Candy Crush's Architects of Addiction

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

  • Share
  • Read Later
Elizabeth Renstrom for TIME

(3 of 3)

Then there are the innovations aimed at taking advantage of human psychology. Candy Crush essentially offers all of itself up front for free. But it also makes players pace themselves, forcing them to wait to replenish their store of lives or access certain levels--or pay extra to proceed. "That makes you not burn out straightaway," explains Palm, making it more likely players will stay with the game over the long haul. Or as Jarc, the player, puts it, "You want what you can't have. I can't have more lives, and I want them." (Some high-level players have even taken to gaming the system by changing the clock on their phones to accrue free lives more quickly.)

On top of that, there's a surplus of relentlessly positive feedback. When players match pieces, encouragements like "Sweet!" or "Delicious!" pop up. In fact, nearly every click or tap is met with some kind of ebullient response from the game. "Positive rewards are the main reason people become addicted to things," says Dr. Kimberly Young, a psychologist and expert on Internet and gaming addiction. Palm says the game also alternates between difficult and easy levels to balance players' frustration with a sense of mastery.

By January of this year, the design changes had hooked some 70 million players a month. By May, that number of people were playing every day. According to figures provided by King, the vast majority are playing on their mobile devices.

Once You're Lucky

Even with its winning formula, Candy Crush isn't guaranteed to stay on top. The fall of once hot Zynga looms over King and other mobile gamemakers' every business decision. Famous for the success of its popular Facebook game FarmVille, San Francisco--based Zynga went public in December 2011 to great fanfare. Since then the company's revenue and stock price have slumped. "Investors have soured on the social-gaming category because of one company," says Steve Swasey, vice president of gamemaker Kabam, referring to Zynga. The company stumbled in part because it could not translate the success of its Facebook-based games to mobile phones.

That has led game companies to look for other sources of revenue. Angry Birds creator Rovio, for instance, now profits from merchandise ranging from lunch boxes to bedspreads, as well as an animated television show. So far, Candy Crush has not lent itself to these kinds of lucrative extensions in the U.S., save for a line of gummies and chocolate balls sold at boutique store Dylan's Candy Bar.

King's Knutsson says the company is now focused on making games that are "mobile first" and that it has a long tradition of finding colorful new premises. According to reports by multiple financial-news sources, the company filed confidential paperwork for an initial public offering earlier this year. A King spokesperson declined to comment.

One thing is certain: King must find a way to port the Candy Crush magic to other titles. "I think that all games have a lifespan," says Palm. In November the company released Papa Pear Saga for mobile devices. Though it differs from its predecessor in some ways, the game bears more than a passing resemblance to Candy Crush. It is brightly colored, filled with peppy congratulations and syncs between mobile and Facebook versions. I'm already up to level 22.

  1. 1
  2. 2
  3. 3
  4. Next Page