The Importance of Being Idle

Idle games, also known as incremental games or clicker games, are polarizing, with some members of the gaming community refusing to even recognize them as games. Yet, idle games have remained steadfastly popular since their rise to notoriety in 2013 with Cookie Clicker (which you’ll probably find yourself playing if you click on the link), despite most games in the genre having gameplay loops that basically amount to an endless cycle of clicking and waiting.

Despite this simplistic mode of interaction, I think idle games hold surprising depth of design when examined. Why are idle games so compelling, even though (as the name implies) these games often don’t require players to do anything?

Idle games have continued to thrive in a game market with rapidly changing tastes because the genre is pretty much a blank slate. The mechanics demand nothing from the game’s aesthetics–in fact, some idle games like A Dark Room or Paperclips have no visuals at all, with HTML text buttons sufficing as inputs. You can set an idle game in an aquarium, a shelf of succulents, or a chicken farm, fulfilling a myriad of players’ desire for story. Despite the differences in how these games might look, sound and feel, the core mechanic of interacting with the game–which is what makes the genre so satisfying–rarely changes.

The major reason people play idle games is fairly obvious: people like the feeling of making progress. In idle games, as long as you wait, you never lose anything, or feel like your progress is being undone. You might lose some currency in the short-term when purchasing an upgrade, but that upgrade will always help you in the long-term, and probably gives you a cool visual effect as an added bonus. Sub-optimal play might lead you to stall at a particular level of upgrade, but the linear progression of time is a reliable safety net–if you just wait long enough, you’ll get there eventually. Many idle games are also single-player experiences, which diminishes any anxiety players might have about being behind the curve.

The baiting of players with the idea of unlimited progress isn’t something unique to idle games. A big part of idle game design is having UI that displays numbers (usually the game’s currency) ticking up, often to numbers that are so massive that they have to be truncated with undecipherable symbols. These aren’t unlike the damage numbers that appear in action games like Diablo, where players who optimize and upgrade their kits through grinding, can crank their damage numbers up to the trillions.

Big damage numbers in Diablo 3. Source

The difference is idle games offer you the ability to achieve these enormous numbers with a negligible amount of skill and effort, making them an easy way to get a quick fix of satisfaction. Few idle game players take the time to calculate what their most mathematically-optimal next purchase should be; a common strategy is just to buy the most expensive next upgrade you can afford. Many idle games with strong followings also have fan-created guides that share which upgrades are the most valuable, with some even spelling out precise steps. A Chrome extension for Cookie Clicker, Frozen Cookies, effectively mods the game such that players don’t even need to click on the titular cookie even once–instead, a script does that automatically at a speed faster than human fingers can.

A detailed tutorial for the first 5 minutes of Cookie Clicker. Source

This constant, incremental, and unstoppable progress that many idle games offer is a design quirk of the genre that is very much in opposition to traditional game design–these games are telling players to stop playing, put the game down, and resume in a couple of hours, rather than remain glued to the screen. Some games even have upgrades that increase currency generation when the game is closed. These kinds of mechanics are part of what make idle games so accessible, especially to a more casual audience, who can’t afford to invest large amounts of time on a game at one go, but might find delight in checking back for five minutes at a time every few hours, knowing that they’ve amassed a huge chunk of change.

An upgrade in Cookie Clicker that increases cookies gained while the game is closed.

Ironically, despite this mechanic, the compelling nature of idle games also makes them criminally addictive, because many of them exploit players who succumb to the sunk cost fallacy. Players might pay for premium currency to purchase upgrades that tick their numbers up faster, sending those with addictive personalities into a spiral of unsustainable in-game purchases. This is a common enough problem that communities of idle game enthusiasts often make an effort to support those who suffer from unhealthy game addiction, and many games which make unethical use of paid mechanics are panned. For example, an update to Abyssrium that changed many already-established mechanics to entice players into making more in-app purchases caused an uproar on their Facebook page and Reddit community. It seems that well-designed idle games might even be too compelling to be released into the world in good conscience.

The sidebar of r/incremental_games provides links to gaming addiction hotlines.

Thankfully, addictive idle games probably won’t take over the gaming industry any time soon–because a good idle game isn’t as easy to make as it seems. The biggest selling point for an idle game is its content, which is why most good idle games are also considered “unfolding games”, where a narrative might develop or new mechanics might be introduced over time. Cookie Clicker compels players to persist not only through a big number looming over a tantalizingly clickable cookie, but also via a narrative that peeks through the game’s initial facade with increasingly morbid flavor text and unlockable mechanics. In Abyssrium, players use their currency to fill their virtual aquariums with hundreds of beautifully-modeled low-poly tropical fish, and in time-limited events can purchase special themed fish with currency generated through special actions. Idle games must constantly be supported with fresh content till the end of their lifetime, or their established player base quickly loses interest–which is a gargantuan task normally reserved for the likes of triple-A MMO development.

A typical player aquarium in Abyssrium. Source

Idle games are an interesting outlier in a field where interactivity seems to be key. However, lessons learned from examining these titles are definitely applicable to other game genres: how can we make players feel like they are making progress? How can we reduce anxiety when players are interrupted during play, and are forced to end their session? There are surely more elegant ways to answer these questions than slapping a constantly increasing number ticker on the problem. In this respect, idle games are like fast food: a quick fix, but with higher-quality ingredients, a better chef and a nicer restaurant, can be elevated into something more divinely satisfying.

Here are two videos on idle games and unfolding games that I found extremely helpful in the writing of this blog post:

As for idle games I personally recommend: A Dark Room and Cookie Clicker can be played on web browsers.

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