It wasn’t until this gif popped up on my Steam Community overview page that I had even heard of the thriving genre of idle games. Games designed to not be played, instead to play in the background while you go about your life. Getting work done, sleeping…in the best examples you don’t even need the game running, it’ll automatically update itself when you next crank it up.
This goes beyond games that incorporate being AFK into its design, like the skill-leveling system of EVE Online, or games like Animal Crossing that guilt you with spoiled crops and sad villagers if you spend too many real-world days without logging in. Legit idle games are more like Progress Quest only they aren’t so tongue-in-cheek. But boy are they just as entrancing.
I turned on Clicker Heroes mainly for the novelty of seeing how on earth an idle game could possibly attract a player enough to bother turning it on twice. My first enemy was an adorable catgirl and I almost quit right there because she seemed so peaceful.
But I beat the crap out of her anyway and got some gold. Then I beat up some less-attractive monsters and earned more gold. I was about to go “Huh. All right, guess I tried it” and exit when something flashed on the sidebar. I’d earned enough gold to buy Cid, the Helpful Adventurer, who would upgrade how much clicking damage I would do! I was not interested. Far more attractive was Treebeast, who was pricier but would do the clicking for me. I grinded long enough to afford Treebeast, watched with amusement as dead monsters dropped gold that flew into my inventory without me even touching the mouse, and then closed the game down after the novelty wore off of watching the monster’s HP bars deplete themselves.
I thought I was done with it, but the real attraction doesn’t start unless you turn the game on a second time. “Welcome back! While you were away, your heroes farmed 2459 gold just for you!” the game proudly boasted. Holy Crap! That’s so much money! I could buy, like, seven heroes without another thought! So then I went on an extremely-exciting shopping spree with my loads of gold, buying more Heros at a rate I’d have never expected. By the time I was done, my hyper-inflated team was just plowing through the severely-underpowered starting zone monsters. And that’s when the perfectionist in me wanted to make sure that when I logged in tomorrow, my heroes had farmed the most gold possible for the next shopping spree.
Because that’s the allure of these games; you aren’t playing, you’re optimizing your performance for when you’re not playing. Time itself becomes the only variable between success and…well, there is nothing else. Everyone succeeds, the only question is who feels like logging in and spending their accumulated gold frequently enough to keep those insane boosts in power coming. Whichever hero you had your eye on last time you logged out becomes instantly purchasable after a night’s sleep, not to mention the five heroes after him, and you can watch numbers fly by faster than ever before.
It was awesome. It was awful. I realized after three weeks of increasingly-frequent, increasingly-longer bouts of Clicker Heroes that I needed out. Desperately. This wasn’t gameplay, it wasn’t even really fun, it was just retraining my endorphins to jump for joy every time numbers went up. It’s the textbook definition of a Skinner Box, a design that emphasizes getting the player to do the same thing, over and over, relying on the the same repeated burst of satisfaction to keep them coming back for more.
Now, just because I wanted out doesn’t mean everyone should. I can usually see at least five of my Steam friends playing Clicker Heroes any moment I log in. But on the off-chance you’re like me, someone who is very vulnerable to Skinner Boxes, aware of this vulnerability, and would just like to get off the wild ride so you can retake control of your life, here’s the one-step-solution that cured me:
Don’t let the Idle game devs decide when you’re allowed to feel happy about their game. Take your happiness into your own hands.
I know it sounds really bad that I’m advocating cheating, but it’s a single-player game. And to be honest, I can barely consider it a game. But finding one of the many sites that allow you to edit your save file, give you whatever monetary amount you want, or unlock whatever you want can really help put into perspective just how pointless the whole grind is. Buy all the heroes at once. Unlock all the abilities and fill your inventory with souls. Hey, look, the gameplay is exactly the same. Nothing has changed whatsoever. Now calculate how much real-world time you would have wasted playing the game legitimately to learn that same lesson.