Candy Crush is a scam. You all know Candy Crush, right? Of course you do. You’re playing it right now. Anyway, it’s a scam. The whole play experience is designed to trick you into spending money on in-game content.
I don’t mean that it just seems like it would be more enjoyable if you spent a few bucks. Offering goods and services in exchange for money is not, in itself, fraudulent. What makes Candy Crush sinister is its attempts at social engineering. For instance, there’s a rumor going around that if you spend a single dollar in Candy Crush, the difficulty of future levels suddenly ramps up dramatically. The developer denies this… but true or not, the business model makes a lot of sense. You’ve just identified yourself to the developers as the kind of person who, when faced with a level he/she can’t beat, will spend money on power-ups. It is therefore to their benefit to ensure that you are faced with levels you can’t beat all the time, right?
And why not just make the game impossible to beat without buying powerups? Well, most casual gamers will never spend money on in-game content, no matter what. If you have to spend money to even play the game beyond a certain point, they will simply stop playing the game. And although these people aren’t going to make the developers a cent directly, they function as a kind of free advertising, roping in potential paying customers through word of mouth. So it’s to the developer’s benefit to keep the cheapskates playing too.
All of this has been covered at length, and in fascinating detail, elsewhere. (And this other elsewhere.) Again, the Candy Crush people deny that they aggressively target the people who are willing to spend money. But the basic idea — that the game is designed to cajole and browbeat you into spending — still holds.
Now, I noticed an aspect of this the other day that has some really interesting consequences.
If you keep playing for long enough, Candy Crush will attempt to convert you from a non-paying customer to a paying customer by throwing a frankly impossible level in your path. You’ve been cruising along, and then suddenly you find yourself stuck on the same level for weeks and weeks. This creates frustration, and maybe prompts you to spend money. But if you’re not particularly frustration-averse, you just keep playing. Eventually, you get really lucky. When all the stars are aligned, they vanish into a puff of brightly colored smoke, and the apparently impossible level turns out not to have been impossible at all.
And there are levels that actually work like this.
But there are other levels as well, levels that — when you first encounter them — are literally impossible. Levels where the target score requires you to get an average of 1000 points per move (when a standard move earns you 180 points). The first time I came across one of these, I got stuck for so long that I almost stopped playing the game altogether, and I imagine that if I was a slightly different sort of person, I would have considered paying a couple of bucks instead. But then a funny thing happened. I was riding the subway home, and I fired up Candy Crush, and threw myself into that meat-grinder of a level… and I realized that the target score had, without ceremony, changed. I don’t remember the specific numbers anymore, but it was a sizable drop, from 100,000 to 75,000 say. And suddenly, where I had been losing each round by a LOT, I was only losing each round by a tiny bit! Again, there are probably people out there who would spend money at exactly this point. “Oh my god, I’m one move short of beating this bastard of a level! I’d better buy the extra turn now — who knows if I’ll ever come this close again?”
But I’m cheap. So I soldiered on. And sure enough, a few days later, the target score dropped again. And then again. And then I finally won.
Now, I think the developers wanted this goalpost-shifting to go unnoticed. And the nature of play in Candy Crush is such that it easily could have. You don’t generally pay attention to the target score, or to the number of moves you have left. You just idly slide the candies around, and let the facts and figures take care of themselves. You’re not supposed to realize that this is happening.
But I did notice it. And the odd thing is that, once I did, Candy Crush lost its ability to frustrate me. I don’t mean that that one bastard level wasn’t frustrating me anymore: I mean that the game lost its ability to frustrate me AT. ALL. The next time I got stuck on an “impossible” level for a couple of weeks, I was like the freaking zen master of casual gaming, placidly failing over and over, and then trying again the next day, without feeling any frustration, or any desire to stop playing, or any desire to spend money, or even really any desire to beat the level. And the emotional intensity of the game, such as it is, was also gone. I no longer felt any urgency to succeed in any given round. At first, I thought this was because I had made a principled decision not to let the carnival hucksters over at King.com get to me anymore. But after a month or so, I realized that something else was happening. See, Candy Crush was presented to me as a game of skill and chance, where each round was an opportunity to win or lose. And because losing is always frustrating, it made me frustrated. But once I realized that, by losing over and over again, I was making it easier to win further down the road, I realized that Candy Crush was never a game of skill after all. No, it’s an entirely different kind of game.
Candy Crush is a JRPG.
I wasn’t losing.
I was grinding.
The mechanism isn’t exactly the same, of course. My character doesn’t have stats to advance — I don’t even really have a character! But the basic principle of engaging a in repetitive behavior for hours and hours until you can finally make some progress, is exactly the same. And suddenly the half-bored, trance-like state in which I play most rounds of Candy Crush these days makes all the sense in the world. And although Candy Crush has been compared, unfavorably, to a slot machine, I realized something else: in that dogged persistence actually will alter the odds in your favor, Candy Crush is less like an actual slot machine and more like the game that slot machine addicts think they are playing. “This machine is gonna pay out soon. I can tell.” And it actually will! Well, not pay out, exactly. But it’ll let me win. Brightly flashing lights, bells that go bingley-bongley-boop. Endorphins. All that jazz.
And thinking about slot machines makes me wonder if really, every game is not actually secretly two games. There’s the game as it actually is, if you take the lid off and examine the code one line at a time. And then there’s the “screen game,” the game that we imagine we are playing. (The term is adapted from Pierre Bayard, who came up with the concept of the “screen book” to refer to the mental model of a book that we create as we read it, which only partially resembles the book as it actually is.) Usually the real game and the screen game are the same, because usually the rules of games are well understood. This is a constitutional element of what games are, for some formalist theorists! But there’s no reason why this has to be the case, especially not with videogames, where the actual mechanism of play is so terribly obscure. And there’s no real reason why the should be the same, other than habit.
There’s one major exception, though. The parts of games that model interpersonal interactions tend to be less transparent, especially when they are done very well. This is probably because real relationships are pretty damn opaque, and what’s more, totally granular. In real life, every little interaction counts. I mean, yes, on any given day it probably doesn’t matter whether or not I smile at my wife when she gets home from work. But there’s a sort of gestalt quality to our relationship which is composed of all of these little interactions, so the time is never wasted. Meaningful reactions with loved ones are their own reward, of course… but although the long-term effect of each individual action may be negligible, it is there, even if we sort of have to take it on faith. Our actions do add up to something.
Well, but in a video game, generally speaking, they don’t. In the vast majority of cases, your interactions with the NPCs are pure window dressing, and have no effect on game mechanics whatsoever. If you want to, you can skip nearly all of the dialogue in even the most dialogue-heavy of games. You do have some interesting cases like Silent Hill 2, where (and this is a spoiler, I believe) you can get a slightly better ending by performing friendly little actions like checking in on your love interest in between missions. But each individual one of those interactions has no effect beyond incrementing a counter somewhere in the game’s bowels. It’s not like your action actually makes Maria think differently about you, or have a more pleasant day, because Maria neither thinks nor has days. Even leaving the AI question aside, the game’s modeling of a relationship is crude because it’s entirely quantized. At the end of the day, your bond with Maria was either “good enough,” or “not.” A little experimentation, or a walkthrough, would tell you exactly how many times you need to interact with her. And all of the interactions above a certain threshold are, in a sense, wasted time. The fact that you are not meant to realize this — that the special ending is supposed to appear sort of automagically if you are the kind of player who bothers to check in on the CGI love interest every so often — is another example of the screen-game/real-game disconnect. Really, you were increasing that counter. But in the screen game, in your mind, you were interacting with something very much like a person… and that’s what separates the Silent Hill example from the Candy Crush example. Candy Crush is swapping out two rather simple types of game. Silent Hill 2 is disguising a fairly simple game as a kind of interaction that, as of this writing, more than a decade later, is still beyond the capability of gaming as an art form. And this is probably why Candy Crush feels like a scam, and Silent Hill 2 just feels ambitious.
And although the disconnect between the screen game and the real game has, thus far, mainly been used to separate rubes from their dollars, it could be one of the great untapped possibilities of game design. Just briefly, let me suggest a couple of ways that this could work out. (Please suggest more in the comment threads!)
1) Imagine a Starcraft type game where the stated damage per second, spawn rate, etc. of the units have stated values (which are fictional) and real, hidden values that fluctuate over time in response to the rise of dominant tactics in competitive play. Any strategy that works too well will be subtly nerfed over time, without any official announcement to the player base. In addition, these figures are subject to a certain amount of random variation. Suppose for instance that on any given day, there’s a 1/365 chance that all zergling units will be substantially more powerful than they’re supposed to be, making the zerg rush strategy effectively unbeatable.
This game would actually be a lot more random than it lets on. The trick — and this would be tough to calibrate — is to make it random enough to have a major impact, but not so random that anyone would notice. What we’re trying to incept in the player base, here, is superstitious play. The newbie who tries to play for the first time on that random zerg rush day is probably going to be a convert to the Zerg cause for a good long time. The seasoned player who happens, on that day, to be doing a Zerg rush just for fun, will think he/she has discovered an amazing refinement to the strategy. “Wait, if I put my reactors here, and attack at this point…!”
The effect, I’m guessing, is that play would be a lot more chaotic and creative, privileging adaptability and contingency planning over optimization and clicking speed. (Not that the top Starcraft players today are not adaptable. But it would push the game further in that direction.)
2) Two words: Calvinist Monopoly. Where the first game that I imagined has a lot of covert randomness, this one would have covert non-randomness. On the surface, it just looks like a computer-assisted game of Monopoly. But unbeknownst to the players, they are divided before the game even begins into elect and non-elect camps. (Actually, let’s say that the players are divided during account creation, so that your status is maintained across multiple games.) When an elect player clicks the “roll dice” button, the computer scans the squares in front of him/her, identifies the desirable options, and then makes just the sliiightest adjustment to the random number generator. This probably would not be more fun to play, and it seems like it would, if anything, reinforce terrible patterns of mind (smugness for the elect, learned helplessness for the proles). But its ability to reinforce those patterns is nothing to sniff at. This is not the first Monopoly mod that I’ve ever written, btw.
Now, I’m guessing that there are more possibilities than simply making the game more random or less random. But I can’t think of any off the top of my head, so I’ll leave that to the rest of you. I’m also really curious whether there are any games that work like this in practice. I guess if they really worked like this, you wouldn’t be aware of it! But you might notice failed attempts to disguise one type of game as another, and we could probably pick apart the features that caused the attempts to fail.