Todd Green and Tjodolf Sommestad talk about evolving the iconic IP, renewed interest in mobile from traditional game companies, and King's changing position within ABK
Ten years ago this month, a simple match-three game made its debut on iOS. The title had already launched on Facebook earlier in 2012, and had quickly gained momentum, gathering four million players in a few weeks. On mobile, it also didn't take long for the game to take over the free-to-play charts.
Fast forward a decade and Candy Crush Saga is one of the most played games in the world, still generating growth year after year after year.
Looking at Activision Blizzard King's Q3 financials last week, King saw an 8% rise in net bookings year-on-year, which was attributed to the continued strength of the Candy Crush IP. The amount of time users spent within the Candy Crush IP during the quarter also continued growing for the fifth successive quarter. So it's fair to say that ten years on, Candy Crush isn't going anywhere.
"This is just the first ten years," Todd Green, general manager for Candy Crush Saga, tells GamesIndustry.biz. "We see ourselves as being very, very far from the end of this story and for us, it's very exciting to imagine and create what comes next."
King's dedication to its star IP was demonstrated by the anniversary celebrations it put together. In addition to the wealth of content updates, social media festivities, and in-game events – and a new soundtrack for the first time in the game's history – the Swedish company flew a dozen journalists to Stockholm for a few days to learn more about King and the science behind Candy Crush's success.
General manager for Candy Crush Saga Todd Green
"I genuinely believe we have a really amazing product, and it's not only amazing in the sort of simplistic sense of 'it's a good game to play'," Green says. "When we talk to players every day, we hear different stories about how Candy Crush fits into their lives. Some want to play more competitively, some collaboratively, some play for relaxation, some play for excitement, and one of the big challenges for us is to try to serve all of those needs inside the same product. I hope that we'll be able to provide that service to many more millions and millions of players over the next ten years."
It's well established now that millions of people turned to games in 2020 during the height of the pandemic. Candy Crush was among them, but while many companies are now witnessing a decrease in users as people turn back to other activities, the popularity of King's titles has not faltered.
"We saw an increased interest when the pandemic started," confirms King president Tjodolf Sommestad. "Now the pandemic has been going on for a very long period of time – and is still here, although we're evolving and adapting to it – [and] we've continued to engage our players in a really good way. It's hard for us to distinguish or see a clear change in player behaviour. I do think that, broadly in the industry, it might be there. But the innovation and the content that we've been driving into our games over the last years is really impressive in my opinion.
"So if you look at Candy right now, it's growing double digit this year and, in a year where the pandemic is at the end state – I think that's one sign that it's not dramatically impacting us in a negative way. It was an opportunity for us to re-engage with players and it looks like many of them are here to stay now and with us for a long period of time. [We've seen] a renewed interest in playing Candy Crush Saga."
The last couple of years have seen a renewed interest in mobile in general, not only on the consumer side, but in the wider industry as well. That interest became very evident when Take-Two acquired Zynga for $12.7 billion in January, EA bought Glu Mobile for $2.1 billion and Playdemic for $1.4 billion last year, or Sony acquired Savage Game Studios in August – all examples of the growing interest from traditional game companies in the mobile space.
"The mobile market is maturing and it's hard for anyone that works with games to ignore how relevant it is to have games on mobile"
"My take on this is that the mobile market is maturing and it's hard for anyone that works with games to ignore how relevant it is to have games on mobile," Sommestad says. "Even if you have a console or a PC at home, a typical user would also have a mobile phone or a tablet. So being present where consumers are present is more and more important for companies in the industry, and they see players moving to mobile, or at least complementing [by] playing on mobile.
"I don't work at those companies but if I just look at the trend, I can see how their appetite is to get their IP and their games over to mobile, or at least follow their consumers over to mobile [and] probably get their IP on mobile over time. That's what I think is driving some of that renewed interest, that's what we've seen recently in acquisitions etc."
The elephant in the room is obviously Microsoft's proposed acquisition of Activision Blizzard King earlier this year. King arguably fills a bigger gap in Microsoft's offerings than Activision and Blizzard – big players in the AAA PC and console space – do, as Microsoft doesn't really have a big mobile presence like Candy Crush.
While the King execs couldn't comment on the ongoing acquisition, we did ask Sommestad about King's position within the ABK group, seven years after the mobile company joined the firm, and whether it's evolved in any way as King's success is proven time and time again.
King president Tjodolf Sommestad
"I'm sure it has evolved," Sommestad laughs. "I was here when we first were listed and then acquired by Activision Blizzard, and it took a while to get to know each other initially. And I think we've proven as a company that we're really good at mobile, and we're really good at casual, and I think they see this success and the momentum that we're now having with our casual business, and specifically around the Candy Crush franchise. And from what I can take, they're quite impressed by that, and quite pleased.
"As the industry has evolved to also be moving generally a bit more towards mobile, our experience in mobile puts us in a somewhat unique position that they are more and more interested in learning from, [in terms of] business models. Also other platforms are evolving to be more similar to the free-to-play business model that we have been working on and know so much about. There is a curiosity and an amount of sharing that's happened over the last couple years."
One of Candy Crush's core strengths is having managed to remain current despite a constantly evolving (and growing) mobile market, and Green admits there've been a couple of challenges along the way.
"There's been an incredible growth in the number of companies that are making mobile games," he points out when asked about ways the market changed. "We certainly weren't the first. But since then, if you look at the number of companies, this exploded. There is a challenge [there]. The barrier to entry is quite low as well. So some of the most successful games today are created by very small teams and short turnarounds, but if you can find that product/market fit early on, you can still build a very big game. So that's one part that's really changed a lot.
"The other part I think is the sort of depth and sophistication that goes into the games. So if [you're] working in a different model where you're firing off games left, right and centre, then maybe you spend less time on crafting the experience, and that for us is best expressed talking about it as a product. But we think about what we're doing with Candy as a service. It's a long-term commitment. We're trying to continually feed players with new experiences inside a wrapper that they're familiar with. So that mindset shift from firing out a new product and then moving on to the next one, versus thinking about service and long-term relationship with players over time, that's one of the other big changes."
Since Candy Crush Saga released ten years ago, King has released different titles within the same universe (Candy Crush Soda, Jelly, and Friends, to name them) and other casual games around different IPs (Bubble Witch Saga, Pet Rescue Saga, Diamond Diaries, among others). It's also dabbled into midcore titles such as Legend of Solgard or Knighthood (which was later acquired by Phoenix Games).
While King has seen continued success with its casual titles, nothing ever quite reached the heights of Candy Crush Saga, and its midcore games remained fairly anonymous. We ask Sommestad, who had hinted at King being "open to failure" in his opening notes on that day, whether the company wants to continue experimenting outside the casual space.
"Casual is what we're really about, and that's how the company was born almost 20 years ago," he says. "The company started with this website and was all about these casual games, so that's in our DNA, and I think that's where we're gonna continue to deliver innovation and craftsmanship. But that doesn't exclude that we're looking at other areas to innovate and that we're a very curious company. We're always keen to learn.
"Casual is what we're really about, but that doesn't exclude that we're looking at other areas to innovate"
"So, it's right that we've had a couple of games that are outside what we would typically define as casual. We're still interested in that, we have capabilities to do something in that, but just as we're working on things around casual, which is our home, so we'll see what we'll bring to market in the future."
We suggest to Green that striking gold may be more difficult these days than it was in the early days of Candy Crush as the market is more crowded now, to which he points out that new games are "coming out every year which are reaching the top charts, whether it's in reach or revenue."
"So is it possible? Yes, absolutely. We're trying to do that as well!" he laughs. "I'm very focused on King still launching new games. And we're trying to replicate or even exceed that success. But we can work on this from both sides, right? We have these very strong, very creative, very ambitious teams working on new games of all sorts of types, and we have very strong creative innovative teams working on our live games.
"And those are the two parts of the company, basically. I don't see those as being in conflict. I think the big surprise for us has been that, in addition to growing the company with new games, you can also do it by improving the live games. That's probably been the big surprise to us and to many others in the industry. That's why we're here like ten years later talking about the same game!"
King's Stockholm office
Another way King has remained on top of the market with Candy Crush is with brand collaborations, which is a trend that's taken the industry by storm in recent years, most of them chasing the elusive 'metaverse'. While King's efforts may not have been as splashy as other studios, Green sees them as an invaluable opportunity to branch out and acquire new players.
"We're in a lovely position where there are a lot of companies, brands, IPs, celebrities, who want to collaborate with us," he says, pointing to Candy Crush collaborations with the 2021 film Space Jam: A New Legacy, the Sonic 2 Movie, and most recently with singer Meghan Trainor.
"Why do we do that? First is that we think that we can hopefully reach new audiences, and give exciting stuff to existing players by partnering with brands or people who have some kind of shared values with what we're trying to do.
"The game, the visuals, the name even, they're so recognisable, that one thing that I hope we can do is to have Candy Crush be a part of popular culture"
"The other part is that, if we talk about Candy, I think it's one of the very few games that maybe has the possibility to expand beyond the boundaries of the app. The game, the visuals, the name even, they're so recognisable, that one thing that I hope we can do is to have Candy be a part of popular culture, not only inside but also outside of games. And one way for us to express that idea is to partner with people who are outside the games industry."
Sommestad has been president of King since February, but has been at the Swedish company for over a decade. Concluding our chat, we ask him what he thinks contributed to making Candy Crush Saga so iconic.
"That's the ten billion dollar question," he laughs. "There's the classic 'the timing was right'. We had a great game coming to market when players were sort of maturing on Facebook, and mobile was becoming a thing. Our innovation with cross platform at that time really helped the growth on mobile fuelling the growth in Facebook, and the growth on Facebook fuelling growth on mobile. Everyone was, at that time, on Facebook and sharing those experiences. And I think ultimately it was a great game. What is quite unique about it is that the players do talk about that moment of relaxation that we're going after. [For] some of them it's almost meditation or a nice treat they have on the day, to get that moment with Candy Crush.
"And if I should give ourselves some credit, [we were] really good at building on that initial interest and really fuelling that with more innovation and more content to players. And we've just been doing more and more over the last ten years and there's more to come."