The idea of a game that essentially plays itself might not sound like the most entertaining thing, but since its inception in 2016, the idle game genre has grown hugely in popularity.
In this article, we’ll be breaking down exactly what an idle game is and what constitutes the basic building blocks of its game design. At the end of this, we’ve posted a video on how to design, validate, and balance an idle game in Machinations.
What is an idle game?
Idle games, also known as incremental games or clicker games, are games that continue to progress without any input from the user.
The player can choose to actively interact with the game, or simply allow it to run in the background.
This ability to have the game continue to operate without constant oversight and input gives idle games a level of flexibility not seen in other game genres.
From a game design point of view, idle games must be able to accommodate the player actively playing the game and the game still progressing while the player is not interacting with it.
Why are idle games so popular?
At its most basic level, an idle game provides a sense of continued accomplishment.
The player does not need to interact with the game in order to make progress, which means they never feel like time away from the game is wanted.
In a well-designed idle game, the use of trophies, badges, and achievements creates a clear sense of achievement in the player, which is a common reward in nearly all video games.
This sense of accomplishment and skill can be enhanced by systems that allow the player to optimize the game before putting it into idle mode, making even downtime seem like a specific form of strategic play.
When it comes right down to it, people like games in which the numbers go up, and idle games provide the purest version of that mechanic.
What makes a well-designed idle game?
The best idle games have three factors in common. The first is an easy, low barrier to entry, core loop. The player clicks or taps on something and earns a reward, normally an in-game currency or resource.
The second is a sufficiently sophisticated game economy design that gives players a reason to spend that in-game currency or resource and keep going back to the core loop in order to acquire more of it.
Generally, the items purchased allow the player to accrue more currency or resources per click, which feeds into the third factor, an achievement counter.
By achievement counter, we mean a visible counter that lets the user see how much resources or currency they are able to generate in a per minute or per hour cycle.
As we said, one of the main draws of an idle game is watching those numbers go up.
These three factors establish a core loop that keeps players clicking and optimizing to watch those sweet sweet numbers continue to go up.
However, this kind of core loop on its own has a finite draw, in order to keep players engaged the core loop has to interact with a more complex meta loop.
What is a meta loop?
While the core loop of most idle games is relatively simple, the meta loop that sits behind it can be surprisingly complex, especially in games developed in Asia.
At its most simple, the meta loop is what keeps players playing beyond the simple thrill of watching numbers go up.
Depending on the design of the game, meta loops might encourage players to develop diverse characters or builds, pursue certain build chains, or farm certain rare rewards.
As an example, let’s consider the RPG (role-playing game) style character advancement model, using a primary and secondary currency model.
The player has a team of generic fantasy RPG heroes who march forward combatting enemies and collecting the primary currency, this section of the game can be basically automated so it will continue when the player is inactive.
The primary currency can be used to buy basic upgrades which increase the attack power of the team and also increase the primary currency rewards they receive.
However, there is also a secondary currency that appears far less frequently. This currency might only appear at the end of stages or after successfully beating a boss.
This secondary currency is used to upgrade the members of the team beyond what basic gear upgrades can do. After the initial states of the game, there is always a pinch on this secondary currency to encourage players to purchase with real-world money instead of grinding for it.
The RPG advancement system also contains a teamwork aspect where certain heroes and advancements work together to generate better results.
As the game progresses, new heroes are introduced to add more options to the meta loop, encouraging players to add new members to their team and therefore play in order to get them the best gear and advance their stats and abilities.
This kind of meta loop provides the impetus for players to continue to engage with the game and its core loop while, from a game economy design standpoint, encouraging them to make purchases with real-world cash.
Obviously, this is a simplification of the ideal, but it serves to demonstrate how idle games often compliment a simple core loop with a more complex meta loop.
How to design an idle game
From a games design perspective, there are several basic factors that go into designing an idle game, including:
Game balance is critical to the creation of an idle game, especially when it comes to how easily the player is able to accumulate the various in-game currencies and resources.
As we’ve mentioned before, good game economy design is all about getting the balance right between offering the player enough resources to keep the game engaging and fun to play.
The designer needs to give the player a reason to spend those resources while making sure that certain resources are scarce enough that players are tempted to pay real money for them.
Difficulty and complexity
While all games need a difficulty curve that keeps players engaged without scaring them off, idle games are unique in that the core gameplay loop starts, and generally continues, to be very simple indeed.
In order to offset the fact that a simple core loop can quickly get boring, most idle games then incorporate a meta loop that is surprisingly complex and can introduce a secondary level of difficulty when it comes to managing a range of meta mechanics.
The correct level of reward is also hugely important to idle games, as the player has to feel like they are being rewarded for both the time they are playing and the time they are not playing, while still feeling they are earning those rewards.
Too few rewards and the user will have no real impetus to continue playing. Too many rewards and the resources generated can be devalued and the pleasurable impact of those rewards on the user is diminished
Having a good idle mode
It seems obvious, given the nature of the game, but an idle game needs to have a robust offline mode, in which the player can progress even when they are not actively interacting with the game.
The player should always return to the game to find that they have earned some kind of reward, giving them a warm feeling of accomplishment, even though they weren’t actively playing.
Having a good active mode
While it is hugely important to have a comprehensive and entertaining idle mode, you still want your players to be involved when they are actively playing the game.
If your active gameplay loop involves logging in, spending the accrued currency and then logging out again, players aren’t going to have much impetus to keep playing your game.
A ‘return reward’
Building on the idea above, good idle games often include a return reward that rewards the player for actively participating in the game.
Getting a large amount of the basic currency when you return to the game is a reward in and of itself and can keep players motivated to actively participate in the game.
Meaningful choices and rewards
In order to keep your meta loop engaging, it is important that the players be given the option to make genuinely meaningful choices.
Obviously, not all choices can be deep and meaningful, and sometimes the player needs an option just to put on a specific kind of hat.
However, mixed in amongst the cosmetic choices should be gear and upgrade choices that make the player feel like their actions matter and that their skills and strategies are impacting the game.
Tips for designing your own idle game
If you’re considering designing your own idle game, here are five of our most important tips to get you started:
1. Always invest in some strong theming
Because of their inherent popularity and the low barrier to entry, there are a lot of idle games on the market at the moment.
The best way to make your game stand out from the rest is to invest in strong theming and the best art you can afford.
Remember that your game is going to be one of the thousands that people will see when scrolling through an app store and that poor visual appeal and muddy theming will result in players just scrolling on by.
Since your gameplay mechanics are going to be relatively simple, it will be the look and theming of your game that attracts your customers.
2. Soft launch your game
Idle games are surprisingly complex and require some fine-tuned balance.
Having a soft launch in a restricted number of territories can help you to work on your optimization, ad placement, and in-game economy.
Getting the soft launch right and responding to feedback from a limited number of players can help you really land the larger global launch, giving your game the best chance possible.
3. Respond to feedback
In games where monetization and player retention are the keys to having a profitable app, it really pays to be seen to be responding to player feedback.
Not only is player feedback an excellent resource for helping you fine-tune your game and work out any issues that you might not have been aware of, it is also a critical opportunity to turn players into evangelists for your game.
Building an active gaming community around your app hugely increases the reach of your marketing efforts, with users recommending your game on app stores and social media without you needing to pay for anything.
4. Create a complex meta loop
With such simple core gameplay mechanics, idle games need a more complex meta loop in order to keep players invested. The best way to do this is not to rely on one mechanic.
Instead, you’ll want multiple interacting mechanics that players are slowly introduced to as they progress through the game, encouraging them to constantly change their strategies in response to new inputs.
5. Don’t prioritize monetization over retention
We fully understand that games need to make money in order to survive. However, you’ll make far more money over the long term with long-tail earnings than you will by immediately applying the thumbscrews to your users’ wallets.
Overt over monetization, or even the perception of it, is one of the most off-putting factors when it comes to user experience and, with so many other apps on the market, players will simply migrate away from your game. You have to strike the right balance!
For more tips and a full break of idle game design, check out the video below.
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