1,001 levels of candy crush


Game Design / Wednesday, March 15th, 2017

I reached level 1,001 of Candy Crush this weekend. At this point, you stare at me incredulously, without even trying to conceal your ridicule, and ask the burning question, “Why?”

You’re not the first person to ask this question. When people find out that I play Candy Crush, I get a mixture of mockery and judgment. Common reactions include, “does anyone still play that?”, “that’s such a stupid game”, and “you must be a casual gamer.” Analysing these statements gives me insight into the “why” of Candy Crush, and what has kept me going until level 1,001.

Screenshots or it didn’t happen – here’s proof I made it to level 1,001 of Candy Crush.

1. “Does anyone still play that?”

Candy Crush Saga was officially released on April 12, 2012, five years ago now, a long time for a mobile game. Indeed, the number of players has fallen from 245 million per month in 2012 to 166 million per month in 20161, and probably more since then. On one hand, this is an irrelevant question, since Candy Crush is a single-player game, and I’ve never used the social features of sending lives or requesting my friends help me unlock levels, much less sharing my progress in the game on social media. So, why would it matter if anyone was still playing Candy Crush, if I enjoyed it and didn’t rely on the social aspects to advance?

On the other hand, I stopped playing two years ago at level 734, a level that felt impossible to me, and it wasn’t until a friend reintroduced me to the game because he was playing it (to do research on a match-three game he was working on), that I completed 734 on my first try and blazed onward with renewed energy. This was about two months ago, and I’ve completed levels 735-1,001 remarkably quickly. When I’d stopped playing at level 734 in 2015, I was at the highest level of all my friends who had connected their Facebook accounts to their progress in Candy Crush. It seemed impossible to try and reach the total number of levels since King kept creating and releasing more, faster than I could finish them. Now, however, I’m in second place, chasing my friend Heather, who is at level 1,493. So, there’s some truth to the social aspect of games, because having Heather ahead of me and just out of reach definitely kept me going. This goal post was more effective than the one set by King’s total number of levels, because it felt attainable.

Having friends playing the game, then, does not necessarily mean that the game has to be inherently social. While Candy Crush has added features that emphasize social interaction, the biggest draw for me is that there’s just one person ahead of me, giving me a goal that felt reachable. So, the question of “does anyone still play that?” makes some sense in this context – I was directly reintroduced to the game by a friend, and indirectly encouraged to keep playing by another.

2. “That’s such a stupid game”

When you first start playing Candy Crush, the game seems so simple it’s stupid. Match three (or more) in a row to fulfill a certain goal. Where Candy Crush surpasses Bejeweled, however, is in the design complexity that gets added as you pass through higher levels. Non-players are surprised to find out about the level of skill required to solve later puzzles. Take a look at the level I was stuck on, level 734:

The seemingly impossible level 734 of Candy Crush, which made me stop playing.

To solve this puzzle and complete the level, you have to get the keys and unlock the sugar chests at the bottom to bring the ingredient (cherries) to the bottom of the screen.  Since there’s no way of forming a match-three with any of the keys or the striped candy in the middle, you have to think creatively to solve the problem: either create and use a vertical striped candy (by forming a line of four) to break open the licorice lock in the middle, and activate the green striped candy to get the keys, or create and use a colour bomb on the striped candy colour or the keys’ colours.  Another approach would be to create striped candies and use them directly on all the keys, though this would probably take more moves.  This is made more difficult by the conveyor belts moving in opposite directions.  It’s up to the player to strategise and work out what’s best to do.

Candy Crush’s depth of design is evident only once you’ve progressed far enough, but it is, at its heart, a puzzle game. Although there is a fair bit of luck involved, I rely on strategising and thinking about each level like a puzzle map to solve it. When and where is it best to create a combo and activate a special candy? Which match is the most optimal for the present situation, to clear a jelly or remove a piece of chocolate? How do you move an ingredient to the bottom and what parts of the environment (conveyor belts, portals, etc.) can you use to your advantage?

As much as it appears to be at the outset, Candy Crush is not a simple match-three game, but one that involves blockers and special features like marmalade, chocolate spawners, layers of icing, cake bombs, candy bombs, jelly, popcorn, licorice locks and swirls, and keys and sugar chests. All these elements are introduced in an episode (a grouping of fifteen levels), and then appear again in later levels in various combinations with varying map layouts and candy types.

It turns out the designers of Candy Crush have invented a vast number of design knobs that can be adjusted and combined in an incredible variety of ways. Here are a few:

  • Number of moves allowed in a level, fewer moves making it more tricky
  • Type of level, which is decided by the goal, whether to bring certain ingredients down to the bottom, clear jelly, or get a certain score in a limited time or number of moves
  • Size and shape of a level, which restricts movement in interesting ways
  • Map layout, which can include breaks in the map that require you to use special candies, or portals and conveyor belts
  • Blockers and special features, which alter the level drastically by including elements you need to destroy, locks you need to match keys to unlock chests, or move-sensitive blockers like the bombs that explode after a number of moves or chocolate that expands to cover multiple squares each move, just to name a few

I have no doubt I’ll continue to face the argument that Candy Crush is a stupid game, but the challenge and interest of each level as I’ve played 1,001 of them has not only provided variety, but also proven that the game requires skill and strategy, especially if, like me, you refuse to spend any money on power-ups, extra lives and extra moves.

3. “You must be a casual gamer”

A casual game is a video game targeted at or used by a mass audience of casual gamers. Casual games can have any type of gameplay, and fit in any genre. They are typically distinguished by their simple rules and lack of commitment required in contrast to more complex hardcore games. They require no long-term time commitment or special skills to play, and there are comparatively low production and distribution costs for the producer.” – Wikipedia2

Wikipedia’s definition of casual gamer (above) reinforces common beliefs about what it means to even be a gamer. While “casual gamer” is perhaps a term left best for discussion in another article, I will place a comparison of Candy Crush with the Wikipedia definition here:

Wikipedia’s definition of “casual game” Candy Crush
  • “They are typically distinguished by their simple rules and lack of commitment required in contrast to more complex hardcore games.”
  • Starts out simple, but rules get more complicated and puzzles get more complex, there are definitely optimal strategies and one can learn to become a better Candy Crush player
  • A typical hardcore gamer thrown into a high level of Candy Crush would probably not be able to successfully complete it without the knowledge gained from previous levels, similar to anyone playing a game at a high level for the first time
  • Commitment required to get to level 1,001 was more than I spent on most hardcore games, spanning a length of years and countless bus rides
  • “They require no long-term time commitment or special skills to play.”
  • Interactions in Candy Crush are just swiping, and the game cycle is very short, making it perfect for when players have short lengths of time and short attention spans
  • This does not mean there’s no long-term commitment, as I mentioned, it took me ages to get to level 1,001
  • I would also argue that the special skills needed for Candy Crush are problem/puzzle solving skills that are identical to skills needed in many non-casual games, despite not requiring deft maneuvres using a game console
  • “There are comparatively low production and distribution costs for the producer.”
  • I would imagine that the production costs of later levels and distribution costs are relatively low, but acquisition is where the money is spent on Candy Crush, so this statement makes sense

Quitting while I’m ahead?

I’ve spent a lot of this post praising Candy Crush, so it seems fitting that I will conclude it by telling you why, after 1,001 levels, I’m quitting Candy Crush, or at least removing it from my phone.

Candy Crush works on timeouts, like the five lives limit that refreshes one life per half hour if you lose lives by not passing levels. Consequently, the anticipation of Candy Crush peaks between episodes, where you have to either pay some money, get three friends to help you, or wait 72 hours for the tooth fairy to let you advance to the next episode (my preferred method), accompanied with an animation of getting there by boat, plane or train. Each episode is fifteen levels, and these formed a complete set with an end goal for me, a bite-sized chunk that kept me rushing to the end, and then waiting to play the next episode.

You need to ask friends, wait for three days, or pay to unlock the next episode of 15 levels.

If you decide to be patient, the tooth fairy shows up after three days and unlocks the next fifteen levels.

When I got to level 950, something strange happened, and since then, I’ve been automatically advanced to the next episode once I finish the last level in an episode. While this sounds great, it actually reduced my enjoyment of the game, by not removing me from Candy Crush for three days and giving me that feeling of anticipation. Candy Crush is a repetitive game, so that break kept me from getting tired of it, and gave me a clear goal to get through the fifteen levels in one episode as quickly as possible once they were unlocked. It also gave me a feeling of excitement when a new episode and its corresponding area was lit up, revealing the name, the artwork and the animations. I’m not quite sure why the game developers removed this from the game, but perhaps once someone had gotten as far as 950, it was more likely they would spend money on power ups instead of passing an episode, so to get them into more levels more quickly was advantageous. Maybe it was a way of rewarding the increasingly rare players that made it to a high level, but then again, wouldn’t these players be the ones to have spent money on unlocking new episodes in the first place? The business model for higher levels is fuzzier to me.

In any case, I’m sure I’ll continue to play Candy Crush, but more “casually”, instead of rushing to finish each episode and get as far as I can on the path. Much of the thrill of that was taken away by the removal of breaks in between episodes, and the fact that Heather keeps advancing beyond my reach has reduced my motivation to keep playing. Nonetheless, I have learned a lot from 1,001 levels, and I’m sure that in the not-so-distant future, a moment of weakness and boredom on Facebook will have me crushing candy all over again.

References Cited

  1. Joost van Dreunen. “Welcome to the New Era: Games as Media.” gamesindustry.biz. gamesindustry.biz, 31 October 2016. Web. 15 March 2017.
  2. Casual game.” Wikipedia. Wikipedia, 6 March 2017. Web. 15 March 2017.