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The recipe behind Cookie Clicker
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The recipe behind Cookie Clicker
by Tino van der Kraan on 10/28/13 06:44:00 am   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.

 
[As posted on http://sassybot.com/blog/the-recipe-behind-cookie-clicker/]

[Disclaimer] The views in this post are entirely my own and I do not, in any way, represent Cookie Clicker and/or its creator Orteil. The purpose of this article is analytical and educational in nature.

Cookie Clicker is a game made by Orteil, a young French web and JavaScript developer. On August 8th he launched the game Cookie Clicker which, since then, has evolved into an intriguing chunk of web addiction. This article explains what the game is and tries to unveil the roots of its addictive nature.

The Game

Cookie Clicker game window

In the game Cookie Clicker you click cookies. For every cookie click, as you might have guessed, the player receives a cookie. With the obtained cookies, the player can purchase things that help generate cookies more rapidly. Initially, the player can start with purchasing cursors that help with clicking on cookies but before long this escalates into obtaining cookie farms, factories, mines and many other ludicrous cookie generators. Eventually, the game even lets the player research upgrades to increase cookie production. For all the cookies, cookie generators and upgrades obtained the player can gain achievements. The game tracks many statistics that will accompany the player's ever expanding cookie empire.   Cookie Clicker is a game I admire and despise for what it is. Admiration for turning the simple act of obtaining a cookie into an addictive, attention swallowing, experience. On the other hand I view it with contempt because it boils down the intricate beauty of a game experience to its baser form of unglamorous positive reinforcement loops that provide the player with artificial confidence and unabiding satisfaction. In an attempt to better understand the game, I will highlight parts of Cookie Clicker and explain how I think they contribute to the addictive nature of the game.

Low barrier of entry

On the first visit to the Cookie Clicker website the player will already have formed an assumption on what the game is about simply based on the name of the game. Prompted with a big cookie on the page, it doesn't take long before the visitor hovers its mouse over the dramatically backlit cookie. Once hovering the mouse over the cookie, it increases in size; providing yet another hint that this is indeed the cookie that needs clicking. Once the visitor clicks the cookie it turns the visitor into a player. The player will, from that point onwards,find out how deep the cookie jar really is. To emphasize the accessibility of the game, Cookie Clicker only requires JavaScript to be played. According to W3techs, JavaScript is used by 89.3% of all websites and is more prominent than Flash or Java. The game can even be run from smartphones thanks to its JavaScript roots.

Persistent Account

Creating an account is not a prerequisite in order to start playing Cookie Clicker. The absence of account creation and log-in system saves the player from the laborious task of setting up a new account, confirming the email address, and logging in before finally being able to play. Ironically, the game periodically saves your session with nothing other than, you guessed it, cookies. The lack of registered and password protected accounts also has its drawbacks. Cheating, for example, becomes incredibly easy. However, cheating will give you an achievement which sort of acts as a way to brand frauds, making the obtained achievement much less commendable and valuable.

Play without playing

As long as a browser window is kept open with the game running, the cookies will keep coming in. The browser tab will even display the amount of cookies you have. A common play style is to keep the browser tab open while doing other things only to come back occasionally to spend those cookies. In contrast to games such as Farmville or Cow Clicker, this means the player needs to stay in the game in order to progress without being required to actively play.

Aesthetics

Cookie Clicker game window

Every cookie, achievement, cookie generator, or upgrade the player obtains will come with visual feedback. Obtaining cookies makes cookies fall from the sky, achievements and upgrades each have unique individual descriptions and graphics, and cookie generators become more ridiculous per tier as they are accompanied by new cookie generator graphics. As an extra touch to enhance the cookie universe, the game also features a fictional news feed that ties in with the cookie events in the players world.

 

Player Feedback

The information the player might need to play the game is presented pleasant and transparent. The interface is hardly ever frustrating and manages to create a smooth user experience. Game data such as costs, income, quantity, descriptions, and overall statistics are presented clearly and concise. As mentioned before, I have yet to find a person that does not know what to do from the very moment they land on the website.

Positive Reinforcement Loop

Each and every cookie is there to make the player feel good about obtaining them. The game hardly ever takes cookies from the player unless something is purchased or a randomly appearing golden cookie is clicked. For the player, the game does not have much to lose and everything to gain. From experience, it feels good to see how many cookies I have and how many I gain per second. It feels good to buy another cookie generator or upgrade. Each obtainable object in the game feeds the player's curiosity and leaves the player wanting for more.   The method by which the player is fed all this psychological joyfulness is a familiar one. Obtaining each reward takes just a little bit more effort than the last one. The reward distribution seems to follow an exponential curve where the initial 5 minutes of play showers the player in feel-good moments. However, as the game progresses these satisfactory moments get scarcer and make way for a sense of achievement and accomplishment. The moment the player realises the silly and addictive nature of the game, is usually the moment when the game stops feeling good to play. I think that the player does not so much consciously decide when to stop, as much as that the mind is over saturated with the experience.   I wonder if Orteil consciously crafted this addictive design, if he was inspired by other games similar to it, or if the concept of the game just sounded fun and silly enough to make.

End Game

Cookie Clicker game window

Cookie Clicker has end-game features such as a prestige system which grants the player heavenly cookies upon resetting the game. Orteil as also announced that a future update will feature some sort of dungeon system. Furthermore, the game includes a couple of incredibly difficult to obtain achievements which will keep the achieving players busy for a while longer. Is Cookie Clicker a one-click pony or is it here to stay?

Concluding words

Hopefully this article has been able to provide insight into the addictive nature of Cookie Clicker. At the time of writing I have not been able to find data that indicates how many people are playing Cookie Clicker but if Google Trends is anything to go by it is doing quite well for itself. In the graph below, the blue peaks consistently appear each year around December where my guess is that it demonstrates the demand for cookies around the holiday season. Oddly enough, a wild peak appears in September, 2013. Coincidence? I think not.

Cookie Clicker game window

Note: Gamasutra does not support embedding of Google Trend graphs. Please visit this link for an actual graph.


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Comments


Robert Green
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One thing I find interesting, that may be completely unintentional, is that the game has different phases. The first phase is just clicking on the cookie. After buying a handful of buildings/upgrades, actually clicking the cookie becomes fairly pointless, and the game is all about buying new stuff to increase your CPS. Eventually though, as you note, that stops keeping pace with the rising cost of purchases, at which point the most significant factor is whether or not you're clicking on the golden cookies that appear periodically.
The game is still quite ridiculously shallow of course, but it is interesting how this focus shifts over the course of playing without ever having to tell the player, and I think a similar game which embraced that idea, and turned it into a loop, could be even more compelling.

Dantron Lesotho
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The gameplay reminds me of an RTS once you start automating resource gathering and setting up waypoints for units to travel to. I started working on a small project based on this feedback loop as an experiment, but I haven't gotten that far. I will be interested to see what the "next big thing" with clicker games is. But of course, there's also Candy Box 1 and 2!

Freek Hoekstra
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i think part of the attractiong is the extreme overcomplication of games nowadays, strategies used to have say 10 units per seide, no upgrades, so the depth came out of the opponent not whichever millionth build or skill order you'd try this time....

platformers had a jump button, and maybe 2-3 powerups that was it.
players enjoyed the simplicity of the mechanics and reveled the challenge in mastering this limited set of skills in the best possible way.

now games are so massive it is nigh impossible to master one aspect let alone all of it. cookie clicker however is a simple task of balancing when to spend money and seeing the return on investment, something we can easily grasp and wrap out head around and thus enjoy.

Robert Crouch
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I think the formula that works so well is the geometric progression.

Each bonus is give or take about 15% more expensive than the previous one. That sort of exponential growth is tricky for humans to really grasp. 15% more is always just a little bit more.

You got curious and tried the game. You just clicked 15 cookies to get a cursor. Now it's asking for 17 to get another one. 17 is just a little bit more than 15, so no big deal. Now you've got 17, and it's 20 to get another one. 20 is just a little bit more than 17, and you didn't mind 17, so it's no big deal. Etc.

When you first see the game, you see the cursor at 15, and that's cheap. But you see the grandma at 100 clicks, and that seems a bit too silly to sit and click 100 times when you're starting the game. But with each cursor, you're improving your game-fitness (reward) and each cursor is just a little bit further, but still within tolerance.

Eventually a cursor starts to cost 70-80 cookies. At this point, you get curious about what kind of income the grandma will give you. You recognize that the grandma is only a bit more expensive than a cursor, so why not find out? You let it get to 100 and buy a grandma.

Now the thing is, 100 clicks is only going to take 30 seconds or so. Your cursors are actually not making that much "income" for you. But you feel smart by knowing you're letting the cursors do some of the clicking.

You get a grandma and you get 30 more clicks per minute. This is 5 times as good as rewarding as the cursor, and not that much more expensive. And you can get another one for 115... just a little bit more. At this point your passive income is increasing. Maybe you decide to get a glass of milk, and you come back and you've got just about enough for a farm. You're curious about how much this upgrade helps, so you give it a try, and holy cow, it's 4 cookies per second, that's 8 times as good as a grandma.

And that said, the next farm is only a little bit more.

That would eventually get boring, so the values stagger a little bit. You get an upgrade that makes your cursors double in efficiency, or gives a 60% increase to your grandmas. You start seeing that when you stopped buying cursors, they seemed expensive at 80 cookies each, but now you're making a few thousand cookies per second and the cursors are upgraded, so you buy some more. As you buy more you get achievements. The achievements give you milk which other upgrades turn into more cookies per second, but it doesn't tell you how well. It just vaguely says "more milk is better".

So now you're in a position where the next big upgrade is just a little bit more than the last one, but when you start to greatly outproduce the costs of your original upgrades, you are driven to spend that little bit more to try and hit the next level of achievements for the milk. While originally once you hit farms or factories you kind of stopped worrying about cursors, now they are another thing that you just want to get to 50 for the next upgrade and the next achievement. You know that going from 49 to 50 is actually getting expensive, and that the cookies you'll get from it isn't massive, but it's going to get you that next achievement, it's going to improve your milk by an unknown amount, it's going to unlock the next upgrade.

And it only costs just a little bit more than the last one.

Arnaud Clermonté
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A Meth-themed clone was done: "Clicking Bad"
http://clickingbad.nullism.com/
There's also the excellent Candy Box games, which requires less clicking and more waiting:
http://candies.aniwey.net/
http://candybox2.net
and a couple of games inspired from it, such as the excellent "A Dark Room"
http://adarkroom.doublespeakgames.com/

Kenneth Blaney
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So this feels like some kind of new genre then. Since F2P microtransactions ruin the game (literally) I think there might be some use in running something like SETI at home in the background while people have their counter/clicker running.

Tino van der Kraan
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As Arnaud pointed out, there are indeed games that share similarities with Cookie Clicker such as Candybox 1 and 2, Clicking bad, but also Ian Bogust's parody game Cow Clicker. Surely, there are several more similar games that are less well known. It is very unlikely nowadays to find a game that does not adopt or remix a mechanic or element from a different game. Orteil mentioned in his latest update to be inspired by Candybox. At the time of writing I did wonder whether or not to discuss similar games although I felt the article was not so much comparative as it was analytical.

On a side note, Cookie Clicker just released a new update that will send 'Wrinklers' to eat your cookies. The player can remove them by clicking them a few times. Wrinklers will reduce the cookie multiplier by 5% per Wrinkler. Removing a Wrinkler will return eaten cookies plus a little interest. Introducing this mechanic makes it less appealing to leave the game running while living our your normal life, as I have done for over 1200 hours now. Games will be the end of me one day.

Thank you for the comments on the article. I love reading them. :)

Michael Ball
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Having been part of the original 4chan thread where it all started (https://archive.foolz.us/v/thread/204072526/), seeing first-hand how the Cookie Clicker phenomenon's grown has been extremely fascinating. I hope the fame doesn't go to his head like it did with Notch for Minecraft, but from what I've seen I don't think that'll happen this time around.

Roman Dmowski
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Actually, cookie clicker started the whole new incremental games genre. I have become so addicted to cookie clicker, that I decided to gather every incremental game I could find. Then, I started a blog so others could benefit as well. Here's a link if you're interested: http://clicker-games.tk/

Tino van der Kraan
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Hey Roman,

That list is quite comprehensive. I'm familiar with a fair lot of them although you have managed to find so many more that I have never heard of. Thank you for trying to list them all in one place.


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