Why Idle Games Need a Takeover

the fire is dead.

the room is freezing.

These are the first words of the idle, or incremental, game A Dark Room, listed next to an unassuming button labeled “light fire.” Pressing it, what I thought was just the title changes to “A Firelit Room,” like I moved to a new game where the descriptions crawl towards illuminating the moody landscape beset by depleting meters. Compelled is the closest word for my relationship with A Dark Room, not addicted in the way games tend to sell themselves, just genuinely interested by its simple existence. I found it after Candy Box became a quick sensation on games twitter, unaware that these two games were the black sheep of a quiet new genre germinating in freeware corners around the net. Exploring the genre lead me to a strange world of games distilled from the feature-stuffed games of contemporary popular culture to the point where calling some of them glorified automated spreadsheets wouldn’t be too unfair. Despite being simple on its face, idle games are starting to catch notice, primed for a moment in the spotlight much games made from Twine or the dubiously dubbed walking games. From what I can see, the trajectory is controlled heavily by self-described core gamers, basing the genre on a certain love of watching numbers climb in a narrow but dominant slice of RPGs. Reflecting on how much I liked A Dark Room and Candy Box to an extent, I wondered what it would be like if we could center the genre more on these games, or better yet, subject the genre to the same ethos that characterizes the recent heavily queer DIY movement and wrestle it from what looks like the next evolution in capitalist-consumer games.

Let’s first see what’s actually going on with idle games to merit anyone’s attention. Its simplicity is deceptive: a number ticks upwards, either automatically or by clicking your mouse, and new things happen as that number reaches a certain value or you spend that number to unlock a feature. Traditionally, these features speed up the entire process or makes it easier, for instance, making the number tick faster or for a click to have a multiplier on what it produces. Time, not necessarily timing, is hugely integral to this genre, and that’s where design occurs. The name of the genre, idle, is furthest from the truth; these games actually preoccupy a small part of your attention over a stretch of time, weaving itself into your life because these games don’t run parallel but with other activities. Unlike conventional game design, which seeks to completely arrest your attention for as long as it can, idle games let you integrate them in whatever way your life allows. This is because these games stress their roles as actors, with their own agendas and methods, like anything else in life. The creepy part about typical human depictions in games is how they always seem dependent on your interaction, waiting around for the dialogue choice or event trigger to make them useful. Idle games can have their own lives, and you’re welcome to share it with them, or let them be. This twists what conventional design constantly sells as interaction and hallmarks of good design. The main draw of an idle game is its mere existence and how that affects you.

A quick look at the kinds of games that make up the majority of the genre, however, can easily repulse people who aren’t into a very particular kind of ‘watch the numbers go up and down’ style of play that is prevalent among RPG fans. In a piece about the history of idle games, Zoya Street cites a talk from the Game Developers Conference by Kongregate’s Anthony Pecorella who wanted to point out how idle games are a Facebook games analogue for core gamers, which he details are the users his company attracts. This is big news for the industry, who are trying to figure out how to merge audiences from the general populations, or that oft-cited 35-year-old woman player base, and that 22-year-old man core video games typically cater to. In the talk, which if you don’t have access you can see Zoya’s tweets, Anthony shows how idle games have an extremely high retention rate, making them ideal for ad-based profit models. The kind of interactions he points out are about emphasizing what it is that appeals to gamers and then translating that into a monetization scheme, which carries on a tradition of conventional game design. It’s worth noting how A Dark Room and Candy Box are considered outliers in this case, which shows a dissonance between critical and popular reception of idle games. Not saying that those two are somehow more authentic or artsy, rather they, especially A Dark Room, point towards a magic, and move the most away from conventions that are easily co-opted by companies. It will happen no matter what, but I’d like to get other artists more interested in this genre before all they see are spreadsheets ironically about you staring at spreadsheets.

Comparisons to games like Dear Esther and Proteus are not completely unfounded; idle games create new interactions through minimalism, or at least, stripping away what we are used to in order to reveal a path covered up by typical design practices. This isn’t new, it’s a precedent set by so-called art games, or not-games, like Tale of Tales’ Fatale or especially The Graveyard. Following this tradition was the explosion of games made out with Twine and the communities and ethos that surrounded it. This was significant because there was a meeting between appreciation for minimalist design and tools that not only allowed you to work with minimalism, but were available to a wide range of people. Good news for idle games that there actually is an idle game maker and the basic interactions of timers and variables can be replicated in Twine. And much like Twine, a little knowledge of CSS and Java will allow you to do more with the idle game maker, which I feel is what gives a creation tool some legs for longevity.

What’s potentially interesting about newer, weirder idle games is how these experiences move along with our daily motions. They usually just take up a tab on our browser, so this opens up play that comments on our online habits; I could easily see games revolving around social media or other analogues to things we typically have open when we’re online. It’s like having a living entity, with its own agenda, brewing away just a couple clicks away. Never really demanding your attention, but always keeping you curious as it what it could be up to. By occupying something as pervasive as a web browser, something many of us have open most of the day, idle games as a genre allow creators to embed projects into the daily lives of people, never making a huge sweep to Say Something Important, but giving credence to growth, change over time, and possibly an intimate bond, when our days would feel different if the game wasn’t there anymore.

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