Sugary Smash Chronicle: Thoughts on King.com’s trademark brouhaha

The recent approval by the EU of King.com’s trademark on the words of their own title “Candy Crush Saga” for use in game and app titles, and the resulting flurry of infringement allegations, is of particular interest to me. Not as a CCSaga player, although I am one. (Level 491, used to comment on my levelup posts with helpful advice for other players, have accidentally spent real money but never won a level by using purchased powerups.) Not because I think it’s ridiculous, although I do. Not because I’m outraged about one more case of the big guy going after the little guy (“All Candy Casino Slots – Jewels Craze Connect: Big Blast Mania Land” excepted and notwithstanding), although I am. Not because I think CCSaga has used underhanded tricks to winkle money out of its players, or because I dislike the deliberate manipulation of addiction mechanisms by game developers, or because I resent the social gaming model for making participation as much a responsibility to your friends as a pastime for yourself. All relevant and true, but the real reason I’m following this story is that I’ve been involved with King.com since before CCSaga existed. I know where it came from, I’ve been watching its evolution, and I’m interested to see what this episode does for (or to) the company as a whole.

King.com, according to the copyright information in the website footer at Royal Games, has been around since 2002. Their company history doesn’t really address their name changes, but presumably they were once known as some variant of Midasplayer and have since changed to King and then Royal Games. The latest name change was actually a splitting-off of the web/app game enterprise to make it the flagship of the company in name as well as general reputation. Prior to the explosion of their web/app division, their primary business was cash skill games. Think versions of their Saga games, played against other people, for real-world cash stakes. I’ve been doing it since 2009 and have made over $600, which sounds kind of crappy but is actually pretty respectable, as I’ll explain below. (No, I’m not Alenxa over there; somebody in Romania snagged the handle before I got there and quit logging in a month later. So don’t challenge her thinking you’ll be playing against me.)

In 2009, when I started, Candy Crush didn’t exist. And I don’t mean CCSaga, I mean the Candy Crush cash game that was turned into the multi-board juggernaut. The reason it didn’t exist was that King had a license from PopCap to use Bejeweled as a cash game. And I played the bejesus out of it. Even after my initial funds withdrawal and identity verification triggered a reranking into a league I was very much not in, I kept at it, and eventually returned to the point of winning more often than I lost. At $.70 or so per game, it takes a long time for either wins or losses to amount to much. It takes even longer, with each game nudging your rank a few points up or down, to get into a ranking position that accurately reflects your skills. This is the main reason the admins reserve the right to do a one-time manual overhaul on your rankings when you schedule your first withdrawal, after asking what experience you’ve had with games similar to the ones you win often. Unfortunately, sometimes they don’t take into account how many players have ranks similar to yours, and you’re put in the position of having to lose games just to get matched with opponents if you want to play at all.

Not long after I got comfortable at my new ranking in Bejeweled (and significantly before EA’s purchase of PopCap), Bejeweled disappeared from the site, [dead link] as did another PopCap game, Chuzzle. I don’t recall how long it took for King to fill the void with Candy Crush and Puzzle Mana, but it was probably about six months, definitely less than a year. The games’ mechanisms are essentially the same as in the ones they replaced, but the perks and scoring are significantly different, as are the best strategies. King has many, many games like this; actually licensing the original is not their standard business model. This really isn’t much different from the glut of knockoff games that inevitably follows a smash success, especially when the original employs any sort of innovative mechanism. As much as I detest the takeover of the “puzzle” game label by hidden-object games, I don’t have a problem with the games themselves existing. But I digress.

I started playing CCSaga very soon after it came out. I’m also a longtime user of 4Loot, a service that rewards users with microtransaction credits for searching with their engine. I had the bad luck to have just converted some of my 4Loot credit to Facebook credits when King first overhauled the level-end interface to make misclicks on the “Buy” button exponentially more likely, and to encounter a supremely bad design decision that put the transaction through without a redundant confirmation. Having years of experience with the exacting security and conscientious administration of the cash site, I chalked this up to oversight, sent them a “shame on you” note, and kept playing. And they did do a little cleanup, adding sounds and extra animation to signal a zombie’d player that the button they’re about to click may not be the one they want. But they’ve since added many more close-bait bloat windows of the type that helped push me away from some of the Zynga games I used to play, and made enough aesthetic changes I find negative that I’m glad I’ve never given their web arm any money I really earned.

As for the current fiasco, I’m inclined to agree with some commenters that most of the infringement filings are simply due diligence in case someone really does intentionally and significantly infringe. Unlike copyrights, trademarks have to be defended; and if it can be proven that a trademark holder has failed to defend their property, they can lose the trademark. There’s specific legal language that applies to the situation and the documents, and as with many types of legalese it isn’t always perfectly applicable. Some of this ends up wrongly accusing developers of previously standing products, or products that only a blindfolded howler monkey would call “identical” to CCSaga. On the other hand, search-engine bait that crams as many popular terms as possible into the title or description should absolutely not be encouraged. I’d go so far as to say it should be actively discouraged, as I’m quite tired of seeing cheesy knockoffs grabbing for coattails and cluttering up my results. I’m just not convinced that this is the way to curb it.

Will I keep playing the cash games? Good question. There are a few, new in the past year, that I’ve been heretofore unable to play on account of old computer and have been enjoying (and winning) on the new box. I’m aware that I’m helping fund the Saga games and their legal department, but really, I’ve already done that. 25% of your stake in each round of a cash game goes into King’s pocket, so they’ve gotten quite a bit from me over the years. Still, I’m not a high enough roller for them to care if I quit in a huff and tell them why. I’m only on the lowest level of VIP (frequent player) status, and haven’t been any higher on the ladder since there was only one level and I wasn’t yet wrangling a small child. It does strike me as odd that they’ve been steadily upping the requirements for rewards and lowering the big tournaments’ stakes and payouts, in sync first with the worsening European economic climate and then with their increasing earnings from the web division. It’s quite possible, though, that this has been going on since the site’s inception and I just started at a less opportune point.

In sum, I don’t know what King will ultimately get up to with this. I know (or at least I’m pretty sure) they haven’t sold my identity on the European black market, but I also know they’ve snatched about $1.80 out of my virtual hands with clickbait buttons. Even though the website branding spinoff only happened a couple of months ago, it’s not surprising that people aren’t talking about there being two separate types of product from the same company, because most only deal with one of the two. I’m inclined to think that the web-development arm really has nothing to do with the cash-game arm for all practical purposes, because they operate so differently. Their cash site procedures and practices are scrupulously fair, and because they’re not really “the house” they’re not into rigging things against the players. Their web/app stuff…not so much. It’s going to take some time to see which side of the company is directing their policing efforts, and I’m reserving judgment. Until then, see you in Brick Busterz.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.