Idle Hands

On Waiting and Running

Pacing is a challenge that haunts everything from court cases to action movies, and video games are no exception. Indeed, pacing becomes even more tricky with the added interactivity of the game, as the developer must successfully create good pacing, and then pray that the players actually utilize that pacing properly, and not, say, glitch jump through a wall in the tutorial to the final boss, or spend three hours haggling over a hauberk. Heavy, stressful games are wise to give moments of rest to aspirating players, while winding, exploring games will do everything they can to keep the players attention and reduce loading times.

Real-time strategy and MOBAs have pro scenes where slowness, let alone stillness, is tantamount to surrender and death, and play at blistering speeds. Grand Strategy and turn-based games tend to draw on forever, with much waiting, building, and planning between each clash or snap decision. A friend of mine once said, during his first game of Civ V: “I’m actually doing nothing.”

Yet, of course, there are some games where waiting is not merely a part of the game, but almost a centerpiece. The Idle game is a genre that, despite sounding like no fun at all, manages to be one of the most played, most addictive, and most widely marketed. One can always point to Farmville and other monstrosities cobbled together by Zynga that once had a place on more smartphones than not.

The Idle game is one where patience is all it takes—but not too much. At a certain point you must reap and you must sow, whether you’re doing so literally or not. Farmville understood the idle at its basic level: Make them wait, they’ll come back before long. A strategy of temptation used by all manner of vice-peddlers.

Of course, there is still the question of why people like it at all, and I suspect the answer to be simple and a little psychological. People like progress. People like to feel that today is better than yesterday in some way. This is much of the reason why RPGs are so much fun; progressing a character and making lists of attribute stats go up is inherently pleasurable, and the video game fits best for this effect by giving us the perfect illusion of our own progress.

The Idle game always has something being grown over time. Buildings, crops, cookies, lemonade stands, swarms of massive locusts (my favorite), or just good old fashioned money. Idling progress marries the perverse desire in all of us to get without having to work hard—but not too hard. Waiting and returning, simple as it is, is an investment of time, and care, and a little effort too, and that stimulates us without risking much in the way of precious calories.

Investment and growth are beautiful lies to sell on, and ones that can make us strangely and surprisingly satisfied from the simplest formulas and skills, and it is perfect for hooking in the casual gamer who wouldn’t work too hard for a game, but just hard enough, maybe. And who doesn’t like to get better?