King's been in the news a lot recently, largely due to its attempts to claim ownership over the "Candy" trademark and, subsequently, accusations of cloning.
Prior to this, if you're not big into the world of free-to-play social and mobile games, you may have only had a passing familiarity with King through mentions of Candy Crush Saga -- or, indeed, the advertising for said game that's been plastered everywhere. And yet King is one of the biggest names in free-to-play social gaming right now -- Candy Crush Saga alone attracts over 150 million players every month as the top-ranked game on Facebook, and its other titles also ride high in the charts.
So who are King, why should we care about them, and exactly what have they given to the games industry as a whole? Well, before we get on to their top five games, it's important to at least acknowledge one thing: like their precursor Zynga, King has done a lot to make the concept of video games an accessible and desirable pastime for a much broader spectrum of people, including those who would never consider purchasing a piece of dedicated gaming hardware. King's games aren't "by gamers, for gamers" as the old cliché goes; they're by business people, for everyone -- and the sheer number of people playing each of their games seems to suggest that they're doing something "right," at least from a business perspective.
More importantly from our perspective, though, are their games actually any good? I played their five most popular titles (as ranked by metrics service AppData) so you don't have to. And... well, read on.
Candy Crush Saga
What is it? A Match-3 puzzle game in the most traditional sense, in which you swap pairs of candies with one another in an attempt to create groups or three or more like-colored candies horizontally or vertically. Creating lines of 4 or more gives you bonuses and special candies that make clearing the board easier, and the game includes several different types of level with objectives varying from completing a certain number of matches to clearing all the "jelly" by making matches on every space on the board.
How successful is it? Candy Crush Saga is the number 1 game on Facebook as ranked by MAU (monthly active users, or the number of unique users in a single 30-day period). Facebook no longer gives exact figures for monthly active users on apps, instead giving a not-so-useful ballpark figure, but with over 150 million MAUs, Candy Crush Saga is far and away one of the most successful games ever seen on the platform.
Is it any good? Highly polished, well put together and certainly not wanting for content, Candy Crush Saga is nonetheless a rather derivative, predictable game that quickly becomes obnoxious with its handholding tutorials, overly hasty "suggested moves" and some of the most unappealing character designs I've ever seen -- not to mention some of the most overpriced "pay to win" powerups in the entire business. Fie, I say.
Play this instead: Bejeweled
Pet Rescue Saga
What is it? Another match-3 puzzle game, but this time following the SameGame/Jawbreaker mold rather than Bejeweled. Rather than swapping tiles around to remove them, you click on groups of two or more adjoining like-colored tiles to destroy them. As with Candy Crush Saga, there are several variations on this basic formula, including clearing a certain proportion of the level or having to drop the titular pets to the bottom of the green. The game also includes some play areas that are taller than the screen, which is unusual for this type of game.
How successful is it? At the time of writing, Pet Rescue Saga is the number 2 game on Facebook as ranked by MAU, with over 10 million monthly active users to its name, suggesting Candy Crush Saga has a comfortable lead on it.
Is it any good? Once again, Pet Rescue Saga is a highly polished game that is almost identical mechanically to other games that have been around a lot longer. There's little in the way of imagination here, and once again the experience is spoiled by overly eager in-app purchases and play throttling.
Play this instead: SameGame
Farm Heroes Saga
What is it? "From the makers of Candy Crush Saga..." comes a game that is almost identical to Candy Crush Saga. This time around, you're primarily collecting specific fruits and vegetables by, you guessed it, swapping them around to make lines of three or more identical objects either horizontally or vertically. Some occasional interest is added through special levels such as boss fights against an obnoxious cartoon raccoon, but ultimately it's still just swapping things around to make lines.
How successful is it? Farm Heroes Saga is the number 3 game on Facebook, with over 10 million MAUs to its name.
Is it any good? Farm Heroes Saga has a distinct aesthetic from its more popular, sugar-coated counterpart, but with mechanics so similar to Candy Crush Saga there's even less reason to bother playing this, ever.
Play this instead: Bejeweled. Seriously!
Papa Pear Saga
What is it? A game in which you shoot Papa Pear -- who, incidentally, owing to his crash helmet, beard, arms and legs is completely unrecognizable as a pear -- from the top of the screen down to the bottom, attempting to bounce him off as many pegs... sorry, "acorns" along the way, after which he falls into one of several pots. At the end of a level, there's a "Papa Fiesta," where bonuses can be attained.
How successful is it? Papa Pear Saga is one of King's newer games and thus hasn't gained quite as much traction as some of the others -- though Farm Heroes Saga, which came out around the same time, has performed somewhat better. At 14th place with over 10 million MAUs, though, it's still in respectable shape.
Is it any good? Like most of King's games, this is a decent quality adaptation of an established formula -- but like most of King's games, it's mired in a microtransaction-heavy economy and a lives mechanic that throttles play sessions rather than encouraging players to sit and continually engage with the game. Papa Pear himself is also one of those characters you'll immediately want to punch right in the mouth as soon as you see him.
Play this instead: Peggle
Bubble Witch Saga
What is it? A game in which you fire colored bubbles out of a cannon in an attempt to make groups of three or more adjoining like-colored bubbles. Popping bubbles in such a manner that other bubbles are no longer attached to the top of the screen causes them to fall, and the objective in each level is to reveal a certain number of stars at the top of the screen, after which the remaining bubbles all fall into pots at the bottom of the screen.
How successful is it? Bubble Witch Saga, as one of King's older games, was one of the top-ranked games on Facebook for a while, but has since dropped to 24th place in the MAU rankings. With over 10 million monthly active users, though, it's still in good shape.
Is it any good? Aside from the horrible mid-'90s pre-rendered characters and repetitive music, this game also loses marks for still having its Christmas decorations up at the time of writing. Oh, and it offers precisely nothing we haven't seen before many, many, many times in the myriad other bubble shooters that have hit the market since 1994's Puzzle Bobble.
Play this instead: Bust-A-Move
So what have we learned? Well, more than anything, King likes to play it safe, and it's a tactic that appears to pay off, as frustrating as that might be to those of us who prefer games to show a bit more individuality. Two of its most popular games are almost identical to one another (and in turn are almost identical to the numerous other match-3 puzzle games out there); one is a runaway success and the other is no slouch, either. The other three of its most popular games, meanwhile, are all derivatives of other, established games from standalone rather than Web-based platforms -- in many cases, King simply beat companies like PopCap to the punch in releasing Facebook-based versions of these games.
Is the fact that King's success is built on almost entirely unoriginal work something to be concerned about? Perhaps, particularly as its recent attempts to trademark the terms "Candy" and "Saga" have demonstrated that it certainly doesn't like getting a taste of its own medicine. It also sets an unfortunate precedent for other developers: seeing the astronomical success outfits like King have with completely unoriginal derivatives like Candy Crush Saga runs the risk of discouraging other developers from taking risks with more creative game concepts, and in the process causes platforms such as Facebook and the App Store to continue on their "race to the bottom" trajectory as everyone desperately tries to attract (and monetize) more and more players with proven but predictable and boring formats.
Still, so long as King games aren't the only thing on the market, we perhaps shouldn't worry too much -- especially while disgruntled developers from across the industry are keen to distance themselves from King's business practices, with others even going so far as to set up a candy-themed game jam specifically to troll King. But that, I feel, is a story for another day.