In the two years between October 2013 and September 2015, Candy Crush Saga players spent just under $2.5bn (£1.7bn) on the puzzle game. That’s a lot of power-ups, extra lives and (virtual) gold bars.
Despite the mobile game being released in late 2012, it was still the second top-grossing game on Apple’s App Store in 2015, with offshoot Candy Crush Soda Saga taking fourth place in Apple’s end-of-year chart.
It provides several hints at the possible future for Candy Crush ahead of a $5.9bn acquisition of its developer King by games publisher Activision Blizzard, which is expected to close in the spring and will see Candy Crush become a sister franchise to Call of Duty, Skylanders, World of Warcraft and Destiny.
The new game sees players matching sweets as before, but this time to spread jelly across the board. Its key new feature, however, is “boss levels” where players compete against a virtual opponent – Jelly Queen or Cupcake Carl – to make matches while disrupting their foe.
“We thought we could bring a game with a more competitive twist,” says Tjodolf Sommestad, King’s senior vice president of the Candy Crush franchise, who admits that the boss-battle mechanic was being tweaked up to the last minute to make sure its balance was correct.
The boss levels spark an obvious question about the future for Candy Crush: is this a step towards Jelly Queen or Cupcake Carl being replaced by another human, for proper multiplayer battles?
You can imagine a system similar to mobile game Words With Friends, where players take turns at their leisure, and have several matches with friends, family or strangers on the go at once.
“This is an interesting idea and we have elaborated with that. We have been thinking about it, and actually exploring it as well. There is nothing that we are ready to launch, but we think this is a good step,” says Sommestad.
“We are hoping, of course, that Jelly will become a success, and that we’ll continue to get positive feedback from the players, and maybe players will request the ability to play against their friends in true multiplayer. But it is something we have had in the back of our heads when designing this: could we evolve it into a true multiplayer game?”
Candy Crush Jelly Saga also has more of an emphasis on characters: not just the bosses, but caterpillar-like “pufflers” monsters that get their own game mode, as well as the game’s heroine Jenny. It’s a big change for a franchise that hasn’t ever been character driven in the past.
“It is a deliberate strategy. Jelly is the first step: we are going to invest more into showing the players the Candy Kingdom: the universe where all these characters live. We feel we have an opportunity, especially in new games, to put them into the foreground,” says Sommestad.
The characters will also start to appear in updates of the two existing Candy Crush games. It may be a smart move for King, commercially, since characters open up more opportunities for licensing and merchandise, and even other forms of entertainment such as video. Think Angry Birds.
“I think that’s a fair analysis. In terms of building long-lasting, strong brands, we think that having characters that players can see is more easy to relate to than just different types of candy,” says Sommestad.
“It opens up new possibilities in the future, but in terms of TV shows, that’s not something we are about to launch at the same time as we launch Jelly. We’re definitely taking steps towards that direction.”
A thornier question for King is whether Candy Crush Jelly Saga can help the franchise return to growth.
The $2.5bn figure at the top of this article came from the Guardian’s analysis of the publisher’s financial results since the final quarter of 2013, which break down the company’s “gross bookings” (money spent by players) into Candy Crush and non-Candy Crush figures.
In the final quarter of 2013, players spent $495m in Candy Crush Saga, but that has fallen every quarter since, reaching $201m in the third quarter of 2015.
That said, this is still $201m spent on a mobile game that was nearly three years old. Also, these figures do not include spending on Candy Crush Soda Saga, which King counts as part of its non-Candy Crush Saga metrics. Note also the slowdown in the decline in 2015.
Sommestad is optimistic, as you’d expect. “The franchise is in a good place. We had a good year in 2015, very much based on the successful launch of Candy Crush Soda Saga. And we have hopes that 2016 will be another good year,” he says.
“2015 gave us a lot of energy: we managed to prove we can sustain and stabilise a very old game like Candy Crush, and also add new life to the franchise with branches such as Soda – and, hopefully, also now Jelly.”
King has already been running TV ads for its games for some time, but Activision Blizzard should bring some major marketing welly when the acquisition closes this spring. Sommestad is suitably cautious about the likely plans.
“The idea is we will continue to work as an independent company, although we will of course have touchpoints with the other studios. I would believe they want to buy us because we are a company that knows what we’re doing in terms of the audience that we have, and the mobile business,” he says.
“But what I’m hoping to learn from them is that they have years and years of experience working with franchises. While it is not a like-for-like comparison – there are differences between the console and mobile industries – they have a lot of experience that they can share with us.”
In the meantime, King will press on with Candy Crush, its other Saga games – AlphaBetty Saga launched last June, Blossom Blast Saga in November, and Scrubby Dubby Saga in December – and new ideas such as August’s Paradise Bay.
The company will also continue to be one of the key players in the “free-to-play” gaming world, which remains a divisive topic within a population of gamers that now includes hundreds of millions of mobile players, as well as those on console and PC.
“Free-to-play is here to stay for sure. I can’t see that it will go away, although there could be different versions of it,” says Sommestad. “It’s not for everyone: it depends what kind of game you have.”
This article was written by Stuart Dredge, for theguardian.com on Thursday 7th January 2016 14.23 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010