If children were allowed to design workspaces, they would probably look something like King’s Stockholm office. Meeting rooms are the colour of pick’n’mix sweets, departments have names like Big Top Mountain and Wild Jungle and the canteen is filled with picnic benches and group seating areas in the shape of fairground carousels. Staff can spend their lunch hour playing vintage pinball machines and console games, enjoy some quiet time in the library (home to wingback chairs and a roaring faux fire) or embrace their creative side in the craft room.
This colourful studio is home to the team behind Candy Crush – the smash hit mobile game where players solve puzzles through swiping candies. (Think Tetris, but with sugary treats instead of blocks.) The game launched in 2012 and has since been downloaded more than half a billion times – making it one of the most successful and widely played mobile games of all time.
Alongside Candy Crush Saga, King has released two follow-up titles, Candy Crush Jelly Saga and Candy Crush Soda Saga. Both involve swiping candies but with some fun twists – such as battling a ‘jelly queen’ in Jelly Saga.
King has now launched a fourth game, Candy Crush Friends Saga, which features 3D visuals, new gaming modes and a greater focus on its cast of oddball characters. Players can now select a character – from Tiffi, an eight-year-old girl with pigtails to a loveable yeti – to guide them through the game. Each character has a unique special power which, when triggered, gives players boosts to help them progress. Players can dress their chosen character in a range of outfits and tap on them to trigger animations.
The game launches with 380 levels and new modes in which players can find animals hidden underneath ice tiles, free octopuses trapped in the game board, and collect candy hearts (because, well, why not?). New levels will be added along with new characters (the original Candy Crush game now has over 3,000 levels, with new ones released each month).
DESIGNING CANDY CRUSH
These levels are created by a small team of designers, who start with a blank grid, adding objectives and choosing candies to place on the board. Each level has to look visually appealing and strike the right balance between being challenging and achievable – whether you’re eight years old or 80. Most levels can be completed in a few minutes, but designers told us that players have to feel tested – otherwise, they will lose interest.
The team work together to test each others’ levels and each designer has their own process (one designer told us she finds inspiration in architecture). Given that each level features the same sized grid, and the same mechanic, you’d be forgiven for thinking that levels are somehow created automatically – but there’s a surprising amount of human creativity and thought that goes into each one.
King’s studio is also home to a recording booth and an editing suite where sound designers produce sound effects and music for the Candy Crush games. (It worked with London Philharmonic Orchestra and composer Johan Holmström to create the music for Candy Crush and characters are voiced by professional actors.)
A character team is tasked with creating weird and wonderful creatures for the Candy Crush Kingdom, and have designed over 100 ‘friends’ to date. Some of these have been reimagined in 3D for Candy Crush Friends Saga and more will be added for players to ‘collect’. There are some common features that unite the diverse cast of the Candy Crush sagas – characters are colourful, simple to draw and have an almost Hanna-Barbera style aesthetic – but the team are given pretty much free rein when it comes to the type of creatures they can create. It could be a Bubblegum Troll, a witch or a 200-year-old dragon, so long as it’s fun and bright and a little bit off-kilter.
“The word that comes to mind when I think about the characters is dopey – all our characters are super dopey and weird and they all have their own little quirks,” says Jeremy Kang, Principal Game Designer at King. “The Nutcracker is my favourite in Candy Crush Friends … I’m not sure why he has a trumpet, or why he does this weird dance when you tap on him … but it’s just about finding these quirky little things.”
THE CANDY KINGDOM
As Kang points out, there isn’t much reason or logic to the choice of characters and their personalities: “For better or worse, we dug ourselves into that hole when we designed the first Candy Crush. It was like, ‘you know what? It’s a candy kingdom – nothing needs to make sense, so let’s just make 100 characters doing random stuff…. We have such a broad bracket so anything that’s fun or quirky can go in and so far, it’s been a super organic process. Everyone can have an idea and if it’s fun and not offensive, then we can put it in [the game].”
This anything-goes approach has made it challenging to build out coherent narratives or back stories within the game, but Kang believes it has become an accepted part of Candy Crush. (It’s also what makes the game stand out among other puzzle games with similar mechanics.)
“Now, we’re trying to make this into a franchise that makes sense, and I’m sitting here as a designer thinking, ‘this is tough – why is this guy here? What is he doing?’ But sometimes you just have to run with it,” adds Kang. “I grew up being a huge Super Mario Brothers fan and until this day I’m still not sure why mushrooms make you bigger. The pipes I understand because he’s a plumber and his character was designed to be distinctive – he had a moustache, which [stood out] when you had pixel graphics – but mushrooms? And why do flowers give you fireballs? No-one understands that but the game became so big and it became this accepted norm so you just think, ‘it’s part of the franchise’.”
The curious mash-up of characters and gaming modes found in Candy Crush is in part down to King’s strange and colourful aesthetic – but it could also have something to do with the diversity of its creative team, who bring a wide range of cultural influences and different experiences to the game.
“There are 19 nationalities here,” explains Kang. “I lived in Singapore and moved to Berlin before I came to Stockholm, and a lot of our team have similar stories, where they moved from their home countries to different places. Every time you see a new culture, you learn something new and it shapes you as a creative – it brings something new to your design,” he adds.
Kang says King has a strong prototyping culture, and anyone can pitch an idea to a panel which includes senior management. The most promising ones are put into an “extended prototyping phase”, where a small team is tasked with exploring it further, before it is presented to senior management, who will provide feedback on whether or not they think it is viable.
“It’s very much still left to the team, so if after the feedback, the team decides, ‘you know what, we believe in this, we want to do this and we can negotiate some more time to prototype and address some of their points’ then they can – but the feedback from management tends to be really valid,” says Kang. “They’ve been working on mobile gaming for the past five or six years, and were doing social games before that [so have a strong understanding of the market].”
As all of King’s games are aimed at a mass audience, new ideas must appeal to a broad range of people, which includes casual and novice gamers as well as enthusiasts. Within the Candy Crush franchise, Kang says new games must have the potential to reach new players, without alienating its existing fan base. Each new game has to offer new experiences – whether it’s new gaming modes or, with Candy Crush Friends Saga, a new focus on characters.
TESTING MASS MARKET GAMES
King tests ideas out with players as early as possible through remote focus groups and workshops at its Stockholm headquarters. “We try to test as early as possible and we’re super agile with that – we build the MVP, which is the minimum viable product, and put that into the hands of players as quickly as possible just to see their reaction…. We try to have as wide a mix of players [in focus groups] as possible, but there’s no way to really represent our audience, because we have such a massive player base.”
These tests are an important learning experience for the team – Kang believes seeing people’s reactions as they play can be more valuable than quantitative data, “but there comes a point where you just have to go with your gut and do the market tests,” he adds.
EVOLVING THE CANDY CRUSH FRANCHISE
The success of the original Candy Crush, which launched on Facebook before it was released on mobile a few months later, took King by surprise. “We didn’t know how big the game would be, and we surprised ourselves,” explains founder Sebastian Knutsson. Most mobile games enjoy a few weeks or months in the download charts before fading into obscurity – but the original Candy Crush Saga has bucked this trend. It was the top grossing title in the US mobile app store in Q2 of this year, and the Candy Crush franchise has had a phenomenal 2.7 billion downloads to date.
The studio has so far managed to keep players engaged with new levels and and features, but Knutsson says the aim now is to “future-proof” the franchise to keep it alive for “the next 20 or 30 years”. It’s an ambitious plan – but the continued success of classic franchises like Mario has shown that popular games have the potential to grow as technologies and platforms develop.
King sees building out characters and narrative as key to this strategy: “When we built the game, we didn’t expect it to be so big … we kind of stumbled upon a cultural phenomenon and now, we have all these characters in the hands of our players so it felt like a missed opportunity to do something more with them,” he explains. “We know that storytelling and narrative are something players can get behind, so those are the two pillars we’ve built Candy Crush Friends around.”
“You can have a fun game [without characters] – Tetris is a perfect mechanical game – but we have a good mechanic, and then we also have this world that we put it in, so bringing the characters on to the board to help you with the game seems to be the next step in getting players to connect,” he adds. By allowing players to choose characters and costumes, Kang says King is hoping to “give them more ownership through customisation” – and in turn, unlock new opportunities for the Candy Crush brand.
The narrative and character interaction is limited in Friends Saga but as characters become more developed, it could pave the way for King to create spin off games or even content in future. The Mario series has expanded to include role playing and sports games, from Mario Kart to Mario Golf, while comic franchises have been capitalising on their large cast of characters in everything from blockbuster action films to TV series and console games. Customisation has also proved popular: players have spent vast sums of money buying ‘skins’ and even dances on Fortnite.
Kang admits that the success of Candy Crush has set a high benchmark for new releases – “the franchise has been super stable for a long time, and we don’t release games that often, so we need to make sure that this makes an impact on our players and the franchise as a whole. The pressure is pretty huge I guess, but that’s what makes it exciting,” he adds.
By combining a simple mechanic with short but challenging levels – and by constantly updating and evolving its games – King has tapped into a huge demand for “casual” gaming and earned some devoted fans. Its next challenge is to build on the Candy Crush world and create new experiences that will help it reach a new audience, whatever their gaming preferences.
The gaming market has grown considerably since the launch of the original Candy Crush, not just in terms of the number of games available but the type of experiences they offer. “To me, [mobile gaming] feels like the new wild west – anything can happen,” adds King. “It’s come to the point where so many people who didn’t used to be exposed to games [are getting into gaming] so I think it’s going to be a part of everybody’s life.” As that happens, King believes we will continue to see more diverse games as people find their own niche, whether it’s logic puzzles or choose-your-own-adventure. What this will mean for Candy Crush remains to be seen, but King is on a mission to reach as many people as possible with its quirky, fun and colourful titles.
Candy Crush Friends Saga is available on Android and iOS devices. See king.com for details