Odds are that someone you know has a love or hate relationship with Candy Crush Saga, the seemingly never-ending game that's become the fixation of people everywhere.
The game is the undisputed leader in the casual-gaming sector, witnessing more than 600 million active game sessions each day from mobile devices alone.
The runaway craze in Facebook gaming was released on the social network in April 2012 and became the fourth most popular Facebook game before it landed on iOS and Android in late November of last year. The mobile releases opened the game up to people who wanted to play without connecting through Facebook.
Those who play are hooked. When asked to pick one word to describe how she feels about Candy Crush Saga, my brother's girlfriend, Aubrey, who is on level 379, said, "addicting."
Like more than 132 million other people each month, Aubrey plays the puzzle game developed by King, a gaming studio poised for an eventual public offering. She picked up her new hobby, which she describes as more productive than watching television, in December of last year and now plays between 30 minutes to one hour each day. She has no plans to stop playing -- unless she comes across a level she can't beat.
For the uninitiated, Candy Crush Saga is a match-three game, like Bejeweled, where players match candies to score points and complete a level. Each level is part of an episode and comes with its own particular challenge like: clear all the jelly or bring down all the ingredients (Candy Crush-speak that only makes sense to those that play). Players can combine regular candies to make special striped candy, wrapped candy, and rainbow candy for amplified movements. Lose a level, and you'll lose a life. You only get five lives at a time, so you'll have to wait up to 30 minutes for another life should you exhaust all of yours -- unless you buy more or a Facebook friend steps in to grant you more.
Seemingly simple in nature, the game has a quality about it that compels people to keep on playing, especially if they're having a hard time beating a level. For some, this reporter included, a challenging level can get under the skin and drive them to pay to purchase additional moves or lives. Craftier, die-hard types will fudge with the date and time on their smartphone or tablet to get around the time constraint and fool the game into granting them more lives free of charge.
The game is so popular that fans post game-themed art to Instagram, bake elaborate character and candy-inspired cakes for birthdays and weddings, and, in some of the most extreme instances, add strangers as Facebook friends for help.
"In Hong Kong the game is extremely popular. We've heard reports of people talking to strangers in the subway and asking them to become friends on Facebook just to give them lives," Tommy Palm, King's "game guru," told me. "It's really changed how people interact."
Popular with people of all ages, Candy Crush Saga is more popular with women than it is with men. It was designed to be so.
"The focus of many of the traditional games has been to younger male audiences and the competition there is fierce," Palm said. "So when it comes to females...they haven't traditionally had so many games made for them, and many are now finding how fun and entertaining games can be."
King uses a target audience of females ages 25 to 55 to test its games before release. If these women respond well to a game, King has found that the game will go on to be a smash hit with all audiences. With Candy Crush, King knew it had a sensation on its hand before it ever released the game on Facebook. And at this point, the studio, which has been around since 2003, has established a recipe that often leads to success, as it did previously with Bubble Witch Saga.
But Candy Crush seems to be in a league of its own.
"Candy Crush Saga is designed to be a habit, not a game," Jamie Madigan, who chronicles the intersection of psychology and video games and holds a Ph.D. in psychology, said. "We know from studying how habits are made that they are often born out of routine...So if you pick the game up over your morning coffee every day, or play on your lunch break, or play as part of your getting ready for bed routine, it will become a habit."
A habit is a kind way of putting it. For some, the candy-crushing habit has evolved into a life-wrecking compulsion.
Earlier this year, UK Rehab, an addiction treatment provider, launched a dedicated residential rehab program specifically designed for Candy Crush addicts. The program, which costs a minimum of $5,000, was created after the center fielded a number of calls from worried parents and spouses. Lee Bandoni, a spokesperson for UK Rehab, said that center receives as many as 100 inquiries per month and that three to five people go in for Candy Crush Saga rehab every month.
"The youngest problem we've seen is [a kid] about 12-years-old who was skipping school...and the oldest is late 60s. It's a very new problem, but it's growing at an alarming rate," Bandoni said.
A Candy Crush addict, as loosely defined by Bandoni, is someone who spends four to five hours a day playing the game, lets the game override personal relationships, makes excuses to avoid social situations, and locks him or herself away in order to play. Essentially, it's a form of video game addiction, a debated condition in the mental health community.
These extreme cases are indicative of the game's hold, innocent or otherwise, over more than 100 million people who seemingly can't stop playing Candy Crush Saga. AppData, which measures the number of people who use games and apps connected through Facebook, had to adjust its counting process for Candy Crush after running into a bizarre problem.
"The growth of Candy Crush Saga was so great that our algorithm was not accurately reporting this top app," Scott Bialous, a general manager for AppData, told CNET.
AppData did some readjusting and found that Candy Crush Saga has 132.45 million monthly Facebook-connected users, which is nearly three times as high as the previously stated number of 46 million people and more than a tenth of Facebook's 1.15 billion monthly active users.
If you count yourself a Candy Crush holdout, you've probably been warned by friends not to start playing, because once you do, you won't be able to stop. Or you've long passed the tolerance threshold for Candy Crush stories in your News Feed.
Despite suggestions to the contrary, King did not consult psychologists to produce a habit or addiction-forming game. Instead, a small team focuses on making sure that the challenge gets progressively harder without getting too hard, Palm said. And at level 455 and counting, Candy Crush could go on forever, as the team works actively to release new episodes on a weekly basis.
Perhaps it's this never-ending quality that partially explains its hold over a growing number of people. Or maybe Facebook is to blame. Candy Crush Saga, when played with a Facebook account, encourages members to turn to their friends for help when they've run out of lives, and inspires competition through level leaderboards.
Whatever the reason behind our fascination with Candy Crush, the odds seem stacked against the game being anything more than a flash in the pan. History shows us that Web and mobile games peak and then fade away. Take Farmville or Draw Something, for instance, two games that road a tidal wave of Facebook attention to fame -- and some fortune -- before taking a backseat to newer releases.
It's a reality that Palm and King are ready to face.
"All games have a lifespan," he said. "We continue working on other products, and keep working on our recipe to innovate and come up with...concepts that will appeal to the same audience that loves Candy Crush Saga."
With King rumored to be preparing for an IPO, the positive outlook is a must, even if the strategy bears striking resemblance to Zynga's less-than-successful strategy. Zynga, once the "It" social game developer on Facebook's block, is now hemorrhaging players, losing money, and trading at more than 70 percent off its initial offering price.