Smartphone games like Candy Crush have become virtual overnight sensations, prompting game makers to re-double their efforts to feed what seems like an insatiable public need to waste time…so long as it’s all done digitally. And creatively. People, after all, need to keep abreast of the latest and greatest in technology. And learning should be fun.

And that’s all there is to it, right? The game makers and platform providers have nothing else in mind save for entertaining and enlightening you, the consumer whom no one wishes to bother because you’ve bought enough in the way of goods and services for one lifetime. Which is why Candy Crush is free in all the app stores.

And girls are made of sugar and spice and everything nice.

Try a little, not too much

Candy Crush gives users five lives to navigate the game’s challenges, which resemble those of other handheld games, like Bejeweled. The catch? Play long enough and the game “rewards” you with another life. For free. Some players have even messed with the clocks on their phones just to fool the game into coughing up another life. That sort of ingenuity can go overboard, though. Kind of like watching a dieter wolf down a 12-count box of candy bars – and then seeing them force down a license-plate sized version, chock full ‘o nuts. Obsession, please meet my good friend, Addiction.

Once hooked, Candy Crush players are apt to share the game with their friends via social media; the Facebook version can be enjoyed seamlessly on a computer or mobile device, just like Facebook itself. Players also have the option of doing what some developers no doubt regard as stepping in to the high roller rooms in Vegas: Making in-app purchases that provide leverage and tools for doing even better at the game. Which, of course, will have the effect of making people want to play it far, far less.

Some examples: Extra Moves cost anywhere from $0.99 to $1.99. A Color Bomb is another $0.99 and a Lollipop Hammer runs $1.99, as does something called Striped & Wrapped. (We’re sorry, but all of those seem like they could be fun on their own, with the right person.) Grab a handful, via the convenience of your chosen App Store – “You mean I spent money without even looking at my credit card?” — and you’ve just sunk upwards of 5 or 10 bucks into a game that you got addicted to for free.

But wait, you ask, aren’t there some ads slipped in as part of the Candy Crush experience? Not anymore. According to an email published by TechCrunch from Crush’s owner, King, to its advertising partners, “The executive team has decided to withdraw completely from the advertising business, thus removing all advertising elements within every King game worldwide effective immediately.” Couldn’t be because the in-app purchases are racking up the dough big time, could it? Nah. Never.

Something is paying the bills: CNET reported, King announced that its games were being played a collective 12 billion times every month, attracting in excess of 100 million monthly players, with nearly half of those coming on mobile devices. Those numbers likely have fluctuated as peoples’ interests change and wane (and as they’ve been tapping their credit lines to outdistance every so-called friend they’ve known since first grade). One thing is for certain: Apps, and game apps in particular, are big business. But for how long? And on whose terms?

Country charm only goes so far

If the ‘What Happened to the Person Who Had this Job Before Me’ test is applied, the prospects for game apps seem less than 100% rosy. As Atlantic Wire noted earlier, King might be rumored to be headed for an IPO, but then again, that’s what Zynga did. And look at where they are now.

No one remembers Zynga? Maker of FarmVille? The golden child, pushed on Facebook that went public at around $9 to $10 per share and now sits at just under $3? And which laid off over 500 employees just in time for families to get away to the beach for that nostalgic summer vacation?

Hold on for just a nonpareil. Zynga made the mistake, the Wire reminds us, of spamming Facebook users’ News Feeds – a practice which FB eventually decided to oppose. At that point, people weren’t about to be kept on the farm, let alone buy it. Zynga’s next ill-fated move? Failing to come up with any games cool enough to coax people back onto the finger-tapping treadmill. Even so, as the Wire’s story concluded, “Zynga is just a cautionary tale — not the only way to go.”

And the winner is…

Back to basics for a moment: There’s no denying that King’s approach to game-making, at least in the case of Candy Crush, makes money. That it does so by addicting customers and then selling them low-priced escapes and thrills might be a little underhanded. Though no more than the bartender who refreshes the bowl of salty snacks to help beer drinkers build up a thirst; and, a longer and larger tab.

It’s hard to say how long the smartphone game craze will remain on healthy legs, just as it’s difficult to predict when, if ever, the larger world of social media might collapse under the weight of too much information.

With cool phone apps out there that allow users to hail a taxi or reserve and pay for a parking space (one gizmo will even find where you parked your car, so long as you reserved the space and paid for it through the app), the app world isn’t likely to implode anytime soon.

Unless, of course, the one thing propping up that world even more than the developers themselves – the customer—feels underserved, taken advantage of or fooled.

Now, who would be silly enough to try and do something like that?

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