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When grinding is fun: Forager's compelling approach to 'idle game' design

Mariano "Hopfrog" Cavallero's hit Steam game Forager mashes adventure and crafting elements with the relaxing appeal of idle games. Here's how he made Forager an "idle game that you want to actively keep playing."

There's a rather primal appeal to games in the genre known as "idle" games.

These games, like Doublespeak's classic A Dark Room, aniwey's Candy Box!, or Playsaurus' Clicker Heroes occupy players' attention enough to be a welcome distraction; an opportunity to nourish a system with bits of your attention, making numbers go up while instilling a feeling of progression (and satisfaction) with minimal effort or challenge. 

It's that kind of feeling that Mariano "Hopfrog" Cavallero is chasing with Forager. Billed as an "idle game that you want to actively keep playing," it embraces the grind with tighter gameplay loops than other idler games, while making time disappear.

"My core design pillar for this game has always been: 'The idle game that you don’t want to let sit idle,'” said Cavallero in an email. "I feel that’s something idle games aren’t really doing at the moment. I would play some idle games for a little, make some interesting choices but then have to wait to make my next fun choice."

Born out of a game jam, Forager was eventually picked up by Humble Bundle's publishing arm, and struck a chord with players, hastily climbed to the top of Steam's sales charts last month. Inspired by Stardew Valley, Zelda, and Minecraft, players must forage the surrounding environment to gain resources that then can use these resources to craft, build, and purchase expansions of your island, with evermore items and tools to unlock.

It's that style of item-based progression that Cavallero thinks makes Forager a game that sets it apart from more typical idle games.

"The other main problem I had with these games was that upgrades and new content felt too numerical and similar," he said. "All upgrades or bonuses are almost always statistical advantages. Getting a +10 percent mining skill is way less fun than getting a new pickaxe that causes rocks to explode."

Cavallero said this careful attention to progression, wherein the game is designed to constantly provide new and interesting challenges and mechanics, is key to keeping players' attention. "Multiple achievable goals, along with slowly opening up and introducing new features is I think the main factor in the amazing player retention we have with Forager," he said.

"I like people to experience ‘some’ monotonous repetition, because it feels very rewarding and fun to discover new ways to automate or simplify previously boring tasks," he said. "But just about when you are getting tired of something, something else comes up to catch your attention. It could be a puzzle, an NPC, a new upgrade that you can make, anything really."

There are four different paths to take in Forager: industry, magic, foraging, and economy. Each of these paths allow players to play in different ways, affording a level of variety in play that is able to supersede the feeling of excessive grind.

For Cavallero, he recognizes that one of the appeals of idle games is the satisfying late-game feeling of over-poweredness, which is essentially the payoff for the grind and repetition players experience in idle games.

He explained this progression to power in Forager: "The industry branch leads to robots and automation, magic leads to bombs that mine complete islands and scrolls that summon all sorts of things, foraging turns into large scale farming and hunting and finally economy represents the strictly capitalist way of playing the game: just hoard coins and earn money on interest!"

Even with all the stuff to do in Forager -- there are a whole lot of plants to forage, animals to hunt, items to use, etc. -- Cavallero still thinks the game needs more for players to do in this little playground.

"The idea is to throw as much cool new stuff as fast as I can without overwhelming players," said Cavallero.

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