The processes behind King's Candy Crush

The minds behind Candy Crush Saga and other King games share the processes and shed light on the discussions that lead to their development success.
Candy Crush Saga is so huge, at this point, that it requires no introduction. If you want one, this bizarre Fox News segment will tell you everything you need to know about how far it has seeped into the popular consciousness. It's easy -- and foolish, and cynical -- to assume that this kind of success is some kind of fluke, or that mainstream players don't know any better than to engage with King's games. The company has found repeated success, so it must be doing something right... but what? What principles help guide King's game development? Recently, Gamasutra traveled to the company's Stockholm, Sweden headquarters to find out.

A Pause to Relax

Most game developers are avid players, and look at games quite differently from mainstream audiences. King's developers are no different -- but they also understand, first and foremost, what players want from their games. According to the company's chief creative officer, Sebastian Knutsson, that's "bitesize" two- to four-minute experiences. It doesn't end there, though. Players of its games have a different expectation than the sort of immersion and engagement routinely evoked by core games. That short gameplay segment serves a purpose: "It's not about a chess move where you spend four minutes thinking," says Knutsson. It's a moment or two where you can "relax without thinking hard."

It's Okay to Fail

Kim Nordstrom, lead producer at King's Malmo, Sweden studio says that when developing new titles, "we can take the risk and it's okay to fail." Part of that is attitude (realizing it's okay to make mistakes) and part of this is the advantage of mobile: Games can be fixed quickly. Nordstrom used to work for Sony, and he spoke enthusiastically about the way in which the mobile space allows developers to fix their mistakes quick, and take in player feedback and act on it. "It didn't work, and we fix it -- and hopefully we can fix it," says Nordstrom. "We apologize and we fix it. We listen to the audience, and say, 'Okay, this is what they want. This makes sense for us.'"

When to Listen to the Audience

As Nordstrom says, you have to listen to your audience. And sometimes this even means going against your own instincts when it comes to how you design your games. One example: Philip Lanik, game developer on Candy Crush Saga at King's Stockholm studio, has long wanted to put in a level skip option, because many players get stuck on more challenging stages. It turns out that the players don't want it, however. "That's a very hotly discussed topic... We want to challenge players. We are all players ourselves," says Lanik. "We listen to our players... people feel like it's cheating." Given that's the case, well, "skipping levels, I'd love to have it, honestly, but I'd probably get overruled by the team," Lanik says. The team knows to listen to its audience.

Everybody Has a Say

Lanik might get overruled by his team now and again, but according to Farm Heroes Saga producer Carolin Krenzer, from King's London studio, he should still get his say. Everyone should. When the London studio was formed, its founders studied how things worked in Stockholm and then brought that culture to the UK: "We know that it works pretty well here, that the culture allowed people to be creative and create awesome games, and that's one of the reasons we wanted to make sure we learned from the people in Stockholm," she says. "Making sure everyone has a say and can contribute, and having ownership, it has a massive impact on the quality of the product," says Krenzer. Listening to everyone's voice is particularly essential when game teams are small. Tobias Nyblom, product manager on Candy Crush Saga, notes that the company "used crowdsourcing within the office to come up with lots of ideas for the levels, and tried to cherry-pick the best ones for a varied flow."

Staying Challenging

Given the mass audience for Candy Crush Saga, you might expect that the game would be a cake walk. According to developer Philip Lanik, the opposite is true: Candy Crush Saga "has to be a challenge and stay a challenge." That's why the team needs to constantly seek new ideas from around the office. If they don't devise new types of challenges for players, the game will become dull: "playing all the time the same content is getting quite boring," says Lanik. "It has to be a challenge; it has to be a fun challenge," he says. And yes, sometimes those levels are too tough for some players. That is inevitable, says Lanik: "We have to accept we're losing people in some levels as well."

You Can't Please Everybody

Losing players? Is it really okay? Yes -- because you can't please all the people all of the time. Lanik also notes that when making a game like Candy Crush Saga, "you'll never find the right solution" for all of the players. "To find the balance is a really, really tough problem for us," he says. The team can only do its best, and accept that there's a limit to that. "I'd like to see all the people progressing [through the game] in the same way, but with so many people you'll never see it," says Lanik. "The balance between fun levels and challenging levels, it's quite hard. A good mixture of different levels and different styles is very important."

The First User is Us

Great ideas for games come from within, not without. Ceri Llewellyn, a developer at King's London studio working on a yet-to-be-released title, says you have to trust yourself: "if you find it fun, generally people find it fun." "Yes, you can think about this mythical person you can build for," says Llewellyn, but "the first user is generally us." In fact, his game was the winner of an internal King game jam -- people liked it so much that it was developed into a prototype and from there, into a full version. Without that seal of approval from King's internal developers, it never would have had a chance to make it into the wild. Editor's note: King provided travel accommodations in order to facilitate these interviews.

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