The ethics of Candy Crush Saga

A coercive monetization model depends on the ability to “trick” a person into making a purchase with incomplete information, or by hiding that information such that while it is technically available, the brain of the consumer does not access that information. Hiding a purchase can be as simple as disguising the relationship between the action and the cost as I describe in my Systems of Control in F2P paper.

Research has shown that putting even one intermediate currency between the consumer and real money, such as a “game gem” (premium currency), makes the consumer much less adept at assessing the value of the transaction. Additional intermediary objects, what I call “layering”, makes it even harder for the brain to accurately assess the situation, especially if there is some additional stress applied.

This additional stress is often in the form of what Roger Dickey from Zynga calls “fun pain”. I describe this in my Two Contrasting Views of Monetization paper from 2011. This involves putting the consumer in a very uncomfortable or undesirable position in the game and then offering to remove this “pain” in return for spending money. This money is always layered in coercive monetization models, because if confronted with a “real” purchase the consumer would be less likely to fall for the trick.

From The Top F2P Monetization Tricks by  Ramin Shokrizade. F2P stands for free-to-play and refers to games where you can start playing the game without paying. The most popular of such games, at least it certainly seems that way, is Candy Crush Saga. I know a few people who are struggling with a borderline addiction. When you add up the man-hours that have been dedicated to the game, it might be the most potent destroyer of productivity in recent human history.

Shokrizade makes a convincing case that Candy Crush Saga lulls the user into thinking they're playing a game of skill when in reality it's a game of luck (Shokrizade calls it a game of money, as noted in the excerpt below). Unable to make the distinction, players stuck on the more difficult levels later in the game end up making in-app purchases to keep feeding their addiction.

A game of skill is one where your ability to make sound decisions primarily determines your success. A money game is one where your ability to spend money is the primary determinant of your success. Consumers far prefer skill games to money games, for obvious reasons. A key skill in deploying a coercive monetization model is to disguise your money game as a skill game.'s Candy Crush Saga is designed masterfully in this regard. Early game play maps can be completed by almost anyone without spending money, and they slowly increase in difficulty. This presents a challenge to the skills of the player, making them feel good when they advance due to their abilities. Once the consumer has been marked as a spender (more on this later) the game difficulty ramps up massively, shifting the game from a skill game to a money game as progression becomes more dependent on the use of premium boosts than on player skills.

Note that the difficulty ramps up automatically for all players in CCS when they pass the gates I discuss later in this paper, the game is not designed to dynamically adjust to payers. 

If the shift from skill game to money game is done in a subtle enough manner, the brain of the consumer has a hard time realizing that the rules of the game have changed. If done artfully, the consumer will increasingly spend under the assumption that they are still playing a skill game and “just need a bit of help”. This ends up also being a form of discriminatory pricing as the costs just keep going up until the consumer realizes they are playing a money game.

It's tough not to admire the skill with which Candy Crush Saga was built. Something about destroying tiny colored candies satisfies some reptilian instinct in people in the most addicting way possible. The guile with which the game entices users into forking over for in-app purchases makes me a bit squeamish, but no more than a casino should.

If you're going to give in to the temptation of CCS, just know that it's largely a game of luck, and resist the temptation to fork over dough when you get stuck unless you know what's being done to your brain and you're okay with it.