[The following text is part of my upcoming master’s thesis on the use of game mechanics in therapy games for children. This is just a rough first draft, and I gladly welcome all critique and suggestions – be it on a content level or regarding my use of language.
As part of my master’s thesis I am analysing already existing games that are commonly known to be addictive. A lot of those games are Facebook games. As it is paramount for the business model of Facebook games to keep players coming back to play again and again, they need to be built for a high retention. In my analysis of some of the most played Facebook games, I would like to figure out the secret ingredients that make those games so “good”. The analysis of some of those games will be published on this blog, including an overview of the usual “social mechanics” at play that are usually claimed to be of special importance in Facebook games.]
Candy Crush Saga by King.com1 is a classic casual game (as most Facebook games are), that caters to different player types at once: the puzzler, the explorer as well as the competitive player. Candy Crush Saga is a Bejeweled2 clone, a simple matching tile game3: On a board with coloured tiles the goal is to swap adjacent tiles to get at least three tiles of the same colours in line, horizontally or vertically. Those tiles are then removed from the board and replaced by new ones coming from the top of the board. Removing sets of more than three tiles usually creates special tiles with additional abilities, like destroying all tiles around them or destroying all tiles on the same column or line as the special tile. Removing tiles gives points that add to the final score.
The basic game mechanic of Candy Crush Saga could easily be used in an endless game (like the original Bejeweled does). Candy Crush Saga however has a succession of short levels with distinct winning conditions: achieve a certain score, remove specially marked tiles or let non-destructible tiles drop to the bottom of the board. This creates short, bite-sized experiences that most of the time end with colourful explosions and a shower of bonus points. Instead of giving the player an endless experience that can only end in his defeat, much like the classic arcade games that were never meant to be won, the player repeatedly gets rewarded after very short amounts of time, as each level usually takes only 2–3 minutes to solve. Evidently, this is a lot more motivating than suffering defeat after defeat. It is not unlikely that this might have an effect on the brain: each success flushes the brain with dopamine, turning the game into a pleasant sensation – a sensation that after a while will be craved for, so the player will return in order to get a quick fix of happiness. This sort of retention is clearly something the producers aimed for, making the decision to go for small, easily solved levels an obvious choice, allowing them to target puzzle aficionados.
Additionally, under the assumption that Facebook players usually are ready to abandon their game at any moment (because they are playing in their downtime or because they are bored, knowing that they should be working), the relatively short duration of each level plays into their mindset that they can play for a little while, without having to commit for a longer timespan.
The available levels of Candy Crush Saga are visualised as a map, where each level appears as a waypoint on a road. Levels cannot be chosen freely, but have to be unlocked by playing the levels that come previously on the road, creating an entirely linear experience. In the case that the player has Facebook friends which play Candy Crush Saga as well, their avatar pictures are displayed on the map beside the last level they played, giving an incentive for competitive players to catch up to them.
Furthermore, each played level on the level map shows 1, 2 or 3 stars. Stars are awarded at the end of each level, depending on how high the final score is. These stars may provide motivation to re-play already played levels in order to gain more stars. Occasionally, certain features are unlocked only if the player has more than a specific cumulative amount of stars.
While the aforementioned features could be implemented in a matrix-like arrangement of the levels as well, the map gives the unique opportunity to deliver a sort of narrative by alluding to different locations that the player passes through. These locations influence the background picture in each level, even though it is usually hardly visible through the board. Areas that have not been visited yet are shown in less detail, offering an incentive for players to explore this terra incognita – something that is only possible by playing all the levels, hardly an unintentional fact.
Candy Crush Saga loves to remind players that their Facebook friends are playing as well. The scores of fellow players are visible at all times – be it on the level map, as seen before; at the beginning of each level where the goal of the level is displayed in the form of a leader board; during each level on a graphic representation of the amount of points currently earned, therefore clearly showing when the player surpasses the score of his friends; and at the end of each level as well, showing an updated leader board, as well as explicitly stating any changes in rank due to the newly achieved score. This way, the game is turning the experience into a competition,4 attracting more competitive players.
As we can see, Candy Crush Saga combines various basic game mechanics and feedback methods in order to attract a diverse set of player types. The basic game allows players to recognise patterns and create order (a common theme with many casual games, which is quite rewarding in itself), the level map caters to the explorer type, while the constant feedback of how well the player’s peers did eggs on competitive players. By catering to all those different player types alike, the producers of the game manage to capture an audience as large as possible, something a therapy game would likely have to achieve as well.
PopCap Games Inc. (n. d.). Bejeweled. PopCap Games Inc. ↩︎
Juul, J. (2007). Swap Adjacent Gems to Make Sets of Three: A History of Matching Tile Games. Artifact Journal, 2, 1–16. ↩︎
The Question is of course whether the game actually works as a competition: do really all players have exactly the same conditions whenever a level starts? How much does luck play into the mix when it comes to the arrangement of the coloured tiles? Just like in Bejeweled, it is never really clear how tightly the environment is controlled, and how much of the game is left to chance. ↩︎