“It Started as a Joke”: On the Design of Idle Games

Katta Spiel, KU Leuven,
Sultan A. Alharthi, New Mexico State University,
Andrew Jian-lan Cen, University of Waterloo,
Jessica Hammer, Carnegie Mellon University,
Lennart E. Nacke, University of Waterloo,
Z O. Toups, New Mexico State University,
Theresa Jean Tanenbaum, University of California: Irvine

Alberto Mora
Oct 2 · 3 min read

Idle games are curious objects. As ‘gutter culture’ (Frank Lantz), they are discarded as ‘not real games’, as unworthy of attention. However, in our engagement with the genre we were intrigued by the richness some of these games employed, sometimes subtly, but still. Even though these games require little or no player interaction, they captivate players and encourage them to return. Some of them create large fan bases that debate strategies, exchange tips and tricks or simply share their play experiences. Idle games allow players to casually and effortlessly drop into and out of play. Designing for engaging experiences then requires developers to create a fine balance between these differently rewarding rules. We wanted to understand how we can understand the process of designing such engagements.

We talked with six designers involved in the development of six different games using graphic (Tap Titans) or text interfaces (Progress Quest), created in professional (Spaceplan) or hobby contexts (Kittens Game) and envisioning endless (Cow Clicker) or finite play (Universal Paperclips). Through our interviews, we identified five themes surrounding the design of idle games. While taking attention to the absurd as a starting point, game designers conceptualise the genre as consisting of worlds inviting players to participate, but not requiring them to. Further, we noticed how narrative is actualised in idle games along systemic paradigm shifts, and how care for players, as well as games, becomes relevant in the design process, which is largely driven by personal interests.

From these themes, we were then able to identify three sets of guidelines that might inform the design of future idle games, but might also be promising for other contexts of similarly tacit interaction. Our intermediate-level guidelines centre on the care designers put into the development of their games, how to develop narrative arcs in idle games, and the provision of exploratory systems.

These design guidelines are potentially valuable for other ambient or pervasive technologies, such as smart homes and fitness trackers, whose functions in day-to-day lives bear a striking resemblance to idle games. Our findings also have potential implications for the design of technologies around influencing and affecting the development of positive habits. As designers, we might consider how, rather than building narrative arcs out of functions, that the data, themselves, forms into narrative arcs that might take on different meanings for different people. Further, such systems offer, as idle games do, potentially end-less interaction. They could take over the function of safe places in which humans are encouraged to interaction through modes of discovery and exploration


Contact author: Katta Spiel

CHI PLAY session:
Broader Reflections
Thursday, 24 October 2019, 16:00–17:30

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