Realm Grinder is the new AdVenture Capitalist, and it’s destroying me

I like to think I am strong. I am not strong. I am weak.

I have fallen for another idle, aka clicker game. I thought I had fallen through the black hole that was infinite money generation game AdVenture Capitalist and come out the other side wiser, armoured and immune against such manipulation of my lizard brain. Then, while researching games for this week’s Unknown Pleasures, I came across Realm Grinder. Yeah, yeah, clue’s in the name.

It fuses that same, insidiously compulsive concept – make numbers get bigger, for ever and ever, in part by furiously clicking on the screen and in the main by automatic accumulation over time – with trace elements of a town management game and a fantasy RPG skin. It has me. Pray for me.

Underneath its pretty, faux hand-drawn, cod-RTS skin, there is perhaps little to meaningfully separate Realm Grinder from AdVenture Capitalist and other idle games like it. It’s about clicking to earn money, clicking on other buttons to unlock multipliers that earn even more money, and most of all feeling zero sense of achievement when you hit some milestone because you immediately become fixated on attaining the next one. But! It takes skill and even artistry to make this stuff work – to create the constant tug of compulsion, and not something dry and drab that you can see right through immediately.

Realm Grinder’s hook is that you’re trying to wring endless cash out of a fantasy kingdom, as opposed to a more nebulous business enterprise or even a biscuit empire. That the centre of the screen is taken up by a broadly static isometric image of your kingdom lends Real Grinder a facsimile of Real Game. This is key to why it has made its way past my defences.

The scene barely changes – and though a dozen or so new buildings appear in the earliest hour of the game, from a visual point of view, having 300 Evil Fortresses is barely different to having one. It looks less like a kingdom and more like a half-built Lord of the Rings theme park. No residents, no animations, almost no change, no sense of life. It shouldn’t work at all.

But it does. That ever-unchanging scenes provides the simplest thematic structure that eggs me on to keep playing. Is it just the Skinner box at work, or is it also tapping into memories of strategy and management games passed, piggy-backing onto old reflexes to expand, expand, expand or I will be invaded/incapable of invading? A deadly combination.

A choice early in a new game has you decide first whether your alignment is good or evil, which provides a one-off switch in the image you see (either magical idyll or scorched hellscape), and then after that which specific faction – goblin, demon, fairy, dwarf and so forth – you will represent. Small changes in description and art make this seem transiently meaningful – Realm Grider’s masterstroke. I feel I am playing as someone, and not just as the unblinking, click-click-clicking junkie that is me.

The faction choices in turn open up different upgrades and spells. Upgrades and spells are only numerical boosts to the constant flow of cash – Middle-Earthland never changes – but there is a slight strategy to them – the fairy spells make cheaper buildings earn more, for instance, while Elven ones massively boost how much you earn from clicking rather than waiting, and as a result the theme abides.

I feel as though I am at war with unseen enemies, lurking just off the screen, threatening to seize everything unless I can become rich and powerful enough. The truth is that I am only at war with my own willpower.

This is an evil game, as are all its ilk – cold-blooded timesinks designed to take advantage of our shallowest impulses. But what a well-done evil game it is, pairing that undying compulsion for more, that errant belief that the next milestone or unlock will mean epiphany, with a restrained theme that hoodwinks me into perceiving Real Gaminess.

I would like it to do more with that. I want animations, I want buildings and upgrades to spread across the land, a visual sense that my absurd revenues have had an effect. I’d feel so much better if it seemed as though I was actually building something, no matter how superficial.

Most of all, I would like an absolute objective. Not an achievement. Some grand pay-off for my time, some justification for the fact that I think about how much Realm Grinder might have earned while I am in the shower or waiting for the kettle to boil. That, of course, is impossible.

Don’t be like me.

Realm Grinder is available now for Windows & OSX, via Steam or in a browser. It is free to play but offers optional microtransactions for further revenue boosts.

22 Comments

  1. Atog says:

    It’s already too late. I’m glad there is a wiki for this.

  2. Jeremy says:

    I started playing this and got into it for 2 weeks, but realized what I was doing. In a rare moment of strength and prescience, I knew where this would take me, and managed to delete it.

  3. dontnormally says:

    Are there any games that use this sort of economy but aren’t fucking stupid and entirely devoid of “gameplay”?

    • grom.5 says:

      Spaceplan seems to fit the bill.

      RPS had an article about it : link to rockpapershotgun.com

      Not too long, with some kind of story and a goal achieavable pretty quickly. Give it a shot.

    • Premium User Badge

      Phasma Felis says:

      Factory Idle is a cross between an idle game and Factorio. You lay out a small factory (say, taking in coal and iron ore, piping them into smelters, and piping the iron ingots out to be sold), let it run for a bit, use the money to buy upgrades (steel production) that make more money, tear down and rebuild your layout to accommodate the new production, maybe buy an adjacent factory with more floor space and expand into it, repeat with ever more complex and profitable products and production lines.

      I played it for a couple weeks and quite enjoyed it, but ultimately it just made me load up Factorio again. :)

    • Yay_Anonymity says:

      The Candy Box games have actual gameplay while the idle stuff happens in the background.

  4. miguelyoung says:

    GOD DAMNIT! This has to stop! Its not enough to put Clicker Heroes in my convoluted life? Now this… this… I can´t take it anymore *SOB*
    NOT FAIR!

  5. Someoldguy says:

    Ooh, I must avoid loading this up or I’ll be sunk. I think the lack of visual upgrades to your buildings gives me enough willpower to resist.

  6. Talahar says:

    I’ve been playing the brilliant SpacePlan for the last two days, and just about finished it. I wish there were more clickers with a finishable story….

  7. Jerppa says:

    Hmm..this reminds me that it’s been a while since I watched Godfather 3.

  8. Premium User Badge

    Captain Narol says:

    I always wondered who are the people who play that kind of meaningless compulsive things…

    Now I know. Sorry for you, Alec and co.

  9. Premium User Badge

    Tkrens says:

    Oh no :( Why did you have to post this article? I feel so much shame for having spent those many many limited hours of my life on things like Adventure Capitalist and the Cookie Clicker thing. But I can’t stop myself. I’ve already started on Realm Grinder now :( Help meeeeee

  10. Premium User Badge

    rustic says:

    Alec, I have alerted the relevant authorities and I am staging an intervention in this very moment. Rest assured that this menace won’t roam free for long.

  11. heystreethawk says:

    I played a pretty substantial amount of this, on my phone, during a two-month stint in rehab. Make of that what you will.

  12. durrbluh says:

    These things used to distract me until I installed an auto-clicker app that allowed me to come to terms with the fact that these games are less of a Skinner box and more of a hamster wheel.

  13. Premium User Badge

    Phasma Felis says:

    I played Cookie Clicker for quite a while and liked it–it’s a nice way to take a quick break at work. The fact that it’s a genre now confuses me, though. As far as I can tell, AdVenture Capitalist etc. aren’t just like Cookie Clicker, they are Cookie Clicker in every way that matters. And I’ve played as much Cookie Clicker as I want to.

    I dunno. Maybe someone else feels like all the Metroidvania platformers I love are identical.

    • syndrome says:

      You’re confusing a staple mechanic with a genre. Not your fault though. Everybody does it.

      The mechanical layer of every game is what is typically borrowed from other games, simply to convey a specific operating system (“the lever layout”) of a game. That game, at the same time, may still be different thematically or epistemologically, and may even have a differently designed control scheme (though in simpler forms, i.e. ‘exponential hamster wheel games’ that usually isn’t the case).

      For some (neuropsychological) reason, people mostly tend to fall into two broad categories: those whose brains crave for particular mechanical feats / incidence of unscripted behaviour (emergence) / controlled simulacrum, and those whose brains crave for storytelling devices and/or POV fantasies. There is a third one, but it is quite rare, thus we consider such people as geniuses, or more readily, etiquette them as odd, socially awkward, overly introvert, etc.

      tl;dr
      With games, there is usually more than meets the eye.
      Mechanical layer of any game is a convenient dialect of interactions, sculpted into accessible, intuitive and mnemonical assortments of human-machine interfaces that can lead to any of the two (or three) major experiences stated above. In the end, it is all about emotions, which are then rationalized in the categories I briefly mentioned, that seemingly reflect the state of the development of someone’s mind.

      In a sense, games are probes to human psyche. And this is why there are numerous psychologists on the scene, whether as journalists, or game designers (or both), typically not knowing what they’re doing, but they are full of observations.

      For many developers, once discovered, these mechanical layers are rarely modified, out of fear of disrupting what made them engaging in the first place.

      You see, the world of games is largely a dark cave for many people. Sometimes a pioneer goes in and stumbles upon a great jewel, thus many will follow, only to artificially imitate such crystalline structures, typically after recognizing that they lack the deeper understanding of where to dig or what to expect in the first place.

      Hopefully this knowledge is of use to someone. I’ve spent 30 years of my life investigating games, and I consider myself to be far ahead of everyone I’ve ever seen on the internet, unfortunately I live in a place where such knowledge is regarded as irrelevant and I have to work with things and people that are beneath my ambitions and predispositions. Some day this might change, however, I still hope someone somewhere will want to hear what else I have to say about games. Even if such people aren’t driven by altruistic passions and profound reasons, then for the monies involved.

      Philosophically speaking, we live in a narrow band between a mechanical, interactive layer and the convoluted reality that has all the answers, like the screen on a computer. All we do is guessing at the mechanics of reality, whether through philosophical inquiries, theological questions, or direct observations of repeatable phenomena. This vector is called ‘finding the meaning’. The better we guess, the smarter we get or we turn out ot be better provisioned for the future. Science (and curiosity in general) and games do the same thing, though in completely opposite directions (all of science can be seen as some form of reverse-engineering). Games also have this commercial coating so it’s hard to tell what is it for fact, past the entertainment and market/labour value. They also offer much more freedom, and are excessively entangled with the information science and technologies, so it’s hard to nail it down properly.

      So there you have it, just a tip of the iceberg.

      tl;dr #2
      People will mix anything together, and mishmash a hypothesis of their own, citing graphics or features as _the_ parameters of the overall impression, or genres, themes, and narratives, as if those truly exist on their own, as if those weren’t just decorative elements and/or broadly humanized categories with which we communicate the intent, but not the content, nor the essence of why we play.

      This is because games are a multilateral exposé of life, allowing us to transcend the physical manifestation that binds our experiences to simple truths.

      After all, if noone can make a factual statement on the purpose of life, how could we expect anyone to deliver the true purpose of gaming?

      Though sometimes I think that people want it to stay mystifed, the whole process. Game development today is much akin to the alchemy centuries ago, and I can’t stress enough that we need the Isaac Newton of our times.

      • klianc09 says:

        “Some day this might change, however, I still hope someone somewhere will want to hear what else I have to say about games.”

        Then start a blog, there you can write as much as you want about games, and see if anybody wants to read it.
        Assuming you haven’t already done so, of course.

      • NotASnowman says:

        People like yourself are more common than you think. There might not be many people around where you live who want to hear what you have to say, but there are loads of people around the world who actively seek out information about game design and underlying mechanics. For an example, just look at the Extra Credits youtube channel; their videos about games usually gain 170-300 thousand views each, with their videos currently earning $15,000 a month via Patreon alone.

        There’s an audience for everyone, you just need to find it.

  14. Icebird says:

    I played this a long time ago, when it was a non-graphic interface.
    For me, it’s possibly the best incremental game ever.
    It does NOT stay on the same gameplay loop from start to (never)end.
    What they did is constantly introduce new game concepts and variations.
    You start with choosing and alignement. Then you choose a race. Then you unlock new races. You progressively unlock spells, research, excavations, bloodlines, mercenaries, etc…
    It’s a neverending string of new things to discover and tinker.
    Add the great amount of differences between the races and researchs, and you have an impressive amount of strategy for an incremental game.

    I found myself investing a lot of time scouring the wiki and forums to find the best builds, try new tactics, create calc sheets to compute the more efficient way to progress, etc..

    And all this before it got all those “fancy” graphics..

    However, I stopped playing when it started to take a full week for a run. The lack of true ending killed it for me.

  15. Ejia says:

    While admittedly I still have Cookie Clicker and Kittens Game running on other tabs, I think I’ve had about enough of clicker games otherwise. I thought Bit City, for example, would offer more, but I’d rather just go back to Tiny Tower.

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