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Numbers Getting Even Bigger: The Growing Appeal of Incremental Games

Last year in a two-article series we took a look into the history and design of incremental games. In the intervening time, the genre has grown significantly in popularity, while also continuing to innovate and explore. In this follow-up piece, let’s check in on the world of numbers getting bigger.

Continued Growth

The current boom in incremental games started in 2013 with games like Cookie Clicker and Candy Box, which were followed by a growing number of similar titles. These were still primarily “indie”-style games, though, typically modest and played for free in the browser, and rarely monetized other than with adjacent advertising on platforms like Kongregate. 

That was only just beginning to change last year, but now the most popular incremental games are seeing soaring numbers of players on various platforms. AdVenture Capitalist and Clicker Heroes, both of which released Steam versions in the spring of last year, each has more than 3 million owners and a 2-week active player count more than 250,000. Those are astounding numbers, and that’s just on a single platform! 

While concrete player numbers are hard to find across the variety of platforms that incrementals now appear on, the growth in popularity seems clear. As another bellwether, since the beginning of 2015, we can see the number of subscribers of the incremental games subreddit has nearly doubled too.

Sakura Clicker ownership stats
Ownership of Sakura Clicker, another popular incremental game (data via SteamSpy)

I don’t think this should surprise us much. In addition to the qualities we outlined last year, incremental games tend to excel at accessibility. They’re games that can be played for very short periods (such as while commuting, or at work or school), they are easy to start and stop playing, and they have systems that unfold gradually over longer periods. 

The ease of having one going on your phone, on a browser tab, or idling in the background makes for a low transaction cost of playing, which can be attractive to a number of people who play games. I think it’s telling that there are virtually no incremental games on game consoles, for example, since that’s an environment of dedicated play, and incremental games’ strength is in interstitial play.

Moving to Mobile

One of the biggest changes, and sources of growth, has been a growing presence in mobile gaming. The majority of the most popular PC and browser incremental games now have iOS and Android releases. The two biggest incremental games on Steam I mentioned before, Clicker Heroes and AdVenture Capitalist, have more installs across iOS and Android than they do on Steam. 

Both major mobile platforms are replete with incremental games of all varieties. It seems reasonable to assume that the strong retention numbers Kongregate saw from incremental players would extend to mobile platforms as well. That’s beginning to attract attention and development from increasingly mainstream mobile game developers. Recently Bandai Namco released a Katamari game on mobile called Tap My Katamari that’s a sort of endless runner (roller?) mixed with an idle clicker:

Tap My Katamari

Another recent breakout hit was Neko Atsume: Kitty Collector, which released in English last fall. Though it lacks a ‘clicker’ mechanic or the usual number aggregation, the fundamental gameplay loop is familiar. Cats are unlocked slowly over time in a manner largely autonomous to the player, leaving only the gradual unveiling of cute cats.

Increasing Innovation & Experimentation

I’ve been surprised by the diversity of new incremental games, and that was the original impetus for this follow-up. While the more popular incremental games show increasing refinement on their premise, there’s also been a growing number of more experimental titles, adapting incremental mechanics in new ways. 

For example, Dreeps Alarm Playing Game is an idle RPG that you don’t play at all. By reframing what it means to play an RPG, it becomes an essentially a non-ironic version of idle game urtext Progress Quest.

Dreeps Alarm Playing Game

Incremental games have shown an incredible capacity to subsume the tropes of other genres in their entirety. This happened first and most obviously with RPGs, but it turns out the incremental treadmill can assume the role of other game types as well. Sometimes these are more surface-level re-skins, like Time Clickers, which appropriates the visual conventions of FPS arena shooters. 

Others are more ambitious reductions, like Roguathia, a fully-automated roguelike where the player controls both the adventurers and the dungeon, endlessly upgrading both. Or Factory Idle, which cuts out all the choice and placement of building games, and leaves only the upgrade tree and sprawling cityscape:

Factory Idle

Another area of experimentation is in multiplayer-based mechanics. Games like Clicker Heroes and Idle Online Universe have optional multiplayer mechanics, where communal progress is made through collective clicking (similar to Steam’s Monster community-based clicker from last summer). These somewhat call to mind Peter Molyneux’s Curiosity – What’s in the Box game experiment / ad from 2012, where players progressed collectively to unlock a prize (or, well, not).

Critical Inattention

Despite this proliferation and growing appeal, incremental games remain rarely discussed in games media and criticism. When articles discuss incremental games, they almost invariably describe them as mindlessly addictive or attribute their appeal to the fact that they just constantly reward the player. There are many reasons why this might be so, and it’s likely due in no small part to a long-established prejudice against “casual” sorts of games. I suspect, though, that there’s also an unvoiced fear of liking such naked examples of “grind” mechanics, which form the backbone of more game experiences than we often like to admit.

All that was the case a year ago as well, but a few designers are beginning to make a more critical appraisal of incrementals. There are more even-handed takes, like game designer Liz England’s, who, in discussing an abandoned prototype for an incremental game, observed that

“There’s a lot of interesting design possibilities in this space. The good ones are economic systems that slowly reveal new possibilities over time, allowing for a sense of discovery.” 

There’s even beginning to be formal academic interest; an upcoming paper at the Digital Games Research Association & Foundations of Digital Games conference notes how incremental games have gone from being parodies to a “rediscovered aesthetic” that “resulted in a sub-genre expanding rather than delimiting” what are considered games. 

I suspect we’ll continue to see more in-depth examinations of incremental games. The game designer Frank Lantz, writing about Ian Bogost’s Cow Clicker, observed back in 2011 that it is less of a joke game than it appears, and I think this view is still prescient here in 2016:

So why assume that these players for whom we are meant to feel such
tongue-clucking pity were oblivious to the games satirical purpose?
Maybe they didn’t get the joke the way Ian wanted them to, but
then, why should they? 

He wanted them to get that a game this simple, a
game this strict, a game this transparent and shallow couldn’t be
playable, shouldn’t be played. And they didn’t get that part of
the joke. 

But maybe it’s because that part isn’t true. They played it.
They wanted to play with this ridiculous, simplistic system. Some of
them mindlessly clicking it in synch with the master clock. Some of them
mindfully mapping the exploitable tics (just like real gamers!)
that emerge in any system, even one this featureless. 

Some of them
harvesting clicks with automated scripts, and some indulging themselves
in moral outrage at the transgressive heresy of the auto-clickers.

The Incremental Future

Although they can seem like reductio ad absurdum parodies of game mechanics, I think incrementals have a bright future, since there’s simply something in human nature that makes us enjoy optimizing arbitrary systems. 

As a game designer, this excites me, because I think incremental games cleave away a lot of what seems to be necessary for a game. While it is hard for me to see the appeal in something like a Minecraft prison server, it’s an under-studied area of design, and I’m excited to see the next year’s worth of numbers getting bigger.

List of Games Mentioned

This isn’t a comprehensive list of incremental games, of course (for that, IncrementalGame.com and AlmostIdle.com are good resources), but here are all the games mentioned in this article: