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

It's well past midnight on a Tuesday, and I'm chasing a Candy Crush high again. Staring at my iPhone, I am trying to decide which of the game's neon yellow gumdrops to swipe into oblivion. I've been rearranging the same pieces of candy on the same square grid for three days, and I am finally about to score enough points to win. My pulse quickens. My finger flicks. "Sugar crush!" booms a voice from the phone as rainbow-colored fireworks explode onscreen. Thirty-six levels down--and several hundred to go.

I may be addicted, but at least I'm not alone. In the past year, Candy Crush Saga has been downloaded some 500 million times and played more than 150 billion times. The game got off to a slow start as an online game two years ago, but after some design changes expressly intended to thwart players tempted to put it down, it has become a global phenomenon--popular everywhere from Brazil to Hong Kong. It is the first game of the smartphone era to top the most-downloaded charts for Apple iOS, Google Android and Facebook simultaneously.

The rules of play are simple: line up three candies of the same color and repeat. But within that basic premise, Candy Crush's maker, a London-based software company called King, has devised an apparatus that is almost frighteningly effective at turning new players into fanatics--and making money too. Which is a particularly sweet trick considering that Candy Crush is free to download and free to play.

Here's how King does it. Players get five lives--or attempts to solve each board--to start. Once a user runs out of lives, a timer begins counting down, and after half an hour the game gives them another free admission ticket. (You can also beg your Facebook friends to donate their extra lives.) But for the impatient there's a cash shortcut. Players can spend money--in 99¢ increments--to improve their performance or skip the half-hour wait to play again. Candy Crush has an eerie knack for asking you for money just at the moment you're most willing to pay.

King, of course, is hardly the first company to come up with a hit app. Rovio, creator of Angry Birds, and Mojang, maker of Minecraft, have spawned lucrative franchises based on their popular games. Worldwide mobile-game revenue through Apple and Google platforms is expected to exceed $10 billion this year, according to Eilers Research. But King's ability to make money from free games in an industry littered with firms that have failed to translate popularity into continuous profit is unique. The privately held company doesn't release sales figures, but analytics firm Think Gaming estimates that Candy Crush alone rakes in nearly $900,000 every day. "Angry Birds' claim to fame is number of downloads," explains Michael Pachter, an analyst at research firm Wedbush Securities. "But King? They're making money."

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