Never mind typing on WhatsApp, swiping on Tinder, or scrolling on TikTok; even after all these years, few apps are able to turn you into a phone-obsessed zombie quite like Candy Crush.
More than a decade since it debuted on Apple and Google‘s app stores, the colourful tile-matching puzzle game remains an entertaining time sink for 238 million people worldwide.
It’s in many ways helped redefine what it means to be a “gamer”, now someone perhaps just as likely to be a commuting mother as a pasty teenager in a blacked-out bedroom.
Indeed, most Candy Crush players are women, and its huge player base has helped it make north of $1bn (£800m) in annual revenue for years.
Developer King has delivered more than 14,000 levels and thousands of hardcore fans have finished every one, no doubt melting away many bus and train journeys in the process.
Each time they polish off the latest new stages they’re made to wait a few weeks for the next batch, hopefully not enduring some kind of existential “what do I do now?” crisis during the downtime.
But those already pretty short gaps between level releases could well get shorter before too long, as every tech executive’s favourite buzz term – generative AI – makes its mark on game development.
“They are undoubtedly changing the way people work,” says Steve Collins, King’s chief technology officer.
“We have great talented artists, designers, and developers and these tools enable our teams to do more.
“It’s really exciting for us – we are really only able to deliver to our players a small fraction of what’s in our head, so anything that removes barriers is a fantastic thing.”
AI will ‘help creative people do more’
From writing novels to recording music, generative AI that can produce human-like content on a whim is arguably threatening the norms of the creative industries more than any others.
Why wait for a new Drake track when you could make one yourself? Does a money-driven film studio need to hire actors when deepfakes look indiscernible from reality?
Similar questions have started to penetrate the gaming industry, notably among voice actors, who could join their Hollywood counterparts on strike.
Collins insists AI cannot replace the work of his London-based team, but rather enhance it.
“This is about putting tools in the hands of really creative and skilled people and letting them do more,” he says.
“Generative AI and large language models are really great at solving some repetitive and rule-based tasks, and that frees people up to be even more creative and focus on the skills they enjoy using.”
‘Long history’ between games and AI
Just as this year has seen the likes of Google and Microsoft move to catch up with OpenAI’s ChatGPT, gaming companies will be keen to make the most of the power of AI so not to risk being left behind.
Some games, like the Xbox title High On Life, used the technology to generate art and voice-overs.
And Call Of Duty, which is owned by King’s parent company Activision Blizzard, is using it to listen out for hate speech during matches.
King’s own purchase of Peltarion, a Swedish AI company, last year looks particularly prescient.
Of course, gaming has always been at the forefront of where art meets technological innovation, and AI has been a buzzword within the industry for far longer than ChatGPT has been around.
Hop into an online game of FIFA and it won’t be long before you hear someone bemoan their computer teammates, while single-player games have long offered difficulty modes where AI dictates how tough your enemies are.
At King, bots are being used to test levels – playing through them as if they were humans to help hone the challenge.
Collins says: “We have 238 million players – and we can’t think of all of them as being an average player.
“Some want to be super competitive, some want to make a lot of progress quickly, some want a challenge, so we develop bots to play our games with different personas.”
This, he says, is the kind of utilisation of AI that frees up artists and designers to concentrate on making more and better levels.
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There’s no doubt video games are becoming increasingly influential.
Whether it’s by leveraging gaming tech to make blockbuster films like Avatar, or turning to them for adaptions like The Last Of Us, other creatives are looking to gaming more than ever for inspiration.
It’s maybe part of why Collins, a computer scientist from Dublin, is optimistic about how his industry will take on a trailblazing role with AI in the years ahead.
“Like everyone, we’re very much in an experimental mode and still learning what this is capable of,” he says.
“Of course there are challenges in how you take advantage of it – you can’t guarantee the accuracy, you need to understand its limitations, there are serious questions to answer around content ownership and copyright.
“But I feel very optimistic about the innovations these technologies can bring.”
If those innovations mean more Candy Crush levels, busy mums and pasty teens alike will likely not complain.