Candy Crush's Architects of Addiction

The ruthless engineering behind one of the world's most popular mobile games

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Elizabeth Renstrom for TIME

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But it's more than that. In the age of binge media--think full television seasons on Netflix--Candy Crush and its 500 levels are a diversion seemingly tailored to our times, a phosphorescent Rubik's Cube with a coin slot. Candy Crush is by no means the world's most popular video game, but it may well be the most habit-forming. Consider Andy Jarc, who has made it to the upper echelons of the game, level 440. (King adds more levels every two weeks.) "I started, and at first I was like, 'Whatever.' But as I played more and more, it got addicting," says Jarc, a 22-year-old financial adviser in New York, who adds that, like many users, he often finds himself thinking about the game even when he's not playing. "Eventually, my life began running in 30-minute segments."

Candy Land

To understand why Candy Crush is so hypnotic, you have to talk to the man whom King employees know as the guru. Tommy Palm, a 39-year-old Swede, is the chief architect of Candy Crush's success. Palm began programming as a hobby in 1986. He founded his own mobile-game studio, Fabrication Games, in 2009. Three years later, King acquired the company for an undisclosed sum to get its hands on Palm's expertise in mobile games.

Candy Crush had been a simple beat-the-clock game on without any in-game extras to purchase. A later Facebook version gained a somewhat larger following. King executives knew they would have to make the game available on hot-selling mobile devices to get bigger. But the company had run into problems making a version of another title, Bubble Witch Saga, for phones, says Sebastian Knutsson, King's co-founder and chief creative officer. "It wasn't designed for a small screen," he says. "We brought Tommy in because he had mobile experience."

That's when Palm and his team began retooling Candy Crush. They started by tweaking the interface, resizing the icons and making the game usable in both landscape and portrait orientations. That made Candy Crush playable with one hand--a minor change but one that helped turn it into a favorite of subway commuters and office workers holding their phone beneath a conference-room table. Says Palm: "It's a lot of these small, seemingly insignificant design decisions that really make it work."

Candy Crush also became one of the first games in which almost every aspect of playing was synched across platforms. Buy an extra life on your phone, for instance, and it automatically appears if you pick up the game on Facebook. What's more, users can play offline, without a cell-phone or wi-fi signal, and have their progress saved once they have service again. That means a game of Candy Crush is accessible almost anytime, anywhere. Knutsson credits this feature with a massive uptick in the number of players.

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