I’ve been playing Clicker Heroes [official site]. In fact, I’m writing this on a train after two days away from home and technically I’m playing Clicker Heroes even now. It’s an idle game initially released last year and which, since its arrival on Steam in May, has been sat firmly in the top ten of the most played Steam games.
Idle games, if you’re not aware, are those where you play them in part by leaving them running even when not actively engaging with them. Whenever the game is running, a number – money, damage output, candies, one measure of progress or a dozen – continues to increase. In short: I left my PC on while I went away, and so I continued to progress.
In Clicker Heroes, you’re a squad of adventurers fighting a steady stream of monsters. The monsters – spiders, crabs, green jellies, living plants and trees – can’t attack you and, despite the game’s name, clicking only has a marginal extra effect on your damage output after you’ve unlocked your second adventurer. Instead, your damage output per second is dealt automatically by your roster of heroes, each of whom can be levelled and unlocked using the gold spilled by the monsters you steadily defeat.
Once you’ve levelled your heroes past a certain point and raised enough gold, you can purchase passive buffs – which in the early-game, mainly just increase DPS – or active buffs such as one that causes you to automatically click ten times a second for thirty seconds.
It’s worth noting that all of this is well presented. Enemies emit a satisfying slap when clicked upon, and splat or burst or wilt with a crunchy, unique sound effect. Coins burst from defeated monsters and tinkle delightfully when collected. When the money you’re earning for each kill has increased by orders of magnitude, such that you can level a hero 60 times in a row, it feels something like winning.
But play it for five minutes or “play it” for two days and the basic loop will remain the same: you watch or click as you kill the monsters, you collect their gold or wait for it to happen automatically, and then you spend that to level your team or unlock new heroes which allows you to kill those same monsters faster, or to advance to a new stage where the monsters are harder, slower to kill, and drop proportionally more gold.
It is, to some extent, Diablo’s metagame with the participative act of exploration and combat removed. It is, to some extent, totally soulless; a numbing skinner box designed to provide the illusion of accomplishment in exchange for the minimum amount of effort. It is, to some extent, on my mind during this train journey; how many tinkling coins will I have banked over two days of passively duffing up snails?
Clicker Heroes is an easy game to condemn, but I wondered if there wasn’t more to it than I was seeing. That caused me to visit the game’s subreddit, where a group of experienced and new players post to discuss different builds and build orders. While progress within the game is inevitable, there is a second, more active game to be found in trying to make that progress as efficient as possible – whether to spend gold on levelling a hero or to wait, save your money, and recruit a new one instead. Which heroes to bother levelling at all. There are also new parts of the game to unlock, as eventually your linear progression hits a ceiling and you can ascend, starting from scratch but with a new ‘gilded’ hero that outputs higher amounts of damage from the first level.
Almost anything can be redeemed if you do it with other people, and viewed favourably, Clicker Heroes might be described as Accountancy With Friends. This 24/7 livestream of the game doesn’t make for thrilling viewing, but that doesn’t stop people watching and discussing their own progress. The stream, from expert player Jayeeyee, is now on its 305th day.
What I think is harder to redeem is the game’s business model. It’s fuelled by microtransactions that allow you to purchase gems which can then be spent in the acquisition of gilded heroes and other progress-boosting abilities. In a game that’s about progress, those microtransactions can’t help but be pay-to-win. If the pursuit of efficiency with a group of other dedicated players is what adds a little life to the pointless act of increasing a number, then playing for free is recast as an act of willful inefficiency and achieving maximum efficiency is recast as a glum victory of ‘Yay, I paid the least!’.
I can understand why someone would become engrossed in Clicker Heroes, even if I (hope I) won’t allow myself the same. I can understand why someone might spend hours maximising a numbers game, even if it’s far too dry for me. I cannot understand why you’d spend money to shortcut the only system Clicker Heroes has – unless the game’s dopamine drip has bypassed your common sense.
Clicker Heroes is out on Steam now. Probably you should find something else to do – though, I confess, I came home, took the screenshot below, then left it running overnight again.
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