How Pokémon Go crushed Candy Crush

By Mindy Cultra

- July 22, 2016


Much—perhaps too much—has been said about Pokémon Go taking over the gaming universe and the fact that every brand known to man is trying to capitalize on the  marketing potential of augmented reality. The latest data is saying that the game has already surpassed the golden standard set by Candy Crush.

Yes, the fallout is both amazing and bizarre, but as a researcher who studies the motivations behind human behavior, I keep coming back to why? Why are people playing? What need is this game fulfilling for players?  Seeing mobs of people—including my 8-year-old daughter—walking around town trying to catch little virtual creatures put my researcher’s brain into overdrive. I decided to dig deeper.

At Halverson Group, we had already done studies in the past about what motivates people to play games—be they mobile, old-fashioned board games, or others. We identified more than 180,000 instances in which people played social or mobile games and asked survey participants WHY they choose to play the games they do in various situations (from in the bathroom to in bed to at church). Then, we identified the eight core needs that games fulfill for people, be it “Getting Lost in a Zone” or “Connecting and Expressing” or “Practicing and Perfecting”.

Based on these findings, when the Pokémon Go craze hit, we were able to create yet another survey—well, more of a quiz—that delves into why people are so attracted to Pokémon Go in particular and understand what deep-seated need this game was fulfilling that another game—say Candy Crush—was not. (If you’re interested in checking out this quiz, click here).

From the results of our quick little quiz, it is clear that people are gravitating to Pokémon Go for very different reasons than they do to Candy Crush.

Candy Crush, the biggest mobile game in U.S. history until now, fulfilled the role we called “Getting Lost in a Zone”—it’s an entertaining escape that helps you zone out, leave real life and immerse yourself in another world.  Pokémon Go fulfills the role we called “Connecting and Expressing,” which is, for all intents and purposes, the opposite of “Getting Lost in a Zone.” Whereas Candy Crush is passive—meaning people play Candy Crush to escape reality (and the people that live in that reality), Pokémon Go is physically active and highly participatory with the real world (and you actually engage with human beings). You’re not escaping it all—you’re living in the moment.

There is also the fact that the two games make people feel differently. Candy Crush helps you calm down, relax and even achieve tranquility, while Pokémon Go is the complete opposite—it provides excitement, the thrill of the chase and the butterflies-in-your-stomach feelings of anticipation.

What the two games do have in common is that they’re immersive. People want to play and play and play. They’re not seeking a quick fix; they want to go down the rabbit hole.

In our earlier research, we learned that 2% of all social and mobile game play had, at the time, been happening to fulfill people’s need for “Connecting and Expressing” (through games such as The Simpsons and Monopoly). According to our survey of Pokémon Go players, 23% of Pokémon Go play is happening to Connect and Express. Pokémon Go indexes at an 847 in “Connecting and Expressing” compared to the average social and mobile game (for those of you who don’t know what an index is, an 847 is astronomical). What does that mean? That the people who are so obsessed with Pokémon Go are playing it because they want to connect with others in the world around them—and few, if any, social or mobile games have been able to tap into that motivation.

As an observer of popular culture, I find this fascinating: At a time when a political campaign and racial tension is dividing our country, and there is social strife all over the world, this one little game is fulfilling a need that is all about unification, connection and personal expression. That’s pretty amazing.

And, from the point of view of game designers, it points to an interesting lesson. Nintendo could have sought to surpass Candy Crush by studying why it was so successful and looking for ways to emulate it or do the job of “Getting Lost in a Zone” better than anyone else, but instead the company capitalized on a different need that games could fulfill: “Connecting and Expressing”—one that had little competition in the gaming space.

In other words, if Nintendo had sought to “learn from the best,” there would not be people falling off cliffs playing Pokémon Go today. As a social psychologist, I may find this behavior odd, but at least now I understand it.