Why is Candy Crush Saga so popular?
There are many startling statistics around the stock market flotation of games firm King, but here are two of the most eye-popping: 93m people are playing Candy Crush Saga more than 1bn times a day.
One more figure: Candy Crush Saga is free to download and play, but makes its money from in-app purchases of extra moves, lives and power-ups. In the last three months of 2013 alone, players spent $493m (£298m) on those virtual items, according to King’s IPO filing.
This, despite the fact that as King’s Tommy Palm explained to The Guardian in September 2013, 70% of Candy Crush players who had reached the last level of the game hadn’t spent a penny.
Candy Crush Saga’s success has been enormous, but also enormously divisive. The game has no shortage of critics in the traditional games world, who claim it’s a cynical, manipulative cash-grabber of a product, whose sweet-swapping gameplay isn’t even that original.
Ask Candy Crush Saga critics why the game is so popular and makes so much money, and you’ll get a range of answers. At the more thoughtful end of the spectrum, they’ll admit that the game is very polished and accessible, while pointing to its sophisticated psychological string-tugging to get people hooked, and paying.
The more splenetic critics focus in on the latter point, often boiling it down to the suggestion that people who play Candy Crush Saga are stupid, easily-manipulated sheep who wouldn’t know a proper game if it bit them on the nose.
I’ve had this conversation a lot over the last year, often with otherwise-reasonable people who are usually more than capable of accepting that not everyone likes the same games as them. There’s something about Candy Crush Saga’s success that is rubbing away at a raw nerve for many gamers.
Really, though, if you want to find out why Candy Crush Saga is so popular and makes so much money, you should ask the other people: the ones actually playing it. Mums and dads, aunts and uncles. Grandparents, even. Housewives and househusbands. Commuters from office juniors through to CEOs.
Your non-gamer friends, especially. Even if you’re not quite as aware of how much they’re playing Candy Crush Saga and similar games since you figured out how to turn off their Facebook alerts begging for help. Candy Crush Saga’s audience isn’t just huge: it’s hugely mainstream.
You might think of them as casual gamers, but actually, many are just as hardcore in their own way as the hardest hardcore Titanfall player. On a recent train journey, I overheard two fiftysomething commuters swapping Candy Crush tips, revealing along the way that they had both a.) spent less than a tenner on the game, and b.) progressed well past level 200.
(Incidentally – although entirely anecdotally – there’s a sizeable sub-section of the Candy Crush audience consisting of hardcore gamers taking time out from their PCs or consoles in order to stick it to King by completing its sweety Saga without spending any money. Based on my friends, a significant number of them have ended up enjoying it.)
These are the reasons why Candy Crush Saga is so popular, along with some bold marketing tactics that saw King early into Facebook’s mobile app ads, while also taking a high-profile punt on TV advertising.
A logical follow-on question, though, is to ask how long this will continue. The obvious example – and a worrying one for King and its potential investors – is Zynga’s FarmVille, which had nearly 30m daily active players in 2010, a big figure at the time, even if it’s put in the shade by Candy Crush Saga’s success in 2013.
FarmVille paved the way for Candy Crush Saga in finding a new, even more mainstream audience for games. But as time went on, many players started to talk about it as an addiction rather than an enjoyable pastime – something they had to log in to every day as a duty, at least until they “kicked the habit”.
Many of those people proved extremely resistant to the idea of playing another game ending in ‘Ville’, contributing to Zynga losing 63% of its overall playersbetween the summer of 2012 and the end of 2013 – from 72m daily players to 27m.
The challenge for King is to avoid Candy Crush Saga following a similar path, with the same knock-on effect for its other Saga games – it currently has Bubble Witch Saga, Pet Rescue Saga, Farm Heroes Saga and Papa Pear Saga available as mobile games, with a pipeline of others to follow.
The key to the company’s future will be understanding what its current and future players want from games, including responding quickly if they start to show ennui with candies and Sagas.
King will have a lot of money to throw at that problem, but in the fast-evolving world of mobile social gaming, that won’t be the only thing determining the company’s future success.