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The Rise and Rise of Incremental Games

Sonia Abraham
5 min read
Posted on July 16, 2015

Two years after they serendipitously burst on-screen in August 2013 and created a new gaming genre, we revisit what ‘incremental’ games are, look at some features of today’s incremental games, and see how the genre monetizes.

The Matrix was groundbreaking, mind-twisting, and posed the eternal existential question, “What is real?”. The movie needed you to concentrate and think. On the other hand, Dude, Where’s My Car that came out a year later, was a fun, dumbed-down, and gag-filled easy-watch.

Image © http://www.blastr.com/ © http://www.blastr.com/Image

Despite the vastly different amounts of cerebral input required to watch the two, they had something in common: audiences loved them, and they brought in the big bucks for their makers.

The mobile gaming industry also has similar representations. Games like Clash of Clans, Game of War, Stick Hero, and 2048, while perhaps not asking existential questions, do require some strategy and cerebral dexterity.

And then there are incremental games.

Dude, Where’s My Cookie?

Incremental games, like the ultra-successful Cookie Clicker and Bitcoin Billionaire, focus on players repeatedly performing a simple action to earn currency that can then be used to gain more currency. In Cookie Clicker, the user has to generate cookies by clicking on a single giant cookie. Generated cookies can be used to buy upgrades that, in turn, produce more cookies themselves without the user needing to manually click. And the cycle goes on. Bigger and better upgrades can be progressively brought - with more and more cookies.

The Curious Case of Cookie Addiction

Image © https://noblackpete.wordpress.com/2013/08/31/and-...

The Eagles may have been referring to a derelict building that drew in unsuspecting travellers when they sang ♫You can check out anytime you want, but you can never leave ♫ but the pulling-in power of incremental games give californian hotels a run for their money.

Cookie Clicker has no apparent objective other than to make more cookies, but the game is still unbelievably addictive. Trawling through cyberspace reveals some insane records, like this one:

And memes like this:

Image © http://www.buzzfeed.com/

Some, like the authors of this article, say that incremental games make use of an operant conditioning chamber, or Skinner Box, to keep the player entertained by supplying constant and vivid feedback in the form of a reward that usually appears as a number getting larger.

Or perhaps the charm of these games is that they require you to make an initial effort in the form of physical clicks. But soon, you get the same reward without needing to do any clicking. Perhaps it’s about the sense of achievement. Something like “I’ve already won. The machine is making cookies for me. I no longer have to tap the screen, like some kind of savage”.

When in Doubt, KISS!

Incremental games are the perfect example of how the KISS (Keep It Simple, Stupid!) principle can be applied to mobile gaming. They’re simple, intuitive, and loved by gamers. Cookie Clicker has a more than 10 million downloads, and Bitcoin Billionaire has close to a million downloads. And they make their developers money. A lot of money.

Yes, You Can! (Make Money)

Incremental games are easy to monetize.

  • Cookie Clicker’s monetization venture grew their revenue by an amazing 7x in just 15 days. They implemented rewarded ads, advanced rich media ad formats that offer users in-game currency in exchange for watching a video ad. All Cookie Clicker users had to do was go the game’s store, click “buy more cookies”, watch the video, and copious amount of cookies get added to their stash.
  • As per Kongregate, AdVenture Capitalist offers users a permanent 3x currency multiplier for a fee. and Bitcoin Billionaire has opt-in ads that give users goodies like short cash bursts, premium currency, and boosts.

Once you have a suitably addicted user base, it’s piece of cake. But make sure that you have a great game, first. A game that not only runs well, but also looks good.

Showing Skin is In

Even though some of today’s incrementals look vastly different from a single giant cookie dominating the screen, they are, essentially, basic incremental games with a very, very polished skin. Case in point: Tap Titans.

Image © iTunes

Tap Titans is a beautiful game with a gorgeous user interface and one-click gameplay. There are monsters called titans and the user needs to rid the world of their evil by tapping the screen. Each tap equals one sword slash by the hero on an unsuspecting titan, and more gold. This gold can be used to buy ‘hero companions’, who will fight for you in your absence

Replace gold with cookies, and hero companions with grandmas, the game sounds eerily familiar.

However, what Tap Titans has managed to do is cross the barrier between regular tap-tap-tap incremental games and ‘real’ games by incorporating boss battles (an intrinsic part of all great fighting-based video games), special powers, and a lovely environment.

Incremental ≠ Idle

A common misconception is that incremental games and idle games are the same thing; but they’re not. Idle games allow the game to progress even when the user is away, ie, when the user is idle. While Incremental games posses some idle elements they aren’t just idle games.

In fact, many non-incremental games have idle elements in them. Upgrading your town hall from level 6 to level 7 in Clash of Clans (CoC)? The six-day wait that’s needed for this upgrade is idle gaming at work. The game is working at upgrading your townhall even when you aren’t playing.

This CoC base has one day and two hours left to complete its upgrade to town hall level 6.
Image © http://clashofclans-guides.blogspot.in/2014/11/ma...

All Your Increments are Belong to us

The critics may have panned Dude, Where’s My Car, and similar nonsensical comedies, but there’s something about them that people love, which means that these movies aren’t going anywhere. Incremental games are in a similar situation. As long developers ensure that users are addicted to the game just short of the point of frustration; innovate with skins and currencies; create fun power-ups and bonuses; and importantly, monetize smartly, the casual-gaming world can be incremental games will continue to live on. Developers will soon be able to say, “All your increments are belong to us”.

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