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The rise of games you (mostly) don't play

"Idle games," or games that virtually play themselves, are a nascent genre that sometimes become unexpectedly popular. Anthony Pecorella with Kongregate explains.

So-called "idle games" or "incremental games" are the youngest and most interesting video game genre.

This was the message from Anthony Pecorella, who has spent the past six years directing the browser-based game platform Kongregate’s virtual goods business, speaking at the Game Developers Conference in San Francisco this morning.

"Idle" or "self-playing games" are a new type of video game that, according to Pecorella, first emerged in 2002 with Eric Fredrickson’s Progress Quest, a self-playing RPG that cannot be affected by the player.

Idle games offer progress without interaction: a resource such as money or goods increases at a set rate and player interactions are designed to expedite the rate of acquisition. In most idle games, the player continues to progress even when they are away from the computer, or even when they are completely offline.

“You don't have to be constantly playing; there’s constant positive growth and feedback,” said Pecorella, describing the appeal of this style of game. “Everything is ‘going up’ so it feels like you're always progressing. A quick check-in to the game allows you to advance much more quickly by shifting up the growth curve, which creates a celebratory moment every time that you return. There’s constant positive feedback and, the longer you’re away from the game, the greater your incentive to return to the game.”

From the emergence of self-playing RPGs in 2008 through to games such as Anti-Idle (which was the first to mix active and idle elements). Pecorella pointed out that there is a lot of shame around this style of game, perhaps because there’s ostensbilty no player skill involved, and as a result many idle games are satirical in approach.

He referenced Cow Clicker, Ian Bogost’s satirical Facebook game that parodies FarmVille et al only to become a popular Facebook game itself. Next, according to Pecorella, came A Dark Room and Candy Box, a puzzle game approach to the genre that emerged in 2014.

According to Pecorella Cookie Clicker was the first "major mainstream hit" of the genre. Created by Julien Thiennor was a parody of Candy Box. This was followed by AdVenture Capitalist, a parody of capitalism and idle games that allowed players to progress even when offline, a feature that has now become a standard on most games of this type. “It’s almost a genre that doesn't want to exist; they are often jokes that then propagate and grow the genre,” he said.

Player retention is “amazing” on these games, Pecorella said, pointing out that three of the top 10 most played games on Kongregate in the last month have been idle-games and, extraordinarily, that there are even Twitch channels dedicated to watching a computer play a game itself. Pecorella revealed that many of these games hosted on Kongregate have players who have spent more than $1,000. The genre continues to evolve, according to Pecorella, who claims that the "classic" spreadhseet style is becoming less popular in favor of more complex visualizations.

Why has this kind of game become such a success? “Because there’s a natural energy system without the need for an energy currency,” he said. “It’s more palatable to players than other games of this type. The rewards grow linearly, and the game becomes about min-maxing stats and making decision that optimize your existence inside the game -- a distilled version of designs that we are familiar with from many other types of video game."

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