Clicktastrophe

About a year ago, something unsettling happened to me: I noticed I was no longer playing games just for fun and enrichment. A new and insidious form of game design became popular, seemingly overnight, and sucked my soul (and free time) away. I'm talking, of course, about clickers.  

If you're not familiar, clickers are a small, lightweight variant of strategy games where the goal is simply to make the numbers go up. Once those numbers go up, your next goal is to make them go up faster. The way you usually accomplish this is by banking just enough resources (like money or points) to buy an upgrade that permanently improves your resource-acquisition rate and then waiting a little less time for your resource pool to re-accumulate. And then? You keep doing that, over and over, for basically as long as your reptile brain desires.

They might seem harmless from a distance, but approach them with caution: there's something insidious about these unassuming games.  

Fun fact: There is no way for a human to derive meaning from numbers like this
Fun fact: There is no way for a human to derive meaning from numbers like this

The one that suckered me in was AdVenture Capitalist — a tongue-in-cheek satire of capitalist excess that turned into a strangely self-aware obsession for me. I sank over 50 hours into the game on Steam, building my fortunes to the point that I apparently owned Earth's moon and was acquiring an amount of money I can't even pronounce every second.  

It reached a point where I honestly couldn't say what I was working toward.  

On an episode of the Giant Bombcast about a year ago, Jeff Gerstmann talked about how clickers (which he also fell under the thrall of) have a nasty-but-tantalizing appeal where the raw "game" — the meat of the experience — is fully exposed to the player. It’s almost voyeuristic.

Unlike most video games, which try to hide most of the math going on under the hood, clickers are just dying to show you some numbers. They revel in charts and diagrams depicting the velocity and acceleration of values that indicate your success. It's like playing a spreadsheet. And, I think, it has an outsize effect on people like me who are fascinated by what makes games tick.  

Anyway, I told you that story to tell you this one.  

I've been traveling a lot over the last few months, which means I've been seeking out the sort of games I can easily play on-the-go. Fellow Sasquatch writer Tyler Martin suggested I check out Clash Royale, Supercell's lightweight RTS-meets-tower-defense game for phones.  

Initially, I scoffed. I'm not good at real-time strategy or tower defense, and the last thing I want to do is play another game that's only fun until you run up against the inevitable paywall — the point where the game discreetly but firmly tells you to pay up or shut up. But I didn't have any other ideas, so...what the hell. I installed it.  

I've now won more than 50 matches against other players and built up a pretty formidable deck (the game uses cards to represent units you place on the battlefield to combat your opponent). I still haven't spent any money, but that's a point of pride that's increasingly feeling like a hollow victory. Why is that? Because I check the game at least four times per day to open my loot chests and queue up new ones to unlock a few hours later.  

This concept might sound a little weird if you haven't played a game like Clash Royale, so here's what I mean. Every time you win a battle against another player, you earn a new treasure chest. But you can't just open it up immediately. Instead, each chest has a timer associated with it. Tap on a chest to start that timer, and once it expires, the rewards are yours to keep — and you can move on to unlocking the next chest.

This is where I see the looming specter of the clicker game comes home to roost — in this mechanic of timer-based rewards.

Where the game shrewdly tries to gain the upper hand is in its assumption that most people have poor impulse control. See, you can only hold four chests at a time, so at best I'm able to open four chests per day. And at the same time, having my chest slots full means that there's far less incentive to keep playing matches against other players — I don't want to win big only to lose out on the chance to open another chest. The game offers a way out, of course: pay a handful of "gems" (read: paid virtual currency) to pop a chest open immediately. So of course I — shrewd player that I am — insist on checking in on this game throughout the day, methodically and precisely opening chests, and somehow deriving some small sense of pride in not paying Supercell any real money.  

Of course, the influence they apparently wield over how I spend my free time is probably worth a lot more to them than a couple dollars. After all, if I stay engaged and keep rising up through the ranks (I'm coming for you, Tyler), that keeps the Clash Royale player base engaged and thriving, which means that more people will feel justified in paying money to build up their decks and participate in more battles. Even if I’m not paying, I’m helping feed the whales, which still pads Supercell’s financial statements.

There's even an eerily similar version of this system in the new World of Warcraft: Legion companion app. Aaron mentioned it recently, but this app allows you to dispatch your minions to complete quests. These missions play out in real-time, and success earns your character power or resources once you come back to the full game.. You're limited in how many missions you can complete at one time, and each one comes with — you guessed it — a timer.  

Just to be clear, I'm not happy with myself for falling into this trap. I think it's pretty distressing. But I hope sharing my perspective helps some of you consider your motivations for playing the games you play. And honestly, I'm not even saying these are *bad* game mechanics — I just think their true cost is harder for us to perceive.

Paper pushers, middle managers and bureaucrats of all stripes, rejoice: you're now the hottest trend-setters in game design. The dull repetition of your clerical lives has, in a bizarre twist, inspired some of the most consistent engagement among casual and devoted game-players alike. Turns out Jane McGonigal was right, but not in the way we’d hoped.

But it's not your fault; blame the economists and game designers who popularized this new school of gameplay loops. And as is common knowledge to anyone who's ever been stuck in a dull, repetitive job waiting for timers to expire and stamping their seal of approval at regular intervals, this isn't exactly a fun place to be.  

But hey, here's a startup idea: a personal concierge service that checks in on your clickers and timer-based games and maximizes your free reward yield. I'm sure their rates will be very reasonable.