Why You Don’t Burn Out on Candy Crush Saga

Okay, everybody. I did it. I played Candy Crush Saga. I did it for science.

With over 66 million players,1 Candy Crush Saga (CCS) is easily the most popular game on Facebook, Android, and iOS, so I felt that I needed to know something about it. And it’s probably worth noting up front that Candy Crush Saga owes a lot of its success to its quality. It’s super polished, looks great, sounds great, feels great. Whatever criticisms one may levy against it, quality isn’t one of them.


That said, there are a few psychological levers that CCS throws its weight against every time you pick it up. One thing you quickly notice about CCS is that it has a “lives” system that prevents you from playing the game as much as you want in one sitting. Failing a board cost a life, and short of spending money or spamming your friends with pleas to log into the game and help you out, the game forces you to NOT play it for several hours while your lives regenerate. This is similar to the resource regeneration that many other free to play games use, or the “wait for your crops to grow” staple of Farmville’s design.

To be sure, this is in part an incentive for you to spend real money to bypass such limits. Because the games sure as hell offer you that option. Or at least it might get your friends to log into the game to send you aid …and then play a few levels while they’ve got it up. But the resource regeneration model still uses a kink in human psychology to benefit the developer even if you –like the vast majority of players– never spend a penny and hate hassling your friends.

To see why, let’s look at an experiment involving REAL chocolate and what psychologists call “hedonic adaptation.”

Harvard researcher Jordi Quoidbach and his colleague Elizabeth Dunn published a 2013 study2 in which they had subjects sample a piece of delicious chocolate. Then, depending on what experimental condition they were in, subjects were told to either completely abstain from chocolate for two weeks or they were given a massive, two pound stack of chocolate bars and told to eat as much as they could over the next two weeks without becoming physically ill. Yes, someone at Harvard had to justify spending research grant money on several cases of chocolate bars. I’m sure a few went missing somewhere along the line…

When subjects returned to Quoidbach’s lab two weeks later, they were given another piece of chocolate and asked to rate how much they enjoyed it. Compared to those in the “eat chocolate until you barf” condition and a control group that had received no instructions regarding how much chocolate to eat, those who abstained for a week savored the treat more and reported greater happiness and being in a better mood after eating it.


This phenomenon is called “hedonic adaptation” and refers to the fact that we get used to nice things over time until they no longer anywhere near as pleasurable. It’s the reason why your new car is a lot less exciting after 6 months of ownership, why a new song gets old, and why a fourth piece of pie isn’t nearly as appealing as the first. 3 Like with the study on chocolates, other research has found that frequent breaks enhance your enjoyment of pleasurable activities. For example, Leif Nelson and Tom Meyvis reported in a 2008 study4 found that taking breaks while listening to music or getting a nice massage protracted and increased the pleasure subjects received. Other research by Nelson and Meyvis5 found that enjoyment of a television program was actually enhanced by commercial interruptions. All this despite the fact that most people didn’t want to take the massage breaks or commercial interruptions offered to them. They wanted to watch Breaking Bad and have Sven keep working those shoulder muscles until they couldn’t stand it any more. Or at least they thought they did.

And so it is with Candy Crush Saga and other games that counter-intuitively limit how much you can play them in one day. While most of us are used to the option of gorging on a game until we burn out on it and move on, Candy Crush Saga cleverly forces us to avoid that behavior. If you are forced to take frequent breaks, you will get more enjoyment out of the game when you do get to play. And thus you will develop a Candy Crush Saga habit spread over a broader slice of time like jelly spread over a long slice of bread, which gives the developer, King, more chances convert you on in-app purchases or convince you to send game invites to your friends.

And you know what? You’ll like it. You’ll like it just fine.6


1. A figure that probably grew by a couple of million while I typed this…
2. Quoidbach, J. & Dunn, E. (2013). Give It Up: A Strategy for Combating Hedonic Adaptation. Social Psychological and Personality Science, 4, 563-568.
3. Interestingly, hedonic adaptation works in reverse, too. That is, unpleasant or even painful stimuli can become less objectionable over time. This is what happens when you get used to an annoying rattle in the air conditioning unit or your co-worker’s overpowering perfume. It’s also the reason that burn victims, who have to have their healing skin subjected to a painful stretching process, quickly find that they prefer to have the procedure done slowly over more time instead of all at once.
4. Leif, N. & Meyvis, T. (2008). Interrupted Consumption: Disrupting Adaptation to Hedonic Experiences. Journal of Marketing Research, 45, 654-664.
5. Nelson, L. & Meyvis, T. (2009). Enhancing the Television-Viewing Experience Through Commercial Interruptions. Journal of Consumer Research, 36, 160-172.
6. Bwuha ha ha ha ha haaaaa!

29 thoughts on “Why You Don’t Burn Out on Candy Crush Saga

    • The real question is, what makes CCS more popular than the hundreds of other match-3 games out there? Is it merely the Facebook medium that gives is such overwhelming spread?

      • Huge visibility generates popularity for sure, but I assume part of the popularity also comes from the fact that CCS has a tied-in level system, or a story mode if you will. Instead of mashing through endless droves of match-3 levels everything is tied to the feeling of progress. In the end of the day, it does not really matter how shallow/silly/whatnot the story itself is; the feeling of progression is simply KING in games. (Pun unintended.)

        • Bejewelled has been around for well over a decade. Their Blitz mode lets you have Bejewelled fun in 60 seconds. Rather than feeling like “Oh I have to start all over again” after a full-blown Bejewelled game ends, you now get your hit in 60 second chunks and the new goal is highest score. So why has Candy Crush knocked Bejewelled off the throne (other than the publisher’s choice of “King” for a name)? It’s because Candy Crush saga turned the trio-matching concept into an untimed puzzle challenge, rather than recycling Bejewelled’s mad blitz on rewarding speed of reflexes. There are *way* more people who will play a puzzle game when not under the pressure of time. To be sure, CCS has a few timed levels, but if you read the CCS wiki you’ll see that as you go up through the stages, the timed levels become increasingly scarce. So, success point number 1 is in converting an already popular concept from being a speed/reflexes thing into an untimed puzzle game. The polished finish (mentioned in the article), reach (through social media, mentioned in the comments above) and “progress” story mode all count too. The story mode essentially lets you tell someone “I’m up to level xyz” and compare progress. You can’t do this in Bejewelled Blitz for example. The psychology described in the article comes into it too. I think basically they sat down and thought out very well how they would differentiate themselves from the competition and they did that and it’s worked and they’ve been rewarded as a result. What I wanted to add was: the psychology aspect alone doesn’t account for it either – like the earlier comment, there are other games that make you wait some time. For example, I downloaded VS Racing 2 pretty much at the same time as CCS and was hooked – but eventually I got bored of the racing and lost interest in progressing. Why? Because even as new tracks opened up, the only real difference was in the backgrounds and the fact the cars were marginally faster. In other words – every level in the racing game (equally as polished and addictive) was essentially the same. CSS introduces 4 basic level types which means you are constantly getting variety in your level goals. On top of that the level engine can combine a few basic rules in novel ways so that even if one level has the same basic goal as another, the route to achieve it is made different by the way the level is initiated (eg layout, position and choice of game modifiers like chocolate, etc). Therefore the engine / game design offers simplicity and yet enormous variety. Simple designs are almost always the best for long-term success. Look at Minecraft. It’s basically lego, but now you can run multiplayer servers, RPG missions, have resource management, etc, etc, etc – but all on the back of a basic/simple engine. Lastly, don’t underestimate the metaphor: candy. It’s benign. It’s attractive. It’s colourful. It’s shiny. They could have chosen skeletons and pumpkin heads but the game would not have gained the same reach. Candy is *safe*. Kids can play it. Either gender can play it. If you added horses you might attract more girls – which is exactly what the horse update for Minecraft has done. Never underestimate the metaphor – CCS uses a superb metaphor that everyone can relate to, which is “safe”, and fun and makes just about anyone smile, no matter how rich or poor, young or old.

  1. Yeah, the game uses a lot of well worn design tricks, and as I said it’s a high quality game. That plus good old fashioned “right place, right time.”

  2. > It’s also the reason that burn victims, who have to have their healing skin subjected to a painful stretching process, quickly find that they prefer to have the procedure done all in one go instead of in many starts and stops.

    Debatable, as Dan Ariely mentioned (I believe you can find more info here http://web.mit.edu/ariely/www/MIT/Papers/mypain.pdf), himself he finds that:
    1) Slow medium pain is better than quick but strong
    2) Better to start from the most painful procedure
    3) It’s important to make pauses and give yourself a rest

    As far as I remember, he also mentioned that it’s nurses who prefer to do this quickly, mostly because it’s a well-established practice.

  3. I think the effect you’re describing, that is the increased pleasure felt through a forced rationing system, is a side effect of the basic compulsion they are trying to elicit in their users.

    Their business logic is this:
    – The game gets harder and harder.
    – You can win through luck, which keeps you from feeling entirely blocked in the game. In a way, this is a gambling game that feels like a skills game through obfuscating complexity and player agency.
    – To keep you from winning when you want it, they have to limit the number of replays you enjoy.
    – Once you’re frustrated, like a gambler feeling cheated by his favourite video poker machine, you’re ready to pay.

    By chance, the rationing system happens to increase the pleasure felt by the users.

    • There is a very interesting article on how F2P games use the player’s psychology to entice them to become spenders, in what has been labeled as “coercive monetization”.


      A thing that I noticed in Candy Crush is the following:
      – When you are out of lives, from the map screen you tap on the heart that shows 0 lives and you get a nice animation of a crying heart (about 5 big blue tears per cry), and the option to buy more lives.
      – Tapping on the “buy more lives” button, leads you to a confirmation screen.
      – If at this point you change your mind and cancel, you get back to the crying heart screen, but this time, since “you are on the verge of paying”, the first cry will have about 8 or 9 tears (instead of the
      regular 5)

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  6. It may look good but the quality of the code is awful. Its full of bugs… features maybe…. if you watch closely you will notice candies disappearing when they shouldnt or staying when they should disappear … perhaps the rules just change between games … when you get rush of matches it is hard to spot but it can even happen on single matches … which is very annoying when you actual plan your moves a few ahead… also whats with this mixing up the candies when you run out of candy matches …. awful game design ….i know its free and not particularly challenging as a game but i hate seeing such obvious bugs in games

  7. LOL, you played Candy Crush Saga for science?! That’s amazing. Anyways, I really liked the fun factor in your write-up especially the evil laugh at the end, ROFL! Yes CCS is indeed an addiction, its like taking shots, with no limits, no ends, even if your outta lives, all you do is wait and wait..PHEW!!

  8. hahaha , hedonic adaptation ?? wtf is that ?

    your chocolate til you die vs eat moderately , is the classic scarcity x satiation(or deprivation vs satiation, as some others like to use) discussed in f. skinner book VERBAL BEHAVIOUR from 1957.

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