Friday, January 30, 2015

Idle Gaming - When You're Too Lazy to Actually Game

unrealistic number of cookies
Ah, idle games. The very phrase elicits feelings of... staring vacantly at numbers. Endlessly clicking on things to earn resources to build and buy more things to get more resources to build or buy other things that give you more or maybe different resources to use to buy and build... other things and, sometimes, you... don't really know why you're playing.

Currently, the most famous of these games is probably cookie clicker. It's probably also the best example of one of the addictive power of these games. If you've ever been sucked in by an idle game, then you already know what I mean. The thing about most games like these is there really isn't... a point.

The goal feels like it's to accumulate more resources and build all the things to completion, but some games have no end. Some games add incentives to restart your game, putting you spiraling into an infinite loop of cookies or cabbages or what have you. Some of them do end, but to be honest, the end is always disappointing.

Idle games have been around for quite a long time - I remember playing one when I was still in middle school, in the early 2000s, before the term "idle game" was even coined. Now, there are a ton of them, sometimes their addictive powers being used for evil, exploiting the 'idle' aspect of them to riddle the games with microtransactions...

...while some people genuinely make great idle games for entertainment.

Games like cookie clicker aren't the only kind of idle games out there. Idle games can roughly be identified as games where you are more or less an accountant or manager of a system where everyone else goes and does stuff, with a key niche you fill or gimmick - say, clicking - to help speed things up or accomplish certain goals. The key element is that if you are not actively playing, goals will still be accomplished and resources will still generate - hence, 'idle'. Garrison missions are an idle minigame within Warlords of Draenor.

Now, I genuinely enjoy idle games. As you saw above, that was my cookie clicker game, and I was really into Clicker Heroes for awhile. I'm actually playing an idle game as I write this post.

my systems are set up so well that I don't even have to play!

Lots of types of games - city builders, RTS, grand strategy - have elaborate resource systems where you have to balance your purchases and generation to accomplish your goals within the game. Idle games take those resource generation systems, get rid of all the irrelevant fluff like "real time" and "action" and make them into their own game.

Not all idle games are "clicker" games - I mean, probably most of them are - but there are also idle building games. The key difference between an idle city builder and a regular city builder is exactly what you think it is - the idle part. An idle city builder's key difference is that not paying attention to it for awhile won't result in the city burning the ground or everyone starving to death while you're away.

whoopsie daisy

A game requires the viability of inactivity, regardless of what else happens in the game, to be considered an idle game. It is not categorized by the lack of combat, plot, or storytelling. For example, Banished, a totally-not-idle city building game, is a game with zero combat and minimal plot (spoilers: you were banished from your town and have to start over - have at it) where you more or less generate resources and establish a town, but it doesn't allow you to leave the city unattended for long. I'm afraid to even leave the game unpaused to go to the bathroom.

one kitchen fire and these idiots won't know what to do - the well is right there, Steve!

It's very hard to build a self-sustaining, renewing city in Banished - the people will outgrow their food supplies unless you create more, they forget to repopulate if you don't build more homes, a tornado might swoop in and wreck half the place, trades won't get done, and so on. There is a vital element of interaction with the player, hence it is not an idle game. (What it is, is an amazing game, and I recommend you check it out.)

If you don't like idle games, that's fine, but don't be fooled - they are games. The difference between what constitutes a real idle game and what you're probably thinking about if you don't like idle games are those pesky little freemium smartphone apps - the ones that exploit the idle aspect in an attempt to trick people out of small amounts of money over time, especially children who definitely should never have access to a bank card or fund account on your smartphone.

You have good idle games and you have bad ones - the good ones always have something you can do if you choose to play the game, where the bad ones try to charge you money if you want to actually interact with the game. Don't misunderstand me - the freemium game model makes for a mockery of the idle game genre. Storm8 can take all its "stories" and shove 'em - but real idle games are some of my favorite time wasters. I was going to talk about the one I played today, but I got caught up in the moment, so I'll leave it for another post!

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