Take even the most casual browse through mobile app stores and you’ll find them inundated with match-three games.
These are produced by studios of all sizes, incorporate RPG mechanics and narratives, or introduce slight tweaks to the gameplay or gem functions – and leading the pack is, as always, King’s world-dominating Candy Crush Saga.
Last month, the firm released the third game in the series: Candy Crush Jelly Saga. Like Soda Saga before it, the title introduces new gameplay ideas – this time centred around filling the grid with jelly by matching candies already covered in the substance.
King has also used this as the basis for boss fights, a first for the series, in which players match sweets to spread jelly and gain more control of the grid.
To some studios, these might seem like incremental updates but that hasn’t stopped Candy Crush Jelly Saga storming into the upper echelons of the charts on the Apple App Store and Google Play.
But how much more can King do to keep tweaking and reinventing the match-three mechanic? Surely the fact that the series is built around a specific interaction – lining up three or more candies – hinders potential innovation?
“It is a limited area in a way,” producer Andreas Olofsson tells Develop. “We can’t really move away from switching candies because that is what people like about the game.
“Fortunately, we have a very creative team with people coming from all kinds of different industries – not just gaming. The way we work at King is that everyone contributes to what goes into the game, so we get a lot of creative ideas all the time that we can try out in our titles.
“But it is a challenge. The match-three genre is pretty static. What we usually do is try to work around it, look at the other things around the actual mechanic. For example, we work with objectives – what does the player have to achieve within this level? What happens if, as we have done with Jelly Saga, we add in a boss element? What if you put something turn-based into the game? That’s gives you something fresh to play with.”
If you try to make a fun game that people want to play, eventually some people will pay because they want to, because they like the game and they want to play more.
The success of Candy Crush and many games like it is how accessible the simple gameplay is. It could be argued that by adding core gaming concepts like boss fights to the world’s most successful casual game, King run the risk of overcomplicating their flagship title and therefore alienating their audience.
“It’s very easy to make something super complex,” Olofsson admits. “We use user-testing a lot, trying out new ideas on people to see what they think. We have a lot of people here at King that help out with testing, working out if our mechanics are self-explanatory or if they need more tutorials explaining them.
“That said, it’s good to make things more challenging. People who have played Candy Crush before are going to know the basics of the game, but one of the key things to a new game’s appeal is figuring out new mechanics, so you don’t want to tell them too much. That’s one of the fun things of exploring a new game.
“We scrap a lot of ideas as well. We throw away stuff that we think has become a little too complicated and try to keep the sweet stuff.”
Side-stepping that candy-themed pun, we pressed Olofsson to find out what canned mechanics nearly made it into Jelly Saga and its forebears.
“I can’t really say because, well, those ideas haven’t come to market,” he says. “Yet.”
We scrap a lot of ideas as well. We throw away stuff that we think has become a little too complicated and try to keep the sweet stuff.
Each new Candy Crush aims to not only revitalise the casual game – and the significant revenues it generates – by not only inviting back candy-swapping veterans but also appealing to those that have missed or ignored the previous titles.
Since, as Olofsson observes, the game’s colossal audience makes it hard to target people who have never played Candy Crush before, the emphasis for his team is placed on coming up with new mechanics that will appeal to the established players.
“With Jelly specifically, we tried to make it more competitive and a little more challenging,” he says. “We’ve received a lot of feedback in the past from fans saying it would be cool to be able to play against someone, so we took that into account when designing this game. That’s when we came up with the boss element, too.”
King is, of course, a leader in the free-to-play space, but Olofsson insists that monetisation is not a major consideration when the team is looking at how to mix up the match-three mechanic again.
“When we design a game, the first priority is that it has to be fun,” he says. “We won’t make anything if it’s not fun, so we always start with the game itself. Once we’ve established the format, we look at how the freemium model we’ve used so far will work.
“In this particular game, we’ve essentially copied what we have done with previous Saga titles. It’s a freemium game, so you can play it for free like most people do but you also have the ability to pay for boosters and extra lives and stuff like that if you want to pay more.
“If you try to make a fun game that people want to play, eventually some people will pay because they want to, because they like the game and they want to play more. So it’s not a case of balancing – it’s all about making a fun game.”
But there are plenty of fun games out there, many of which revolve around swapping gems and icons on a grid, so what is this secret sauce King seems to have stumbled upon when it comes to ensnaring the gaming world? Olofsson believes it’s a combination of “skill and luck, with the help of nice graphics and awesome explosions”.
Candy Crush Jelly Saga is the third entry in King’s flagship franchise, with even more match-three mechanics to be found in its portfolio of ‘Saga’ titles. But despite the challenges and limitations of creating new gameplay from such a specific interaction, Olofsson doesn’t see a massive reinvention for the company on the horizon any time soon.
“We have a pretty steady business model right now and I don’t expect it to change much in the near future.”