The Surprising Profile of Idle Clicker Gamers

By | 2016-10-17T20:02:32+00:00 July 6th, 2016|Analytics, Video Games|6 Comments

In mid-April, we got an email query from Eric Jordan, the CEO of Codename Entertainment. Codename makes an Idle Clicker game called Crusaders of the Lost Idols and because the genre is still relatively new, Eric wanted to learn more about the psychological profile of these gamers.

At this point in time, Nic Ducheneaut and I had never played an Idle Clicker game, but we did have data for some titles from our Gamer Motivation Profile. This is where our story begins.

But First, What’s an Idle Clicker?

Idle Clickers are a fairly new game genre. They typically have a minimalist approach, where game mechanics have been distilled into their most basic form. As the name implies, Idle Clickers are somewhat of an oxymoron that combine two seemingly opposite mechanics.

Idle Clickers are somewhat of an oxymoron that combine two seemingly opposite mechanics.

On the one hand, Idle Clickers start by having you feverishly clicking away to make money via lemonade stands (e.g., AdVenture Capitalist) or gain xp from killing monsters (e.g., Clicker Heroes, Crusaders of the Lost Idols). As you level up, you gain access to upgrades and level-ups that open up more powerful abilities or heroes. But at the same time, Idle Clickers also allow you to automate all this clicking via hired managers or auto-farming modes. Idle Clickers eventually play themselves, and they accumulate cash/xp for you even when you are offline.

Moo!

Idle Clickers are descendants of two games that were designed to poke fun at existing game mechanics. They weren’t actually designed to be fun, but turned out to be surprisingly enjoyable.

Idle Clickers are the descendants of two games that were designed to poke fun at existing game mechanics.

Following the success of MMOs like EverQuest, Eric Fredericksen created Progress Quest to parody the monotony of leveling-up and grinding by having the game play itself. You create a starting character and the game is automated from that point on.

Then during the Facebook gaming boom, Ian Bogost created Cow Clicker as satire—you clicked on a cow once every 6 hours, it mooed, and your click tally increased by 1. That was essentially the entire game.

Cow Clicker Crop

Both games had an unexpected following. Then Cookie Clicker came along and merged the clicking and idle mechanics, and threw exponential growth and optimization into the mix. Gamers are in charge of making cookies, first with clicks, and then with automated managers that quickly ramp up cookie production. All modern Idle Clickers are descended from Cookie Clicker.

We Expected Casual Gamers. But That’s Not What We Found.

When Nic and I sat down to generate the audience reports of Idle Clickers for Eric, we had this image of casual Facebook games and simplistic, repetitive clicking in our minds. So our expectation was that Idle Clickers appealed primarily to casual gamers.

But that’s not what the data showed at all. Not for Clicker Heroes. Not for AdVenture Capitalist. And not for Crusaders of the Lost Idols. Nic and I were so taken aback by this that we thought we had uncovered a bug in the data processing. But after a deep dive, all the data integrity checks came out clean.

Across all 3 games, about 70% of these gamers identify as core gamers, 20% identify as hardcore gamers, and only 10% identify as casual gamers. This distribution essentially matched our baseline data (i.e, the full sample with over 220,000 gamers). So Idle Clicker gamers are not primarily casual gamers. In fact, they have a perfectly average core gamer profile.

Idle Clickers have a perfectly average core gamer profile.

Among the games that are disproportionately popular among these gamers, we were surprised to see core RPG titles like Diablo III and Fallout 4, as well as MMOs such as The Elder Scrolls Online and even EVE Online.

We then looked at how this audience scored on our 12 gamer motivations. The motivation profiles for all 3 Idle Clicker audiences were consistent: most driven by Completion (collect stars, complete all missions) and Power (leveling up, getting powerful gear), and least driven by Excitement (fast-paced, thrilling, surprises) and Fantasy (being someone else, somewhere else).

Distilled Achievement Mechanics

Eric helped us make sense of this audience data, and explained why this profile aligned with his intuition. Even though many people assume that Idle Clickers attract very casual gamers, Eric pointed out that all 3 games are in the top 2% most played on Steam, and Steam is far from being a casual platform.

If you’re unfamiliar with Idle Clickers, you (like Nic and I) might be surprised to see where Clicker Heroes falls in terms of Steam’s most played games. The chart snippet below was taken from Steamcharts. Clicker Heroes is only a few ranks below Fallout 4 and Warframe, and ahead of games like DayZ and Counter-Strike.

Steam Top Games List

And it slowly dawned on us that Idle Clickers attract core gamers (especially core RPG gamers) because they cleanly isolate the power progression and accumulation mechanics from the typical trappings of AAA RPGs. These are the gamers who enjoy the leveling up and power accumulation in RPGs, but less interested in big-action combat or elaborate fantasy settings that often come bundled together in an RPG.

Idle Clickers cleanly isolate the power progression and accumulation mechanics from the typical trappings of AAA RPGs.

Imagine if the Achievers in MMOs were allowed to strip away all the game mechanics and elements they saw as secondary. Idle Clickers are probably very close to what they would end up with. And that achievement-driven, min-maxing mentality is very much a core gamer mentality.

Putting It to the Test

Because Idle Clickers are still a fairly new genre and they overlap with casual social gaming mechanics, game developers have had trouble figuring out what drives these gamers. Now that Eric had an empirical motivation profile of these gamers, he decided to put it to the test.

He had Codename’s marketing department perform an A/B test with their player acquisition. In one version of the test, he used the game’s existing tagline. In the second version, using roughly the same number of words and sentence structure, he aligned the tagline with the key motivations we had identified. Then they released the marketing campaign, and gamers randomly saw one of the two taglines.

Codename ran an A/B test with their player acquisition.

Codename measured the click-through rate (CTR) of their campaign—the % of gamers who clicked on the ad after seeing it—and found that the revised tagline performed significantly better than the original, with a mid-double-digit improvement.

Less Can Be More

Idle Clickers are a good reminder that established game genres may nevertheless be bundling together orthogonal gaming motivations, ripe for deconstruction and mashups. As an Achievement-oriented gamer myself, I’ve always loved the progression mechanics in RPGs, but rarely have the patience for elaborate narratives and characters—I just want to get back to leveling up, please.

See how you compare with other gamers. Take a 5 minute survey and get your Gamer Motivation Profile.

About the Author:

Nick is the co-founder and analytics lead of Quantic Foundry. He combines social science and data science to understand gamer behavior in large-scale game data.

6 Comments

  1. Ethan Larson July 6, 2016 at 5:25 pm - Reply

    Wow, that is truly interesting.

  2. James Berg July 7, 2016 at 11:10 am - Reply

    Hah, great article. I’d have had exactly the same assumptions, great seeing data blow those up :)

    Grabbing one of these to see things for myself!

    • Nick Yee July 7, 2016 at 11:48 am - Reply

      I ran into this browser-based one yesterday: http://minmaxia.com/c2/, which I am now semi-hooked on. “Crusaders of the Lost Idols” has an interesting hero formations mechanic. AdVenture Capitalist and Clicker Heroes have the more genre-standard set of mechanics.

  3. Curt J Sampson July 9, 2016 at 9:19 pm - Reply

    As an inveterate min-maxer who played Clicker Heroes almost constantly for several days a month or two ago, I can’t say I’m surprised at all; my surprise was that the marketing was so poor for the type of game it was. I would never have even thought to try it but for an off-hand comment in a Eurogamer article mentioning its addictiveness that piqued my curiosity. I reckoned it would consume a half hour of my life, not three days.

    I’m very curious to know what the two different taglines were that were tried in the A-B trial you mention.

    One thing to note, though, was that I had no urge whatsoever to spend any money on the game. I’m often a bit suspicious of spending money to get ahead (what, you want me to pay _more_ so I can play _less_?), and in this particular case, given how the game is such a pure distillation of progress for the sake of progress, with nothing else attached to it, buying gems or whatever seemed completely pointless. (Note that I’m not reluctant to spend for things in games in general; I’ve probably put almost $2000 in to World of Tanks over the last four years or so, including many hundreds of dollars on a premium account for 50% bonus XP and cash per battle.)

    It would be interesting, and probably greatly beneficial to game developers, to start to look in to how monetizing and the way players feel about various forms of monitization ties in with different types of games and different types of players. In fact, it’s not just game developers that would do better, but game players themselves that would be happier if they were presented with options that made them feel better about paying, rather than worse.

  4. Erik van der Spek September 5, 2016 at 7:11 am - Reply

    Although I’m actually not that surprised that the audience of these kinds of games are more core gamers, because of the minmaxing abilities that you already mentioned appealing to achievement style gamers, I think there are some biases in the categorization of core/casual gamers that you employ, which might influence these results. For instance, firstly, the descriptions of the different gamer classifications hint at the total time spent on gaming, and these kinds of cookie clicker games are perfect time wasters for people with too much time on their hands. I consider myself a core gamer (hardcore has a current negative association to me), so much so that I made it my profession, but as a thirty something with children and very limited leisure time, I steer well clear of time waster games. Conversely, would you consider the typical bored Facebook stay at home mom a core gamer? Secondly, the descriptions further delineate the difference between casual/core/hardcore on whether you play seriously (what does this mean, isn’t play inherently frivolous? conflates with serious games) or competitively. I would argue competitive gamers are much more interested in min/maxing than for instance immersion type gamers.
    Lastly and as an aside, these games are rather niche, starting out as an in-joke for core gamers. Is it surprising it mostly stayed there?

    • Nick Yee September 5, 2016 at 3:55 pm - Reply

      Niche: That’s also what people said about the MMO market size before WoW (and the Chinese MMOs) came along. And once clicker games started appearing on Facebook and mobile, the access points became a lot less niche.

      Time Spent: Given that clicker games play themselves in the background, it’s interesting you perceive them as “time waster games” compared to typical games where you have to actively play to make progress. Wouldn’t it be easier to argue that it’s the latter that are the “time wasters”? Also, I could imagine someone in your situation coming to the exact opposite conclusion: they have very little time to play games, so they appreciate a game that they can check in on when they have a spare moment.

Leave A Comment