Four million pageviews, 1.7 million hours played on Steam since release – sounds like numbers the next upcoming MOBA phenomenon might put up, right?
Nope – it’s what Crusaders of Lost Idols has done since it launched in browser format, and it’s an entry into the “clicker” style of game that’s become amazingly popular over the last year or so.
Since Cookie Clicker launched in 2013, the genre has found meteoric success with gamers, despite stripping the concept of “game” down to the level of Skinner box essentials: input, stimulus, and response. The concept of “clicker” games – or “idle” games, or now, “incremental” games – couldn’t be simpler: you click on the screen and get some kind of reward, usually an increasing score. And you sit there and keep clicking and watching that number increase.
To anyone who has spent the last five, ten, or twenty years of their lives gaming, this concept is almost repulsive on its face. It doesn’t reward skill, it offers no real player agency, and it feels… well, cheap and crass. But there’s no denying its popularity, and, after having played a few hours of the top few titles in the “idle games” genre, I can’t deny that it has a very weird and visceral appeal.
For those who haven’t tried this genre out, a play session works generally like this: You click in order to make a transaction happen, which adds to your pile of earned currency. Then you periodically amass enough currency to buy a modifier to your click, which means you bring in more money per click. Each subsequent upgrade costs more, and provides exponentially more benefit once purchased.
Puzzled as I was about the appeal of this formula – and I’d at this point spent a couple hours with a couple iterations on it – I wound up speaking with Eric Jordan, CEO of Codename Entertainment. They’re a company that’s spent the last seven years making free-to-play games, the latest of which is Crusaders of Lost Idols, a clicker game that incorporates RPG elements into the established mode.
I asked him what makes these games work.
“It’s because they’re fun,” he offered, simply.
He went into further detail, but on its face I couldn’t argue with his premise. As much time as I’ve spent engaging with complex player experiences, like real-time strategy, role-playing, and technical fighting games, I couldn’t tell him he was wrong to say that this “clicker” experience wasn’t fun. And even if they hadn’t worked for me, it’s clear from the response his company’s games have had that plenty of people do find this kind of game fun. And despite my many years of gaming, I begrudgingly had a hard time pulling myself away from Crusaders – the same way I’d been hooked by games like the similarly-structured AdVenture Capitalist earlier last year.
When I went into my talk with Jordan, what I wanted to figure out is why that happened – why I wound up engaging with these incredibly simple game experiences for as long as I did. And he told me that the “why” wasn’t that important to him.
He did have some ideas: that games, 40 years in, have certain languages and bywords that have become canon for long-time players: things like the concept of a double-jump in platform games, or the idea that you can pick up health by running over a box on the floor. It’s a language that gamers all have come to know and be conversant in, and one that can be inscrutable and arbitrary to newcomers.
But when it came to the phenomenon of clicker games, Jordan wasn’t snobby. He said the “idle games” phenomenon is one that’s been built out of player interest rather than corporate speculation – in the same way that the MOBA genre has been a grassroots rather than top-down phenomenon.
“These games have evolved out of players creating and enjoying them,” he said. And he said he hasn’t gotten too bogged down in thinking about what makes that “tick,” but rather in focusing in on what players who enjoy this style of game wind up responding to most positively.
Which makes the genre the rawest-ever version of the video game Skinner Box.
If you’re not familiar with the concept, the “Skinner Box” is named after psychologist and behaviorist B.F. Skinner, who created what would eventually become known as the “operant conditioning chamber,” which he used to study the effects of rewarding specific behavior in rats with tangible rewards.
While there were several variants of Skinner Boxes and experiments that used them, the basic concept was to condition a rat, held within the chamber, to perform a specific simple action in order to receive a reward – usually, a pellet of food. Usually this action was pressing a specific lever, and the laboratory rats learned how to work this mechanism remarkably quickly.
That’s a big part of what fuels these “clicker” – or “iterative,” or “idle” – games: performing a simple action (clicking) and immediately seeing the reward (a number getting bigger). The deal-maker though, as Jordan and I discussed, is how that numerical growth happens.
“Logarithmic progression is what Cookie Clicker introduced,” he said, and it’s that element of watching a number increase that helps make these games fun. Exponential progression is something human brains aren’t well-keyed to understand or predict, so while they are certainly predictable, there’s a base level of surprise every time we see it happen. A classical-era example of this is the Persian “wheat and chessboard problem,” wherein someone is asked to place a single grain of wheat on one of a chessboard’s 64 squares, doubling the number every time. While it seems like a simple enough task at first, by the end, the total number of wheat grains on the board would total 18,446,744,073,709,551,615.
Crusaders of the Lost Idols leverages this dual predictability and surprise dynamic, while adding its own curves to the mix: You’re given an RPG-style party to control, and their formation impacts the amount of damage they do as you move forward. You can equip characters with gear and collect guffins along the way as well.
But ultimately, Jordan isn’t overly concerned about what actually makes these games work so much as he cares about what his players seem to react most positively to, while also doing something unique within this emergent genre. Crusaders is full of pop culture references, like to Monty Python and the Holy Grail, for instance. He said that part is much more an in-office thing.
“If it’s something that makes us all laugh, we put it in,” he said.
Crusaders of the Lost Idols is free to play and is available on Steam and Kongregate.