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This article is based on academic research forthcoming in Social, Casual, Mobile: Changing Games, an edited collection published by Bloomsbury. It has been re-written for a Gamasutra audience.
Often, cheating is understood as transgressive and non-playful. A breakdown of gameplay that diminishes the experience for everyone. Thinking of it this way, and defining it just as a 'violation of rules', is an unproductive way to think about cheating and its relationship to game design.
Back in 2014, we started looking at Candy Crush Saga, the frighteningly successful 'casual' game. We did a little work interviewing players about their experience in order to lay the foundations for a larger project that really brought home for us how significant a concept 'cheating' is for game design, and how its much, much more than just 'breaking the rules'.
In an early interview for this study, one of our participants brought up that they had cheated; they had downloaded a browser-extension that gave them unlimited moves. They provided some fascinating insights into how they justified their cheating (in order to level the playing field against their friends who made micro-transactions). Consequently, we started asking every participant in the study "have you ever cheated at Candy Crush?"
More often than not, our participants assumed we were talking about the in-game purchases that aren't just within the rules of Candy Crush, they're its entire (billion dollar) business model!
In this blog post, we're going to discuss the results of our research into cheating in Candy Crush Saga, unpack the motivations for cheating, and discuss the design implications for freemium casual games and explaining how a more nuanced understanding of 'cheating' can be useful for game design.
A Very Brief Introduction to Candy Crush Saga
Candy Crush Saga is a puzzle game released in April 2012 on Facebook and November 2012 for mobile devices (iOS and Android). The game extends earlier tile-matching games like Bejeweled (itself an enormous, and relatively unstudied success) with a progression system, Facebook integration, limited ‘lives’ and increasing difficulty over time. In 2013, David Bolton suggested that Candy Crush is "a high performance super car in comparison to Bejeweled Blitz’s Model T Ford”, which is a fair analogy.
The player earns points by switching a piece of candy with an adjacent candy piece to match a minimum of three similar candy pieces together which are then removed from the board. The game offers two primary modes for play; timed, where the player can make as many moves as possible until a timer reaches zero and limited moves, where the player has to reach a particular goal within a limited number of switches. Combining more candies at once makes candies that can do more powerful things.
When they fail a level, the user loses a ‘life’ which they regain following a 30 minute timer. As the player can only have a maximum of 6 lives at any time, play is prevented from occurring in long uninterrupted sessions. This type of wholly artificial limitation, not implemented for multiplayer balance or justified in the in-game narrative, is one of the most common monetization practices in freemium games.
Other than buying lives – in other words, access to the game – players can also buy various power-ups to help them complete a level. It is not possible to pay any amount to skip a level, and the use of power-ups is no guarantee that the level can be completed.
Cheating at Candy Crush Saga
If you’re a current player of Candy Crush who doesn’t know how to cheat, I recommend not reading this article. One participant in our study contacted us after participating, letting us know that knowing about these cheats had ruined their Candy Crush experience.
Technical Cheats – Time Travel
The first (obvious) form of cheating in Candy Crush is technical cheats. The most frequent we encounter is where players change the system clock to trick the Candy Crush application into thinking that time has passed and consequently, lives are regenerated immediately. One player I spoke with was well into 2019 from having used this cheat so frequently.
With the exception of one participant who didn’t want know about cheats, lest it ruin her experience, all our participants had no objection to this form of cheating. ‘Jenny’ (25, F) suggested that "cheating to get extra lives is fine, because I still have to complete the task, you know what I mean?”; the extra lives only subverted control over access to the game, rather than the in-game challenge. Participant ‘Brock’ (31, M) similarly separated the two;
Brock: It doesn’t help you finish the level, it just gives you the chance to play the game again, so in that sense I probably wouldn’t have a problem cheating the candy crush empire out of another dollar; I probably wouldn’t really care!
This is better articulated by Kotaku's Mike Fahey, who suggests this exploit "isn't cheating, it's time travel". In other words, despite it circumventing the coded rules of the application, it wasn’t cheating because it did not affect the Candy Crush game or play.
Interestingly, we found that knowing of this cheat had negative consequences. Jenny, a PhD student, explained that when she had to wait for lives to respawn Candy Crush better integrated with her daily life:
Jenny: it was really good because I would have to mark 2 essays and then I got another life. It was a good sort of reward system for myself but now I’ve discovered how to get unlimited lives and it's become more of a negative influence.
Rather than the limited lives simply causing frustration (that player's might attempt to overcome by paying $0.99), limited lives meant that Candy Crush better integrated with her life. ‘Erika’ (25, F) who we interviewed after she had deleted the Candy Crush app from her phone for consuming too much of her time and attention was also glad she didn't know about this exploit beforehand; "I probably would have just played for hours".
Technical Cheats – 3rd Party Apps
The second type of technical exploit was third-party software that Candy Crush players can install on their computers, affording unlimited lives or unlimited in-game power-ups. Only ‘Ash’ (29, M) had ever used these tools, but his use reflected the attitudes of other player's towards monetization. Ash was a player who had begun playing with his friends overseas, and had integrated Candy Crush with Facebook so that they could compete and compare their progress. After he told us about his use of third party programs, which he concealed from these friends, I asked why he installed this software:
Ash: I guess maybe it's the frustrating experience oh and you get sometimes there is one or two steps to finish that you can’t, then you end up failed and you feel bad and, and, as a computer scientist you know how the computer works and I guess yeah you lets you think about there must be something to bypass this thing so I start searching and if you enter it in google you will find it.
And back to the question why I didn’t pay and how is it fair to our friends and my answer is; they choose to pay I choose to use those tools. So it’s kind of the same.
Researcher: So yours is just the thrifty, the cheap option
This justification of using a technical exploit worked to categorize purchasing in-game advantages as a form of cheating. Ash, who had refused to pay, felt that his friends were cheating by making in-game purchases of power-ups. Like Mia Consalvo's (2007) definition of cheating as gaining an unfair advantage, to Ash, paying money was also an unfair advantage, a fact he used to justify his own use of technical exploits.
In-Game Purchases as Cheating
Of our participants who had paid, none had bought power-ups. We asked Jessie (25, F), who had spent approximately $25 on extra lives while playing Candy Crush, why she had never bought them:
Jessie: um, well firstly because I thought it was like a waste of money, a bit like cheating, you know? Um, and you know, it would be better if I could say [to my friends] that I’d never used power ups because it's quite difficult to do that.
Similarly, after asking Jenny (who hadn't paid any money in Candy Crush) why not just pay a dollar to progress past the "frustrating" level she described being stuck on for a long time, she argued "because then I won’t have completed the challenge. It feels like cheating." We later questioned how it was cheating:
Jenny: I just feel like I haven’t, I feel like it would be like taking the soft option to get through the task and I wouldn’t get the same level of satisfaction out of it which is the whole reason I play.
What these justifications come down to is the motivation a player has to play Candy Crush. Both Jessie and Jenny played Candy Crush as a break from other work, as an engaging and challenging puzzle to spend a small amount of time briefly solving which purchasing power-ups disrupts.
Near the start of our interview when the interviewer asked Brock if he had ever been tempted to cheat at Candy Crush, he immediately assumed we were referring to those power-ups. He similarly felt that using power-ups took away the appeal of playing:
Brock: "just taking a magic toy that gets me through the next level and then I’m like, what did I even do then? What was the point of that? The challenge is gone, the puzzle is just gone."
To Ash, the player who used the third-party cheat programs, the motivation was different; to compete against his friends and advance through the game, and consequently his attitude towards cheats was different. This aside, all these players still felt that purchases of power-ups was cheating in some form. ‘James’ (61, M) even expressed this attitude towards any type of purchase:
James: within the household it’s definitely not on to pay ... and among their [his children] friends who play, it’s considered cheating. if you did do it you'd never talk about it!
In academic research, it has long been shown that cheating is a social construct, and its unsurprising that the social context of Candy Crush play influences what player consider to be cheating or not.
These quotes have demonstrated the findings from our research that some players consider in-app micro-transactions a form of cheating. In particular, those purchases that afforded an advantage within the game were considered to give players an unfair advantage in competitive play, and otherwise take away from the purpose of playing and thus the enjoyment of the game.
We also saw this categorization as justification for using complex technical cheats, such as third party programs. More simple exploits, such as those that afforded unlimited lives, were still considered cheating but were less denigrated; principally because they had no effect on the game-play. Unsurprisingly, these then appeared to be the most common form of in-game purchase made by our participants.
Cheating in Game Studies
The concept or act of cheating has received some significant study in the academic game studies research. Early work by authors such as Bernard Suits (1978) sought to define cheating as a violation of a game's formal and definable boundaries, boundaries that digital games like World of Warcraft or EVE Online have clearly shown do not exist.
Mia Consalvo's (2007) seminal work on the topic of Cheating defined it loosely, as gaining an unfair advantage, but saw examples of cheating (like mods and hacks) as playful, reflecting the nature of digital spaces (typically, in her study, virtual worlds) as spaces for experimentation and creative play.
We see this common definition having significant rhetorical weight in this study; fair, for Candy Crush players is unaltered, and the appeal of the puzzle-based game is in beating the challenges fairly. However, this does not explain the categorization of in-game purchases as a form of cheating, as power-ups ‘earned’ (rather than bought) through gameplay are considered legitimate play.
The circumstances in which we saw the purchase of in-game advantages as acceptable were when the focus of the play was not on the challenge of an individual level, but the challenge of advancing through the game's progression mode. In these circumstances, purchasing an in-game advantage to bypass a particularly hard or challenging level was a more acceptable, but still to many, a form of cheating, as it cheapened the challenge of getting to high levels.
We noted in our research another challenge to Candy Crush's monetization which reflected the significantly low percentage of players making in-app purchases. While cheating in the form of gaining unlimited lives was attractive to some, as it allowed them to play on their own terms (only "cheating the candy crush empire"), some felt learning this cheat had diminished their experience of the game.
Rather, they recognized that the limitation of playing was part of its appeal; a reward for waiting 30 minutes to play (perhaps having worked on a hard task in the interim) or as a formalized limit to reduce the impact of Candy Crush's "addictiveness". To those with enough self-restraint or aversion to paying money, not paying saw the game more successfully and positively integrate with their daily lives.
This shows that it is important in game research to not rely on a definition of cheating; it is not that it is an unfair advantage that in-game power-ups are cheating (earned power-ups are not thought of as cheating). Similarly, they are not a trick; no deception or deceit has occurred with power-ups, and they are most certainly not a violation of the game's formal rules.
The categorization of in-app purchases in this context as a form of cheating is best understood as an attempt by players to denigrate the practice as unacceptable because it does not align with their motivations to play; to pass time, as a break from work, overcome a challenge, compete with friends, solve a puzzle or to relax. According to the people we interviewed, these aims can only be achieve when the game and challenge are fair, unaltered, and achieved rather than achievable through demonstrations of economic power.
Rather than drawing from a specific definition of cheating, the interviewed players used the concept of cheating for boundary-work, as a moral resource to devalue this type of play, a devaluation of sincere concern to those who employ this business model. 'Freemium' games should offer players the opportunity to enhance their experience in accordance with their motivations to play and enjoyment drawn, or making in-app purchases will remain a socially hidden – and thus less successful - practice.
Though accurate data is unavailable, it is typically cited that 10% of the players who play 'freemium' games account for 50% of revenue. A more recent Swrve report suggested that only 49% of players make any purchases at all. Those making multiple purchases (totalling over $20) contributing the lions-share of revenue are colloquially referred to by developers as 'whales'.
Discounting the revenues from in-game advertising, this presents an astonishing conundrum for the social, casual mobile genre which typically relies on the freemium model - why don't over half of players pay at all? Indeed, as the freemium economy has increased, users in the Apple and Android app stores are increasingly less likely to make out-right purchases in the face of a flooded market of (ostensibly) free games. Freemium is increasingly becoming the only way for developers to release games.
It’s therefore important to game designers that many players of Candy Crush consider these in-app purchases - fundamental to its business model - a form of cheating. Obviously with its recent IPO valuing the company at $7.6 billion USD, with a reported $1.8 billion USD in revenue, many feel payment is an acceptable way to circumvent in-game challenge, but the findings remain crucial; how much more money could they be making if their business model was not denigrated as a form of cheating?
Dr. Marcus Carter is a Research Fellow in the Microsoft Research Centre for Social Natural User Interfaces at The University of Melbourne, Australia. His PhD focused on treacherous play in EVE Online, such as scamming and espionage. He has also researched DayZ, Warhammer 40,000 and Candy Crush Saga. See his personal website, www.marcuscarter.com.
Prof. Staffan Bjork is a full professor at the department of Applied Information Technology, Gothenburg University, Sweden. He has researched the design space of computer-augmented board games and has worked extensively at developing a design language for gameplay design. http://ait.gu.se/kontaktaoss/personal/staffan-bjork
Consalvo, Mia (2007) Cheating. Cambridge, MA.: MIT Press.
Suits, Bernard (1978) The Grasshopper: Games, Life and Utopia. Broadview Press.