Last September, something started rumbling and tumbling in South Korea. Devsisters’ YouTube channel had been teasing it for weeks. Cookie Run: Kingdom — the first auto-battler featuring the well-known casual game IP — had its most important update as of yet to be released soon! None of it was a lie. The game more than tripled its run rate in the months that followed.
Since March 2021, the game had been enjoying big success in South Korea, the birthplace of the Cookie Run franchise. Although it had been downloadable worldwide since then, the game only gained popularity in Japan and the US half a year later.
Several auto-battlers have been released over the years, but none of them have a case as special as Cookie Run: Kingdom. The Cookie Run IP saw the light in 2009, and while other successful games in the genre, like Disney Heroes: Battle Mode, have much stronger IPs, they’re not as profitable as Cookie Run. Some stats:
- In the last quarter of 2021, the game had the No. 1 top-grossing spot in the "Turn-Based RPG" category, leaving heavy-hitters like Dragon Ball Z Dokkan Battle, Marvel Strike Force and RAID: Shadow Legends behind.
- Last year, Cookie Run: Kingdom ranked second in terms of downloads in the "Team Battle" category. Only Hero Wars was downloaded more.
With over $220M in lifetime revenue as of yet, it is currently one of the biggest in its category, which deserves a deeper analysis.
The Cookie Run Universe
How it All Started
Since the launch of OvenBreak in 2009 until Cookie Run: Puzzle World’s soft-launch in 2019, the Cookie Run universe has been growing into a long-lasting IP with each successor in the series. Especially in Devsisters’ biggest markets — South Korea, the US, Taiwan, Japan, and Thailand — the appeal of the Cookie Run characters and their humorous take on life is praised by many.
Only since Cookie Run: OvenBreak, the Cookie Run universe has really been expanding narratively. While the first Cookie Run games were purely arcade or puzzle games with a heavy focus on their core gameplay, CR: OvenBreak featured a full story mode with Chapters, each unveiling elaborate plots and expanding the roster of playable characters.
One of the most crucial ingredients for strong and appealing collectible creature creation is a theme that’s virtually ever-expandable. One of the reasons why Pokémon is so successful is that it takes well-known creatures (animals in nature) and mixes them with fantasy elements to create a multitude of combinations. Cookie Run characters are created with the same idea in mind, but with the common theme of baking. Cookies are based on fruits, vegetables, medieval characters (Princess, Knight), fantasy creatures (Werewolf, Kumiho, Moon Rabbit), flowers (Tiger Lily, Clover) or other foods (Pancake, Gumball, Mala Sauce).
With so many new game modes having been added over the years, different parts of the lore are told through different game modes. Over the years this has resulted in a non-linear narrative that only die-hard fans will be able to recite back in a somewhat comprehensive manner. Therefore, it’s only logical that with the latest game in the series, Devsisters have created a more open and uncluttered space to continue telling the Cookie Run story.
Whereas CR: OvenBreak focused on the cookies through character-based storytelling, the latest game allows more of a location-based storytelling by shifting its focus to the entire — you guessed it — kingdom! For the first time in the history of the IP, the player is thrown into a physical space in which the story unfolds. To create the feeling of space, even the ever-sidescrolling core gameplay has been switched to a daring 45-degree, top-down angle. This feels more connected to the isometric scene of the cookie kingdom in which the player decorates their world.
But what makes this game tick? What’s the reason behind its success? In this essay, we will answer this question by looking into:
- What Cookie Run: Kingdom is; what are its systems, and what makes this game so engaging
- What the game world facilitates (apart from an engaging experience)
- How a fun & casual narrative paves the way to an immersive game world
- Other efforts to double down on deeper world building
- How Cookie Run: Kingdom is faring these days and what its future could hold
How Does the Cookie Crumble?
The core of the newest game in the Cookie Run series consists of mostly auto-battle gameplay, but (like its predecessors) is visualized in a manner resembling endless runners. Enemies are encountered along the way and are attacked by the selected team of cookies automatically, except for their special skills which require manual activation for the best results. On occasion, levels include jumping sequences as an homage to Devsisters’ earlier game Cookie Run: OvenBreak.
As with any auto-battler, the player’s carefully assembled team of crumbly characters will need leveling up to be sent through the increasingly challenging campaign missions. The player does this by running them through levels and feeding them XP items. A steady supply of these is acquired by building, decorating, and upgrading an increasingly tasty-looking kingdom where the cookies have taken residence. Some of the later structures that can be added to the kingdom give the cookies specific stat bonuses to make this part of the game more worthwhile.
The metagame involves an elaborate task of managing resources in the kingdom. The developers did a phenomenal job unveiling the intricacies of all timers and upgrades to the player step by step. The only thing that is unclear is when the player can start building and upgrading the main castle during the first episode of the campaign.
Investing XP in training the best cookies and equipping them with the right equipment drives the power progression of the meta, which gives the player enough freedom to come up with their favorite team composition. Since the game features a classic gacha system that slowly unlocks more and more cookie characters to use, the player is required to spend countless hours of gameplay to grind the resources required if they strive to collect all ~70 cookies. Why would they want to? More on this later.
The main resource loop of the game can be laid out as follows:
When trying to draw lines in the overview above to represent all relations between resources and actions, the diagram turns into a spiderweb; many secondary systems are introduced early on to provide additional depth and reward space. A list of examples:
- Up to five Toppings can be equipped onto Cookie characters, providing additional statistics like higher defense, damage resist, skill cooldown reduction, or increased critical hit chance. All Toppings can be upgraded using Coins.
- A cookie’s skill doesn’t automatically increase potency when a character levels up. Every cookie’s skill requires manual upgrades which cost coins and a special, class-specific Upgrade Powder currency.
- Cookies can initially be acquired by collecting Soulstones, but additional Soulstones are required to increase their star ranking.
- Teams of cookies can be equipped with up to three Treasures, which provide substantial perks to enhance the team’s composition. All Treasures can be upgraded using Coins and are acquired through a separate gacha.
- Cookies have their own rarity levels within the game’s gacha, but most cookies also have collectible costumes earned through a completely different lottery.
- Players can use hard currency (Crystals) to pull from the character gachas and treasure gachas and a separate cosmetic hard currency for the costume gacha. Additionally, the game contains specific currencies that can be used exclusively for each of these respective lotteries.
- PvP battles don’t cost Stamina to be started and provide Trophies and Medals instead of Coins, making it an entirely separate environment outside the single-player game to engage with.
And all the above doesn’t even include the resources that are introduced as part of the game’s super rich live-ops calendar. Already throughout the first sessions, the game features about six time-limited events, with the majority of them containing their own dedicated currencies that are rewarded for specific kinds of progression.
Many casual game designers’ upper lips may start trembling at the thought of trying to onboard the player into all these separate systems and currencies, but that’s not the case for the ones working at Devsisters; they have managed to make this all very well laid out using consistent breadcrumbing. This vast selection of events leads to a situation where almost any action the player takes is potentially followed by a tiny red dot on one of the UI icons, leading them to claim some rewards for an event or achievement that they progressed in.
But what is the purpose of all this cognitive abundance? If a player oftentimes doesn’t even know they are working to progress in some challenge or event before they receive another reward, will they get any gratification from receiving these? Questionable! But what this cacophony of compensation does provide is a vast sense of richness, and this is a recurring sensation that is a pillar in this entire game’s experience, as we will confirm later.
On top of all that, if the game keeps sending the player to different events for every little accomplishment, they will sooner or later start recognizing and exploring these events and their reward chains. By providing many options of progression at once, the game essentially fishes for the player’s commitment. In case they bite, the time-limited nature of these events anchors and safeguards their engagement over the next few days.
Some events are simply added lines of progression, but others aren’t and introduce loads of collectible content to the game. One of the coolest recent examples is the recent April Fools event (called Shroomie Shenanigans) in which all cookies can be fed a special event item that transforms their avatars into more realistic-looking versions of themselves for the duration of the event!
Something that could be in jeopardy, with so many different systems in the meta, is the player’s immersion into the game world. To counteract this, the game features an extremely flavorful First Time User Experience (FTUE); the first thing the player is thrown into when starting the game is the ostentatious narrative. After a brief but intense introductory cinematic, the player is thrown right into the action of the core game’s combat, interchanged with extensive, high-energy dialogue between the game’s most powerful characters. This best practice from the F2P textbook is executed extraordinarily well because of the seamless transitions between text and action.
The game’s First Time Cookie Experience
Where most casual games rigidly stick to a limit of lines they serve the player with each dialogue, Cookie Run: Kingdom doesn’t shy away from lengthy exchanges between multiple characters, especially in the first hour of gameplay. Anyone who fears that their game’s players might be dropping off because of too much dialogue in the FTUE can have a look at Cookie Run: Kingdom’s first interactions and think again.
The campaign narrative of Cookie Run: Kingdom starts by showing players the 5 most badass cookies the game features and lets them play with the team for just a short sequence before encountering the game’s main antagonist (Dark Enchantress cookie). Right after this Maleficent cookie nukes the 5 heroes and herself into oblivion, the player learns that the turn of events they just witnessed took place a long time ago. After this the protagonist of the story — the ordinary cookie Gingerbrave — is introduced, getting ready for the classical Hero’s Journey he’s going to have to undertake. There’s a lot of extra flavor and detail to the story, and the way it is told is just elaborate enough to peak the player’s interest.
What follows is a saga-like path of victory the player is required to undertake with an ever-growing cast of characters. The World Exploration campaign features 14 episodes, which are the main thread of progression throughout the game. After 10 hours of playing, an infrequent (not playing daily) completionist player has reached the 4th episode and has been able to complete the first 2 episodes in the campaign’s Dark Mode as well.
An interesting thing to note is that even though playing levels in the campaign costs Stamina, many players will only start feeling the pinch of this time-limited play currency very late into their journeys. This can be as late as 10 to even 15 hours of gameplay, depending on the player’s session cadence! The game overflows the player’s Stamina bar with rewards coming from the many aforementioned events, tasks, and side missions, so players with limited time on their hands will rarely lack Stamina to continue playing. Devsisters seem to have decided that their strongest monetization will come not from rigidly limiting a player’s sessions, but from their rich live-ops events featuring collectible rewards. The game has enough content, depth, and collectible rarities to make the player work for, so staying focused on engagement first and foremost doesn’t seem like the wrong way to go.
While viewing the kingdom, all cookies the player has gathered are present in the game world, which is essential to creating the feeling of a lively society of cookies. Sometimes cookies show a little prompt which, when tapped, makes them utter a funny one-liner, or what narrative designers often refer to as a bark.
But it doesn’t end at the purely decorative layer; cookies are actually a resource that needs to be managed. Similar to Supercell’s Everdale, the cookies really act like villagers who can only be in one place at a time. Gingerbrave can’t be utilized to generate resources in a specific building if he was sent off earlier to go do a 30-minute mission in the Kingdom’s hot air balloon. And while a particular cookie isn’t more or less efficient in crafting one resource or another, certain events do require players to use specific cookies in specific locations, and the hot air balloon missions get more and more effective, depending on the strength of the cookies that are occupying it.
On top of all that, the player is expected to decorate the Kingdom. These decorations cost coins and allow the player to beautify their space to their heart’s desire. The decoration system clearly shows which of the structures have already been purchased and placed. This adds a strong collection mechanic to the system to engage players who don’t care much about the task of decoration itself. Seasonal sets of decorations are a logical follow-up to an elaborate system like this, and once again Devsisters take their chance to capitulate on it by featuring huge amounts of these in the Decor Shop.
The best part of the decorations is that a great number of them can also be interacted with by specific cookies. This gives decorating purpose, and, as mentioned before, even though engaging with the Kingdom isn’t required from a systematic point of view, it is never perceived this way; interacting with the Kingdom feels meaningful and fun.
What Drove Last Year’s Success of CR: Kingdom?
As exposed above, the game’s biggest forte is the vast amount of world- and character building it includes. But what are the reasons that this has been so elaborately designed? What are the direct benefits of all this narrative splendor? The easy answer any game designer would provide is “immersion”. The practice of throwing the player in a rich and intricate game world to induce flow state is featured in every Game Design 101 course. But taking advantage of the game’s universe and characters only in-game would not at all be using them to their full potential. Devsisters has gone to great lengths to utilize every last building block of the game externally as well!
The game’s amazingly diverse cast of characters is able to feed the imagination of the marketing team behind it. The first example of this is a video released a month ago featuring Almond Cookie, professional cookie detective of Magic City. Keep in mind that just the fact that this cookie was added to the game a year ago was enough reason to shoot this killer creative
What’s next, a Dr. Wheatson cookie?
But there’s a lot more you can do with a world like this. Let’s say you want to create a busker-inspired breakthrough music track in five languages with one of your game’s cast members. No problem! Or if you want to double down on the spring season vibes and add a collectible character with its own associated seasonal decoration set, just shoot another sickeningly sweet video to show off your game’s new renegade, picnic-obsessed floral cookie. Or you cross over to another part of the metaverse and organize a Roblox Creator Challenge and invite players to create their own Cookie Run-inspired interactive kingdoms themselves! Giant Squids, all-powerful garden gnomes, K-pop talent shows, the possibilities are endless! Many more examples like these can be found on Cookie Run: Kingdom’s YouTube channel.
What shouldn’t be forgotten is that effective marketing can be done by doubling down on other recent hypes. For example, Squid Game-themed Cookie Run ads were spotted on Twitter and Facebook right after the release of the wildly popular Netflix series.
If you know, you know. 🦑 What technique should I use? 🤔 pic.twitter.com/TwBLSjm3UN
— Cookie Run: Kingdom (@CRKingdomEN) October 3, 2021
And in this modern day and age in which people’s attention spans are reduced to be shorter than the time it takes to boil a kettle of water, it’s important to shoot videos accordingly.
Herb Cookie’s just so Heather <3
Devsisters have created many more TikTok-like videos featuring attractive cookies and the likes, but their marketing team can only create so many videos, so the next thing they did (and very effectively so) is sparking the community’s creativity to create videos for them. The result? Countless Cookie Run-inspired videos on TikTok featuring #herbcookie, for example.
Faces Behind Cookies
More successful games have richly filled YouTube channels showcasing a collection of videos serving as marketing material (e.g. Clash Royale, Candy Crush, June’s Journey), with all of them showing ambition to turn these games into full-fledged IPs. Cookie Run: Kingdom’s channel can easily be included into this list. While all aforementioned efforts stacked to contribute to Cookie Run’s success, there is one unique, recurring theme in Devsisters’ marketing strategy over the past 8 months that almost none of their competitors were able to use to their advantage: voice acting.
On September 2nd, 2021 the game received an update that featured Japanese as a new language in which the game’s characters were able to be heard speaking (at least in the first episodes), and the same happened with English a month later on October 8th.
At first glance, not everyone would attribute the major spikes in engagement with something like added audio, especially on a platform where half the players have sound turned off. But looking at the game’s marketing material, it’s pretty clear that what has really sealed the deal is the fact that all dialogue linked to major narrative events is dubbed by talented voice actors.
With 2.7M views, this is the 3rd most watched videos on CR:K’s YouTube channel
The voice actors are all high-profile influencers on their own, and some of them double as mobile game YouTubers as well. All of them repeatedly tweeted and posted Cookie Run-related updates while they were prominently used in the game’s marketing videos. Devsisters took the voice-actor-themed promotions far, even to the point where players were prompted to guess the voice actor’s real name after hearing a clip of the character they are personifying.
To turn the localization-focused marketing splashes into a full home run, on the 17th of September two very familiar faces were added to the cookie roster right in between the Japanese and US voice actor updates. Devsisters had already been well-versed with famous IP-crossovers since November 2018, when they released Hello Kitty as a character in Cookie Run: OvenBreak.
These specific efforts meant that, for Cookie Run: Kingdom, the release of the updates featuring a specific language could be compared to a more traditional hard-launch in the corresponding territories. South Korean success came early around 2021, while Japanese and English success only came later when the voice-acted dialogues in both languages were added to the game.
What’s Next for the Cookie Kingdom?
Since the start of 2022, a seemingly worrying trend can be observed - downloads (and revenue at that) have been decreasing significantly because of the lack of new UA initiatives.
Yes, new cookies have steadily been introduced and two updates were able to generate small spikes in engagement since the start of the year. The first update (mid-January) included a sizable expansion to the game’s guilds system. This entirely standalone social system features:
- A common dining (Guild) hall where players can post announcements and greetings to each other.
- A decoratable garden for all guild member team cookies to wander around in. Checking in every day provides player rewards.
- A Guild Battle that resets every couple of days in which the whole guild works together to defeat a huge and powerful enemy.
- A huge, complete museum featuring the guild's relics (rare item donations) and achievements.
The second update features a new story chapter and two impressive additions to the roster (one being part of the ancient cookie quintet: Dark Cacao Cookie).
Unfortunately, none of these efforts have been able to match the huge influx of players that was brought into the game by the voice actor campaigns. Given the lack of traction the game has received recently, one can only assume that, if Devsisters are planning something along the lines of the Sonic & Tails event of last year, they are going to combine it with another big marketing campaign. This could be another addition of more spoken voices being supported. Currently the game only supports Korean, English, and Japanese. Looking at the success Devsisters has had with their English and Japanese voice acting campaigns, new languages like Spanish, Portuguese, German, French or Italian are likely to be added next.
Taking Community Building to the Next Level
It’s safe to say the continuation of the Cookie Run brand is pivotal to the future of Devsisters. Reports of internal team sizes of only 50 employees for the Kingdom team in March last year — and Devsisters being a relatively small company with 213 current employees listed on LinkedIn — remind one of Rovio Entertainment’s heyday and the success they found after releasing Angry Birds in 2009. The interesting thing about this comparison is that both companies have shown a very strong and sole commitment to their most successful brand.
For that matter, it’s not strange that we can see Devsisters using the Angry Birds playbook to transcend meme-worthy levels of engagement. What has slowly been getting started can be seen when looking at the expansion of the IP’s Cookie Run store last year. Only recently, a campaign was launched, adding a Lego-like brick builder set of the Cookie Kingdom Castle, which in all aspects is a hugely desirable collector’s item for any Cookie Run fan. If all goes well, expect to see more and more Cookie Run merchandise hitting the online — and eventually also offline — stores. In the long term, even a full-length Cookie Run movie is not an impossibility given its increasing popularity all around the world.
Improvements and Additional Features
Of course, there are always things to optimize, add or rebalance in a game like this. For instance, something that’s a bit of a pity is that the social layer of the game feels tacked on quite heavily. For an elaborate system like the guilds, it’s too easy for players to not engage with this awesome set of features. Some no-brainer cosmetic rewards to really spruce up the player’s Kingdom, for example, could be a solid motivator for them to engage with it some more.
As the game’s feature set is already very rich, it’s not easy to come up with additional features that might potentially be a good addition to the game. The elder game of Cookie Run: Kingdom already contains features like the Cookie Alliance in which a player can use up to 5 predefined teams (25 cookies!) to compete in battles, or the Tower of Sweet Chaos which features a new Rogue-like, layered dungeon to crawl through every season. What’s still missing and could potentially get added to the game in the future are features like a global guild competition in which guilds battle against each other and rank up in global leagues to win prizes. Another common practice in games with rich character rosters like these is a relationship system, which would require the player to have two cookies together in one team to level up their interpersonal relationships.
In conclusion, since its release about a year ago, Cookie Run: Kingdom has managed to gain huge amounts of success, especially after its more globally oriented updates last September and October. Unfortunately the game has been stagnating quite heavily since the start of the new year, and it’s currently unclear how Devsisters is going to continue unrolling their pastry-focused battle plan in the highly saturated Team Battler market. Time will tell if new influxes of players around the world, together with a continuation of well-timed, creative marketing efforts continues to be part of the agenda.
But one thing is certain: every year, the Cookie Run IP is becoming more and more popular and is starting to reach the point of gathering enough fame to stand on its own. From that point onwards it’ll be a more medium-agnostic effort to generate an actual, real-life Cookie Run. As for now, when looking at Devsisters' accomplishments, the most important learnings for anyone trying to replicate part of their game’s success are:
- Keep your game‘s core mechanic easy to learn, but allow for deeper, revisable strategies for your more experienced players. Linking this to a vast secondary feature set creates the reward space you need for an elaborate and exciting event calendar with meaningful rewards and content updates.
- Spoken voice acting is able to make all the difference in dialogue-filled, IP-based games.
- Extensive community building can only be preceded by a lot of worldbuilding. Storytelling using a diverse cast of fun, idiosyncratic characters is the gateway to freedom in creative fantasy.
- Marketing these days needs to enable community-generated content. Memes and reels, ideally featuring recent trends, are a strong way to go.
- To truly develop an IP, steps need to be taken into the world of physical merchandising eventually.
A big thank you to Niek Tuerlings for writing this report!