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Understanding Candy Crush’s Psychological Warfare Tactics

Candy Crush, arguably one of the most downloaded games of this decade, is netting an incredible $1 billion. But how do they do it? What's behind the strategy and algorithm that causes players to invest so much in the game?

Charlotte Walker, Blogger

February 23, 2014

5 Min Read

“I just need one more move!” This all-too-familiar expression is usually how it starts; the slippery slope of freemium games.

Earlier this week King Digital Entertainment, the creators of Candy Crush Saga, filed an IPO with the New York Stock Exchange. Trading under the symbol KING, King Digital Entertainment hopes to raise $500 million dollars with their initial public offering.

Candy Crush, arguably one of the most downloaded games of this decade, reigns as the most popular app on Facebook, the number one grossing game on Google Play, and the number two grossing game in Apple’s App Store.

This may confuse you, as Candy Crush is free to download.

So the question is, “How has Candy Crush become a top grossing game, with a price tag of $0.00?” Freemium economics.

Venture Capitalist Fred Wilson summarizes the freemium business model as follows:

“Give your service away for free, possibly ad supported but maybe not, acquire a lot of customers very efficiently through word of mouth, referral networks, organic search marketing, etc., then offer premium priced value added services or an enhanced version of your service to your customer base.”

This business strategy, which some have called “evil,” is how King Digital Entertainment used Candy Crush to bring in $1.4 billion dollars in revenue for 2013.

With the luxuriant success of the game, there have been those that believe that the makers of Candy Crush have intensely complicated algorithms and crooked coders intentionally feeding on gamer. The game was created, not only with the ability to, but with the sole purpose of calculating players that are more likely to spend money (and taking from them what they can). Since these allegations arose, Tommy Palm, one of the creators of Candy Crush, has commented that, “There is no evil scheme behind [Candy Crush]. It’s more of a traditional scheme where we focus on making a great user experience.”

While there may be no evil scheme programmed directly into the game, there is a whiff of psychological manipulation laced throughout the exceptional business practices that have allowed this freemium game to earn over $1 billion dollars.

Allowing the Virality of the Masses to Promote the Game

In epic genius on the part of Candy Crush the game was integrated with Facebook, creating seamless multiscreen integration. By allowing individuals to play both at their homes and offices, on a computer platform, and on the go, with smartphones and tablets, King Digital Entertainment successfully increased user accessibility. This generated a hike in both customer usages across multiple platforms and the potential for more spending.

An additional bonus for Candy Crush is that by syncing your mobile gameplay with your Facebook account, it fosters competition. Upon starting the game, you are immediately asked if you want to sync with Facebook. Upon complying, any of your friends also playing Candy Crush will become systematically trapped in your own personal world of Candy Crush. Not only does syncing your gameplay to Facebook entice you to keep playing, in attempts to one-up your friends; moreover, Candy Crush uploads status updates, on your behalf, further serving as a public endorsement of the game’s fun-factor.

Psychological Trickery

A commenter on an article about the game on MSN Money stated, “Isn't anybody going to mention that absolutely bewitching music that gets inside your head and won't leave you alone for the rest of the day?”

While there is that factor to consider, I’m referring to the habit-forming, feeding on your feelings psychological trickery.

From the big-fish-little-pond ideology, which is reinforced by syncing the game with Facebook, to “fun pain,” Candy Crush borders on the edge of addiction and psychological torture.

“Fun pain,” a term coined by Zynga’s Roger Dickey, occurs when the player of a game is put in an uncomfortable position and then offered, by the game, an opportunity to remove said discomfort in return for money.

Close to finishing a level, but you need one more life? If only you had one more move and you’d have enough points to move to the next stage? The “Insert one credit to continue” as the screen fads and the timer starts counting down from 10, 9, 8…

These are all “fun pains,” and Candy Crush is possibly one of the most notorious offenders which allow a game-player to opt out for a little coin.

Another tactic, one that I’ve personally fallen victim to at the casinos, is disguising of the relationship between the consumer and their real money. At the slots machine (or in almost every video game in history) your balance is shown to you in credits, not real dollar amounts. When purchasing premium upgrades, Candy Crush has obfuscated the lines between real money and gameplay options. You may feel the initial sting of purchasing three “Lollipop Hammers” for $1.99, but once in gameplay, you don’t think, “Hmm…should I use a Lollipop Hammer now? Is that really the best use of my $0.66?” (Yet another example of fun pain.)

From the game board layout, which makes us reminisce back on the days on Candy Land; to the manipulation tactics, including but not limited to increased competition between friends and adding gameplay to your daily routine, Candy Crush entices 30% of its players to spend money so that they can have continued success throughout their game.

While Candy Crush has risen to the top of their market, there are those that believe that freemium games, like Candy Crush, are ruining gaming.

A commenter on an article on the Financial Post, believes that “this new gaming model, commonly referred to as "freemium" or "free to play" (or, cynically, pay-to-win) is destroying the gaming industry. A game should challenge the mind, not the wallet.”

Eric Trueheart, a writer and avid gamer, stated, “Game design used to be about creating fun. Now it’s about creating frustration. Once upon a time, what people tried to do was design a game experience that would be fun and engaging all the way through. Now what they do is try to make a game that may be engaging for the first 30 minutes, then deliberately throw things in there that will slow the game down or make it frustrating unless you come up with that extra money.”

So what are your thoughts? Are freemium games ruining gaming, or are they the best thing since Pac-Man? 

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