When Kendall Mayhew was in college, she deleted “all the card games and Minesweeper” from her computer, finding they were sucking too much of her time. Today, the L.A.-based writer and actor has a new fixation: Candy Crush Saga, the wildly popular iPhone game. (It’s also available on Android and other Apple devices, and on Facebook.) “I definitely play every day,” Mayhew says. Of course, she’s not alone: In Canada, according to King, the company behind the game, Candy Crush Saga has 1.8 million active daily users.
A growing number say they suffer from full-blown Candy Crush addiction. “It’s been two hours since I last crushed,” says 33-year-old Lisa Manship of South Wales, who runs the Facebook page “Help, I’m a Candy Crush addict,” which has more than 900 members. “I was definitely addicted,” says Ryan Higa, 23, who lives in Las Vegas, and made a slick (fake) trailer for Candy Crush: The Movie, which charts one obsessive’s quest to smash colourful candies. Posted online in June, the video has more than seven million views. “I had to force myself to stop playing, because it was taking up way too much of what was supposed to be my ‘sleep time.’ ”
Launched on Facebook in April 2012 and on mobile devices last November, Candy Crush Saga is now the top-grossing iPhone app, according to AppData, and the most popular app on Facebook, with more than 133 million monthly active users. Candy Crush saw such tremendous growth that the algorithm charting its progress “basically broke,” says AppData’s Scott Bialous.
Like Bejeweled or Tetris, Candy Crush is a “match-three game”: Players line up colours of sweets that then burst apart like sugary fireworks. It’s free to download, but once players run through their five allotted lives, they must wait 2½ hours (30 minutes per life) for more, or else pay 99 cents for a set. Ashley Feinberg was a Candy Crush holdout until she finally downloaded it. After a month of hard-core playing, and paying for lives, she sucked up the courage to determine how much she’d spent: It was $236. When she told her co-workers at tech blog Gizmodo, “everyone started screaming,” says Feinberg, who wrote a blog post about her “Candy Crush problem.” (Think Gaming estimates that Candy Crush Saga earns $850,000 per day.)
Those who’d rather not pay can ask Facebook friends to give them lives. Manship has seen members of her group asking strangers to add them as friends, simply so they can send each other lives. Some players will go even further to get more lives, setting the clocks on their smartphones ahead, fooling the phone into thinking its countdown has ended. In February and March, “my iPhone thought it was July,” Manship says. “It was that bad! Now I just wait for lives.”
To Jamie Madigan, a Missouri-based expert in the psychology of video games, much of Candy Crush’s runaway success is due to the high quality of the game. “It’s super-polished, looks great, sounds great, feels great,” he says. Even so, “it’s designed to be a habit first, and a game second.” Because players only get so many lives (unless they buy, beg or steal more), they can’t play it for long periods of time, meaning they won’t burn out, and so keep coming back to it day after day.
Tommy Palm, King’s Stockholm-based games guru, agrees that Candy Crush is “optimized for fun,” but stops short of comparing it to an addiction. He notes that the candy theme has proven to be especially appealing, and credits the game’s “social aspect” (including integration with Facebook) for its success. Developers are continuously adding new material to the game—as of Sept. 5, Candy Crush Saga had 455 levels—and of those players who reach the last level, 70 per cent have not paid to be there. Palm (who, coincidentally, has an eight-year-old daughter named “Saga,” which is a Swedish name) hasn’t tired of playing it, and recently beat level 136, where he’d been stuck for a week.
Mayhew views the five-life allocation as a positive: It limits how much time she can spend crushing candies. “I haven’t bought any lives,” she says. “I don’t want to find myself having sold all my possessions on the Internet to strangers for Candy Crush lives.”
Q&A: The man behind Candy Crush
An interview with Tommy Palm, the Stockholm-based “games guru” behind a game that’s crushing the competition:
Q: Tell me about King, the company behind Candy Crush Saga.
A: King has been around for more than 10 years. We focus on casual social games that we call “bitesize entertainment,” where you can have a meaningful game session within 30 seconds. We have a special recipe for making games. We work with a very small team; just two or three people will typically make the core game mechanics and try it on our website, King.com, where we have about 12 million active users. With Candy Crush, it was just a three-person team. The first level version of the game released mid-2011. It wasn’t the first match-3 game that King had done, but it was first with a candy theme. Then we started to make the Facebook version of game. That was released in April 2012. The mobile version came in November of last year. It’s been a fantastic ride. Today [Candy Crush] is a social phenomenon.
Q: How do you explain the game’s popularity?
A: I think the candy theme is very important —as is its accessibility. The game is free and it’s available on a lot of different devices. You can play with one hand with your smartphone if you’re taking the bus to work, or you can play in the comfort of your home on the sofa on a tablet. You can continue your progress from any device. It’s a truly social game — it’s something you can talk about over lunch with friends.
Q: It’s free at the outset, but eventually you’re at the mercy of the clock, or having to buy more lives for 99 cents, which can add up.
A: The free-to-play model is a trend that’s becoming really strong. It’s been the sign from the beginning with Candy Crush Saga that players should be able to make it all the way to the end without having to pay. We make sure that there are no hard stops where you must pay to continue. You can wait, or ask your friends to invite you to an episode or give you another life [on Facebook]. The people who are on the last level, currently level 455, 70 per cent of them haven’t paid to get there.
Q: You’re always updating with new levels and new content?
A: Every two weeks, we add new episodes.
Q: Do you believe this game is addictive?
A: It’s optimized for fun. Players go back to the game because they enjoy doing it. In that sense, I don’t think you can compare it with addictions from other medical definitions. The social component is really important for longevity of the game. We see that with other games we have, too: Bubble Witch Saga was launched two years ago, and it’s still in the top 15 of most popular Facebook games. People continue playing it for a really long time.
Q: You have a daughter named Saga. Is she named for the game?
A: It is [a coincidence]. She’s eight. She’s a bit too young to play; she plays it sometimes on my phone, but she doesn’t have a Facebook account. All the games that have a social account are called “Saga.” And they’re not named after her.
Q: Do you play?
A: I play the game very actively. I’ve been stuck on level 136 for some time but I just broke through, so I’m now on 140.
I still think it’s a lot of fun. For me, it’s perfect to play on airplanes, and I travel a lot. That was one of the things we [took into account in its design]: a great mobile game today has be played for flying. There are so many situations when you want to continue with a game, but you don’t have an internet connection.
Q: Okay, let’s talk Candy Crush hints. When the candies start to glow to suggest a move, is the game misleading you? Is that meant to trip you up?
A: It’s a hint. We do that so that players won’t get stuck and get frustrated. We’ve gotten questions if it’s deliberately not the best move, but it’s just a random move. If we would show the best move all the time, it wouldn’t be a game anymore and you’d just wait for that.
Q: Any other tips?
A: Take your time and look for the best move. You have a limited number of moves — think those through. As an experienced player, you learn to look for patterns. You can build up to the five ones early on to see, to match together two on each side and make something in the middle. And then if you match the five you get a colour bomb and that clears up the level quite a lot.