No more typing on WhatsApp, swiping on Tinder or scrolling on TikTok; even after all these years, few apps are capable of turning you into a phone-obsessed zombie quite like Candy Crush.
In many ways, it has helped redefine what it means to be a “gamer,” now a person might be just as likely to be a commuting mom as a pasty teenager in a darkened bedroom.
In fact, most Candy Crush players are women, and its huge player base has helped it earn north of $1bn (£800m) in annual revenue for years.
Developer King has delivered more than 14,000 levels and thousands of hardcore fans have completed each one, no doubt melting away many a bus and train journey in the process.
Every time they polish off the latest new stages, they’re forced 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 the already rather short gaps between level releases may well become shorter before too long, as every tech boss’ favorite 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 amazingly talented artists, designers and developers, and these tools enable our teams to do more.
“It’s really exciting for us – we’re really only able to deliver to our players a tiny fraction of what’s in our head, so anything that removes barriers is a great thing.”
AI will ‘help creative people do more’
Why wait for a new Drake track when you could make one yourself? Does a money-driven movie studio need to hire actors when deepfakes look unusable from reality?
Similar questions have begun to permeate the gaming industry, particularly among voice actors, who could join their Hollywood colleagues in strike.
Collins insists that 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 talented people and letting them do more,” he says.
“Generative AI and large language models are really good at solving some repetitive and rule-based tasks, and it 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 AI power to avoid 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, using it to listen 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.
Jump into an online FIFA game and it won’t be long before you hear someone bemoaning their computer teammates, while single-player games have long offered difficulty levels where the AI dictates how tough your enemies are.
At King, bots are used to test levels – they play through them as if they were humans to help refine 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 big progress quickly, some want a challenge, so we develop bots to play our games with different personalities.”
This, he says, is the kind of exploitation of AI that frees up artists and designers to concentrate on making more and better levels.
There is no doubt that video games are becoming increasingly influential.
That’s perhaps part of the reason why Collins, a computer scientist from Dublin, is optimistic about how his industry will take on a pioneering role with AI in the coming years.
“Like everyone else, we’re very much in an experimental mode and still learning what this is capable of,” he says.
“Obviously there are challenges in how you leverage it – you can’t guarantee accuracy, you have 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 these innovations mean more Candy Crush levels, busy moms and pasty teenagers alike probably won’t complain.