As I rafted down Sweden’s mighty Torne river, I took stock of the breathtaking natural beauty surrounding me and the countless novel experiences I’d accumulated over the past few days. The still sunlit night before, after a day of axe-throwing lessons, I’d dined on reindeer filet and slept in a sub-zero degree hotel room made of ice. All of this because the makers of Candy Crush had a new mobile game coming out that was Nordic themed.
It’s easy to write off Match 3 games as shallow time-fillers or craven cash grabs. With a relatively low barrier of entry to develop, they’re one of the most common game types on the market. The Apple App Store and Google Play are littered with hastily thrown together clones of more popular games. Though not the first of its kind, 2000’s Bejeweled is widely regarded as the quintessential Match 3 game, almost guaranteed to be found on any family computer of the aughts and eventually coming pre-installed on Motorola Razors in 2004. More than a decade after Bejeweled entered the market, British game developer King brought this format into the burgeoning freemium mobile game era with Candy Crush Saga.
In case you’re out of the loop, Candy Crush Saga took King’s popular browser and Facebook-based Bejeweled clone, Candy Crush, and added the level progression requirement elements of their other hit, Bubble Witch Saga, itself a rip-off of Puzzle Bobble. Players advance through the game’s challenges, one board at a time, with new gameplay elements added to ramp up the difficulty along the way. Failing a level costs the player a life, and once their stockpile of lives runs out, they can wait for them to recharge over time or spend real world money to replenish the supply immediately. Furthermore, the game periodically puts a three-day roadblock between the player and access to a new world of levels unless they invite (read: indoctrinate) a Facebook friend into downloading the game or, again, spend actual currency.
Much has been written about how Candy Crush Saga hacks the human brain, exploiting the same weaknesses that compel gambling addicts to glue themselves to slot machines for hours on end. Like many other freemium games, Candy Crush Saga is a highly calibrated money funnel, expertly tweaked to pay out the dopamine hits that come with clearing a board at just the right moments so as not to over-frustrate the player and keep them hooked for a perpetual “just one more level.” Though these artificial hindrances may be what prevent Candy Crush Saga from ever being regarded as a “real” game to the non-casual gaming crowd, they’re the same tactics that have made the game such an unfathomably huge financial success.
Though we are a few years past the peak of the game's zeitgeist-permeating popularity, ThinkGaming.com estimates that the free-to-play Candy Crush Saga still nets more than $1.3 million each day from in-app transactions. This revenue is coming from only an estimated 0.15 percent of its player base. Recognizing a money printing machine when they see one, gaming mega-publisher Activision purchased King in late 2015 for a whopping $5.9 billion. Though King cites their attention to detail and gameplay nuances as the key factors that separate its hit from a sea of inferior Match 3s, data analysis of the shifting market trends clearly lead the company to a smart development strategy. On a certain level, they got extremely lucky, essentially winning the lottery when the casual gaming public selected its product as the hallmark mobile game of the era, its success compounding over time.
Cynical as I clearly am about Candy Crush Saga, I was hesitant to accept an all-expenses paid press trip to Sweden centered around King’s newest Match 3 venture, Legend of Solgard. But after downloading a beta copy of the game to try for myself, I was heartened to find a robust, tactical match game with depth unlike what I’d seen in any prior King release. Developed in partnership with Stockholm-based Snowprint studios, Solgard feels like a labor of love when compared to the Saga games. Reviewers seem to agree with me about it not being that bad. Sure, there are mechanisms in place to coax a player into ponying up to advance their character and level up their roster of helper creatures, each with a different game-affecting power, but as there’s now more strategy than luck required of the player, the whole affair feels less like runaway capitalistic greed.
In Sweden, I learned more about the game’s main character, mythos and modes from its developers and a charming British actor in character as an elder wizard squirrel or something. I’m personally no fan of this sort of game—give me a solid start-to-finish single player experience over a multiplayer battle any day—but, as the King team explained Solgard in detail, I was convinced that I was not tacitly endorsing their next Candy Crush-style heist by being there.
Photo by bjaglin/flickr with additional design by Vahe Abed.