Activision, publisher of games such as Call of Duty, is buying Candy Crush Saga maker King for $5.9 billion, a large sum when considering other recent big game publisher purchases: Facebook bought Oculus for $2 billion and Microsoft bought Minecraft for $2.5 billion. What makes this particular news disappointing isn't the amount of money being spent (game studios are bought, sold, and homogenized all the time), but rather that the same company selling more original ideas like Hearthstone is going to be behind a game that takes its best ideas from other games. News of this sale will encourage other game developers and companies to make similar games and try to make a quick buck while the irons are hot. If you've been following mobile games for awhile, this headline will, again, feel like deja vu: its another race to the bottom of who can make the cheapest game for the most profit.
Candy Crush Saga is a game in the "Match 3" genre, puzzle games where you have to match similar-looking items to clear the puzzle board of pieces; in the case of Candy Crush Saga, you're clearing candy. The first game of this type was a 1994 Russian DOS-based game called Shariki. Since then, evolutions on this particular brand of game have come in Bejeweled (my personal favorite), Tetris Attack (a Tetris-spinoff of the idea), and countless others. King themselves make many of these "inspired" imitators themselves: Farm Heroes Saga, Pet Rescue Saga, Diamond Digger Saga, just to name a few.
Games on phones have long been near-carbon copies of each other: Flappy Bird's overnight success spawned instant imitators from Hoverboard Rider to "Flappy Wings" to "Flying Bird," ball-paddle rotating game Pongo Pongo looks very similar to Circle Pong! and Rotable (though who came first is up for debate), and number-matching game Threes famously had a more popular imitator in 2048 (the latter of which was made over the course of a weekend, the former of which had to defend itself against accusations that they were the actual copycat). The reason copies of popular games are allowed to exist is two-fold:
- Apple, Google, Valve, and others with digital game marketplaces do not routinely police their storefronts for copyright-infringing ideas (although sometimes they do)
- Lots of people have phones and mobile devices; if you can make a game that is guaranteed to have a baked-in audience AND that is similar to another popular thing, you'll have a better chance of selling things to that audience who also like said other thing
In many cases, it's hard to know which games came first and players and publishers don't necessarily care. Last year, PopCap co-founder (PopCap makes Bejeweled) John Vechey stated that "King may be a competitor, and clearly both [Candy Crush Saga] and Papa Pear are inspired by Bejeweled and Peggle respectively, but they're not clones." He further argued that calling Candy Crush a clone of Bejeweled would be similar to calling Half-Life a clone of Quake. Personally, during the Threes debate, I asked people who played 2048 if they had heard of the game that inspired the other; one response was "Yeah, I've heard of it, but 2048 is free, so why would anyone play Threes?". It was a pretty common sentiment among people I had asked that same question. A free game, regardless of quality, will be more accessible than one you have to pay to play.
In fairness to mobile games, other game platforms also have games that are similar: one could argue that Sonic The Hedgehog and Crash Bandicoot exist because Super Mario Bros is popular. As game players (and on our podcast, no less), we often describe new games by describing what old games they are like (ie, Horizon Zero Dawn is Monster Hunter meets FarCry, Persona 4 Dancing All Night is Elite Beat Agents meets Theatrhythm, etc). This shorthand, while useful to describe new games, dismisses the new ideas that new games in similar genres bring. In other words, just because Candy Crush Saga came after Bejeweled's release does not mean it should not get credit for bringing new things to the table. Diddy Kong Racing took Mario Kart's formula and put its own spin on it. Similarly, Tekken is not just a fighting game clone of Street Fighter or Dead or Alive.
It's just...hard not to feel suspicious that something more insidious is going on with this large purchase by Activision. King is very protective of its trademarks, to the point where it sues other games from even using the same words in game titles, and Activision is notoriously very litigious in defending itself from other lawsuits from former developers and competitors alike. There is also some speculation on the part of Bloomberg and other outlets that, because King is based out of Ireland, Activision will save $1 billion in taxes by moving some of its money into a foreign company. Finally, there is also the braggadocio that happens when one large company eats another: Activision was the fifth largest public game company prior to purchasing King, and afterwards, it becomes bigger than both Microsoft and Sony.
What does this all mean for fans of Candy Crush Saga, Match 3 enthusiasts, and other game players? In the short term, a lot more games will be made that try to ape Candy Crush's style (really looking forward to playing Confectionary Squash Chronicle) to get big buyers to open their wallets. In the long term, it might mean that new ideas in mobile games big and small will be simultaneously more expensive and cheaper to produce (new ideas might need more development resources to be successful; its less financially risky to make a sequel or a clone when most of the foundation is made for you). Frankly, there's nothing sweet about any of that.