Idle games burst in popularity a few years ago with Cookie Clicker being the one that tested the waters with surprising success. This was then followed by many clones that replaced cookies with any other thing and called it a day. The genre has improved with time, and many different titles have raised the bar with unique strategies and elements that make them stand out over the others.
Their simplicity is apparently the key to their success, but, at the same time, that can also be said of games like Lemmings. However, where the latter had some sort of story and a reason to keep playing until the end, idle games usually don’t have that. There’s no end. There’s no big baddie at the end whose death will fix the world. There’s not even enough happening to call it even a story. So, why do idle game succeed in keeping you playing for more than 5 minutes?
First of all, it’s important to know what an idle game is. As the name implies, these titles play themselves for the most part even when you aren't actively playing it. There’s progress in the game even if you have the computer off. This is possible because most of these games are connected to a cloud server, and you can get back to it whenever you want. They do require active actions from the player’s part, mostly purchasing power ups, money-making buildings or any other features the game has available.
A common feature in idle games is that their achievements serve a purpose aside from bragging rights. In this genre, achievements help you by boosting your production, so getting them can make the game go considerably faster. Examples include Crusaders of the Lost Idles, where achievements can boost your global DPS or the amount of gold you get with each kill depending on the specific achievement.
Realm Grinder’s achievements boost the production of the most expensive building, the Hall of Legends, which has a production value based on the number of achievements you have.
This means that while not the most powerful building at first, its production can become much more profitable much later. The recent Crush Crush game, which combines dating sims and idle features, works with this in two ways. Every 4 achievements earned will give you an additional time block, which you’ll need to level up more hobbies and get more jobs, but each individual one will also make progress bards fill faster after the reset. Even if you lose the progress and have to start over you have the speed boost and keep the time blocks, so you’ll be able to get there much faster.
This genre is famous for the barebones of its plots and lack of complexity. In Clicker Heroes there’s not even a story; you’re just hiring heroes and killing enemies. In Adventure Capitalist you’re a businessman that starts with a lemonade stand and ends up being richer than a planet of Scrooge McDucks.
A basic mathematical formula for exponential growth will keep the game going ad infinitum. So most of the time the game can last forever. Which begs the question, why do these games work? What makes people play Cookie Clicker or any other titles of this genre? After digging through several titles, the answers become a bit more obvious.
Cookie Clicker was the first official idle game out there and it doesn't really have much to it. It doesn't really have replay value at all, but it still holds the title of father of all idle games. As time went on, many developers decided to add twists that added both replay value and motivation to keep people playing them, pulling them away from a classic eternal growth that leads to nowhere.
Clicker Heroes has you recruiting and leveling up as many heroes as you can, killing monsters and moving to different areas with more powerful enemies. A first look at Crusaders of the Lost Idles will make you think it’s the same thing. However as you play, you notice that’s not the case. You can buy all 20 heroes, but you can’t deploy all of them.
Each world has a specific formation of limited room for your crusaders, and each one of them has special abilities that require specific formation position. Examples include the Washed Up Hermit, who is much more powerful when he’s on the front line, or the Emo Werewolf, who gets a massive boost if there are no human crusaders next to him. This adds a tactical element to the game and makes you consider which heroes you should be deploying.
When it comes to playing these games, there must be a motivation to go on. Achievements are usually enough to have people hooked up for a while, but you also need replay value. And that’s where these games have to use their best cards. Realm Grinder uses this to their favor with factions. While you can hoard gold like cookies in Cookie Clicker, factions add a flavor to it.
There are currently around a dozen different factions to choose from. Depending on which side you join (either good, evil, or neutral) and what faction you join, the playstyle changes drastically. If you join the good-aligned fairies, for example, your production will rely greatly on the first three buildings, which will get massive production bonuses. If you go with the evil undead, on the other hand, you’ll rely on cemeteries and constant growth of minions that will do most of the stuff for you.
That way you can just focus on buying upgrades and leveling up structures. In Crusaders of the Lost Idols, this is done by having campaign missions which add a target to reach; sometimes with restrictions in formation options or other handicaps. Completing the objective will grant you many rubies that can be used to purchase golden chests with powerful gear for your heroes.
Of course these games increase their requirements exponentially, but you can only get so far so fast. In Clicker Heroes, Hero Souls will boost your DPS by 10% each, which means that getting 10 will double your DPS. To double it again, however, you’ll need twenty more for a total of 30. When numbers reach five and six figures you’ll reach a sturdy wall, since the hit points of monsters double every 5 level-block.
You get Hero Souls by killing Primal Bosses, who have a base 25% chance of spawning, and for every 2000 hero levels you purchase. You can purchase and level up Ancients with Hero Souls that will greatly boost your damage and gold gains, but you’ll lose the DPS those souls would give you.
In Crusaders of the Lost Idols, it works a bit differently. The equivalent of Hero Souls are Idols, and they increase DPS and gold 3% and 1% each respectively. However, even if you spend them to increase talents, you won’t lose their benefit, so feel free to spend them on the talents you want.
Even with all this you can reach the point where you’ve beaten the game, so to speak. You’ve unlocked all achievements, you’ve completed all the missions, or simply there’s no more to see. You’ve conquered the game altogether. However, if there’s one thing these games do to make up for their simplicity is the constant flow of consistent new content.
Clicker Heroes went from being only heroes murdering monster to adding relics, guilds, mercenaries that would go on quests to get you gold, relics and even rubies. Crusaders of the Lost Idols have special limited time events with campaigns that allow you to get new heroes, and updates with new worlds and campaign missions. Crush Crush adds new girls to woo, and Realm Grinder adds new unique bonuses when you reach a certain amount of reincarnations.
All these games are free to play, but they offer the option of buying special currencies to help you if you want to. However, these aren’t usually a must, since not only can you beat the game without giving money away, but you can get that currency for free. In Clicker Heroes you can find a special clickable icon across the screen that will give you gold and, if lucky enough, rubies. This works pretty well for keeping you actively playing and hoarding rubies for the nifty rewards you can get.
Crush Crush has diamonds that you can buy, but you’ll also get one for every first time you reach a step in a relationship with any girl, and 5 once you reach the last one.
Crusaders of the Lost Idols will give you rubies by finishing daily quests and completing campaign objectives, so you’ll have plenty to buy golden chests if you’re persistent and patient enough. However, they do sweeten the deal by offering special gear that is more powerful than the ones you can regularly get if you buy some chests with real money.
These are key elements that make games successful. There are idle games out there that had been left at the wayside due to not being able to offer more content or programmed in a way that use up way too many CPU resources. Loot Clicker, for example, has achievements, but they don’t give any boosts to gold production.
Also, when you reach far enough, the framerate will drop to single digits sometimes. To make matters worse, despite having the premise of an idle, it won’t keep playing itself while offline. Even with that, the game’s a fun one for what it is.
It’s worth a place in gaming history when a new genre is born and explodes in popularity in such a way, in such a short time. Perhaps it’s because it allows people with a much more demanding lifestyle to play in a way that allows them to compete with others.
The genre has detractors, as there are for most genres and adaptation. Some might not consider them games, or a genre altogether. However, it’s easy to believe that idle games have surged thanks to gamers who simply can’t go for much more time-consuming games, because they have jobs that won’t let them play as much as they would like.
Regardless of the target audience, the genre has proven to mix well with other elements and the audience seems to be broader than many people think. Idle games have proven they’re loved by the fans and profitable for companies, so they’re here to stay. Riskier, more ambitious projects hopefully await to further harden Idle's foundations in the gaming world now that success is an option if done well.