Candy Crush is a manipulative repugnant pustule of a game and it is magnificent at hiding that fact.
The sense of progression, the continuous addition of “new” mechanics, the psychological manipulations, the perceived rewards, the way it can orchestrate what the player can do or not … all of these systems are masterfully designed so that they stay on the right side of the line between barely perceptible exploitation and being openly exploitative.
I’ve already talked about how these types of games openly frustrate players to scam them out of their money. Candy Crush is exactly like that, but is so much better at it. See, if you have an energy mechanic, then players know they are being constrained, that they won’t be able to do much in one sitting unless they pay. Candy Crush doesn’t have that, but it creates the same feeling of frustration in a much less visible way. How? Well, let me first take you through the actual mechanics of the game and I’ll get to that.
Candy Crush is a clone of Bejeweled in the sense that it copies every single important mechanic from it. This makes me very angry but not in the moral sense since Bejeweled was in itself a ripoff of other similar games that came before it. The reason for my anger is because I openly hate Bejeweled as well as every other Popcap game that I got my hands on. What’s interesting is that it’s always for the same reason: They maximize the ratio between interaction and spectacle, or in other words, they limit player interaction to absurd limits and then force the player to stop interacting so that they can watch and marvel at the consequences of their single input.
So, that was a very round-about way of saying that Candy Crush severely limits the player possibility space but every single action is seemingly important and can cascade into wildly different new possibility spaces. At any one time you’ll likely have 5 or less possible actions, but those actions can then cascade into very spectacular chain reactions.
That would fine if and only if the colored candies were placed at random … but of course, this is a free to play game and so it never leaves anything to randomness. Every step of the way, this game decides what to let you do, and consequently if you can win or not. In fact, it doesn’t matter how good you are at the game, you’ll always be able to progress because the game can literally make you win even if you’re trying your best to lose. And you’ll never notice unless you actively experiment on it. Just think about that for a second.
Having that in mind, let me remind/tell you that this game has a classical lives mechanic (lose one life every time you lose, can’t play if out of lives) where you’ll get a new life every half-hour. Doesn’t this ring a bell?* It’s basically controlling how much interaction and progression the player can have in a single play-through, but it’s doing it in a much more complex way than most other games. Nothing in its presentation screams frustration and at face value no single mechanic can be accused of limiting player action.
That is impressive to me, because they designed their core mechanics to frustrate the player in a unperceptible way. It may not look like it, but it takes a good game designer to achieve that and not be tempted to apply the same generic all-purpose patch that every free-to-play designer was so fond of*.
The psychological manipulations don’t stop there though. As I’ve already stated, Candy Crush manipulates candy placement at will, but it’s very intelligent with what to do and when, for instance, there are two distinct and very consistent behaviors that I’ve witnessed in the first 65 levels:
- When the player is stuck on a level and is also low on lives, guide him/her towards almost completing the level and then in the last 3 movements make it impossible to win unless he/she spends one or more items.
- Once the player has been struggling with a level, the next few ones should be conquered easily.
The façade of being a “fair” game si always maintained though. There’s enough uncertainty in each match as to make it impossible to truly get a sense of when the game is manipulating the player to win or to lose. Sometimes one wins by a landslide and does a ridiculous amount of points, sometimes one barely passes the winning conditions, sometimes one almost wins and sometimes it is literally impossible to win. There’s enough apparent randomness and noise as to make it all difficult to decipher, and that is what makes Candy Crush into such an interesting and yet magnificently repugnant game.
* Give me an “Ener”! Give me a “Gy”! Give me a “Mecha”! Here you go. Give me a “Nics”! What does that spell? Internet Porn! When do we want it? Now! How do we want it? In the form of a recreation of a scene of a movie from the 1930’s! … Wow, how did we get here? I don’t know!
Image taken from here.