If you're not already a rabid Candy Crush player yourself, you've undoubtedly seen people on the train or at a coffee shop swiping urgently at brightly colored candy pieces on their iPhones. Pay attention: That's the mobile game that's currently taking over the world.
King, a 550-employee British firm and the largest game developer on Facebook, is the brains behind Candy Crush, a match-3 game in the style of Bejeweled that's nabbed half a billion downloads on Facebook and mobile and amassed a total of 150 billion individual games played. The company is currently celebrating the one-year anniversary of the launch of Candy Crush on mobile platforms, well-timed with rumors that they're exploring an IPO.
The numbers are certainly there: The game reportedly brings in a walloping $633,000 a day and has become an indelible part of mainstream social gaming culture. King has also launched official Candy Crush merchandise, including most recently a line of edible theme candies.
BuzzFeed talked to King.com "Games Guru" Tommy Palm to get the details on the game's pandemic success (and to attempt to find out the identity of the sexy baritone who rewards your swipes with a James Earl Jones-esque "Delicious!").
Candy Crush is a huge international phenomenon, with one in 23 Facebook users now being a "fan," and with half a billion downloads on Facebook and mobile. To me, there's something also something called the "mom factor," where I know a game or app is truly mainstream when my mom starts using it. But even though it's huge on mobile now, it started as a browser game.
Tommy Palm: We launched Candy Crush in 2011 as a one-level game on King.com. You would play it for two minutes and try to get as high a score as possible. We had already done several "match-3" games before, but this was the first candy-themed game. It also was the first to have "power-up" candies where you can match different combinations, which changed the dynamics of the typical match-3 game. So that quickly became the most popular game on our website.
And at that point it simply spread through word of mouth?
TP: We have 12 million players currently on King.com, and a lot of those players are women ages 25 to 55. After the game got popular on the native site, we created the Facebook version under the name "Candy Crush Saga," which came out in April 2012. When the mobile version launched on Nov. 15, 2012, that's when it really took off. That was the first time you could play a cross-platform game; play a few minutes on the website, say, and then play a few more on the bus on the way to work. I think that had a huge impact on the numbers.
Why did you choose candy?
TP: It was a bright idea that my team had. Everyone has a fondness for candy from a very early age, and it's very accessible to people because it's an inexpensive treat. It's also an international thing: Flavors are different in different countries, but the colors are universal and make for a strong visual component.
King recently stopped selling ads on the game, because it was making enough revenue on in-app purchases.
TP: Our business model is to sell add-ons and services within the game now.
Q: Some of them are quite pricey.
TP: We had one booster that was $39, but we've removed it. Most of the boosters are very inexpensive.
On that note, there's been some controversy around the "freemium" model of games, where users make these in-app purchases instead of paying an upfront fee; namely, that micro-transactions are psychologically manipulative, and that it gives users an opportunity to complain that game companies are forcing you to pay money in order to win. How would you respond?
TP: There's definitely a lot of debate around free-to-play. I definitely think free-to-play is a trend that's going to become bigger and bigger, and it's very important as a game developer to find good balance where you're being generous to players. Our primary goal is to make a great game. Candy Crush is designed so you can start playing it and play all the way to the last level without ever having to pay.
I read that 70% of people who make it to the last level haven't paid anything to get there.
TP: We certainly feel that we've found a good balance, that we're being generous while also making money to support the company.
I've also read a few crazy stories about Candy Crush addicts, like the woman profiled in the Daily Mail who said she threw her back out because she couldn't stop hunching over her phone to play it, or people who funnel their paychecks into it. Do stories like that concern you?
TP: I haven't heard of any particular stories like that, but in general, we feel that the game is very engaging and people have a lot of fun. It's always important to have a balance in life, whatever you do. The game is actually built very much so that you won't play it for 12 hours in a row, with the way the lives run out, to encourage taking a break every now and then and doing something else. I personally think that's a better way of experiencing games. If you play for too long in a row, you don't want to come back and play the game. You wake up the next day and think, ugh, that was too much.
Are there levels that everyone gets stuck on? I've been on 105 for two months now.
TP: One design decision we made early on was to make the last level of an episode much harder, which is the opposite tactics of most games. Specifically, 33 and 65 are definitely tough.
The bombs and the spreading chocolate!
TP: We get a lot of questions about whether we hate chocolate. I don't think we do.
Do you have any top secret tips for people who want to improve their Candy Crush skills?
TP: Something that one of my colleagues taught me early on was to strategize to match five candies in a row at an earlier stage in the game. If you get the color bomb, it can really help if you're stuck on a level like 65.
If you're on a level with the ingredients (like the cherry and the hazelnut), try to create matches in the middle of the board, because then the incoming ingredients will fall in towards the middle. If they fall in at the corners, it's so much more difficult.
There's a well-known cheat by now, that you can set your smartphone's clock ahead in order to score more Candy Crush lives. (The downside being that you miss iMessages and generally mess with your phone's psyche.) Do you condone this?
TP: [laughs] Our public opinion is that you shouldn't cheat. You might have unforeseen consequences.
On a more benign note: the music is the game is so catchy.
TP: With game development, it's very important to balance a symphony of many different expert areas: music, sound effects, programming, design. It all has to come together, and no part of it can stick out too much. If the music is too prominent, you'll get tired of it.
I've had this question burning deep inside me for ages: Can you tell me who does the voiceover? The deep baritone that says "Candy Crush!" and "Delicious!" and "Tasty!"?
TP: Originally, we used a different voice with a French accent, but it proved to not be popular with the players. So we had an internet audition for different people to submit their voices, and this is the voice of the winning person.
Can you tell me his name?
TP: We can't.
Fine. What was behind your decision to release an actual Candy Crush candy?
TP: The candy is actually the most common request that I hear from people when I'm out talking about Candy Crush. We've already done a line of socks, and people wanted it to give as gifts.
Do you want to expand to do more merchandise?
TP: Our focus is primarily to make games, but it's been a lot of fun to do these collaborations.
There's a new game, Papa Pear Saga, that some people are saying will be the "next Candy Crush."
TP: It's our fourth cross-platform game. It's made from our Barcelona studio and it's been on Facebook for a while. We're soon going to launch it for mobile.
Do you think you've stumbled on a formula for making a game a cult success?
TP: We're humbled to see the amount of success that we've had with Candy Crush. I don't think there's an easy formula, but we certainly have found something that works for us where we can try out the mechanics in the early phase and allow us to innovate. We now have a very big fan audience that likes these types of games, and we're just looking forward to amass more titles of highly polished, bite-sized games.
There have been several social games for Facebook and/or mobile that have been lightning hot for a period, and then have sputtered even more quickly. Farmville and Draw Something come to mind. Are you in the peak of that hot phase? Do you have a plan for what will happen if you plateau?
TP: All games naturally have a lifespan. But when it comes to casual, social games, they have a much longer lifespan than many other genres. We launched Bubble Witch two years ago and it's still in the top 20 games on Facebook.
And you attribute that to the social aspect?
TP: Yes, because people get their friends involved, and the game becomes something that you talk about with your friend group. King has been around for a really long time, and we've always been about having a portfolio of many different game types. We don't feel a ton of pressure to recreate something that works the same way as Candy Crush. We're much more about letting the studio focus on their new titles.
Have you beaten Candy Crush?
TP: No, I'm currently only at level 152. And I've been playing it for 1.5 years!