Three of the top 10 highest-grossing mobile games ever launched in 2012. Candy Crush Saga, Clash of Clans and Puzzle & Dragons have each generated billions of dollars in revenues, before counting spin-off titles or licensing deals. They came out when smartphone screen sizes were getting larger, giving developers more real estate to play with. Games makers were beginning to master the business model of free-to-play games that charge for extra lives, power-ups or personalised outfits.
Today mobile has gone from being a sideshow in the gaming market to its biggest source of revenue. Turning games into “live services”, with a constant stream of new levels or limited-time events, can sustain a popular mobile game for just as long as a console title, if not longer. Candy Crush Saga has been the most enduring global hit of that 2012 cohort. It has had three billion downloads and it still attracts more than 200 million players a month.
Financial success has not, however, been matched by cultural impact. The game’s lifetime earnings are estimated to be similar to those of the Star Trek or Superman franchises, but it possesses only a fraction of the cachet of those pop-culture stalwarts. Attempts to cross over into other forms of entertainment have struggled: in 2017 CBS tried to turn Candy Crush into a TV game show in the US, but it did not last longer than its first season.
Critics say this is because Candy Crush is a puzzle game, at best repetitive, at worst designed to addict, with casino-esque sound effects and dopamine-triggering rewards. And they may have a point. But even within the games industry, snobbishness about mobile seems outdated. Candy Crush may not have the narrative sweep of The Legend of Zelda or the wit of Grand Theft Auto but it takes skill to build software that feels as solid and satisfying as clearing a Candy Crush level does.
Part of the problem may be the lack of a central protagonist or Mario-style mascot that would lend the game extra personality. It’s something that has not gone unnoticed by pretenders to Candy Crush’s throne. The developers of one fast-rising puzzle app, Royal Match, have created a jovial, grey-bearded figure named King Robert to lead its players along. Soner Aydemir, chief executive of the company behind Royal Match, describes him as “a companion” for players.
A bigger challenge in mobile games’ battle for cultural recognition may be the format itself. We watch movies in groups to share in the spectacle. Smartphone gaming is about owning the most personal, intimate screen in our lives. And when you realise you’ve lost an hour to Candy Crush on the sofa, you don’t usually rush to the pub to argue with friends or vent on Twitter and Reddit about it.
At 10, Candy Crush shows little sign of disappearing. The game has held on to its spot among the highest-revenue mobile games in the US for several years straight. Indeed, in business if not cultural terms it’s a hard act to follow. The barriers to creating a new Candy Crush-scale hit are far higher today than 10 years ago, requiring huge investments in promotion to get noticed in the overcrowded App Store. Moreover, the advertising model that allowed lacklustre mobile games to buy their way to the top of the App Store charts has been hobbled by Apple’s restrictions on ad targeting. But if this forces developers to focus more on quality in the coming years, perhaps mobile games will one day get the cultural credit they deserve.
Tim Bradshaw is the FT’s global technology correspondent
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