Why you should make an Idle Game

I wrote last week about auto-play being one of the trends for mobile games currently. When pushed to it’s extreme, auto-play becomes an idle game. That is, a game that the player hardly plays at all. By then, we are simply left with a Skinner box.

If you are unfamiliar with Skinner boxes, go ahead and have a look at the Extra Credits explanation of them here. He will also explain to you why core gamers loathe the concept.



If Skinner boxes are so clearly bad, then why are auto-play features and idle games a trend? I’m actually late on commenting on the trend already. About a year ago, it was already all the rage, as both Gamasutra and Pocketgamer pointed out.



First, notice the “good” game mechanics that the Extra Credits video suggested we should use instead of what he calls Skinner Box Operant Conditioning. These were:

  • Mystery,
  • Narrative,
  • Novelty,
  • Mastery,
  • Mental Challenge and
  • Flow.

Really, that’s only 2 things, with 6 different names. Mystery, Narrative and Novelty are 3 different names for Stories, while Mastery, Flow and Mental Challenge is just 3 versions of, well, Mastery.

There are 2 things we can conclude here: the guy making the video is likely to be an Explorer/Achiever sort of Bartle type. 

And, games made with his suggestions can actually never work as (mobile) F2P games. Which is a shame, but also very hard to change. I believe Dimitar Draganov is right when he points out that making mobile F2P games for Explorers is very hard. Get his book from Amazon.

First off, no team in the world can create Novelty, Mystery and Narrative at the pace required to keep the game’s superfans happy. Players will simply burn through the story in days, while it will take you months to create more. A game relying on these just cannot keep the players coming back for years.

The same is very likely to be true for Mastery, Flow and Mental Challenge. In an earlier post, I examined why traditional puzzle games with Mental Challenges cannot work as F2P. 

Simply said, when the players get stuck, they will quit playing. With these sorts of challenges, there is no luck or grinding that can help you. When you’re stuck, you are stuck and will leave the game.

Other sorts of mastery won’t get your players stuck, but they are likely to feel stale after a few months of playing. It’s rare that a pure core without any progression on top can keep players long-term. Sure, for some player types, Chess and Go will keep their interest. The vast majority of the population will not make even those games into a daily habit. They will need some form of progression in the meta game.

Even core gamers often degrade into pure progression players eventually. When I have stopped playing the core game, I notice that I still keep playing the meta game for a while. When attacking starts to feel formulaic, I will still go back to the game just to collect resources, and upgrade something. I no longer bother with actually playing, but I do log in to progress. I have noticed the same pattern in colleagues – both in mobile games and in PC MMO games.

All of this means that progression mechanics are really super important for successful games that can be played for years.

This also ties into the evolution of the collection mechanics in F2P games. Early on, Tamagotchis demanded you to respond at a specific time. If you did not, they would punish the player by dying.

When F2P really took off in the west, appointment mechanics were popular. In FarmVille, I could choose what crops to grow, each with a different time until I needed to come back to harvest. If I missed the harvest window, the game would still punish me by having the crops wither.

The next step has been the Collect Anytime mechanic found in e.g. Clash of Clans. They just keep producing gold up to some limit. I can collect the gold at any time, but I will not lose it if I do not. Once I am at the gold limit, it will just stay there, without growing or shrinking. Of course, Clash of Clans still kept some of the punishing mechanics as well, since other players attack you and steal your gold.

Idle game mechanics are one more step towards being nice to the player. There is no longer any cap on how much you can earn without coming in to collect your resources. You will simply keep earning. Of course, if you come in often, you will be able to re-invest your resources into new production, and hence earn even faster.

Tamagotchis to Idle games becomes a continuum between using carrots or sticks to get the player to come back. Are you threatening the player with something bad happening if the do not keep playing, or are you rewarding them with something good?

I would guess that keeping some threats involved can keep players returning more often – until they miss a week and are severely punished – at which point they never ever play that game again. In contrast, a game like AdVenture Capitalist will keep on earning resources for me even when I’m not playing. If I get curious again after a month of being inactive, there will be a huge reward waiting for me in the game!

Back to why we should make Idle games. Most game designers are core players, and find it harder to grasp the retention/meta game. By forcing us to make a game without a real core, we have to get it. Which means that should make an idle game as a sort of F2P masterclass. If there is nothing else in the game, we have no excuses. We have to make a good meta game when that’s all there is.

With the recent successes of Idle games, I would bet that a small wave of them are now about to hit the App Store. As always, most of them will fail to find significant commercial traction. However, I think that even those games will teach valuable lessons to the teams that made them.

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