virtual Goods (Game Technique #8) within the game are the charms, which are special candies that can be used between 1 to 3 times on any level once activated. These candies are good throughout the entire game, so even though they often run between $25-$50, players are happy to collect them and use them on the more difficult levels that they are having a hard time beating.

The way Candy Crush Saga gets players is by bringing the opportunity to purchase those charms and boosters outside of the “shop.” At the beginning of each level, they show you exactly which charms and boosters are allowed on the level and fade out the ones that you haven’t collected (purchased) yet. They present the charms and boosters as a small set of three or four so it looks like you have one but not the others. This makes players want to purchase the others to complete their Collection Set (Game Technique #16), because who doesn’t want to have tons of boosters to use on a specific level?

Gamification Core Drive #5: Social Influence and Relatedness

Candy Crush Saga makes use of Facebook’s platform to spread the word about their game. When you open the game in your browser, the first message you’ll receive is a Friend Invite request (Game Technique #60), asking to invite friends to play the game too.

Candy Crush Saga also uses Social Treasures (Game Technique #63) as a way to get you interacting with your friends on the game. There are a number of social treasures you can give your friends at no cost to either you or them. These include helping them unlock an episode, giving them free lives, and giving them three extra moves that they can use on any level of their choosing. These gifted bonuses cost money within the game, making them especially valuable virtually and in the real-world. Because there’s no cost, this encourages players to help their friends by sending them these coveted items.

But Candy Crush Saga takes it even a step further because it also allows players to send requests to their friends for these free items. For example, to unlock an episode, you can either pay $0.99 or you can get help from three of your friends. There’s a built-in mechanism to send requests to your friends whenever you need help unlocking in episode or gaining extra lives.

Finally, the game’s use of leaderboards and the map allow you to see how far your friends have progressed throughout the game. While there’s no mechanism specifically for Bragging (Game Technique #57) to your friends, it’s easy to start a comparing yourselves with others either on points, stars, or number of episodes unlocked (which is Touting). This can also create a subtle sense of Envy (Game Technique #59), drawing the player into wanting to be more like their high-achieving friends.

Gamification Core Drive #6: Scarcity and Impatience

One of Candy Crush Saga’s most frustrating points is that they only give you five lives — and when you lose one, it takes you 30 minutes to gain it back. That means that if you play a level and lose it five times, you have to wait roughly 2 1/2 hours before you can play again. This use of the Fixed Interval Torture (Game Technique #66) leaves players with an incredible sense of impatience to get back to the game.

Of course, you can buy another set of five lives as an in-app purchase if you don’t want to wait. But there are other ways to get more lives as well, like through asking your friends or by connecting your Facebook account to as many mobile devices as you want. The game is available on the iPad, the iPhone, and most android phones, each of which will start your lives back at five, which means players are often switching between multiple devices in order to keep playing.

This gives Candy Crush Saga incredible penetration in the mobile market, which means that players have the game at their disposal while they’re out waiting in lines, riding the train, or stuck in traffic. This just encourages more and more opportunities for play until the player has developed an addictive habit to keep them going with the game.

Gamification Core Drive #7: Curiosity and Unpredictability

Even though the concept behind Candy Crush Saga is simple, it’s a surprisingly unpredictable game. The most obvious unpredictability is that each time you open the level, the candies are arranged in random order. That means that some configurations will make the level of easier to beat than others, which has players going through the level over and over again in rapid succession until they beat it.

Additionally, as a player gets into the later levels, there are tons of Sudden Rewards/Easter Eggs (Game Technique #30) in the form of special candies. The player has no idea what special candies they might get when they start a new level, which keeps the game fun and fresh.

After a number of episodes, the game literally introduces Easter Eggs, which are a type of candy that, once matched, turns into a particular handful of special candies. When a player matches an Easter Egg, there are both random rewards and random penalties, because the Easter Egg can either turn into a special candy or a molasses trap, like a chocolate bite or metal twists, both of which make it more difficult to play level.

Gamification Core Drive #8: Loss and Avoidance

The last core drive, loss and avoidance, is also used in Candy Crush Saga. When a player connects to Facebook, all other players they are friends with can see how many days they have been stuck on a particular level. This Scarlet Letter (Game Technique #82) can make it socially unappealing to not move forward in the game. Candy Crush Saga also encourages players to connect to Facebook from their mobile app because Facebook syncs their progress. If you don’t sync up, and you lose your phone or break your iPad, then through Lost Progress (Game Technique #81), you’ve lost all the effort you’ve invested into the game and will have to start over from the beginning.

The game also makes use Weep Tunes (Game Technique #49) and Visual Graves (Game Technique #47) to give negative feedback when you lose a level.

Finally, this game is based on tons of levels that take between three and five minutes to play, each. This means that an avid player can easily work through 100 levels in a couple weeks. This engages the Last Mile Drive (Game Technique #53) where the player keeps on playing because they’re so close to the goal and they’ve already invested too much time and energy in the game to quit.

But are they that close to completing the game? King continues to add new episodes to the end of the map, which means the players can keep going for awhile. The longer they play, the harder it is to stop.

So now that we’ve been through the eight core drives of gamification and how Candy Crush Saga utilizes each of them to hook players into returning for more and more levels, can you see why this simple game has swept the nation?

Learning from Game Mechanics of Candy Crush

Candy Crush sure did a good job appealing to the mainstream consumer and getting them to pay comfortably on an app. Our goal here is not to make sure we can make good games, but to make sure we learn from the game design and dynamics so we can provide it into useful and productive tasks within Gamification.

What appeals to you the most about Candy Crush?

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