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What does ‘time well spent’ mean for games like ‘Candy Crush?’

If you own a smartphone, chances are you know Candy Crush and maybe even the game’s latest incarnation, Candy Crush Friends Saga. What you may not know is the story behind the franchise: How an Italian entrepreneur put all his cash on the line as a co-founder of King, the company that created the game, in the early 2000s, with a big idea: re-invent gaming for the online world.

That person is Riccardo Zacconi. He’s guided the company through the many phases online gaming (desktop, Facebook, mobile, and more), taking King public and eventually selling it to gaming giant Activision Blizzard in 2015. In this episode of MashTalk, Zacconi talks about that journey, his thoughts on Mark Zuckerberg, and what the future holds for gaming now that people are starting to question all the time they’re spending on their devices playing games like, well, Candy Crush.

Follow @MashTalk on Twitter.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Pete Pachal: I was reading a little bit about your background, and I think you might be the first knight we’ve had on MashTalk. Is that correct? Or at least the Italian equivalent of a knight?

Riccardo Zacconi: Yeah, that’s right.

PP: Is there a ritual when you get that?

RZ: Yeah there’s a ritual with the ambassador who basically welcomes you and gives you a cross and a few other things

How long ago did that happen?

I think it was maybe a year and a half ago. It’s kind of a secret actually, I don’t share it.

Well, congratulations, belatedly. So when did the first Candy Crush come out?

We launched it on mobile in November 2012. We started the company back in 2003.

So why did you why start King, and what were you doing before then that sort of led to that, because it was sort of a different era, Web 1.0 as we refer to it now.

We launched King in 2003, and I started the company with my co-founders who I met back in 1999. At the time we all working at a startup, a portal in Europe. We had a big investment at the time from a Swedish investor, and with about 10 million dollars back in 1999, we built a company from 20 people to 800. We ended up selling the company to Lycos, unfortunately in equity and not in cash.

And so it was a good experience, not zero money, but a good experience. I learned that companies have to be profitable, and that was very important for my thinking later on.

Still, a better exit than a lot of people had back then.

On paper, yes. It was great cause I met my co-founders then, and then after that I did online dating for a short time. We started one of the first free dating sites in Europe, and it went crazy without any marketing. Then once after having sold the company, I realized that actually there were others who are doing really well also with a paid model, and specifically, and I looked into launching the first paid dating service in Europe. And instead of launching completely from scratch I joined a company called uDate. And this was back in 2002.

So post-crash.

Post crash, very healthy company, but we sold the company a few months after I joined. So from that I made some money, and I reinvested the entirety of what I made there in King, and that’s how we started.

So you invested all your own money?

Yeah, I put everything I had basically in there, and I had nothing. I lived in the flat of a friend of mine, a very good friend of mine for two and a half years. And I gave away my car, gave away my rented flat, everything.

Wow, what gave you that confidence that this was the thing to do?

There was no other option. It was a tough time to raise money. During tough times, it’s often when you have to be more creative. So we put in all our personal money to perfect the beta in 2005.

We launched on the web. At the time, the key model was download, so you would pay for a download. In our case you would pay to compete against others.

So this was sort of pre-Flash games — that was sort of like the online model at the time was like you’d have a Flash game with some ads on it.

Exactly, you would either play Flash, with an ad model behind, or you would play as a download model, but no one was actually offering games where you would compete against others, and monetize online, not just as a download.

So what were some of the titles, some of the games.

Oh we launched more than 200 games, and those games where basically one-level-only games. So Candy Crush was based on one of the games we developed at the time. So many, many years later when we moved to Facebook, and then to mobile, we took the best games we developed previously and launched those games in a different way. We called it “saga” format where you have a map, and you play with others. And we launched games on the web with Facebook first, and then in a way where you can play cross-platform, also mobile.

I’m glad you mentioned Facebook, because it seems to me they sort of changed things radically. Because that’s what we did on Facebook, honestly, if I think back to 2008-2009, roughly. You basically went to Facebook to play Farmville, Scrabble, Knighthood, and the things you guys were doing.

Yeah, so we’ve seen many platforms basically coming to market in some ways. So we were on the web, then we got disrupted suddenly by Facebook. We tried to get on Facebook, but we didn’t really try hard enough in some ways, and so at some point Zynga came up, came to the market and took away most of the users, who at the time were playing on the web, on Yahoo. And so the Yahoo games channel lost 45 percent of the users in one year, between April 2009 and 12 months later.

And that was sort of a natural migration.

It was a natural migration because the Facebook platform was more fun to play on. Because you would play with your friends instead of basically playing by yourself. And then Zynga integrated on mobile, and the players went from the web to Facebook.

It took us about two years to really crack Facebook, on PC, and find a way to bring our best games from the web to Facebook. And that was the coming of the second platform, which was mobile, which then disrupted the web, and Facebook on the PC. But this time, it was an easier transition, because we had already a few very successful games, on Facebook on PC. And we innovated there by allowing the same games to be played fully cross-platform between PC and mobile. That’s what really gave the company an incredible boost.

I’m curious: Did you get a sense that Facebook wanted to kind of move away from a games-driven model, and that sort of helped spark your push to not being as reliant on them?

No, because for us it was all upside, meaning we were on the web, we were scaling the Facebook platform, and we were still No. 2 when we launched on mobile. And there was still a big gap between us and Zynga. For us, mobile was not basically reducing the reliance on Facebook — we invested more than ever on Facebook. It was really to crack this new platform. I had no idea the ramp would be so fast.

For mobile.

We launched Candy Crush in November 2012, we had a board meeting in October. And in this board meeting we approved the budget for the next year, and a month after having launched Candy Crush on mobile, we already achieved the entirety of the budget for the next year. So it was like being on a rocket.

Did you launch only on iPhone at first? Or was it on Android as well?

We launched almost contemporaneously. In fact, this was a really important decision, because we already had a user base on PC, and since our games were fully cross-platform, it allowed all of our players to play immediately with all of their friends independently where they were — whether they’re on a PC, on an iPhone, or an Android device. And that basically unleashed the potential of the game.

It sounds like the social dynamic behind Candy Crush, being able to play with friends, with leaderboards or whatnot, was a key part of this.

I think it was very important, yeah. Because it was more fun to play with others, but we introduced a very gentle competition so there was not a winner or a loser, like in our old model, it was a, “I passed you,” so you would receive a message, saying, “You’ve just been passed.” You want revenge and try to pass your friend again. Or you could invite friends to play with you.

So when’s the Candy Crush movie coming out? When’s that happening? There was an Angry Birds movie, there’s an Emoji Movie

Well we had the Candy Crush TV show, but to do a movie you need characters. We launched the new Candy Crush Friends, and it’s very much focused on characters. So we have had characters in the game, in Candy Crush, since the beginning, but now we’re really bringing them to life, giving them personalities in 3D, and also really making them a core part of the game. I think that once we have that, the sky’s the limit.

Apple, Google, and Facebook are taking a hard look at like the engagement that they are getting. They’re talking about digital well-being, and time well spent, and that simply because a person is engaged for a long time, it doesn’t necessarily mean they’re having a good experience. There’s almost like this moral question that comes in like are you doing something good? So I bring this up to you because I have a couple friends who are Candy Crush addicts, they characterize themselves as, “Ugh, I’ve got a problem, I’ve got to stop doing this.” What have been your discussions internally and perhaps externally about that phenomenon.

Sure. I think, first of all Candy Crush is a great game; it’s a fun game. But it’s actually structured in a way that it does not require you to play for many hours in a row. It’s exactly the opposite in fact. We structured the game in a way that it’s easy to learn — you can play it in three minutes. Candy Crush now has more than 3,800 levels, but each level can be played over just three minutes. Because we think that the mobile experience is not one where you stay many hours on the device playing, but is one where we want you to be able to play in a short space of time — while you’re waiting for the bus, or you’re in the underground, or you have a moment for yourself and you want just to relax. In fact, the model in which we started with the business model was: stopping the player from playing.


RZ: Yeah, after a certain amount of time. You have all these levels. If you do not pass a level, you lose a life. You have five lives, and once you lost the five lives, we will tell you, you either stop playing and wait 20 minutes, or you pay, or you invite some friends. So if you don’t want to pay, and most people actually do not pay.

Yeah, that’s a barrier.

You have to wait 20 minutes. So it’s actually really putting a brake saying, “Hey wait a second.” And this has been really a part of the success, because we have retained our users, now for over five years, and Candy Crush is doing extremely well. I think that for us the key metric is, the retention of the users, to see basically how many people come back. We’re not looking at how much time you’re playing everyday, that’s not the key target for us.

Where do you stand on the whole phenomenon or the question of games being fads or not, I think some games are indisputably fads, and fade a way. But what is the difference between something that’s faddish or something like Candy Crush and Angry Birds. Is there an end to Candy Crush in sight, and when will the next thing come?

I think the world of games has changed dramatically. So in the old days when we started, we developed a game, and once we developed a game, we launched the game, and then we would immediately focus on the next game. So no one would be taking care of the game, we launched it, and the users would play it, and once the user gets bored, because they finished the game or because it’s repetitive, and after a while you want to do something else, they would move over to the next game.

We’ve built a portfolio of games. Now, we actually learned something which is really important: The user, when they like a game, if we give them more content, more surprises, more reasons to come back every day, more reasons to continue playing — they’re not looking for something else. And it’s something which is familiar but surprising at the same time. That’s what we’re trying to achieve. And that’s why Candy is doing so well, and that’s why the No. 1 priority for the company is to make Candy into an everlasting game by continuously innovating. The day we stop innovating, the day we stop providing the user with a reason to come back, and fresh content and fun things to do within the game, we will lose the users.

What are your thoughts on VR and AR? Augmented reality seems like the big hot thing, or was for a while there with Pokemon Go, but it seems to be coming back now with things like [Apple’s] ARKit, and all these other platforms. Any plans there, and any thoughts on that space in general?

I see VR very different from AR. So, VR great experience is really fun, but I think it’s very difficult actually to play on VR, especially if it’s for more than let’s say, 10 or 20 minutes. I personally feel sick, so we’re not putting our efforts on VR at King. AR I think is different. AR can be great fun as we’ve seen from other players in the market, and it’s something which definitely we are experimenting with also. And it’s fun! That said, I think our games do not require an AR environment to be fun to play, do not require any other hardware to be played. Our focus is to make sure that our games have wide appeal, that you can play them on any phone, in any region in the world.

I heard Zynga’s for sale. Do you think you could talk to your bosses at Activision and see if it can happen?

I’m not personally involved, so I don’t know.

What’s your opinion of Mark Zuckerberg?

He’s extremely product focused, he’s very strategic in his thinking, and he loves what he does.

Do you think could beat you at Candy Crush?

Yeah, he’s very good.

You can subscribe to MashTalk on iTunes or Google Play, and we’d appreciate it if you could leave a review. Feel free to hit us with questions and comments by tweeting to @mashtalk or attaching the #MashTalk hashtag. We welcome all feedback.

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Anki CEO: Consumer robots need personality to succeed

Anki's latest robot, Vector.
Anki’s latest robot, Vector.

Image: Jake Krol/Mashable

In case you missed it, the robots are here.

No, not the apocalyptic hordes of artificially intelligent machines that some believe are destined to enslave or eradicate us (hello, Boston Dynamics!), but the everyday devices and companions that are rapidly becoming commonplace. After decades of lofty sci-fi-inspired promises, robots like iRobot’s Roomba vacuums and the many iterations of the Sony Aibo robodog are slowly carving out their places in our domestic lives. Even Amazon’s Alexa is arguably a disembodied robot.

A new entry into the field is Anki’s Vector. Vector is a small tabletop robot with big features. First and foremost, unlike other “robots” like those from Sphero or even WowWee, Vector doesn’t need a smartphone to control it. It’s fully autonomous and loaded with sensors, enabling it to interact with and learn from its environment from the get-go.

Vector is another milestone for Anki, a company that’s had one of the most interesting stories in tech. Unknown to the world before its splash launch at Apple’s Worldwide Developers Conference (WWDC) in 2013, the robotics company has come out with several products, including intelligent toy race cars and a previous, more limited robot, Cozmo.

Where does the robustly funded company go next? And when will it move its robotics business into something more capable (i.e. not a toy). Anki CEO Boris Sofman dropped by Mashable’s MashTalk podcast this week to give us the full story of his young company, why it’s so focused on the “personality” of its robots, and what he sees in the future for domestic robots and AI.

You can subscribe to MashTalk on iTunes or Google Play, and we’d appreciate it if you could leave a review. Feel free to hit us with questions and comments by tweeting to @mashtalk or attaching the #MashTalk hashtag. We welcome all feedback.

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Apple’s 2018 iPhones have a serious naming problem


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Image: Lili Sams/Mashable

Let me blow your mind with this rumor: Apple is going to unveil new iPhones in the fall.

Yes, that we know. But we also “know” a little more than that. Obviously Apple has so far not said a single word about its 2018 iPhone models, but the rumor mill has been chugging away, and the consensus is Apple will launch three different iPhones: a successor to the iPhone X, a large-screen version of that phone, and a new model that mostly mirrors the iPhone X design, but doesn’t have quite all the same features so Apple can sell it at a lower price.

There have been plenty of reports about the screen sizes, features, and technology the three phones will have, but there’s a big question about the phones that doesn’t have an obvious answer: What is Apple going to call these babies? 

We discussed the topic of the 2018 iPhone names at length in the most recent MashTalk podcast.

For the names of the new iPhones, Apple has really painted itself into a corner. In 2017, Apple debuted the iPhone 8 and iPhone 8 Plus alongside the iPhone “ten,” which it designated with the letter X. Apple’s rationale with the names was that the 8 was the obvious successor to the previous models, but the iPhone X would offer customers the opportunity to jump ahead to a phone that set the template for the next decade of the iPhone, according to CEO Tim Cook. The number 10 seemingly conveyed how advanced the phone was compared to the 8 models (and was also a play on the 10-year-anniversary), while the Roman numeral hinted that this was just slightly experimental — almost kind of a hardware beta.

That all made sense, but what do we do now, a year later? With the iPhone X going away — as has been rumored — the logical choice for its successor seems like 11 (or XI), but that sounds a little weird and it also exacerbates the problem of the “lower-end” model sounding less advanced, assuming Apple goes with the logical choice of “iPhone 9” for that one.

The gen-2 iPhone X, and its big brother, could get a letter or number designation to differentiate from the current model. iPhone X2 is possible (and will certainly generate a smirk from X-Men fans), though the most recent rumor suggests “iPhone XS” (or “Xs” if Apple keeps its normal lower-case S-designation).

Both of those have problems, however. iPhone “ten-two” is utterly meaningless and silly, and sounds a preschooler’s attempt to pronounce 12. That’s cute if a kid says it — not so much the most valuable company in the world. And even though Apple will call the iPhone XS “ten-ess,” you can bet everyone else will call it “ex-ess.” Does Apple really wants to invite a year of snarky headlines about “iPhone excess?”

Image: Lili Sams/Mashable

Apple could, of course, just go with another letter (iPhone “ten-A” has a certain ring to it). But a better solution might to ditch the numbers altogether, or at least mostly. Apple could keep the iPhone X branding for the X’s successor, and simply add an iPhone X Plus model. That will create a little confusion about which “iPhone X” anyone owns, but since Apple appears to be discontinuing the current iPhone X then that won’t matter as much.

This kind of approach tends to work for Apple’s other products, including the iPad and MacBooks. The iPad number became more or less unofficial years ago (remember the “new iPad?”) and MacBooks are usually differentiated by year (“late 2018 MacBook Pro,” etc.).

That still leaves the issue of what to call the lower-end phone. If not iPhone 9, why not just iPhone? Apple hasn’t officially had a phone simply called the “iPhone” since 2007, but, really, paying attention to the numbers — and even knowing exactly what number you have — is the purview of tech geeks and the press. By dividing its line into simply “iPhone” and “iPhone X,” and keeping it for the foreseeable future, Apple would simultaneously end all the hand-wringing and make its bifurcated product strategy crystal-clear. Techies might fret, but the public would love it.

Whatever Apple ends up doing, it’s important to remember that product names rarely matter. The Nintendo Wii was one of the most lampooned product names in history, and that device ended up conquering the console market. The iPad had a similar trajectory.

The iPhone, of course, has already made its conquests. There’s a good chance the 2018 models will have the most confusing names to date, but now, with Apple recently becoming the first company in history to pass $1 trillion in value thanks to its iconic invention, the word “iPhone” has never stood for so much.

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Wilson is like Longreads for podcasts

Meet Wilson, a new iPhone app that plans to change the way you discover and listen to podcasts. The company describes the app as a podcast magazine. It has the same vibe as Longreads, the curated selection of longform articles.

With its minimalistic design and opinionated typography, Wilson looks like no other podcasting app. On an iPhone X, the black background looks perfectly black thanks to the OLED display. It feels like an intimate experience.

Every week, the team selects a handful of podcast episodes all tied together by the same topic. Those topics can be the Supreme Court, the LGBTQ community, loneliness, dads, the World Cup…

Each issue has a cover art and a short description. And the team also tells you why each specific podcast episode is interesting. In other words, Wilson isn’t just an audio experience. You can listen to episodes in the app or open them in Apple Podcasts.

Navigating in the app is all based on swipes. You can scroll through past editions by swiping left and right. You can open an edition by swiping up, and go back to the list by swiping down. This feels much more natural than putting buttons everywhere.

Wilson also feels like tuning in to the radio. Podcasts are great because they let you learn everything there’s to learn about any interest you can have. But it also narrows your interests in a way. Podcast apps are too focused on top lists and “you might also like” recommendations.

Gone are the days when you would switch on the radio and listen to a few people talk about something you didn’t know you cared about. Human editors can change that. That’s why Wilson can be a nice addition to your podcasting routine.

There is no more gun emoji. Is that a good thing?

Emoji have conquered the world, no doubt, but what happens after the conquest?

The answer: Things change. Emoji are constantly evolving, not only with new symbols that arrive on our smartphone keyboards year after year, but also the symbols themselves. A couple of years ago, your standard emoji keyboard usually had a gun on it, but today that symbol has been almost universally replaced with a water pistol.

The gun’s transformation may be the most dramatic of changes, but emoji are changing in subtler ways, too. Apple recently announced a new set of emoji coming in iOS 12, and it includes a eye-like symbol, the nazar amulet, that’s very popular in Turkey and other parts of the world, but not the U.S. With the emoji keyboard now pretty much filled out with “universal” symbols, expect more niche or regional characters to appear.

There’s also the question: what to do about unpopular emoji? Some emoji, like “crying with tears of joy,” are everywhere, but others don’t get as much day-to-day use. Case in point: the aerial tram emoji is apparently the least-popular emoji in use, according to Emojitracker.

Image: Messenger, Apple, Google, EmojiOne, HTC

Should there be an effort to boost unpopular emoji, and what responsibilities do the main shapers of emoji — Apple and Samsung, mostly — have here? And just who gave them so much influence over our new visual language anyway?

To help guide us through the ever-evolving world of emoji, we turned to Jeremy Burge, the founder of Emojipedia and creator of World Emoji Day, which took place earlier this week on July 17. Burge sat down with MashTalk host Pete Pachal to talk about the new emoji coming this fall, review the  Emojiland musical on Broadway (it’s good!), and revealed his true thoughts about Apple’s Memoji avatars.

You can subscribe to MashTalk on iTunes or Google Play, and we’d appreciate it if you could leave a review. Feel free to hit us with questions and comments by tweeting to @mashtalk or attaching the #MashTalk hashtag. We welcome all feedback.

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