The Lasting (and Strange) Appeal of Idle Games Like Cookie Clicker

How a game about clicking cookies is still inspiring games 10 years on.

When Cookie Clicker released in 2013, video game journalists weren’t quite sure what to do with it. Some suggested Cookie Clicker was high art, while others dismissed it as pointless. Nearly a decade later, though, Cookie Clicker continues to attract thousands of players who enjoy idly sitting and clicking to watch numbers rise.

You begin Cookie Clicker by clicking on a big cookie. This adds one cookie to your bank. Save up some cookies and you can start buying factories and mines that automatically produce them. Check back in a few hours and you’ll have earned thousands of cookies to buy new buildings with. By repeating this process, your cookie income will eventually reach the septillions. And that, despite some wrinkles, is essentially it.

Cookie Clicker was far from the first game in the idle genre, but for a few weeks it received a level of attention most game developers only dream of. IGN, while affectionate, called it “super dumb.” Because the game largely plays itself, a critic told Polygon “our computers have broken free to some extent.” An article for The Kernel, which called the game’s fans “almost cultish,” opined that Cookie Clicker was a searing critique of “capitalist structures of time.” A game about watching numbers rise had struck a nerve.

Regardless of whether one thought Cookie Clicker was brilliant or moronic, it felt like a fad. How long can you play a game about cookies? But not only is Cookie Clicker still receiving updates today, the idle genre now has dozens of titles. What keeps people coming back to games you’re barely meant to play?

Progressing Without Investing

Mike, an active member of the Cookie Clicker fandom, enjoys the game’s constant sense of progression. “The game has some offline progression and a resource called Sugar Lumps that accumulate about once per day whether the game is open or not,” he says. “That means I can close the game if I get bored and come back later. Even if it’s months later I’ll have gained some progress. That’s different from other games where if you put them down for a month, you have to spend time regaining the skill you’ve lost.”

The first idle game Mike played was 2013’s Candy Box, which has a similar concept. “I liked it because unlike more typical games, I could choose how much attention to give it. I would have it open on one monitor while on my other I could use Reddit, YouTube, Netflix, whatever,” Mike says.

But he’s since stuck with Cookie Clicker, both because its creator — French programmer Julien “Orteil” Thiennot — continues to update it, and because it has surprising depth. It’s not Civ VI, but subsystems within the game, like a stock market to invest your cookies in and magical spells to temporarily spike your cookie production into the stratosphere, keep you engaged.

“There are several mechanics that need management, there’s prioritizing and working towards achievements, there’s planning combos and working toward them,” Mike says. “It seems very grindy at the beginning, but it takes time to unlock all the content, so a person can understand each function without getting overwhelmed. A fully optimal strategy is actually very hard to work out due to random elements and the fact that the game only has two resources, and everything that can increase production uses those resources.”

Mike also plays regular games, but Cookie Clicker scratches a certain itch. “Idle games are a pretty basic definition of what a game is,” Mike says. “However, Cookie Clicker has a decent pacing where I only need to put time in occasionally. I can just have it open and click every few minutes. If I start to feel burned out I can close it for a few weeks and not have any penalty.”

If Mike gets bored, there’s no shortage of other idle games out there. He highlights Clicker Heroes, Universal Paperclips, and Swarm Simulator as a few notable examples. “All of them either take a relatively short amount of time, or are games that I can put down and come back to when I want to make progress. I can have them open on the side when I want to give more attention to something else. If I’m looking for something different, I look on r/incremental_games.”

Distilling the MMO Experience

Cookie Clicker has a compelling feedback loop: it’s the right mix of simple and nuanced,  and it has a goofy sense of humor. It sounds like an easy formula, but many idle games lack those elements and have negative Steam reviews to show for it. So what goes into developing a good idler? Brendan Malcolm, the creator of idle RPG Melvor Idle, discusses how to create a game designed to be ignored for long stretches of time.

“The risk is that players may never open the game again. It could very easily be forgotten once closed. One of the main aspects of Melvor Idle is that there is always a goal within reach that won’t take long to achieve. Some skills in RuneScape could take weeks to finally max out. In Melvor Idle, this would only take a few days. There is always something new to unlock and experience. If you’re able to give the player meaningful progression every day, there is a very good chance they will want to come back and see what they can do next.”

Melvor Idle sees players pick a skill to level, like fishing or mining, then come back hours later to collect their digital harvest. The hundreds of fish caught can then be invested in your cooking skill, and when you return you can use all those meals to fuel your automated dungeon crawling. It’s heavily inspired by RuneScape to the point of having the same publisher, and it emerged when Malcolm’s love of the classic MMO collided with the time management benefits that idlers provide.

RuneScape was a big part of my childhood,” he says. “We used to always go to school and talk about what we would do next. Growing up though, the time to play RuneScape quickly faded away. Using RuneScape as inspiration came from my wanting to experience that time of my life again, but as an adult.”

Malcolm played several idlers before starting on Melvor, and he was attracted to the genre’s constant sense of progress.

“I no longer had the time to dedicate to gaming like when I was younger,” he says. “Idle games filled this gap. Being able to make meaningful progress without losing hours in my day made them stand out. Games like Cookie Clicker or NGU Idle do a fantastic job of providing meaningful progress. I can log back into the game whenever I like and see the time I spent away not wasted.”

Melvor Idle lacks the complexity of a sprawling MMO, but it has the same core appeal in that the investment of your time correlates to the growth of your character. You just don’t have to be present for the hundreds of hours spent grinding your way to the best equipment. One of Malcolm’s inspirations, NGU Idle, strips this concept down even further, presenting the player with an increasingly absurd series of bosses who are overcome by making your core “Number” larger than theirs (hence the joke of NGU being short for Numbers Go Up).

The Joy of Making Numbers Go Up

4G, the developer of NGU Idle, attributes the satisfaction of idle games to “the dopamine hit of making numbers go up. People like both the feeling of hitting a soft stat wall and then ‘solving’ them by the smart allocation of resources, combined with sheer time. Having agency in how you allocate those resources I think is a big pull.”

NGU has a few resources that are used to grow various statistics, like your attack power or your gold income. This essentially boils down to, well, making numbers go up, but there are just enough nuances and quirks to make you think about what you’re doing, and get you excited about coming back later to see the results of your decisions. As a developer, this means giving players constant growth without trivializing the journey.

“How I [developed] NGU was reactive,” 4G says. “I made a new tier of content, saw how people reached the stats to tackle it and what they felt about it, and tweaked the balance accordingly. Sort of like in D&D where a DM should be ready to go off course and improvise off their initial plans based on how players in their world actually interact with it. I also try to design knowing the expected rates of gaining resources from nonstop play. That’s why good offline progress is important; it helps balance between turbo nerds (I say lovingly) who actively play all the time and someone just checking in once or twice a day after work.”

NGU is a very silly game. Advertised features include “Artwork that would make pre-Kindergarten teachers proud!” and “Lots of typos and a complete disregard for grammar!” But it also has an active fan community that writes lengthy guides and debates the optimal ways to invest their experience points and attempt some of the game’s trickier challenges. If idle games streamline the MMO experience, they also provide a substitute for the genre’s community aspect.

And so while once viewed as a confounding joke, idle games are now a well-established genre perfect for busy gamers looking to save time. And they’re not going anywhere: Cookie Clicker is testing its next major update, Malcolm is working on an expansion to Melvor, and 4G is “in the code mines for a sequel of sorts.”

“I remember looking at Cookie Clicker for the first time and chuckling at how silly it sounded,” Malcom says. “But then you play it. Now more and more talented developers are jumping on board and creating some amazing and unique idle games. You can wake up in the morning, check your progress, and feel like you have achieved something. You can’t get that from any other genre.”

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