Why do we play video games? It's a harder and more existential question to answer than it seems at first. The sense of progress? To participate in a story? Because, I dunno, it's fun? If you were to take your favorite game and strip it down to its barest parts, what would be left?
"Whether something is a game feels like a bit of an empty concern, isn't it?" said Cookie Clicker designer Julien "Orteil" Thiennot in a recent interview with Waypoint. "Like asking whether a game is art. If it's fun and people enjoy it, that's kind of enough for me."
Cookie Clicker is the kind of game that forces one to examine these spare parts. Originally launched in 2013 and coming to Steam eight years later this week, Cookie Clicker is, at its core, a game about numbers going up. You click on a cookie, which gives you another cookie. Keep clicking, and you get even more. Soon, cash in those cookies for a cursor that automatically clicks. Then, you can recruit "grandmas," who also bake you cookies. There's cookie banks and factories and temples and, at one point, the grandmas revolt and you can choose what gods to worship. There is no end, except to watch the cookie numbers go up.
"Cookie Clicker was made as a joke but took off almost immediately, which perplexed us very much at first," Thiennot said. "It wasn't meant to be fun! We just tapped into the core psychological appeal behind a lot of games: getting something done. Life is a confusing mess where progress is often unclear and unrewarding, but video games make goals much more explicit; for idle games it's as bare-bones as making a number go up."
Thiennot has been quietly updating and tweaking Cookie Clicker for much of the past decade, and the Steam version comes with some lovely quality of life improvements, such as cloud saves that prevent your progress from getting derailed by a browser crash.
Some, like me, goofed around with Cookie Clicker for an afternoon and never looked back. Many more, however, found themselves hypnotized by Cookie Clicker's escalating numbers.
After designer Markus Persson sold Minecraft to Microsoft for $2.5 billion in 2014, he admitted to spending lots of time, while not taking pictures of the enormous candy wall in the mansion he outbid Jay-Z for, playing and trying to understand games like Cookie Clicker.
"I love the feeling of gradual progression and unlocking things with minimum input," said Cookie Clicker fan Hylke Jorrit Langhout, who admitted to playing Cookie Clicker and games like it for thousands of hours over the years. "Put simply, I like it when the numbers go up. Idle games started as a fun distraction—I played a LOT of Idle Champions while I was recovering from a broken elbow—but I found they were too consuming of my time. They're designed to be played for long periods of time and they do their jobs a little too well."
Years ago, Matt, who declined to reveal their last name to retain privacy, was bouncing between a bunch of different projects. When the day was over, his brain had become goop.
"Cookie Clicker was made as a joke but took off almost immediately, which perplexed us very much at first. It wasn't meant to be fun! We just tapped into the core psychological appeal behind a lot of games: getting something done.”
"I couldn't focus on anything very complicated," said Matt. "I'd get home around 7 PM, open a beer, and just stare at Cookie Clicker until my brain was able to lull itself into comfort. This went on for about nine months until I eventually found a new job. I think I spent at least 3-4 hours a day just watching the stupid cookies fall and waiting for the golden cookies to appear. It was my singular joy during this time period of my life."
After talking with me, Matt said he'd started playing Cookie Clicker again.
"I have now relapsed," he joked.
Eight years ago, LivingDeadSquirrel announced on reddit that Cookie Clicker, a game ostensibly about collecting cookies without doing anything and whose status as a game is up for debate, had "ruined" his life. LivingDeadSquirrel had become obsessed with maximizing their time playing (and frequently, not playing) Cookie Clicker during the slower moments at a customer service job, prompting them to run some cheats. What's a few more cookies?
These pieces of extraneous code were caught by the IT department, and got wrapped up in executives looking for someone to blame for another problem entirely. And so they got fired.
Now, eight years later, LivingDeadSquirrel works in video games as a live producer for a big publisher. (They declined to share which one.) The incident, they said, was a "wake-up call to leave a dead-end job and pursue a career path that leaves no time for cookies!!"
Thiennot's jokey experiment arrived a few years into the rise of social games like FarmVille, a Facebook game about building a farm that plays a lot like Cookie Clicker, but heavily relied on strict timing requirements that forced players to constantly return and engage with Facebook—or pay money to speed it up.
The original FarmVille eventually shut down in December 2020.
FarmVille and its ilk were part of a huge culture clash with "traditional" video games that often spilled into the public, including an infamous moment where a Zynga executive was audibly boo'd by some parts of the crowd gathered at the 2010 Game Developers Conference during the event's annual awards ceremony celebrating the past year in games.
GDC's archive of this moment is busted, but reports highlight the acrimony, with Ultima Online lead designer Raph Koster noting the executive "was not only booed, but someone shouted out, 'but you don’t make games!' while accepting an award for 'best social game.'"
An archived transcript reveals, in retrospect, a pretty harmless speech.
"The genie is not going to go back into the bottle," said Koster at the time. He was right.
The response to social games across established gaming culture was gross and harsh, which, of course, made it infinitely funnier and ironic that so many of those same people suddenly became obsessed with games like Cookie Clicker in the years that followed.
Cookie Clicker was, on some level, an emotional response to that culture clash.
"I and many other idle devs put a lot of effort into designing more sophisticated systems than just a basic Skinner box; we're not that cynical," said Thiennot. "The idea that we made Cookie Clicker to brazenly expose the hypocrisy of repetitive modern gaming is very fun but ultimately it was accidental."
2013 also saw the release of Candy Box, itself very similar to Cookie Clicker, and A Dark Room, which took some of the same concepts and wrapped more narrative elements around it. It's around this time that it became clear these games were now becoming a genre, resulting in a variety of labels: incremental games, clicker games, tap games, idle games.
None of them, however, can lay claim to starting the genre. That game is 2002's Progress Quest, a self-professed parody of popular MMOs at the time like EverQuest. In Progress Quest, you quite literally watch bars fill up. There is no real story, and the player has no agency beyond generating a character. Cookie Clicker might not have a win state or a fail state, but the player can do things. None of that exists in Progress Quest. Bars. All bars.
"Although I created it more or less as a criticism, I was surprised to find after I wrote it that I enjoyed 'playing' it," said Progress Quest designer Eric Fredricksen. "I feel like the response it got suggests that many people felt the same way I did about grinding through levels as gameplay."
Besides EverQuest, Fredricksen said Progress Quest was a response to installing Microsoft Windows, in which watching installation bars felt like its own victory. He also pushed back at claiming too much ownership over its legacy, or influencing games like Cookie Clicker.
"I know I didn't coin the term 'idle game,' so I probably started calling it that whenever everybody else did," said Fredricksen. "I think I referred to it as a 'fire-and-forget' game, initially. Of course most idle games are less idle than Progress Quest."
Fredricksen has also played Cookie Clicker to the end "more than once," and both making Progress Quest and playing games like Cookie Clicker have shifted their own relationship with playing games, especially when it comes to viewing the way games implement grind.
"Does a game need a player to be a game?" said Fredricksen. "It's kind of a game and a bot wrapped up in one. It still feels a little like I'm playing a game when I run Progress Quest. Playing Cookie Clicker feels like you definitely are playing a game, to me. But you can see the irony and the non-gameness of it at the same time."
Pointed satire accidentally becoming that which it despised is a hallmark of this genre.
"I know I didn't coin the term 'idle game,' so I probably started calling it that whenever everybody else did. I think I referred to it as a 'fire-and-forget' game, initially. Of course most idle games are less idle than Progress Quest."
In 2010, right around the launch of FarmVille and the beginning of gaming's social games culture clash, designer and academic Ian Bogost created Cow Clicker. It is, like Cookie Clicker, just as described: you click on a cow. Players could only click once every six hours, echoing the masochistic design of FarmVille, and each click added to the pile of clicks. The clicks didn't add up to anything, but again like FarmVille, you could spend actual money to skip the arbitrary time wait. To Bogost's surprise, people honestly enjoyed clicking cows.
"Whether I like it or not, Cow Clicker was easily the most successful game I have ever produced," wrote Bogost in his 2016 book Play Anything. "Many tens of thousands of people played it, but many more played with the idea of it. In most circles, I am now most easily introduced as “the Cow Clicker guy.” If some contemporary Homer were to mnemonize me, surely some cow pun would become my epithet."
Bogost ended up spending more than a year developing Cow Clicker, because people kept showing up and clicking. The result was an iPhone app (Cow Clicker Mobile), a game for kids (My First Cow Clicker) and even what Bogost called "cow clicktivism," which allowed people to click on their cow on a different website and "if the click quota is reached in time, a real cow will be donated to a poor family via Oxfam America unwrapped." This did happen.
The end result of Cow Clicker was Bogost seeking a way out, resulting in the "cowpocalypse," part of a world-spanning alternate-reality game that revealed the cows in Cow Clicker were going to be raptured. On September 7, 2011, everyone's cows vanished.
You can, even today, continue to click on the empty grass where the cows used to be.
"I find them super interesting," said Bogost, when asked if he genuinely enjoyed the clicker genre. "But I also sort of wish they went further? The idea of a game that nobody plays. A game without gameplay! An automatic game. It’s right there, but, instead, idle games settled into a pretty predictable RPG-lite + prestige pattern. Feels like a missed opportunity."
"All games kind of are grinds," he continued. "All of them. That’s sort of the point of games? Repetition. Unnecessary repetition. Just like life, but you don’t have to do it, which makes it somehow more appealing."
"Repetition is integral to game design," said Thiennot. "Outside of wholly handcrafted stories where each part is one-of-a-kind, most games are made up of interlocked gameplay loops; encountering the same elements, learning from them through repetition, finding new ways to solve them—that's what makes games engaging! It only becomes abusive when the repetition is devoid of substance and sincerity, when there's no stimulation outside of base addiction, and when that addiction is used to manipulatively extract playtime and money from players."
Cookie Clicker does not feature monetization, a point of pride and a line in the sand for Thiennot. The game will not let you spend money. You cannot simply spend $10 from your wallet to make the grandmas work a little harder, because Thiennot views "addictive idle gameplay and microtransactions make for a questionable, if not exploitative combination."
Other popular games in the genre, like Adventure Capitalist, have lots of microtransactions.
"Just think about that for a second," said leftist comedian and commentator Thought Slime in a video about the evolution of the idle games and their eventual corruption. "This genre that began life as a parody of the ways that video games incentivize you to do arbitrary pointless things starts using that same incentive structure to get you to fork over real cash."
Cookie Clicker, like most idle games, doesn't have an end, and Thiennot admits making Cookie Clicker has begun to mirror playing it. It's a treadmill.
Part of what Thiennot has been doing for the past eight years is stretching the game out. Cookie Clicker's loop involves hitting a point where you cannot produce enough cookies to reach the next upgrade, "ascending" to a version of New Game Plus, and having access to new tools that allow players to grind cookies faster than ever. Then, you do the loop again.
"I've given myself the mental deadline of 'once I've finished adding a minigame to every building I'll consider the game done," said Thiennot, "but the truth is even if I do get there I'll likely still be adding new things to play with now and then; it's very convenient to have this endless design space."
At the moment, Cookie Clicker has 18 buildings and only four mini-games.
"We still have a ways to go," he said. "Besides, I don't think I'm very good with endings."