Candy Crush Saga is massive. If its 250 million monthly active users aren’t enough, the game has been downloaded a staggering three billion times. It seems we just can’t get enough Tiffi and her confectionary-themed companions. And it’s not just mobile gamers who’ve proven themselves to have a sweet tooth - as brands get their head around the possibilities of gaming, this mainstream hit allows them to reach even gamers who don’t consider themselves ‘gamers’.
Most recently, the Activision Blizzard King game has partnered with Paramount Studios for an elaborate Sonic 2 tie-in that brings together two iconic gaming worlds while also pushing the boundaries of creative in-game potential. There’s a special season of play that introduces temporary themed levels and brings the blue speedster directly into the game.
The game turns ten this year. So, as brands’ interest in partnering up with the gaming world grows, the team at Candy Crush has a decade’s worth of experience under their belt helping marketers level up their in-game experiences.
Have a Game Plan
When it comes to any kind of partnership, whether it’s as simple as an in-game ad or an elaborate activation or even modifications to the game itself (for example, themed levels), the starting point for the team is always the player, as Jennifer Sharp, vice president of mobile partnerships, Activision Blizzard King.
From a Candy Crush perspective, that means understanding the very particular role that the game plays in the lives of its 250 million monthly active users, and what they’re really looking for. “We understand that our players are coming into the game for what we call a 'sweet escape' from their daily lives,” explains Jennifer. “And it's important for us to stay true to the core experience that they expect from candy but also to surprise and delight them with fresh new content and new experiences.”
For many people Candy Crush serves as a moment of escapism and a treat to dip into - which then should factor into the tone of content of brands partnering with or advertising in the game context.
“A lot of times our players will come to escape and they'll bookend their day with Candy Crush,” says Jennifer. “They'll play when they first wake up and when they go to bed at night and throughout the day. It's like a touch point through for them throughout the day. So there's that kind of constant and welcome experience, which is also good for brands too, as a, you know, if they're a part of that environment.”
Indeed, with any game, brands need to really understand not just the demographics of the player base but the culture and expectations around that particular game experience. The very same person could play Call of Duty, World of Warcraft and Candy Crush - while looking for a very different experience from each.
“Be sure to understand the game in terms of audience scale and regions, all of those basic things... But beyond that, I think it's also important to not forget the motivations and interests of the player,” says Jennifer. “Why are they playing? What experiences are they open to in the context of that game? How would your brand enhance that experience? So I think those are all things that are important to keep in mind when talking with a gaming partner.”
Many Candy Crush players don’t particularly regard themselves as gamers, and it’s the expectation of entertainment and delight that brands really need to lean into, Jennifer explains, if they really want to make the most of a partnership.
Find Your Sweet Spot - and Get Playful
With the newest partnership activation, the team have found a sweet spot in terms of the audience’s expectations and interests. Paramount has collaborated with Activision Blizzard King to promote its new blockbuster Sonic 2 with Candy Crush. Sonic has zoomed through a portal into the Candy Kingdom and has found himself re-imagined in the game’s distinctive style - and he’s also brought a suite of new themed levels.
From Jennifer’s perspective the fit between the two worlds created the ideal sense of synergy, both in terms of player expectation and creative direction. “I'd say with Paramount, we had a really lovely starting point and that this was a tentpole film for them. We saw a strong audience overlap,” says Jennifer, pointing to the family friendly vibe of both properties.
“They’re just really fun characters and there’s a positive sentiment from our own audience towards that brand - and once the creative teams got involved that’s where the fun started.”
One of the joys of bringing a brand or existing IP into the interactive world of gaming is that there are so many playful possibilities. With Sonic, the creative team were able to really go to town, bringing in iconic aspects of the original Sonic games, from emeralds to the distinctive sound cues.
Bringing two iconic gaming IPs together in a cohesive way presented the team with an interesting and challenging task.
“The challenges in many ways are also the fun part, especially for creative teams. We definitely did not want an experience that felt disjointed or separate. We didn't want to necessarily take our players away from what it is they come to Candy Crush to do and enjoy. It needed to be really integrated.
“The creative team saw a chance to transform those iconic blue candies into Sonic-themed Spin Dash candies. And then once our music lead got involved, we had the chance to make use of Sonic sounds and music to incorporate into our own music, which we did for the first time. Then we got a sneak peek at the narrative of the film, and we're able to incorporate the narrative of film into a live event. So it was really integrated for our players and places that were natural for them. And as part of our season theme, and it was also a natural experience for Sonic and that brand in that it really felt part of the candy world and it was welcomed by both new players coming in who are fans of Sonic as well as Candy Crush players who are new to Sonic.”
Don’t Take Players Out of the Game
Of course, elaborate gaming experiences aren’t necessarily right for every brand, but even with more straightforward in-game advertising that fit, core gaming experience is of vital importance if brands want to ensure their ads are effective rather than annoying.
If players are in a game to be entertained, the advertising shouldn’t suddenly stop that flow of entertainment. Similarly, if a different game is all about thrill and adrenaline, the advertising shouldn’t suddenly slam on the brakes.
“We don't want to take players away from what they're in Candy Crush to do and enjoy. That's one of the natural boundaries for the experience. It means that we need to do something that fits into the core experience,” says Jennifer, who adds that it’s a fundamental restriction that provides a great deal of scope for creativity.
It’s even possible for brands to help enhance the gaming experience. Jennifer says that Candy Crush is seeing growth in its opt-in reward videos. That allows players to exercise control over what they choose to watch and gives them in-game tokens or currencies in exchange for viewing content, and that helps the player access items to help with their gameplay. From Jennifer’s perspective it creates a greater sense of mutual benefit. If brands can do something that actually helps a player in their game it creates a greater
“It allows players some control over what they see and also gives them much loved and valued rewards for consuming video, for example, and it performs extremely well and brands have been happy and our users have been really happy with it.”
Level Up Your Entertainment
Indeed, creativity and entertainment are crucial. Many Candy Crush players don’t particularly regard themselves as gamers. Instead, they have an expectation of entertainment and delight that brands really need to lean into, Jennifer explains, if they really want to make the most of a partnership.
“Our players don't really view themselves as gamers inside of Candy Crush. They're here for that sweet escape and for entertainment,” explains Jennifer. And it seems to be working. “For example, when we have video within the game, we see that the watch time and engagement with that video is very high. And we realise that there's an openness to provide a range of experiences inside of the game that they might be interested in.
“I think we're very open to innovating on that front and there's probably a lot of room to grow.”
Ready Player One?
Brand partnerships and advertising with gaming platforms isn’t a new phenomenon but Jennifer says that she and her team have noticed an increased interest in the space.
“Definitely we’ve seen more of an appetite to work with us as a gaming partner. I think that’s partly because we can provide a really leaned-in experience where our players are interacting with the brand versus scrolling or clicking,” says Jennifer.
Gaming is a space that’s rich with tech-driven possibilities, but the really exciting stuff is altogether more human. For Jennifer and her team, the potential for bringing top talent into the mix with brands and gaming platforms is enormous. That’s already been hinted at with the likes of the Travis Scott concert in Fortnite or, indeed, Khloé Kardashian coming on board as the host of the Candy Crush All Star tournament. Talent can also be a great driver of reach both for game and brand.
“We've seen a melding of experiences between the brand, talent and the game. So you've seen in-game concerts, and cosmetic items and collectibles that might be provided within a game. I think we'll continue to see a melding of real world and digital experiences as we go forward. I think also making use of talent in a smart way in-game, that also brings an opportunity and then more social and real-world activations as an extension of what you see digitally.”
And of course there’s no avoiding the obsession with all things ‘metaverse’. The gaming sphere, with its interactivity and social connectivity offers much of what brands are looking for with the ‘metaverse’, only with a vast pre-existing user base.
“There’s definitely a tonne of attention and money flowing into the [metaverse] space. A little bit hard to know where that will land, but there’s definitely a lot of interest there,” reflects Jennifer. “I think the one thing we know is that for brands and marketers who are thinking about how to activate in the metaverse, gaming provides an opportunity for them to better understand virtual worlds, including you know how audiences engage in the space, the motivations of players and what kind of authentic integrations might look like. We’re a step towards that. I think all of that interest is benefiting gaming in general right now.”
And so, with Candy Crush entering its second decade, it’s coming of age just in time for a sugar rush of interest from brands.