Jelly Splash developer Wooga’s design philosophy might be manipulative, but at least it’s honest

Wooga’s Jelly Splash has been propelled to the top of the charts by extreme player reactions, not unlike Flappy Bird.

Wooga’s provocative ‘Three ways to make players love and hate you’ talk at yesterday’s F2P Summit was the standout session of the day, and not just because it was filled with expletives.

What exactly has propelled Jelly Splash, a colourful Candy Crush Saga-style game to the top of the US, UK and German charts ahead of so many similar games? According to Florian Steinhoff, product lead at the game’s developer Wooga, it’s simple: the game is ruthlessly effective at inspiring an extreme reaction, both enraging players with its incredibly difficult ‘blocking stages’ while also allowing for outrageous moments of good fortune – ‘Fuck yeah moments’, in Wooga parlance.

Both extremes of response have prompted Jelly Splash players to vent both anger and relief on social media, exactly as Wooga intended; this kind of player manipulation might sit uneasily with some developers, but it’s obviously a policy which has worked for the studio, as the free-to-play puzzler has been installed on 25 million phones and tablets to date and is played by millions more on Facebook. Although Wooga wouldn’t reveal the kind of money it has made from this colossal audience, those regular ‘blocking stages’ will have raked in plenty of cash as desperate, frustrated players resort to in-app purchasing to progress.

Delving deeper into the game’s inner workings, Steinhoff suggested that an important factor in engendering the desired love-hate relationship is to ensure that the player always fails at least once during their first play session, and that not listening to player feedback was a vital part of Jelly Splash’s success. During a summit within which metrics, data mining and regular player-led updates were so often evangelised, this was another piece of provocative advice.

There’s cold, hard videogame science underneath Jelly Slash’s colourful exterior – a rare and unapologetic commitment to eliciting a response at any cost. Kind of like the Daily Mail.

Indeed, building up this kind of motivational frustration is known at Wooga as the ‘FUU factor’, said Steinhoff – a carefully balanced mix of near-wins and failures which dangle victory in front of the player before cruelly snatching it away, compelling players onwards to have just one more go. There is no difficulty curve in Jelly Splash; the easy levels are always easy, and there are always ‘build-up’ levels of medium difficulty before those key blocking stages, which are also all equally as difficult as each other.

Make no mistake, this is game design at its most brazen and manipulative. But luck plays its part in Jelly Splash, too – much more than one might imagine. Wooga’s designers aim for around 70/30 luck-skill ratio in each Jelly Splash stage, said Steinhoff, who believes that the reliance on pure fortune is a vital part of the game’s appeal. As he observed later, you only need to look at the lucre sloshing about in the gambling industry to see that people love the thrill of rolling the dice.

Wooga’s blunt methods go against so much of what is accepted in modern game design, and yet these insights are still wholly unsurprising; what was unexpected at yesterday’s summit was the honesty with which Wooga discussed the dark arts of player manipulation. Globe-crushing phenomenon Candy Crush Saga uses the very same techniques to compel players onwards while prising cash out of their wallets, and variations on the theme can be seen in countless other free-to-play games. That it has taken so long for a studio to publicly admit to working the system so effectively speaks of the extent to which many developers will frown upon such behaviour.

This is the science of game design in action, where proven techniques are deployed with mimimal subtlety to maximum effect. Wooga’s philosophy won’t sit well with developers making art, not product, but one can’t dispute how effective Jelly Splash has been in getting a response, in every sense. As with free-to-play in general, love it or hate it, you can’t fail to have an opinion on it.