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"No one is actually good at Candy Crush" - Divnich

Tilting Point VP of product strategy says games offering illusion of skill dominate US mobile charts, indies need to develop for more than themselves

From the very first arcade games onward, the industry has embraced the concept of "being good at a game." Whether it was dexterity, strategy, or just lightning-fast reflexes, the most successful video games in the world have usually tested something of the players. However, that doesn't seem to apply in the world of mobile games, according to Jesse Divnich.

In advance of a talk Divnich will give on the "10 Biggest Mistakes Free-to-Play Developers Make" at the Montreal International Game Summit next week, the Tilting Point VP of product strategy spoke with GamesIndustry.biz about the difference between games based on skill, and those based on the illusion of skill. For Divnich, the difference is that the former require something of players (such as concentration, precision, input, timing), and their individual skill level and dedication to the game will dictate their progress or performance. As examples, he pointed to games like Asphalt 8, FIFA 16, 8-Ball Pool, World of Tanks, and Vain Glory. For games based on the illusion of skill, progress through the game occurs at a pace determined by the developers.

"For some, it is a scary thought to know that the most commercially successful games on mobile are really just well-designed rollercoasters."

"No one is actually good at Candy Crush, but some people actually believe they are," Divnich said. "In these non-skill-based games, you can tell me how many hours you've played, how much money you have spent, and I should be able to tell you within a good degree of certainty how far you are in Candy Crush, what level your town hall is in Clash of Clans, how many times you've ascended in Tap Titans. For some, it is a scary thought to know that the most commercially successful games on mobile are really just well-designed rollercoasters. It's not a negative concept, it is simply what works in free-to-play mobile."

While Divnich stressed that the illusion of skill shouldn't be viewed as a bad thing in and of itself, he understands long-time gamers may take issue with the concept.

"As gamers, we are hobbyists and have an entirely different perspective of gaming," Divnich said. "We grew up in an era where skill-based, high intensity action was the norm. That still exists and thrives today, and that is not going anywhere. However, with the penetration of smartphones, nearly everyone is a potential gamer and we have to understand that what excites them and what drives them to engage in games is much different than what drives a traditional gamer. This concept of controlling the pace of progress is not disappearing anytime soon nor do I believe it is a mechanic that hurts enjoyment. You have to put yourself in the shoes of those consuming the content and if they're having fun, that's more important to them than whether the games they love require real skill or not."

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Looking at a chart of the recent top grossing games in the US (minus casino games), Divnich found that 26 of the top 30 games were built around the illusion of skill. The only four that were built on skill were the aforementioned 8-Ball Pool, Minecraft: Story Mode, Madden NFL, and Hearthstone: Heroes of Warcraft. It's a market dominance that makes him worry for developers expecting to launch skill-based free-to-play games on mobile.

"I see far too many independent developers creating games they'd like to play," Divnich said. "I support their passion, but in the free-to-play mobile space, we have to remember we are creating games for the other 99 percent. It's important that a mobile developer has personal passion for what they are creating, but it is more important they are also creating a game that has an addressable market... I evaluate hundreds of games a month and it is shocking that when a developer attempts to evolve a particular genre they feel the need to inject skill to differentiate when they should be thinking in the other direction. How to give the consumer more options, more variety, but within a framework where the game still holds some level of control over pacing and content consumption."

As skeptical as Divnich might be of the prospects for skill-based games in the present, he sees a bright future for them.

"If done right, there is a market for these games, we just need to set the proper expectations."

"Skill based mobile games are a huge trend in China, mostly because of the limited access to technology where you'd typically engage in skill-based games - consoles," Divnich said. "For a lot of gamers in China, mobile is the only outlet and often their first encounter with video games. Much like how it took a decade for us to adopt the free-to-play model born out of the East, I do think it's only a matter of time before we begin to see larger penetration of skill-based games in the West. I see the next generation of gamers being a catalyst for change. Those that are 7-to-13, who maybe only know their tablet as a primary gaming device. This is the market segment that continues to keep games like Minecraft near the top of the charts, both in revenue and engagement. They are the generation of players that could transform demand for more skill-based competitive experiences."

Until that generation comes of age, the growth of skill-based games in the West is going to rely on developers finding better ways to incorporate it into their designs.

"Everyone is still trying to figure out how to properly inject skill into our mobile games," Divnich said. "Skill-based gaming does work on mobile. Most of the top downloaded games are skill based: Pop the Lock, Crossy Road, Smash Road, Trivia Crack, or any Ketchapp game. However, they are wrapped around short session lengths, pick-up and play game mechanics, and simple core loops. Companies like Super Evil Mega Corp are leading the charge on these deep and competitive mobile/tablet experiences. I know many other skill based games that are in development that are incredibly fun to play. If done right, there is a market for these games, we just need to set the proper expectations."

Divnich will give his talk at MIGS 2015 Monday, November 16 at 11:30 a.m.

Full disclosure: MIGS has a media partnership with GamesIndustry.biz, and will be paying for our travel and accommodation during the event.

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Latest comments (21)

Wesley Williams Quality Assurance A year ago
My wife completes each Candy Crush update as it comes out. She sinks more time (but no money) into it than I manage on console games per week, but even she would agree it's not an achievement based on skill, it's based on persistence. Nice to hear someone vocalising this. The point about mobile developers (who want to make money) going after that market instead of the skill based market makes perfect sense.

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Wesley Williams on 11th November 2015 4:52pm

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Alex Comer Games Developer A year ago
Thing is, I became a game designer to make games, not the illusion of games.
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Kenneth Latty Jr Creative A year ago
I would agree. It's the "cards" you're dealt, and unlike actual card games, there's no counting you can do to beat the tougher levels, except play some more.

I would say that I'm "better" than people who use power-ups in Candy Crush. I don't use any.
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Show all comments (21)
Wesley Williams Quality Assurance A year ago
Is it not an illusion of skill, rather than an illusion of a game. Not all games are skill based and in fact most contain varying degrees of random chance in lots of aspects. For most games like Candy Crush, you can't succeed without any skill and you will progress faster with more skill, but that progress isn't as fast as if the game was purely skill based.

Edited 2 times. Last edit by Wesley Williams on 11th November 2015 5:38pm

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Nicholas Lovell Founder, GamesbriefA year ago
@ Alex That's fair enough. Maybe making these kind of games is not for you.

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Nicholas Lovell on 11th November 2015 5:44pm

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Robin Clarke Producer, AppyNation LtdA year ago
I don't think games basing their progression on multiple metrics other than skill is anything new. And applying an observation about what works for some games to an entire platform is over-simplistic.
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Isn't this just a trend? Once everyone switches to releasing illusion free2play, there will be an opening in the market for skill based ones? Maybe that time is now? (yeah probably not, but maybe...) Many of the "games" on that chart have been around for ages. Good article though. Good to see it in black and white (or orange and red).

What can developers that like making skill games do to make them more compulsive and more likely to get micro-purchases?
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Renaud Charpentier Game Director, The Creative AssemblyA year ago
What a weak analysis... Boom Beach and Mortal Kombat don't require real skills to play?? So you can tap anywhere, make any choice and you will still win? Absolutely not, that's plain wrong and it is wrong for many of the others in this list. If you don't understand the rules of these games (too young, wrong language) you just can't play them, try it on a 5 years old. That means you do need to develop specific skills to play these games, just not the same ones you need to develop to play EVE online.

That learning curves, dif curves, skill caps, bypass systems and looser progression paths are different, yes, that's true, but calling that illusion of skills is an illusion of an analysis. Just because you don't develop hardcore skills doesn't mean that you don't develop any skills. That is both false, elitist and derogative for the players who genuinely enjoy these games, in short they are incompetent, stupid and fooled. As Alex noted above good luck creating anything interesting with such a negative mindset.
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Greg Costkyan Game Designer A year ago
This is true only if your definition of skill is extraordnarily limited. I guarantee you that at the same Clash town hall level, there are players that win a far higher percentage of battles than others, because they have mastered the interplay between unit AI, deployment, and enemy base layout. That's a skill, but mental one. It is totally true that Clash is not a skill-and-action game, but by this standard, Civilization requires no skill, nor does Heroes of Might & Magic, nor does Europa Universalis. Indeed, I could make the counterargument that games involving strategy and progression are inherently superior to games that depend on twitch mastery, but then I'd simply be recapitulating lame arguments we've had in the field forever.
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Kenny Lynch Community Rep/Moderator A year ago
Skill does not equate to knowledge of a game. Mechanics can also trump any skill element, I remember some samurai game on the PS2, Kengo?, where the outcome of a fight between equal levelled players is totally down to reflexes and tactics. But progression in the game was totally tied to your stats -- enough advantage in speed meant you could block and then riposte before your opponent could react and vice versa.

Or something like CSR timing is necessary, a five year old would struggle, but you can't progress much quicker than the game allows. Earning CR at a difficulty level that presents no challenge is better rewarded than a higher level that you might lose only 1 in 10 races.

Skill can exist with progression, FPS games need to be skill based while also offering real benefit to grinding out higher levels.

Sure I had a conclusion, when I started his post...
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Shane Sweeney Academic A year ago
Welcome Greg!

I agree, it's just about perspective. Think about a game like the Stanley Parable, is there skill involved? Can anyone be "good" at the Stanley Parable? I think it's a meaningless question unless you narrowly define games.

Can one be "good" at Minecraft? Some people might argue yes, people can be, but with emergent goals set by every player, the question boils down to "good at what"?

I love games that enrich my life versus escape from it, but after a hard days work I do value abnegation provided by games and many of the games on this list provide exactly that so it isn't a real surprise to me.
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Devin Nambiar Director of Product Management, KabamA year ago
Definitely agree, although I think the notion of skill in games itself is a huge gray area. Even back on console, could I have said I was "skilled" at Final Fantasy X because I had a fully leveled sphere grid, unlocked all secret quests, and logged 150 hours in the game? I think a lot of the games in your infographic that are not skill-based can still be viewed as having an optimal strategy that exists which should be implemented. Finding that strategy is a combination of skill, trial-and-error, and often just browsing the internet. Working in Beijing and focusing on China, I think a lot of "skill-based" games in China are in fact just games with an optimal strategy.
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Darren Adams Managing Director, ChaosTrendA year ago
games offering illusion of skill dominate US mobile charts, indies need to develop for more than themselves
That quote would have been fine if it wasn't for the "indies need to develop for more than themselves". Why? To make money? I would assume the majority of people who want to be games developers (not managers/execs of games companies) are in it for the love of the art as Alex pointed out early in the comments.

Whilst I have no problem with games of chance and play a few, I don't like the assumption that everyone in the games industry is purely about the bottom line. And therefore, you should not make games that you want to make, but instead make games that someone else tells you to make.

Edited 3 times. Last edit by Darren Adams on 12th November 2015 10:58am

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Peter Shea Games Director, Chunk GamesA year ago
Nice to see developers arguing the case for skill in these games and not just the usual ranting against this type of play.

I agree with many of the comments that it is not an illusion of skill in these games but rather different types of skill- persistence being one of them, but also critical decision making.

In the case of Candy Crush, yes the game is heavily luck based, very often you will complete a level simply when the right combination of tiles fall in the right sequence. Sometimes you have no choice of play to make and then, yes, you are just playing a luck game, but often- particularly in the higher levels of the game you are presented with decisions of what play to make. This is where skill and understanding of the game comes in. It's not uncommon in high level Candy Crush play to need to look three or four moves ahead in order to plan how to set up the combo needed to complete the level. Skilled players will complete these levels more rapidly than unskilled players or those who spend money on powerups.

King have built on this more in Soda Saga where the game is much more about building huge combos in order to succeed than simply grinding through levels waiting for a lucky break. Strategy does play a part- perhaps not as big a part as pure luck or persistence but it is there, and is not an illusion.
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Robin Clarke Producer, AppyNation LtdA year ago
Looking more closely at the infographic, this exercise makes even less sense. Why is Minecraft: Story Mode (a graphic adventure) classed as a skill based game? Why are Puzzle & Dragons and Marvel: Contest of Champions deemed not to be skill based when Hearthstone is, even though they all involve deep strategy and have lots of mechanical overlap? And there seems to be a major assumption that none of the games primarily aimed at female players can be skill based.

If advice is to have any value it needs to be based on data and experience, not superficial observations.
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Dan Pearson European Editor, GamesIndustry.bizA year ago
Contest of Champions didn't seem to involve much skill when I played it, frankly. Nor did the Puzzle and Glory reskin. There's rarely more than one or two options to choose from, shy of the occasional power up use, and there's clearly some predetermined weighting to the way that gems fall afterwards. I don't see any "deep strategy" there whatsoever, and certainly not on the level of Hearthstone.
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Robert Mac-Donald Game Designer, Lethe GamesA year ago
video games in the world have usually tested something of the players. However, that doesn't seem to apply in the world of mobile games
If I could find more challenging games on mobile, that focus on the player skill and not on in App purchases/played time, I would play mobile games a lot more. You just can't seem to find them whether you look directly on the mobile stores or on mobile forums.

It has been my opinion for a while that the games industry should separate games more when it comes to recreational games vs challenging games. The movie industry has a distinction between films, movies, cinema, flicks. That is something above genres. Table puzzles display their intended age and number of pieces. Difficulty in games is not rated however, nor promoted in an more objective manner.

If we had something that rated difficult and learning curve, finding your targeting audience, your traditional gamers, could be easier, especially on places like mobile. I admit that is a pretty hard thing to do however. You can have a casual game being the hardest and requiring the most practice (try to beat something like the japanese version of pooh's homerun), and games with a high learning curve with lots of features, but that do a lot of player hand holding and offer no challenge.
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Eric Byron Director of Client Services, DextrysA year ago
I think the author asks and answers the wrong question. Games are entertainment. They are played for fun and distraction. The huge variety of games, and skills required to play, results from the fact that people enjoy many different forms of entertainment. A game is not less of a game if it doesn't require the skills Brendan cares about and the premise that games that don't require the skills he cares about present the illusion of skills is just silly. Is any game that involves cards or dice less fun because there is an element of luck involved?

Brendan is welcome to play the games he chooses. I'm glad that there are so many choices of fun games to play and I'm not the least embarrassed to say that I enjoy some of those games that he dismissed as giving the illusion of skills when you play them well.
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Alfonso Sexto Lead Tester, Ubisoft GermanyA year ago
"Skill or the Illusion of Skill"
Let's start saying that I think we are mixing two kind of "gamer" here as if they were the same. One cares about skill, the other just about killing time. It's like comparing a casual poker player that likes to sometimes play with friends with one that goes to competitions once per year and regularly visits Vegas. One is a Hardcore player that enjoys the game by caring about skill an proving himself, the other only cares about having a good time here and there.
Still, it would be absurd to say that what this last one has is "illusion of skill", kind because he would provably beat me (Who never plays poker) without breaking a sweat.

Now about illusions, if they even exist:
Remember the days of StarCraft and how all this "Zerg rushers" thought to be the most skilled players ever? Remember also what happened when it got patched?
The issue with StarCraft was unintentional, this could or could not be the case. But word of advice: if your plan is to sell illusions, just don't.

EDIT: Is really Fallout Shelter illusion of skill? Becuase I suffered and illusion of raider attack a couple times already.

Edited 2 times. Last edit by Alfonso Sexto on 17th November 2015 8:18am

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Joshua Hagood Moderation Project Manager, Metaverse Mod SquadA year ago
Minecraft: Story Mode is skill based? I may be wrong, but I thought it was a standard TellTale game where you just chose answers and the store was more or less predetermined with a few variants along the way. Did the make of that graphic confuse it with normal Minecraft?
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Yasser Bushara System Designer A year ago
I think what the author was trying to say is that the most financially successful games on the appstore put less emphasis on the type of actions players take (the skill part) and more on the quantity (grind) or monetisation as far as progression is concerned. Of course the games mentioned require some level of skill to play, I doubt anyone claimed otherwise, but the decisions and associated actions taken become less and less relevant as the player progresses, which is why it can be considered an illusion of skill.

Clash of Clans at the start is brilliant, simple rules, meaningful decisions. But eventually that evolves into something else, progression requires a LOT more time or money to be invested, irrespective of how clever your tactical decisions are. I played a lot of King of Thieves when it first came out , it was a lot of fun. But I don't any more as I reached my skill limit for the game, I just don't have the reflexes to create and navigate the more complex dungeons to remain competitive.

I raised the King of Thieves issue because I think it is a good example of why games that rely heavily on skill do not do well financially. By limiting progression of players based on their ability, you are excluding them from your audience, effectively sending potential customers away because they are not "good" enough. This just doesn't make sense if you look at the game as a product whose main goal is revenue.

On the other hand if revenue is just one of the goals but not the main one, then no reason not to target a smaller audience. Perhaps the indie wants to make a game for a niche group, perhaps its simply a labour of love, perhaps it is sufficient to earn less income on the game as its simply not the main priority.

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Yasser Bushara on 24th November 2015 10:29am

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