Candy Crush Saga: The Science Behind Our Addiction

A year after the game's mobile launch, we still can't stop playing. The app's designer and psychology experts weigh in on exactly what makes it so irresistible

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TIME illustration / Hands: Getty Images

If you haven’t heard of Candy Crush, it’s the mobile game that’s so addictive, players say they have left their children stranded at school, abandoned housework and even injured themselves as they try to reach new levels of the game.

Candy Crush has been played 151 billion times since it launched as an app on mobile devices exactly year ago. And it’s the first game to ever be No. 1 on iOS, Android and Facebook at the same time. Candy Crush’s creator, King, a Stockholm-based company, says 1 in every 23 Facebook users plays it. And while Candy Crush is free, the in-game purchases that some players choose to make add up. Think Gaming, which releases gaming analytics, estimates that it takes in $875,382 per day. (By comparison, another insanely popular mobile game, Angry Birds, takes in an estimated $6,381 daily.)

(MORE: Quiz: How Addicted Are You to Candy Crush?)

All that adds up to some seriously distracted users. A survey by Ask Your Target Market polled 1,000 players and found that 32% of them ignored friends or family to play the game, 28% played during work, 10% got into arguments with significant others over how long they played, and 30% said they were “addicted.”

But there are lots of amusing games out there, so what’s so addictive about this one?

We asked Tommy Palm, one of the game’s designers, what the King team did to get us hooked. We also called a few psychology experts and players to understand the backstory on why their tactics worked so well. Here are the nine reasons they say Candy Crush is so irresistible:

1. It Makes You Wait

Perhaps the most genius element of Candy Crush is its ability to make you long for it. You get five chances (lives) to line up the requisite number of candy icons. Once you run out of lives, you have to wait in 30-minute increments to continue play. Or, if you’re impatient, you can pay to get back in the game — which is why it’s bringing in so much revenue. “You can’t just play all the time. You run out of lives,” says Andy Jarc, 22, one of the few players to reach level 440 in the game. “So the fact that they kind of constrain you — the whole mantra, ‘You always want what you can’t have.’ I can’t have more lives and I want them.”

“I think it makes the game more fun long term,” says designer Palm. “If you have a game that consumes a lot of mental bandwidth, you will continue playing it without noticing that you’re hungry or need to go to the bathroom. But then you binge and eventually you stop playing. It’s much better from an entertainment point of view to create a more balanced experience where you have natural breaks.”

2. We’re All Suckers for Sweet Talk

You flick four candies in a row, and they zap away. Candies above begin to cascade down, making even more matches. At the end words pop up on your screen, accompanied by a voice that says “Sweet” or “Delicious.” This feedback is essential for player immersion. “Positive rewards are the main reason people become addicted to things,” says Dr. Kimberly Young, a pioneering expert on Internet and gaming addiction who treats those addicted to the cyberworld. “When you play the game, you feel better about yourself.”

3. You Can Play With One Hand 

According to Palm, the icons and setup were created so players could multitask. You can play Candy Crush while carrying a drink, toting a purse or bag, clinging to a subway pole, or hiding your phone under the table. That’s a huge advantage and makes this game perfect for a train ride, a distraction while you’re waiting to see a doctor, or something to get you through boring meetings. Plus, you can play offline as well — so even if you’re stuck in a tunnel, you can be “crushing.”

4. There’s Always More

According to Palm, the Candy Crush team updates the game constantly and creates new levels every two weeks. Right now there are 544 levels. “Just three years ago, a game with 30 levels would be astonishing,” King says. “And now with this game, it has raised the bar with how much content a mobile game should and will have.”

Plus, on any single level, there’s no way to fail. If you run out of options on a board — and that happens once in a blue moon — the board immediately resets. You never get stuck. You can’t lose. “I believe this is part of the reinforcing pattern which keeps you playing,” says Dr. Dinah Miller, a psychiatrist who has written about the addicting elements of another popular game, Angry Birds. The game only ends when you’ve run out of your allotted number of moves “and you can end that frustration by buying your way out.”

5. You Don’t Have to Pay – but if You Want to, It’s Easy

King reports that of all the players on its last level — 544 — more than 60% of them didn’t pay a cent to buy extra lives or chances to get there. But if you want to pay, it’s easy. Connected to Facebook or the app store? Just click to pay.

6. It Taps Into Our Inner Child

“Many people have had a very positive feeling about candy since they were kids,” says Palm. “And it makes for a really nice visual game board with a lot of color and interesting shapes.” In fact, when you play you feel as if you’re transported into an entire Candy Land experience. The game pieces are candy, and the homepage for the game looks like the traditional Candy Land board, with your Facebook friends’ pictures displayed as pieces on that board, sitting at whatever level they’re stuck on.

7. It’s Social

Social games — any game that allows you to connect with your friends through a social-media platform like Facebook — have taken off. Whether it’s Words With Friends, Kingdoms of Camelot or Candy Crush, the ability to play with, or compete against, friends is irresistible. “Look, nobody’s coming to me because they have a clinical addiction to Candy Crush,” says Young. “It’s more of a social addiction, if you will.”

8. It’s an Escape

“When you read the research about gaming,” Young says, “you’re often looking at people who are distracting themselves from something in their lives.” The relaxing exercise of lining up candies to the tune of upbeat music is a perfect stress reliever.

9.  It Grows on You

This isn’t your average “line up three” game. “I started playing, and at first I was like whatever, it’s just bejeweled,” says Jarc. “But as I played more and more, it became addicting.”

King’s high-level of attentiveness toward updating gameplay has made it better quality than most casual games that are out there. When players took to Facebook to express their frustration with level 65 — notoriously one of the hardest levels in the game — King went into the game and altered the level to make it easier (though not too easy) multiple times.

Update 10:11 a.m.: This post has been updated to reflect that Dr. Dinah Miller is a psychiatrist, not a psychologist.

76 comments
TammyWunderOyler
TammyWunderOyler

There are over 500 levels on my iMac! I'm on 542. Just can't get them to load on my iPad or iPhone.

Reiko808
Reiko808

Lexis: I just checked CC on Facebook and it has been updated!  I, too, was stranded at 500 for many, many weeks. 


BTW, have you played in the new CC Dreamworld yet? 

Reiko808
Reiko808

Funny how so many people immediately "It's like Bejeweled".  The first thing that came to my mind when I saw Bejeweled was "It's like Tetris Attack".  Tetris Attack was a game on the Nintendo Super NES system.


It had the same basic premise of matching 3, 4, 5 or 6, making combos or chains for bonus points. You played with Super Mario characters and could play against the computer or a human opponent. When you did bigger matches, combos or chains, you dropped blocks onto your opponent's stack of puzzle pieces. To get rid of the blocks, you had to make a match with any pieces touching the block.  The first player whose stack reached the top of the screen was the loser. There was also a game where you had a limited number of moves to clear the screen of pieces and a game where you had to bring your stack of pieces below a certain line. Each round was timed but the time didn't affect the outcome. I think it was just to challenge the player to finish quicker.


The biggest difference with TA was that you could move pieces without having to make a match. So, you could take a red and move it all the way across the screen to where you could make a match and you could set up chains much easier than with B or CC.  Nintendo also released a TA version for Gameboy called Puzzle League.  It was basically the same without the characters.

Reiko808
Reiko808

Funny how so many people immediately "It's like Bejeweled".  The first thing that came to my mind when I saw Bejeweled was "It's like Tetris Attack".  Tetris Attack was a game on the Nintendo Super NES system.


It had the same basic premise of matching 3, 4, 5 or 6, making combos or chains for bonus points. You played with Super Mario characters and could play against the computer or a human opponent. When you did bigger matches, combos or chains, you dropped blocks onto your opponent's stack of puzzle pieces. To get rid of the blocks, you had to make a match with any pieces touching the block.  The first player whose stack reached the top of the screen was the loser. There was also a game where you had a limited number of moves to clear the screen of pieces and a game where you had to bring your stack of pieces below a certain line. Each round was timed but the time didn't affect the outcome. I think it was just to challenge the player to finish quicker.


The biggest difference with TA was that you could move pieces without having to make a match. So, you could take a red and move it all the way across the screen to where you could make a match and you could set up chains much easier than with B or CC.  Nintendo also released a TA version for Gameboy called Puzzle League.  It was basically the same without the characters.

LexisFreeman
LexisFreeman

There are not 544 levels!!! There are only 500 levels, if you are going to write something at least double check it to make sure it is correct!! :(





































ZoiloCastro
ZoiloCastro

Perhaps, for us FREEBIES it ends at level 500, lol !

ZoiloCastro
ZoiloCastro

I only have 500 levels in PC too! Why Why Why ?

Flames5123
Flames5123

Ever since it started popping up from ads on numberous sites, exiting out of my chrome browsing and launching the AppStore SEVERAL times, I vowed to never play the game. I don't get why he has to advertise. I would've given in and played it by now if it wasnt for the gratuitous amounts of ads that automatically open up the App Store several times in a row.

AT253
AT253

I don't know where they get 544.  I reached 500 last week and my board is still showing that is the end of the line.
And no -- not a dime spent on boosters, or youtube how-to's, or google for tips.  Never even thought to do that.

LuanneChasey
LuanneChasey

If there are 500 or 544 levels why did it stop for me at 455? Anyone else having this problem?

MarthaNewsome
MarthaNewsome

What are they on about? Level 65 was pretty easy got it in two. I am on 225 now and will keep going. The only times I have paid is when none of my friends who play candy crush help me. I think they got sick of helping me, because I passed them all. I actually think it's more fun trying to beat someone elses score, so I am now flying through the levels not really worrying if I get three stars or not. I have to admit it, I am addicted and I love playing while having a cup of coffee. It's like having a break and often I resume what ever I am doing, will lives still there to play. The only thing wrong with the game is when you get to the higher levels, there are no more rewards. I think there should be more rewards the higher you go. Hopefully King's will read this and improve the reward system.


jboit
jboit

Yo guys, obviously all of you have googled help for this game. While all those youtube video walkthroughs are helpful to visualize the level, this website candycrush-cheats.com actually give in depth tips specific to most levels... way more help than just watching someone beat it because they got lucky

trlkly
trlkly

Uh, all of your statements apply to pretty much every Facebook game in existence. And, no, Candy Crush has not led to people abandoning children anymore than any other game in existence.


I hope the money you got from the creator was worth the crappy journalism, though.

LillieT4
LillieT4

I think it's because it's not just 3 in a row.  There are different goals - some are puzzles, some are timed, some require making special candies.  Then there is the candy strikes back section - the chocolate.

gfrdoc
gfrdoc

Jeez people... read a book for Criminey's sake!!!!


GladysRosmus
GladysRosmus

after i turn off the computer go to bed,[try to pray] all i see is bombs expl0ding blaster balls and sorry you are out of lives. cant sleep up and at it again.[what a game]

gbunny
gbunny

There's a copycat game, "Jelly Splash," with the same setup of lives and having to wait 30 minutes, getting Facebook friends, etc.  It's cute but once you realize that it's a money pit, you can break away from it.

Nyte_Shayde
Nyte_Shayde

The armchair psychologists have come out in force, I see. It's a game. Let's not over think it. 

GringoVigilante
GringoVigilante

Jesus you people with the 'go play Bejeweled'. I love bejeweled, but this is just different in its own way. 



JosephVarner1
JosephVarner1

lol. Go play bejeweled. You can find it free and it costs you nothing to play in game. It is also the exact same game as candy crush but without the stupid graphics and voice overs. 

gattacaace
gattacaace

Lame..

Played it and left...

Not point to it.

Cmauro
Cmauro

Give me a big break here. The expert you cite is clueless as to why this game is additive. The science behind both Angry Birds and Candy Crush engagement has almost nothing to do with the issues cited in this article. Here are two long-form posts which do delve into the cognitive science that explains the reasons why these games are so engaging. 

Candy Crush Cognitive Tear Down: http://www.mauronewmedia.com/blog/why-candy-crush-saga-is-so-successful-and-popular-but-will-never-be-an-angry-birds-a-cognitive-tear-down-of-the-user-experience/

Angry Birds Cognitive Tear Down: http://www.mauronewmedia.com/blog/why-angry-birds-is-so-successful-a-cognitive-teardown-of-the-user-experience/


Charles L Mauro CHFP

President

MauroNewMedia

fawmeopfw
fawmeopfw

I tried the game after reading this. It's not bad but I saw no reason to spend money. If you feel compelled to buy stuff in-game, you're incredibly impatient, you're gullible, and/or you spend way too much time playing mobile games.

DaeLei
DaeLei

I don't understand the mindset of those who look down on people who play these games.   There are literally millions of ways people entertain themselves, this is just one more.  Every one of us has at least one simple thing we enjoy doing, including those like LuluValles, who feel the need to be condescending and ugly over something so small.  Just be happy that someone gets enjoyment out of the game, and move on.

Blahable
Blahable

Amazingly ironic that the people yelling "get a life". Have the time to click the title of an article, read the article, log in and hate/troll.

Oh you Americans..."god bless america"

jjo
jjo

I like that the fact that it cuts me off.  It limits my playing time to something reasonable.  The game is a harmless distraction (think "Grand Theft Auto" for a comparison) as long as I don't pay for anything other than moving to the next set of levels (.99 cents) and I quit when I run out of lives.  Candy Crush Saga appeals to those of us who remember that little "no batteries required" hand held game where you had to move numbered tiles one at a time into the only blank space available in order to try to get all the numbers in their proper order.

ErlindaSherylBrent
ErlindaSherylBrent

I volunteered at a convention last week. During a lull, a couple of high ranking, VERY professional women were extremely engrossed in Candy Crush on their mobiles. One remarked that she had been trying to break a level since August.

Frightening.

LuluValles
LuluValles

10.  You are just not that bright.


JDeweyJames
JDeweyJames

This article states twice that there are 544 levels, but I am on level 500, and there's a construction sign showing they are building more levels.  I've been waiting and checking back daily to keep going, but I only have 500 levels so far, what the heck?!?!

rand.tp
rand.tp

#1 (makes you wait) is precisely why I stopped playing this waste of time pretty quickly.


shan220000000
shan220000000

It seems to me that it's not the game itself. If you have an addictive personality you're going to choose a game to get hooked on, regardless. I had to uninstall Angry Birds from my mobile phone because I found myself up at 2 am on a weeknight trying like 100 times to get three stars on a certain level. That was it. I had to do an intervention on myself. 

boomboompow
boomboompow

1. It Makes You Wait : I always get over this step by resetting my phone clock. No need to wait.  move forward time to a couple of hours and you will get  fresh lives


gabesmom
gabesmom

A more serious addictive element is neurological -- after you've played the game for a while, you can notice, when you're not playing, that you can see the game screen with the little candy icons in your visual field (you might have to close your eyes to notice this). I think a serious part of the addiction is that, by playing, by staring at the game screen and colored icons, the brain becomes neurologically primed to want to engage in the activity of seeing the moving colored icons.

CaseyAlden
CaseyAlden

@LuanneChasey if you are playing on an ipad/phone or other mobile device, then yes, it's only updated to level 455.  The PC version always updates with higher levels than the app.  Hate that!

haylo75
haylo75

@Cmauro Your tear downs were enjoyable, thanks for advertising.  I also read your Breaking Bad vs. Facebook common factors post.  Again, very enjoyable with one caveat:  continually yelling HACK.  We get it. 

Nyte_Shayde
Nyte_Shayde

@Blahable  I'm going to give you a bit of a newsflash that may not have occurred to you. You clicked the same link, read the same article, and now you've logged in to hate/troll. Grab an oar and start rowing, hypocrite. 

Blahable
Blahable

Shouldn't u people be making dance fads, creating randomly retarded songs, UFO videos, and trying to get rich off cat videos?

cmyers
cmyers

@JDeweyJames Yep, only 500 on my end so not sure where they get 544.  And, I know it's been over 2 weeks with no update yet.

sara.wagshall
sara.wagshall

@boomboompow Stop giving away the secret. Do you want them to somehow change that and not allow us to do that anymore? 

sullynjoy
sullynjoy

This is the first time I have heard of someone other than myself experiencing this phenomenon!  I thought I was going crazy, but the poster above expressed EXACTLY what happened to ME!  I backed off the game some and it's better, but it was BAD for awhile -- especially when first waking up!

rafaelrobyns
rafaelrobyns

@gabesmom Sounds like Tetris quite a a few years ago. I've never seen this game but it seems a pointless way to spend your life, driven by your addictions.