For over a decade, leading mobile game Candy Crush has threaded the needle between monetization and fun. As the game turns 10, its developers are experimenting with new ways to turn it into potential revenue or advertising inventory — but they have to tread lightly to avoid upsetting this delicate balance.
To learn how Candy Crush developer King maintains equilibrium between the game’s entertainment value and its role as one of the company’s largest revenue drivers, Digiday spoke to 10 King employees, including rank-and-file level designers and C-suite executives. (Editor’s note: Activision Blizzard, King’s parent corporation, paid for this reporter to travel and board for a two-day press tour of the company’s headquarters).
Across the board, King employees emphasized that their work on Candy Crush prioritizes entertainment over potential revenue. Monetization is an important aspect of Candy Crush, King staffers told Digiday, but players should never feel pressured to spend money inside the game.
Candy Crush has always been free-to-play, and King has gone back and forth on the inclusion of ads in the game. Early versions of Candy Crush featured ads, but King removed all ads in 2013 to focus on in-game purchases, which have always been present in the game. King quietly re-introduced rewarded ads to Candy Crush in 2018, but company staff have continued to refer to in-game ads as a “test feature” as recently as November 2022.
“I would argue that any time you have a really great product, people are more interested in investing in it — so that’s the key,” said Abigail Rindo, a narrative design director at King. “Part of the charm of Candy [Crush] is that anybody can play it, no matter where they are or what their situation is.”
Indeed, Candy Crush’s greatest asset is its massive user base. So far, the game has been downloaded over 3 billion times across platforms, boasting over 240 million active players every month. This stunning growth is a reflection of the Candy Crush’s high entertainment value — not its incorporation of ads or in-game purchases.
Focus on fun notwithstanding, King is still a business that needs to make money to survive. Beginning in 2020, Activision Blizzard has gradually implemented more potential revenue streams into the game, including both traditional ads and partnerships with brands such as “Space Jam” and “Sonic 2.” The integrations are relatively simple, with in-game candies transforming into brands’ logos or mascots and characters such as Lola Bunny and LeBron James cheering the player on from the top of the screen.
In Candy Crush, players who watch ads — which are usually between 30 and 60 seconds long — are “rewarded” with in-game bonuses, such as “boosters” that make levels easier to beat — which means workers at Activision Blizzard Media, the corporation’s in-game advertising arm, must regularly coordinate with King’s level designers to make sure ad-rewarded boosters don’t make any levels too much of a breeze.
“Every single one of these decisions is very considered and conscientious, and done in a very data-and-insights-forward way. Not to be a broken record, but it’s all with a bent towards making sure that it’s a good experience for the player,” said Jonathan Stringfield, vp of global business research and marketing at Activision Blizzard Media.
One element of King’s player-prioritizing strategy is for Candy Crush to partner only with brands and intellectual properties that fit naturally into the game. This is why Candy Crush’s brand integrations thus far have been intellectual properties, such as games, movies and celebrities, that fit the game’s target demographics of commuters, parents and other nonstandard gamers — not consumer goods or other traditional advertisers.
King CMO Fernanda Romano told Digiday that the company is “exploring” more direct consumer brand integrations, but did not provide further details.
The specific level of brand involvement and advertising in Candy Crush can also be cranked up and down depending on individual players’ activity or personal preferences. The game waits until players have made it relatively far to serve them ads, and eschews ads entirely for players that are already spending a significant amount of money within the Candy Crush ecosystem. Exactly how far, and how much money, depends on a secret algorithm cooked up by the developers at King. In a mobile gaming industry that wants to squeeze as many impressions as possible out of every consumer, this kind of variable experience is uncommon.
“Many studios want to maximize the number of ads they show to their audience, so they can maximize the monetization,” said Jobie Tan, global head of gaming business development for the mobile advertising company InMobi. “Some studios are definitely more protective of their users, so that’s why they like to differentiate and be selective as to who they show their ads, especially if in-app purchases are built into the game.”
As Candy Crush enters its second decade, its designers have a long-term vision for the game. They are fully aware of the integral role that advertising and brand partnerships will play in the future of Candy Crush, but are unified in their belief that, if the game is genuinely fun, revenue will inevitably come in.
“We’re looking ahead for the next 10 years, and this here is one of our main focuses: how do we keep the player learning?” said King senior level designer Vanessa Malmberg. “We do this by introducing new game elements, like new blockers and new game modes — and then we use these to create new combinations and patterns, new variations of interesting puzzles, so no level looks or feels the same.”
…. to be continued
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