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Why Are Idle Games So Addictive?

Whether you are a flash-game regular or merely surfing the internet, chances are you have played what people call an "Idle Game". If you are in the first group you may have noticed that they have taken over sites like "newgrounds" and other flash-game/browser game hosts, if not, you must have at least spent a few hours on the Cookie-Clicker Game and wondered how you spent so much time just clicking on a cookie.

The "Idle Game" boom happened somewhere between the end of year 2013 to the beginning of 2014, nobody knows where it REALLY started but we can definitely guess towards: "Cookie Clicker" (first version launched on 8/8/2013), "Candy Box"(released on 04/13, the exact day unknown) and "A Dark Room" (05/13, day unknown).

Anthony Pecorella, Kongregate Director, has offered the public a slideshow in which he gives us some insight as to, in his opinion, why has this kind of game become such a success: “Because there’s a natural energy system without the need for an energy currency,” he said. “It’s more palatable to players than other games of this type. The rewards grow linearly, and the game becomes about min-maxing stats and making decision that optimize your existence inside the game -- a distilled version of designs that we are familiar with from many other types of video game."

Although that is a brief summary on it's own account, there is so much more to what actually hooks us in, with a little human behavior knowledge and multiple hours building civilizations, baking cookies and eating candy, I've got this mystery solved.

So let's break these games down to some basic factors, shall we?

Time-consuming

Although this may seem strange to almost every poor soul that has been trapped in the vortex of Idle-games, finding themselves looking more often at the browser tab and cursing there isn't enough currency for the next upgrade or to get whatever's missing for the next achievement.
The truth is we like idle games for the same reason this guy is famous. We are living an era in which you have too much to absorb in too little time and you really want to soak it all in. The human brain's attention span is actually getting lower because there is simply no way we can give ourselves the luxury of actually detailed paying attention to anything. It is no wonder that this is the generation of stress and anxiety. That's where Idle-clicker games fit in our daily routine, you don't have to pay much attention, you don't have to keep playing, you can just work with the browser open and check it every now and then and still get to relieve stress while doing it.

They progress

I am going to use Dark Room as the perfect example to this lovely detail in most successful Idle Games, Dark Room starts exactly like this:


You just keep clicking and wait for a while until all of a sudden a builder comes along and you start your own village.

You just keep clicking and wait for a while until all of a sudden a builder comes along and you start your own village.

(picture taken hours afterwards but there is the stoke fire function)

(picture taken hours afterwards but there is the stoke fire function)

(The village, I pointed out that the first materials you get in the game are wood and cloth, look at how many stuff you get towards the end)

(The village, I pointed out that the first materials you get in the game are wood and cloth, look at how many stuff you get towards the end)

Most of the Idle Games have a progressive take, you start with seemingly nothing and one by one you start unlocking upgrades and new features and there are some that come with short-term objectives. You start clicking your fingers off to get a few currency units and end the game doing almost nothing but watching as the game takes form and you invest in it's take.

. Talking about achievement progress...

The Achievements and Accomplishment "High"

Paul Piff from UC Berkeley (the video above) has a say on this matter, the documentary is overall interesting but let's start the video at 3:00 where the subject plays a rigged game of monopoly, although the subject starts off finding the game strange, as he keeps on achieving and succeeding, his entire persona is altered and he starts feeling more confident and even eager to keep on rolling.

That is part of the essence of the achievement system, you aren't really doing anything but you're getting all these crazy achievements with funny names and the sensation is pretty much the same "high" as discussed in Piff's study.


Cookie Clicker Achievements in... a 2 minute gameplay

Cookie Clicker Achievements in... a 2 minute gameplay

Which leads us to...

The Jokes

Most games have their own sense of humor, appropriate to their target audience, which is usually based on the game genre. On an action game, you will probably have a more violent, sarcastic and/or threat-based humor, whilst on an RPG game that takes place in High School, you'll probably have all those funny scenes and jokes about how hard it is to blend in or even a referential sense of humor because, as we all know, teenagers mainly talk about videogames, movies and TV.

Of course, Idle Games are no exception, they are very humor based and full of funny puns and things usually overwhelmingly escalate which is funny on its own account. The type of humor is normally a very broad non-offensive structure in which the jokes keep coming at you the whole time. This makes it safe to pass on to all your friends and maybe even family (as even when a dirty joke comes up on these typical Idle Games, the kids are NOT going to understand them).

But if they have diverse subgenres, from creating a whole new civilization from a dark room to baking cookies, how do these rules apply to all of them?

There is no specific theme to create an Idle Game

When you think about action games, you think about shooter, run and gun violence-packed games. When you think about adventure, you think about story-packed platformers like The Legend of Zelda. When you think about Idle Games... you either think of a specific game you lately spent time on or the three classics (maybe later on, this article). That's because there is no rule or general concept as to the Idle Game Theme, they can have literally any subgenre and they will be just as addictive.

I, for example, was addicted to a game called Idle Evolution ( Newproject ), it is based on chemistry and evolution, the game consists on having a molecule-extractor on the whole periodic table and selling molecules so you can evolve life. It is a great science idle game and I fell in love with it almost immediately (If you have a Steam account, I suggest voting for it so that the love can be spread).



That's the beauty of Idle Games, they can be about anything the creator works up, which is why...

They are the easiest games for any game developer to create

I do understand that this last statement may seem hyperbolic and kind of out-of-place but let me explain: The code for most Idle Games are so shockingly simple, they could be created in a few day's work, after the initial coding and development, you have to upkeep the game if it goes viral, updating it now and then but giving you time to create other games, no matter genre, whilst having an active and played game that will give you some relevance in the gaming world, pretty amazing huh?

Not only that but with Orteil's (Cookie-clicker developer) new project, you won't even have to know how to program, just understand a simple code and have a good idea and let it rip: example code, an even simpler code ; The Idle Game Maker Help Page

Which explains why they are everywhere and now leads me to why this is a key to success: Cracked.com made an article about day-to-day needs that were actually created by marketing experts and we can't even imagine life without them, well how does this apply? If there are tons of Idle Games on the market, obviously they're popular, right? How can I NOT play these viral games and be left behind?

The future of gaming?

Many developers have their critics towards Idle Games and with good reason, as described in this game by username Chaz, most developers got in this business to create the perfect game, to leave something original for their target audience gamers and here we all are, playing Idle Games that aren't necessarily original (although very unfair towards some that do create wonderful things in such simple a platform) and very easy to make.

Despite both glorification and despise of the genre, I do believe it's here to stay but will become less viral over time and become a genre like any other, it probably will evolve over time and be one of our all-time favorite Genres (like RPG, Adventure and Action games already are -even better when the game has a bit of each-) but will not have the same boom it has currently. It is simply our human way of getting really excited over things in the beginning and later getting used to them, no offense, Idle.

So tell me...

© 2015 Meghan Mitchell