12 things you didn’t know about King, the Candy Crush Saga makers

What do you know about the fine folks behind today’s most ‘celebrated’ time-waster? Here’s a bit of trivia in case you’re wondering

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Candy Crush Saga is a puzzle game made in 2012 that took the world by storm; it is slowly gaining a foothold in major Asian territories like Japan and Hong Kong. Its addiction is rather apparent: once the game is in your system via Facebook app or mobile, you’re thrust into a circle of other online players in dealing with a modified match-three gameplay, and it’s sugar-coated with arguably saccharine aesthetics.

We do know about the company’s Saga trademark fiasco and IPO, but what else? Here’s what we scrounged up after chatting with Co-founder Lars Markgren and visiting the Stockholm branch of the studio called King.

#1: The main founders met by working on a dating site
You wouldn’t believe it, but before entrancing the world with its puzzle game Candy Crush Saga, the Founders of King used to be knee-deep in the online dating service trade. “Co-founders Riccardo Zacconi, Melvyn Morris and Toby Rowland were huge in the dating site community back in 2003 with uDate.com,” King Co-founder Lars Markgren said, “but we wanted to go into games because that’s where our true passion was.” He did say that he was inspired to take up this passion, thanks to his favourite game series: the Super Mario Bros. “The rest of the Founders; they’re not so much into World of Warcraft now, but they’ll find time for some Counter-Strike.”

He added that with their experience with online social networking from uDate.com, thanks to the profile page system, it wasn’t hard to eventually get a casual games business going together with other Founders Thomas Hartwig, Patrik Stymne and Sebastian Knutsson.

#2: There’s a term for how King develops games: it’s called the ‘Saga’ model
The company’s “Saga” game design model is essentially taking away the time limit that’s commonplace in the puzzle genre and adding in the element of progression. Your success amounts to how high your levels are; to gain more levels, you do more puzzles. You can’t get any higher if you’re stuck on a randomly-generated puzzle structure. If you’re really desperate for help, the social options are there to give you more chances to attempt puzzles.

#3: 2013 was a lovely time for King
With the game’s social elements integrated well within Facebook and its match-three gameplay, you wonder why it’s doing so well. The game had 93 million daily active users and US$568 million in profit last year, with this year’s numbers increasing up to US$608 million.

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#4: Before candies, there were pyramids!
Before Candy Crush Saga started becoming its modus operandi, King was renowned for a card game called Pyramid: Solitaire Saga. It was just a computerised card game based on its namesake, but it uses the patented “Saga” design before it was even dubbed that. “We made a tweak in the Solitaire mechanic (with bonus boosters, puzzle elements, and social features),” Markgren said, “and it turned out very successful. We had a huge audience and we had a big site as a result.” We will assume that the rather half-hearted CGI artwork isn’t a selling point (see below).

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#5: King has a 10-week timetable
Markgren said that he and the rest of the Co-founders had to keep the team slim when the company started out in 2003. “We had two people in the game development team to make something within 10 weeks. We had a pace of creating one to two games a month.” From then on, this made the company make other forgettable titles before landing that sweet spot, so to speak.

This led to the company developing with the shotgun mentality in mind: have five to six games come out per year, create them in a short time, and be experimental about them so that it can’t be expensive and time-consuming. But remember: this method only works for the company because it has been at it since the beginning.

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#6: King is no fortune teller when it comes to calculating its success
Even with Candy Crush’s numbers, Markgren admitted that it was difficult at first to predict the game’s impending popularity, but the company in time knew which components needed to be in the game to make it popular. These include tweaking a game’s mechanic to a point where players feel like they’re contributing something when they pay for in-game items, to figuring out trends in free-to-play games. “You still won’t know how it’ll turn out, but at least your key success ratio will be improved.”

#7: In the company’s mind, casual games demand skill
Casual games are skill games,” said Markgren regarding the company’s modus operandi for making nothing but that. “If you play a lot and have some talent, you become better and better. Our games are head-to-head, so if you play against someone with lesser skill, you’ll win most of the time. We have a ranking system to match one skilled player with another skilled one. If a game is pure skill, you will lose against the more-skilled player.”

“People may love the game, but they hate losing more. You need both the skill element and random component that make it possible for players to at least score higher than usual.” He brought up Bubble Witch as an example, a game that combines the bubble shooter puzzle game mechanic with a few random components to mix things up.

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#8: King DOES care about what you say about its games
“Our games have global appeal, but it’s the online feedback that keeps us going,” said Markgren. “We get feedback from our 10 million users quickly if there’s something wrong with the current game, or if they don’t like a game that just came out from us. That’s an asset for us; building a new mobile game nowadays on a large scale costs a lot more and need more people. Before we start that, we get to see firsthand if the game mechanic is popular or not.”

Another detail that’s relevant with King’s method with feedback is its handling of Big Data.  “We have a lot of data analysis,” said Markgren. “It’s not only a creative process, but we learn a lot on how to make money from our products. We may not be unique, but we’re one of the best companies to actually put all this data to good use (from user clicks to ARPU). We use both magicians and mathematicians to create something.”

Also Read: What Google’s I/O means for mobile gaming’s future

#9: It’s a rather nice place to work in (the Swedish branch anyway)
Despite the infamy of Candy Crush Saga and King’s rather dubious and failed notion of trademarking the word ‘Saga’, it’s a nice and diverse place to work in; nothing like an evil place its reputation suggests. King has  600+ employees from 45 different nationalities in its UK, Sweden and other worldly branches. Specifically in the Stockholm office, the company took great pains in maintaining gender equality in its workplace on varying fields from game design to art. “Most female employees in King can’t imagine going into another gaming or IT company after working in King,” said an in-house PR representative.

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#10: Facebook version < smartphone version, especially in Asia
When asked about the declining numbers on the Facebook version, Markgren said that the mobile version has a lot to do with it. “Mobile is definitely growing, especially with Android. That’s taking a larger market share, because it’s growing and moving in to (Southeast Asian countries like) the Philippines. This is due to recent tech penetrations in the region in the past year, followed by the interest of its large gaming audience from the young to the old.”

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#11: Its launch in Hong Kong and Japan proved fruitful
In Hong Kong, one in seven people play Candy Crush Saga; it goes to show that there’s no messing around with casual games of this promotional scope. The team joked about a scenario where people walking on the streets would start asking random people if they had Candy Crush lives to spare or not.

As for Japan, it’s number one on the most-downloaded game on the iOS since December 2013. The company’s tactics in using renowned actors like Mikako Tabe, Junichi Okada and Kenichi Endo in surreal nation-wide advertisements have helped a lot.

#12: There’s a second Candy Crush in the works!
The company will be launching a sequel to its hit social game soon; it has yet to say when exactly. Will it work alongside the original Candy Crush Saga or will it be totally succeeding it? King won’t say, and only time can tell, but it seems content on continuing its reliance on casual game mechanics. In the meantime, the current game will still be updated on a set period this year and the next.

Jonathan Toyad

If you want an elaborate answer on who would win in a fight between Ultraman and Godzilla, Jonathan Toyad is your man. A six-year veteran in the game journalism industry, he did words and videos for outlets such as GameSpot, GameAxis, IGN and Stuff.TV. Fears coyotes and scorched earths.

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