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The game that is spawning zombies

Why Candy Crush Saga is the most pervasive and insanely addictive game in the world. In case you were wondering...

Published: Jun 18, 2014 06:19:47 AM IST
Updated: Jun 19, 2014 01:36:36 PM IST
The game that is spawning zombies
A banner of King Digital Entertainment, the maker of Candy Crush, is seen outside the New York Stock Exchange on which it was listed in March following a $7.1 billion IPO

In October last year, a headline in the UK’s Daily Mail screamed that “...women blow £400,000 a day playing Candy Crush, the most addictive online game ever”. This came five months after the publication had carried a piece titled ‘Candy Crush Saga soars above Angry Birds to become world’s most popular game’  and less than a year after the game had hit smartphones, leading  to over 10 million downloads in a month. ¡ As of April 2014, Candy Crush Saga was the most popular app on Facebook—where it was originally launched two years ago—with more than 100 million active users every month. It was also the most downloaded app of 2013, both in Apple’s App Store and Google’s Play Store, with over 500 million installations across devices, and the third most popular free app on Play Store only behind social giants Facebook and WhatsApp.

Candy Crush is a delicious-looking match-three puzzle game modelled on the decade-old, and hugely popular, Bejeweled. The screen is filled with colourful candies—red jelly beans, yellow lemon drops, orange lozenges, green chewing gums, blue lollipop heads, and purple clusters. Players have to horizontally or vertically swap positions of adjacent candies and create sets of three to make them disappear and score points. The game has a total of 575 levels of increasing difficulty.   

According to Think Gaming, a data firm that helps developers understand user interactions with games, Candy Crush has about 30,000 daily installs. Since it launched, players from all over the world have spent the equivalent of 103,000 years playing the game. More than a trillion candies have been crushed and King Digital Entertainment, the Irish maker of the game, earns $800,000-$900,000 per day from it. That is more than 16 times what Flappy Bird, the top game on iTunes and Google Play Store before it shut down, generated every day.  The game bowed out from the internet in February 2014 because its 29-year-old maker Dong Nguyen thought it had become too “addictive”.

The game that is spawning zombies
That Candy Crush is an extreme phenomenon is a foregone conclusion. It is perhaps the most pervasive and insanely addictive gaming app to have existed. Brian Warner, CEO and founder of Celebrity Net Worth, one of the largest entertainment portals on the internet, calls it “the cocaine of smartphone games ”.  It sucks players into its attractive gameplay and offers to scratch the resulting itches for a price.  

There is no science behind the incredible and partly inexplicable success of Candy Crush. It is just a mobile game after all. How life-altering can that be? Its simplicity and easy availability are its real charms; these have combined to make it what it is—a vehicle of ‘social’ integration cutting across class, colour, caste, community and country. An otaku (Japanese expletive for gizmo geek) in Tokyo’s gaming district of Akihabara and an Indian woman in a cramped Mumbai local might show the same levels of dedication, and obsession, towards the game. Candy Crush, in that sense, is a great leveller. It has transcended barriers and has carved out a place for itself in the social gaming culture.

But what is it about the game that makes it so loved and revered, and most importantly, so addictive?  “I think it’s a bit like gambling. It gives you an illusion of control. If you can’t go past one level, you play even more. And when you get to the next, you can’t wait for the one after that,” says Sadia Saeed Raval, founder and chief psychologist at Inner Space, a Mumbai-based counselling centre. “Though it’s a simple game that doesn’t tax your brain, there’s a sense of accomplishment when you cross levels. You become hungry for rewards.”

And the fact that Candy Crush gets a tad harder and strategically different with every level keeps the gamer hooked. That said, remaining stuck on one level for too long can translate into a loss of interest. “It got me hooked for the first two or three days because it was easy to get lives and move to higher levels. But it got boring and annoying when I was on level 29 for a couple of days, had wasted all five lives in each sitting, had asked for lives from friends, had lost all boosters and yet not progressed. I gave up,” says Mandy B, a 26-year-old PhD student at Gurgaon’s National Brain Research Centre.

Candy Crush allows users to share their progress status on Facebook, where they can ask friends for extra lives after they run out of the mandated five at every level. Users can also make in-app purchases in the form of boosters that provide assistance across levels and help boost scores. Author Ravi Subramanian says, “The days I would not play Candy Crush at night, I would struggle to sleep. The days I would play Candy Crush, I would struggle to sleep. If I didn’t get past a level, it would irritate. If I did, the next level would seductively invite.”

The game that is spawning zombies

According to a recent report in The Guardian, the neurochemical dopamine is released in the brains of compulsive gamers, and they can’t stop playing the game. In psychology, says Raval, this is known as “the schedule of reinforcement” where certain behaviour is reinforced every time it occurs. Most players know that they are hooked to the game, but they cannot free themselves from its tentacles.

Rohan Dasgupta, musician and lead of Mumbai-based punk rock band Concrete Junglee, says quitting or going cold turkey is easier said than done. “It hurts one’s ego when he/she can’t cross a level,” he says. So you keep going and end up as an addict. But Dasgupta has given up at level 164. “I got bored,” he says.

According to AppOptix, which surveys consumer apps, a typical user engages with gaming apps 17 minutes per day. But some Candy Crush players have reportedly played the game ceaselessly for 10 hours or even more. Mothers in the UK have forgotten to pick up their children from school; business executives have failed to turn up at work; and relationships have soured because one partner couldn’t stop playing the game under the blanket. The Candy Crush ‘enslavement’ is so real and disconcerting that de-addiction and rehab centres have come up in the UK.

“One of the main reasons for the game’s viral nature is its accessibility. You can play before sleeping, while commuting, while you’re at the salon getting your hair done or between texting/checking Facebook,” says a 30-year-old digital communications professional. “Candy Crush hooked me to Facebook apps after years. It has kept me awake for nights. I have even kept the notification thing on, which alerts me as soon as I have full lives. I want to cross at least 250 levels. It’s a matter of pride.”  

Counsellor Raval, who works with addicts, reckons that there is no difference between gaming addicts and those that report drug abuse or alcoholism. She says, “Addicts have to be treated the same way. Whether it is gaming or drugs, there is a false feeling of control. People lose sense of their surroundings.”

Beyond the side-effects, though, Candy Crush for some people has immense practical value. An entertainment journalist from a TV channel says, “It’s the perfect time-killer app. When I’ve to spend half of my day waiting for Bollywood stars, I play Candy Crush. It not only keeps me occupied but also allows me to relax. I choose it over a book which takes concentration and energy.”

While availability and simplicity can bring in users, it takes more than that to sustain them. Thus, the element of design in social gaming apps is crucial. The look-and-feel often enhances the stickiness of a product. “Candy Crush is a well-designed game. It is crisp and rich in colours. The use of sound is very good too. But there’s no formula that can define its appeal. It is an outlier like FarmVille or Angry Birds. And they are all different games,” says Anand Ramachandran, director of design at Bharti SoftBank and one of India’s most widely-read gaming columnists. “Even if King Digital makes successful games in future, it will not be able to replicate a Candy Crush because gaming works like movies or any other form of entertainment. You can’t make 3 Idiots every day.”

For King Digital, though, Candy Crush continues to be a pot of gold. In its IPO filing in February, the company said it recorded more than 10-fold revenue increase in 2013, as sales skyrocketed to $1.88 billion from $164 million in 2012. A recent survey by AppOptix estimated that 60-70 percent of King’s revenues came from Candy Crush. It also found that in the first quarter of 2014, King occupied 26 percent of the time Android device-owners spent playing games, more than  any other social game developer.  

However, gaming experts believe that Candy Crush has already peaked and its growth will plateau in the next one year. Internet sensations, by their very nature, are short-lived. Rovio’s Angry Birds, Imangi’s Temple Run and Zyanga’s Mafia Wars have all had their day in the sun.  King Digital, which was valued at $7.1 billion at the time of its IPO, saw its shares fall 15 percent from the opening sale price of $22.50 to a low of $19.08. But even with the dip factored in, the company is worth about $6 billion.  

King has moved on to a new game Farm Heroes Saga. Instead of jellies and candies, this is about matching vegetables and fruits in colourful farms. The app has already been downloaded 2 million times on Google Play Store and has 59 million players on Facebook.

So, is Farm Heroes a union between FarmVille and Candy Crush? And can it combine the phenomenal successes of both? That calls for a separate piece.

The game that is spawning zombies
Image: Vikas Khot

‘Yes, It was an Addiction’

Bestselling author Ravi Subramanian reminisces on his brief but intense love affair with Candy Crush

Playing candy crush on the ipad was like experiencing ‘Vegas on Steroids’. I started playing Candy Crush some time in August last year. It was quite annoying to see posts about Candy Crush spamming my newsfeed. Just out of curiosity one day (August 10), I downloaded the free app on my iPad and started playing.  That night I was on it till 3 am. Thankfully I didn’t have to go to work the next day. And from thereon I played the game every single day till December 31. On an average, I would have played the game for over an hour-and-half daily. Thankfully, I was not writing a book at that time.

Till the time I played it, it brought colour to my life—the bright red, green, yellow, orange candies were my only crush. Sugar Crush was the most-liked chant and ‘Divine’ was the most motivating word that I would die to hear.

Yes, it was an addiction. The days I would not play Candy Crush at night, I would struggle to sleep. The days I would play Candy Crush, I would struggle to sleep. If I didn’t get past a level, it would irritate. If I did, the next level would seductively invite. The explosion of the candy, the unpredictable nature of the game, and the sudden turn of luck, where one move of the candy would set off a series of explosions, would be enough to keep me going for the next few levels. And when I started passing my friends on my way up, it gave me a sense of joy, of being a winner.

In my quest to get ahead, I did everything that was possible. I did not have the patience to wait for my friends to give me lives—I bought them. I spent a lot of money on boosters at every level, which would help me clear rows, knock off candies, blow up candies of a particular type, colour, etc. It might be dangerous to talk about the amount I spent on these for it might land me in a sticky situation at home.

Candy Crush made me a bit of a hero in my daughter’s school too. Her classmates, who were struggling to cross level 30 and 40, were super impressed to know that I had crossed level 300. And when I zoomed past 400, I got into a different race: A race with the game develo-pers. I wanted to reach the last level available at that time before newer levels were introduced.

I wanted to be at a stage where I could claim that I had completed all available levels. It was becoming an addiction, which started worrying me.

That’s when I promised myself that I would stop playing once I got to the last available level or December 31 (whichever is earlier). And as luck would have it, I reached level 485 on the night of December 31, and I haven’t played the game ever since. I often wonder that if on that day Candy Crush had more than 485 levels, this wouldn’t have become the only New Year resolution I have ever kept in my life.

(This story appears in the May-June 2014 issue of ForbesLife India. To visit our Archives, click here.)

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