Leigh provides an interesting examination of motivation and accomplishment by comparing two games that are more similar than they might seem on the surface.
I’ve installed an automatic mouse clicker on my work computer. I know it’s an irresponsible — and probably contract-breaching — way to utilize the company bandwidth, but desperate times and all that. This reckless devotion is paying off though, and as of today, I’ve baked over 25,000,000,000,000,000 (twenty-five quadrillion) cookies. Isn’t that lovely?
Cookie Clicker, to back this up a little, is a browser game about baking cookies. To begin with, you do this by clicking a big cookie, which is equal parts instantly rewarding, repetitive, and entirely what you’d expect from something called Cookie Clicker. After a hundred clicks, however, the game offers to click for you once every five seconds in exchange for all one hundred of your cookies. You of course accept this offer, go and do something else for ten minutes and come back to find a fresh pile of cookies sitting on your computer screen. That’s it really; this initial transaction is repeated indefinitely with exponentially increasing investments.
CC is the embodiment of the old ‘speculate to accumulate’ pep talk. All you do is (1) wait for cookies to be made; (2) buy more upgrades to produce cookies quicker; (3) go back to (1). As your cookie baking capacity increases, nothing changes; you’re still not actually doing anything and simply watching a number slowly increase as you stare at a screen. But, crucially, that number keeps getting bigger (!). As our understanding of psychology proves, the only thing better than a number slowly increasing automatically is a bigger number slowly increasing automatically. Enjoyment, you see, is directly proportional to the number of simultaneously increasing digits the player interacts with. So, in CC’s case, the game becomes increasingly more fun the longer you dedicate yourself to it.
Above: Cookie Clicker Upgrades
Except that it doesn’t, of course, because that would necessitate that the experience was fun to begin with. It isn’t. What is happening within CC is the rather compelling creation of utter compulsion. We’re driven to continue interacting with the game because it constantly rewards us through its implementation of interconnected and tangled counting systems. On the most basic level, as described above, you amass cookies by spending them on upgrade buildings that create more cookies at a faster rate, making the cookies per second (CPS) threshold increase. Each of the ten categories of upgrade building can themselves be upgraded, which further increases their CPS capacity. At certain milestones (ten of a building, 1,000,000 cookies baked etc.), the player is awarded achievements, which feed into another metric: milk (what else?). Milk is a discrete and mysterious substance that buffs your combined CPS count, so the more milk you have, the more cookies you are able to bake. Of course, the only way to increase any of these statistics is to spend your banked cookies. This creates a powerful feedback loop, compelling the player to forever look to the future of their cookie production abilities, carefully considering where their edible currency would be best spent.
These agonizing decisions don’t really matter; as you can’t fail in CC; you can only stop playing. The experience isn’t complicated or in any way challenging. It is only about waiting for a while, clicking on a few boxes and then waiting some more. It doesn’t even matter which boxes you click on, because as long as you have enough patience to withstand the repetition, you’ll eventually be able to click on the ones you missed later on.
It’s mindless in the way that micro transaction-filled Facebook or Phone Games are, just without that insidious side. It’s Cow Clicker without the damning statement to make. It’s something pointlessly engrossing to have running in the background of your day because a big number rolling around on a computer screen is fun to look at, especially when you can make that number get bigger with increasing speed. It is, though, beautifully compelling and elegantly simplistic all the same. It’s beautiful game design. If the cows told us that our games were becoming hollow, the cookies simply point out how empty our heads may also end up being.
Above: Rogue Legacy
Rogue Legacy, while being more identifiable as a (ahem) “proper game” and certainly more mechanically robust, nonetheless implements many of the same tactics as Cookie Clicker. Its premise is simple: You are an adventuring prince or princess attempting to conquer a mysterious castle. You do this in a two-dimensional fashion, slashing, jumping, and magic-ing your way through the rooms of the imposing structure. Your main aim is to amass a small fortune of gold, which is gathered from your adversaries’ corpses, treasure chests, and things you smash up along the way. It’s a simple and oft-visited design well that’s been drunk from many times during video game’s tortured history. Except that it’s dead hard at the beginning and impossible to beat in a conventional sense. And that’s where it becomes a bit like Cookie Clicker.
Instead of a linear progression of levels, the castle is immediately open to the player in its entirety. The deeper into the castle you travel, the more powerful and deadly the inhabitants become and the less chance you have of surviving a fight with them. On my first attempt – because of this absurd difficulty – I lasted a couple of rooms and then woofed it trying to jump over some spikes. Dead.
Whereas most games would throw me back to the beginning of the level, because there are no levels-proper in RL, I was instead invited to choose a successor to my original adventurer. I was then asked to invest my plundered gold into a couple of upgrades that, I was assured by statistics, would improve my chances next time. Back into the castle I went, this time with a lady who could shoot axes at people. I made it about five rooms that time.
RL continues like this, as far as I can tell, for the rest of the game. Every time you enter the castle, whose layout changes every time unless you pay gold to retain a pleasing one, your singular aim is to stay alive as long as possible. Through longer runs you inevitably bag greater sums of gold. You aren’t able to keep much of your unspent loot after you are dead, so there is a constant drive to secure and then spend as much as possible. Each upgraded run usually sees you getting a little further into the castle, a little more aware of enemy patterns and a little bit wealthier upon your death.
Above: Rogue Legacy Map
After a while you’re killing early enemies with a single hit, almost sprinting through challenges that were once taxing. While the layout of the castle changes with each go around, the building blocks that it is created out of don’t; they are simply shuffled around. This allows the game to be both labyrinthine and familiar at all times. As you increase your abilities — both within the game and your mastery of its mechanics — you gently outpace the difficulty of early areas, trouncing all comers and finding it all a bit blasé at a point. You’ll eventually run out of easy targets and have to travel to tougher parts of the castle, where enemies are much stronger and your survival is once again a thing of fragility and not certainty. You’ll essentially find yourself back at the beginning, even though you’ve been progressing — very slowly — for hours. Victory is transient in Rogue Legacy; only the slow grind is ever-present.
Both Cookie Clicker and Rogue Legacy depend heavily on their ability to make repeated actions consistently rewarding. Each game does this through systems that rest heavily on (our) widely held western ideals: those of capitalism and individual effort being rewarded by financial success. They excel in being compelling — arguably addictive — because they embody and distill the economic ideology behind many of their players’ lives. Through their harnessing of these ingrained ideologies both of these games incubate and foster the notion that dedication and personal investment breeds success.
Even though Rogue Legacy is in essence an action game, it is more so a testament to our changing desires in video game design. We are no longer content with mastering a game’s controls, systems, and enemies; we need to — in a very western, capitalistic way — feel as if we ‘own’ our experience and so dominate it. Both Cookie Clicker and Rogue Legacy highlight this; we don’t want to win any longer; we want to invest, upgrade, and eventually overcome, not simply just beat a game in a fair fight.
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