A few years ago, a new kind of game genre exploded into existence and dominated browser gaming. These minimal effort, incremental “idle” games have flourished since 2013. Games like Cookie Clicker, Clicker Heroes and AdVenture Capitalist have all become ridiculously popular, yet, there’s hardly anything that’s been written on this genre of game. From the outside, these games look like social networking games like FarmVille, but the only real similarity between them is that they’re played in your browser.
What is an idle game? Idle games are incremental games where play revolves around letting the game play itself. You start with virtually nothing, whether it be zero cookies or zero cash. To accrue points you need to click some object on the screen. These points are then spent on improving your ability to accrue points. After a certain threshold is crossed, you begin spending points on something that generates points without your input. Soon you’re generating so many points it becomes pointless to interact with the game at all, save for acquiring more point generators. It doesn’t seem very fun when spelled out like this, and in fact playing any kind of idle game is not that enjoyable of an experience. But it is very, very addictive.
Nearly all games have some kind of development system where your avatar somehow obtains points. These points can mean a variety of things from numbers on a screen, to new and better abilities, to clothes for your avatar. The only way to acquire more points is to play the game more. This is at the heart of most games, and it’s always been a somewhat artificial process. A “false sense of achievement,” some will call it. I certainly have. But regardless of how “false” the achievement is, the desire to acquire these digital objects is still very real.
That’s what idle games take advantage of. Achievement in idle games is the most blatantly fake thing around. In reality, there is nothing to play in an idle game. You simply let the game run on its own until it eventually “beats” itself and gives you the “achievement.” There’s something beautiful about that. Like watching exponential growth explode out of control or compound interest rapidly expand.
The reason that this type of game became so popular in 2013 is still a mystery. Many credit its emergence with the success of Cookie Clicker, but idle games have been around much longer than that. The oldest one I know of was Kaguya Table, made back in 2010.
I think it’s safe to say that idle games came as a response to the popularity of social network games. A game like FarmVille is intentionally frustrating because the game heavily restricts progress, constricting you to small incremental steps that can only be done in timed intervals. The game isn’t “idle” because progress is only made when you put in the effort. The idle game appeals to the inversion of this, where the game world will grow without you and progresses the most when in your absence.