In August 2013, a new internet sensation raided the online world: Cookie Clicker. The game quickly went viral after its release and imprisoned the mind of all its users with its addictive nature. Cookie Clicker is, in essence, a simple game where you gain cookies by clicking on a gigantic cookie. You can also invest in different options with your existing cookies to gain even more cookies. That’s all there is to it. There is no goal; no objective (except to bake more cookies!). Even the developer himself commented in a reddit Ask Me Anything that the game was developed as a joke.
However, how did this seemingly pointless game become so popular and successful? Through game design theory, I will attempt to answer this question.
Cookie Clicker, however simple of a game, actually follows many principles of good game design.
Let's analyze the different parts of the game. First, the start. The game starts with most of the different panels empty, except the gigantic cookie on the left. It is surrounded by light, and a background of animated hearts. When hovered over, the cookie grows slightly bigger. When clicked on, a “+1” appears for a second as well as a small transparent cookie. The cookie counter display will then increase by 1.
There are several observations to be made:
In Jesse Schell’s The Art of Game Design, he defines "fun" as pleasure with surprises and "play" as manipulation that satisfies curiosity. These are the most accepted definitions of the words, and those two concepts are the foundations of game design. To restate clearly, pleasurable surprises and curiosity are pretty damn important.
The first minute of a game is the most crucial, especially in a free browser-based game, and will often decide whether the player thinks “this game is dumb” and permanently closes the game, or if he gives the game a try. As can be seen through our earlier analysis, for the first minute of Cookie Clicker, players are guided to click on the cookie, which they will discover to be fun and playful. And as such, they will keep playing.
As players gather more and more cookies, they will discover that items will fill the shop.
Several observations are to be made, again:
After the player has unlocked most of the upgrades and has cookies that add up to billions and trillions, the main driving force of the game is simply pride, and pride equates to pleasure.
So, to answer the question of how and why Cookie Clicker became so popular, it’s because Cookie Clicker is very fun to play with. The game is a genius at piquing player’s curiosity and awarding them with pleasurable surprises. Cookie Clicker is the subtle masterpiece of the gaming universe.