It’s been over a year since a casual game has released on iOS and Facebook that just about everyone is playing — the last was OMGPOP/Zynga’s Draw Something. A game that your mom is playing, you are absolutely playing, you’re telling other people to play. King.com’s Candy Crush Saga is seemingly everywhere today: It’s Top Grossing in the iOS App Store, it’s the biggest app on Facebook in terms of daily and monthly traffic, and this match-3 puzzler is also in the top 10 free apps in Android’s Google Play store.

What is it that makes this spiritual successor to Bejeweled so successful? Why are people playing (and paying) for Candy Crush Saga, a game that looks to be an unoriginal clone of many other games?

Candy Crush Saga is extremely polished

From top to bottom, someone at King.com has given a lot of love and attention to detail to Candy Crush Saga. The colors are bright and inviting, the user interface is intuitive and not complicated at all, the tutorial experience is slick and the gameplay is simple and familiar enough that almost everyone can understand how to play from the moment they begin. There is not a single part of the game that feels ‘cheap’ — every element of Candy Crush Saga is carefully constructed to make the player feel joy and excitement with each action. While Bejeweled is also extremely polished, it lacks a light and fun theme that makes it feel fresh and modern.

The candy-coated nature of Candy Crush Saga allows for King.com to have some lighthearted fun with it. In between ‘chapters’, little cut-scenes are shown that offer up a lightweight story about helping out the candy inhabitants. The candy pieces and the boosts themselves are colorful and appealing to look at. The verbal encouragements (voice-overs that occur when the player matches candy gems in more interesting combinations) are dripping with sweetness , such as “Sugar Rush!” and “Tasty!”. The music is happy and soothing, and lulls you into a false sense of security that the game’s AI isn't actively trying to make you lose. There are sound effects on every button click, scroll, and tap which gives the affirming feedback that every player needs but doesn't know it.

Despite its first impression, Candy Crush Saga is a challenging game

If you've played Candy Crush Saga above level 15, there is a near 100% chance that you have sworn at it, cursed the developers, and felt as if life isn't fair. An avid puzzle gamer casually trying the game out might feel that it is simple and unoriginal, a feeling that I had during my first encounter with the title. A coworker told me that I had to reach at least level 10 to truly experience Candy Crush Saga and all of its glory, which ended up being the silver bullet that I needed to sacrifice my self-discipline and give myself fully to Candy Crush. This game is no joke.

Where a game like PopCap’s Bejeweled Blitz offers up a randomized experience where the player is given a set amount amount of time to beat their friends on a leaderboard, Candy Crush Saga has a true lose condition (something that is rare in social games). It is not uncommon for a player to be stuck on a level for days, a situation that ends up being just difficult enough to keep the players trying yet not a ‘shelf moment’ where the player quits playing out of dire frustration. Similar to Angry Birds, it’s okay to fail. It’s not the point to fail, it’s not the end goal, but it will happen and it’s not going to make players hate the game or make Candy Crush any less casual. The constant challenge will retain experienced gamers and puzzle game aficionados, and the ease of rebounding after failure will keep players of all ages entertained. Candy Crush Saga is difficult enough that entire blogs exist to host video walkthroughs of each level and tips and tricks for beating the game. Since time is not a factor in the game, players have time to think about each move which adds a sense of skill that other games do not possess.

If social games had an Academy Awards, Candy Crush Saga would deserve an Oscar for “Best Level Design in a Freemium Game”.

Players are never concerned about what to do next

A combination of the ‘lives’ system (which limits the number of attempts within a session) and the fact that there is a clear objective which can be failed (such as getting all the fruits to the bottom or clearing all the jellies) means that a player ends their session wanting more and having a clear plan of action for the next time they open the app. Candy Crush Saga never has a moment where the player doesn't know what to do next. Many other social games solve this conundrum by providing the player with a detailed list of ‘quests’ that guide them to the next objective, but this is a forced and unnatural way to motivate players to spend more time in a game. Candy Crush Saga is as linear as a game can get and our minds enjoy having a preset path to follow.

Objectives offer variety that puzzle games often lack

Candy Crush Saga takes the ‘match-3' puzzle genre and adds a layer of excitement on top as if King.com said to themselves, “the world already has Bejeweled; so what do we do next?”. Matching 3 candies in a row simply offers points and clears the gems from the board, 4 gives a special candy that can clear entire rows (either horizontal or vertical depending in which direction the match was made), 5 gives the player a candy that will either destroy a wide region around it or remove all candies of a particular color from the board depending if they were matched in a T-shape, L-shape, or a line. Mixing those special candies together causes other surprising things to happen. Each level has a particular objective that has to be completed to progress to the next level. Some of these objectives include clearing all ‘jelly squares’ from the board, removing licorice from locked candies, bringing down various fruits which randomly appear on the board, and preventing chocolate from spreading.

While Candy Crush Saga might offer points as way to compare score with friends (and give the game an element of replayability), points aren't the primary objective. The game can cleverly offer a nice variety of objectives without altering the game’s rules. No matter the objective for a given level, players will always be matching candies in various combinations and trying to clear the board. Players always have the familiar context to rely on, and they always know how to get started on figuring out the strategy for a particular level. I am always looking forward to what the next objective will be, and find it a pleasing change of pace when my ultimate goal is changing from level to level without requiring me to learn new systems. A game like Bejeweled Blitz is the same every time — while the placement of the gems on the game board might change each time, the goal is always to get the highest score possible within the time allowed. 200+ levels of that formula in Candy Crush would grow tiresome.

There’s a long road full of levels ahead of players

From the first time a player starts up Candy Crush Saga, they can scroll up and down the Candyland-esque map and see that the game offers 245 levels of play (note: that’s of this writing — King.com are regularly increasing the level cap). This gives players an aspiration and a sense of being involved in something grandiose. The addition of real-life friends’ smiling faces poised with triumph along this path shows players that Candy Crush offers an adventure that people they respect are enjoying (so maybe they will too). It alludes to that linear pathway mentioned earlier and shows the player that this game has decent longevity and a steady stream of content for them to digest. All of these things assist in making the game appealing to players as a lightweight and fun experience yet an investment that can potentially give back to the player through interaction with friends within the game.

Inherently social: is this the ‘true social’ we speak of?

Candy Crush Saga hits all the buzzwords when it comes to being a social game: it’s viral in nature, retains its players, offers up deeper social interactions that investors love to hear about, is integrated with the social network behemoth Facebook, and literally requires friends to help each other to progress. Having friends is actually an enhancement to the play experience in every way in Candy Crush, whereas in some social games it feels as a selfish ploy to spread word about the game.

Friends assist each other with progressing through this skill-based game by offering boosts and extra turns; advantages that truly make Candy Crush Saga better when possessed. After running out of lives, the only way to continue playing aside from spending money is to ask friends to offer additional lives. This mechanic certainly isn’t new — viral games have been literally designed around this since Facebook virality became a make-or-break concept for products. However, Candy Crush Saga also uses friends as a motivator for increasing score on each level and progression throughout the overall game by showing their position on the map and telling players how they scored in relation to them.

In Candy Crush Saga, players are simultaneously cooperating with friends, helping each other out, and competing against each other. Facebook integration isn’t something tacked on to the game; Candy Crush was designed to use friends as a gameplay mechanic and it works. For this reason, when developers talk about ‘adding social’ as a feature set post-launch, I want to cringe. It’s like building an entire freemium game without thinking about the business model. King.com molded social motivators with individual gratification perfectly.

Candy Crush Saga is available everywhere

Finally, I’d be a fool to skip over the fact that Candy Crush Saga is available in the hottest places that free-to-play games flourish. The Facebook app was the original incarnation and is currently beating all Zynga titles as the most popular game on Facebook. In November 2012, Candy Crush Saga was released on the iOS App Store and Android’s Google Play store. It took under 2 weeks for the app to make the top 20 Top Grossing iPhone apps list and it hasn’t gone below that since. After one month on Google Play, Candy Crush Saga hit the number 1 Top Grossing list and hasn’t let go since. The iPad version looks glorious on the larger screen size.

Even more importantly, one connection to the player’s Facebook account and the game is synchronized across all devices completely seamlessly. Someone can log in on Facebook while at work, then play on their iPhone on the toilet, and then load up Candy Crush Saga on their iPad or Nexus Tablet while in bed at night. It’s smooth as butter, and King.com are making sure that you’re thinking about Candy Crush wherever you might be and that you’re never far from a device that can play it.

Candy Crush Saga is not a game without complaints

The freemium game developer in me wants to put Candy Crush Saga on a pedestal and claim it to be the perfect social game. I want to appreciate that it treats me like an adult and gives me welcome challenges. I want to unabashedly praise it’s beautiful level of polish, look, and feel. However, I can’t close this article without discussing briefly the complaints that many players have about the game.

The largest complaints exist around the fact that the game is stingy with resources and boosts and charges an astronomical amount for some of these luxuries. Every additional purchased life is 99 cents. Each boost costs $0.99 - $1.99 each. A Charm of Stripes boost costs the player $39.99 (but is a one-time purchase that can be used in every level after its unlocked). The game withholds the ability to purchase these boosts at first and ‘unlocks’ them as the player progresses, giving the illusion that they will be free when in fact the only thing that unlocked was the ability to spend money on those boosts.

Candy Crush Saga also artificially gates progression by requiring players to get tickets from their friends or pay money to unlock the next chapter of levels. This comes as a sort of surprise because it’s not evident to players that they will be gated from progression in the game by anything aside from lives and their own skill. For some players, this is the moment where they opt to put Candy Crush aside and move on to something new. Some people simply aren't willing to beg Facebook friends for anything game related. For others, this isn't a major issue because the game is free up until this point and the amount of entertainment enjoyed prior is worthy of the $0.99 to progress.

Finally, it becomes transparent in some levels (read: level 35) that the developers are designing with the intent that skill won’t be sufficient to pass a particular level and that purchasable boosts will need to be used. This is the brilliant level design that is both leading to Candy Crush Saga dominating all the top grossing charts and insulting players who feel that the game is manipulating them by ‘cheating’. These levels often cause players to be stuck for days hoping that their next attempt will result in the random distribution of candies working out in their lucky favor. This is the only element of Candy Crush Saga that feels closer to Bejeweled Blitz — when luck outweighs skill in obtaining an objective.

Tami Baribeau is Studio Director at The Playforge, developers of hit iOS games such as Zombie Farm, Tree World, and Zombie Life (and we’re hiring!). She has spent time in the industry as a Producer and Community Manager for companies such as PopCap, Disney, Playdom, ZipZapPlay, and Metaplace, and as a freelance games writer for publications such as Inside Social Games, IGN, AOL’s Games.com, Gamezebo, and the Official XBox Magazine. Find her on Twitter: @cuppy