Idle Games – How Games Scratch Your Multitasking Itch – Extra Credits

Idle Games – How Games Scratch Your Multitasking Itch – Extra Credits


If you’ve spent any time on Newgrounds or Kongregate lately, you’ve probably noticed a strange new category of game cropping up: Idle Games. Idle games are an odd breed that has almost no interactivity at all. You basically just sit back and watch numbers go up. And yet, they’re actually immensely popular.
‘How could that be?’ you might reasonably ask. Well, the first and most obvious reason is because human beings like seeing numbers go up. It sounds silly, but it’s hard to deny. Our love of watching those little progress bars fill up is such an essential part of game design. Not to mention, its importance to all those Skinner Box systems you see in games. But there’s gotta be more to the recent popularity of idle games than just our love of watching progress happen. There must be some other reason they’re catching on now. After all, these are some of the simplest games ever to create. You’d think something this compelling and easy to make would’ve taken off years ago. So then… what’s changed? Well, to really answer this, we’re gonna have to look into the history of idle games. The earliest idle game I can recall was called ‘Progress Quest’, a game that came out in 2002, designed to poke fun at the repetitive nature of some of the MMOs at the time. But Progress Quest never really caught on. It would be another ten years before these games started really turning into the mass audience activity they’ve become today. So, again, we have to ask: what’s changed? Well, first off, how you access these games has changed. Rather than having to install a program and having all your game data stored locally so you have to always be using the same machine when you play, now you can access these games online. They’re accessible from anywhere. And on all sorts of devices. But still, the Web is the only platform where these games have really taken off. They’re almost non-existent as downloadable PC games or console titles. And even on the mobile and tablet marketplace, they aren’t a fraction as popular as they are on the Web. I think this gives us a clue as to why people like these games. I think people like them because they’re the games you play when you can’t be playing other games. Since these games simply increment a number upward as time passes, you can run them on the side while you’re doing work or you’re in the middle of class. No other game type requires as little of your attention as an idle game so you can just have it running and get that feeling of making progress even while you do other things that are actively productive. Even better, rather than checking your Facebook or looking over the same newsfeed you just checked 5 minutes ago, if you’re just looking for a momentary distraction, you can tab back over to your idle game and make one of the limited inputs the game requires to get its numbers to go up faster. In most games, it’s irksome to have to pause or close a game because other things demand your time or attention. But not idle games. In fact, even when you’re not paying attention to them, you’re still winning. They’re actually just the distilled perfection of the model that Zynga tried to employ with games like Farmville. Rather than trying to keep the player from being drip-fed rewards while they’re away these games tend to continuously reward the player for simply having the game open in a tab somewhere while still relying more on skinner boxing and sunk cost fallacy than gameplay. Weirdly though, it seems that more of the players of this sort of game are aware of that and are fundamentally looking for it. They’re looking for something to do that’s easy and shows them that they’re clearly making progress while engaged in tasks that might not. But, there’s a second major element that’s changed since the days of Progress Quest. Us! Back in 2002, there were no iPhones or tablets. Heck, Safari and Internet Explorer didn’t even have tabbed browsing back then. But today, we live in a world where many of us have to be multitasking. I’m sure there’s a study on it out there somewhere, but I know too many people who literally won’t use the restroom without taking a smart device with them and who always have this niggling sense that there’s something they should be doing if they aren’t playing a game while they’re eating or listening to a podcast while they work I know enough people like that, that I’m willing to just say we’re more used to and even more compelled to multitask than ever before. And I think idle games play into that. Idle games play to that need to feel like we’re using our minutes optimally. Like we’re always never not doing something Like we’re always making progress James was talking at a high school recently and he got a chance to ask a few idle game players there why they played, and after getting through the usual “I dunno, it’s cool I guess” responses several of them mentioned that it was actually hard for them to sit through a lecture without doing anything else It made them feel… weird and nervous, and idle games were a good answer to that. So, idle games are just big skinner boxes that play on our modern need to multitask and our desire to see ourselves make progress. But, is that such a bad thing? Unlike the old Zynga games which tried to rule your life with their schedules and their timing systems, training you to slavishly come back over and over throughout the day and trying to monetize that habit, these games just quietly run in the background, letting you integrate getting that fix into your life, however you want. They’re games that let you play while doing the things you actually need to do with your life which isn’t something games have really tried before. And so, while I don’t think these games will maintain the level of popularity they enjoy right now as a new and novel phenomenon for most people, I think they have a niche. And given how easy they are to create, you’ll probably always see some around. However, as idle games compete with one another for attention I think many idle game designers will start to naturally move their games toward the unfolding games we talked about earlier this year. I think this is a healthy direction for this genre to go. And hopefully, it will give more people a jumping-off point for where to start designing games. I’ll see you next week!

100 comments / Add your comment below

  1. this is the type of game I'm looking to make as my first game but I'm doing it it in C++… oh well to hell with browser play 😛

  2. I have reactor incremental open in the next tab over. and, yeah, they're still growing 2.5 years after this video.

  3. it's a pyscological help to make you see progress when your real life is not showing it to you in measurable steps.

  4. Don't you just hate how idle games took over the tycoon genre… You cant search for a tycoon game without being flooded with a sea of idle garbage.

  5. BS I only play idle/clicker games…try doing more research and maybe talk to a few people that play them hardcore.

  6. Rule number 1: Don't play Cookie Clicker.

    Rule number 2: Seriously, DON"T PLAY COOKIE CLICKER!!!

    It's as addicting as crack and will steal a week of your life.

  7. you have unleashed a curse on hundreds of thousands,
    the curse known as cookie clicker lives on to this day,
    i am here ~4 years later

  8. idle games just like doodling, might actually help you focus as well.
    http://www.wsj.com/articles/the-power-of-the-doodle-improve-your-focus-and-memory-1406675744

  9. That is a weird concept. I don't think that is the right game for me. I prefer the traditional game where you have to do a lot to get anywhere. Personally I am really bad at multitasking. I make up by being good at focusing on one thing at a time for an extended period. So the traditional game is better suited for me.

  10. I am watching this while my A.I. Fighter in Injustice 2 is taking care of a Multiverse event. Does that make it an idle game?

  11. While I have fallen victim to some idle games in the past, I got bored of them all for the same reason. With an end goal, there really isn't a point. Progress means nothing if it doesn't actually go anywhere.

  12. Taking an airliner flight in X-plane is like this. Once I'm at altitude and the autopilot is set, the game plays itself for several hours until I approach the other airport. A lot of artwork is done during that time while the plane drones on.

  13. Fun fact: sometimes you can make a strategy game into an idle game. You will lose, but still works.
    My incredible hoi4 run using this technique was incredibly realistic, if not successful.

  14. I'm curious though; you posit the idle game as a sort of cure or solution for feeling 'weird' when you have to sit through a whole lecture not doing anything else. But don't you think it might actually be the cause ? That exactly because we're constantly playing something on our phone during dinner, or during a toilet visit, that that in itself is causing you to feel 'uneasy' if you can't or don't?
    It's commonly known that the Skinner box works because it's literally addictive. And feeling 'weird' if you don't get your fix is a common feeling for someone with an addiction. Obviously getting that fix solves the weird feeling, but that doesn't seem like a cure or at least not a proper solution.

  15. multitasking is the death of boredom. The driving force of imagination. inputing info without processing it seems worthless.

  16. there is this game called idle civ (something like that) on kongregate- and it was prolly the best idle game back then (like a year or two ago) but suddenly out of nowhere its like "u can only use safari and internet explorer not even firefox so hahahah u have to use shit browsers to play our great game now" which sucks.

  17. The best idle games are smartphone games which require the game to be open on your smartphone to play. This is helpful when you have a big project you need to get done. Because this game needs to be open to play, but you can't do anything while it's playing, it prevents you from being distracted by your phone.

  18. i recently installed "endless frontier" on my phone. its probably the best game i have installed on my phone ever. Far from true idle but when you have set it up it can go for hours before actual input is needed.

  19. When Super Mario Run came out with "Remix 10" I just let it run on it's own to charge through the levels and get Daisy.

  20. Sometimes, I feel nervous or hyperactive not doing something else along with a tedious or boring task. Or doing while doing nothing. I used to EV train pokemon while watching TV series. And the reason I used to smoke was because I was bored while doing something repetitive or unintresting, like walking every day to the metro station. So, yes, I can understand why people play these games.

  21. Remember Candy Box? Candy Box always started as an idle game. You had to enjoy its idleness to play long enough for it to develop into something else. I miss Candy Box. I loved Candy Box. And Candy Box 2.

  22. Crank was a really good idle game. It is an idle/unfolding game that requires some level of resource management as you try to create a micro renewable economy. You have to produce resources and power producing machines automatically before you really get into the meat of the game, but you can still turn back to it and do something different when you start to get bored. I don’t actually think there are any “win conditions”, rather you just keep researching to improve efficiency and exploring to your heart’s content

  23. I disagree that idle games "scratch the itch for multitasking" because, with the exception of tycoon and city sim type games, games are not there for the player to be productive. Most games are about pleasure, and what is pleasing to the player. I think that idle games scratch the itch we have to be constantly entertained. We have gotten to the point where we won't do something challenging or productive without having a source of entertainment or dopamine release. Perhaps that's only my experience, but I would imagine it is a common one.

    Furthermore, I would say that needing this constant reward input is actually a bad thing. We reduce our capacity to do the hard and challenging things in life, which have no short-term reward, despite the fact (my opinion) that overcoming life's challenges is necessary to live a good life. In the face of such challenges, we are forced to find higher reasons, beyond the immediate, for why we should do hard things. That's where persevering for the sake of a dream, or providing for your family, or loving your neighbor takes root and grows.

    It is my opinion that when we use idle games as a strategy to supplement our will for performing certain tasks, by way of sustained dopamine release, it is harmful for us. Such behavior opens the door for indifference and apathy towards our life responsibilities, because we have all the reward we need. So, it diminishes our productivity, but also, as I argued above, we may use idle games as a crutch that keep us from engaging the challenges of life. Without confronting and engaging such challenges, you can't live your life for any other reason than your own self, and that it the source of many problems in this world.

    Again, this is all my opinion. I'd love to hear yours, and have a discussion. Please note that I take issue with this specific motivation for why people play idle games, not with idle games generally, or other motivations, necessarily.

    (This is what happens when you go to YouTube for help in researching a paper about videogame addiction and get sidetracked.)

  24. Fun to see how this has changed. More and more idle games are available for download and are being played. I see idle game callouts pop up all the time in the corner of my screen when my friends start playing them on steam.

  25. I think your analysis is spot on, even 3.5 years later! I could sort of understand these kind of games as a "side activity" while you are doing something else, just like listening to music in the background. But crappy stuff like Clicker Heroes? The success of these titles that promote brainless activities makes me lose faith in humanity.

  26. The prediction that idle games would quickly go into decline seems to have been very, very off, although I guess them turning into unfolding games has occurred to some extent. Indeed, if anything, the phrase "idle games" seems off, as many of them have developed into active "incremental games". Sure a game like Clicker Heroes or Realm Grinder will progress some when idle, (and Clicker Heroes indeed has builds centred specifically around not interacting with the game), but even when using those builds, you will plateau at least once an hour, often more frequently. Realm Grinder in particular deserves mention for being a very well made one, but one where, as you progress into it, you realize that your belief that "it's fine to play it now, it's just an idle game" has tricked you into watching it for the past hour or so, and you've abdicated multiple times without getting any of the work done you need. Amusingly, Clicker Heroes has gone even further towards reaching a point where these incremental games are a full-blown genre of their own by releasing a commercial version, with an upfront price and no micro-transactions that, according to marketing materials, taking the idle elements and adding them on to a more traditional action RPG.

  27. may i ask, is it good to make an idle game for pc? considering that the mobile market is super difficult to get attention from?

  28. ….how about an idle game that uses a step counter, instead of tapping a cookie…. not so much as an actual count of distance you've gone, you can still 'hire' NPCs to walk for you, and upgrade them to job, or run… or to walk dogs, for 6x the number of steps…..
    Hmm, how easy is it to learn Unity….

  29. I just came back to this video as I returned to cookie clicker… I was still playing while watching this video.

  30. love idle games but none of them are done right, some form of clan and competitive play, run without user logged in, non linear growth paths; IE choices to go faster, earn more, or do more dmg ect choices damnit. Then a few other activities for change in kind

  31. i'm listening to this while playing 3 idle games. On my computer is clicker heroes and cookie clicker, and on my phone i'm also playing clicker heroes.

  32. Games with idle/AFK game modes and mechanics are a good compromise to me. I played games like Granado Espada for almost 10 years and Black Desert Online for a few months last year, not because the gameplay is fundamentally great or anything, but because they allowed me to play the game even while I was asleep or at work, but with significantly more agency than pure idle games.

    In Granado Espada you can park your characters in the field and they'll use basic attacks to fight the continuously-spawning enemies around them automatically. If you get a looter pet, which is recommended of course for playing AFK, it will try to pick up any loot in its range. There is no penalty to exp or drop rate for doing this, but it isn't as fast of course as actively running through a dungeon, pulling more aggro and using skills for AoE damage and stuff. So I would park my characters in this way before bed, and when I wake up, I bring my characters back to town, sell my loot, then park my characters somewhere again as I got ready to go out. Then when I got home, I'd do that again as I go about the rest of the things I need to do for the day, such as dinner or homework.

    It usually took about 8-12 hours before my inventory would be full, and you could earn a decent amount of money from it even just with trash drops. Plus the continuous exp gain of course. If I had a few hours to spare in that day then I can spend it actually playing the game, doing raid dungeons or the story quests and stuff. But the majority of the time for me in the game is certainly done AFK. And it felt good because there was progress made every time.

    Now I have to clarify: I didn't think that Granado Espada was a good game really. Sure it introduced a lot of novel ideas, and has a great soundtrack and cool aesthetic, but the devs made a lot of strange design choices that feel contrary to what should be considered fun, or made limitations to choices for interesting gameplay (the expert stance system, for example, is meh). It's pretty bad in many aspects, and I don't recommend it to most players looking for a robust gaming experience. But it's still the first game I think about when it comes to having mechanics that allowed me to live my life without feeling like I'm not doing something game-related, especially during those years when I really didn't have much time to play at all even during the weekends.

  33. Farmville Facebook was such cancer those people who would just invite everyone on their thing made me want to destroy my phone

  34. Multitasking is horrible for human brain. It destroys the ability to focus properly. And be asured, anything you do without focusing, yo suck at it. The more time spent multitasking (switching your attention), the worse you focus at ANYTHING you do, even when you need to.

  35. I actively play a few idle games. I leave em running while I watch videos or have in depth conversations with my husband. I'd say Idle games are more akin to lo-fi hip hop, always in the background and generally pleasant to have around.

    yes I am subbed to ChilledCow, why do you ask?

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