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!