20 February 2016

Clicker Games: How 'dreeps' Got Left Behind

When idle games are that little bit too idle

Note: This article was originally written and published in September 2015.

Ever heard of dreeps: Alarm Playing Game? Probably not, right?  It's a clicker game of sorts, available on the Apple App Store. Here's why you're likely unfamiliar with it.

Clicker games, also known as idle or incremental games, are at a glance a prime product for the casual social networking and mobile gaming markets. To play, you click repeatedly to complete a task, get instant rewards such as in-game currency to spend on upgrades, and that's about it. Alternatively, you can leave the game alone and it will essentially play itself at a slower pace. Now, that really is all there is to it. On paper it sounds boring, perhaps to hardcore gamers in particular, but in practice it can be surprisingly addictive for just about anyone, and the proof of this is their recent spike in popularity.

As Kotaku's Nathan Grayson explains in this article, there exist both a goal and lack thereof in playing a clicker game: on the one hand, there is minimal story and no end-game, while on the other, you need neither to achieve any immediate satisfaction; the latter negates the former and makes you want to keep playing either until you get bored, or until you catch yourself spending an inordinate amount of money (the presence of microtransactions is common) on what is essentially little more than a collection of short dopamine rushes.

Why is it then that dreeps, amongst other RPG-themed mobile favourites such as Tap Titans and Hero Clicker, has garnered much less of an audience in spite of the very nature of the formula on which it is based?

dreeps' gameplay involves less interaction but more regular attention than its fellow idle games. Your adorably mechanical protagonist, whom I will refer to as Robot Boy, wakes up and sleeps when you do by way of an in-app alarm. When awake he traverses his fantasy world defeating monsters and occasionally being defeated, in which case you must tap the screen to revive him. From time to time he will encounter bosses or ally characters and momentarily stop to speak with them. Here is my first criticism: the sparse opportunity for player involvement invites you to ignore the game for long periods of time, which means that you may miss a cutscene, or delay the progression of the game if Robot Boy has fallen and you fail to notice.

This wouldn't be so much of an issue, however, if there was more to do. The biggest problem with dreeps is simple: it just doesn't have enough to it. Unlike its more successful counterparts, it lacks the high-octane clicking action to make up for the absence of plot, yet has no substantial story to make up for its lack of gameplay. There isn't even any immediate reward besides experience, but the level ups they bring don't seem to make much of a difference. Things get boring pretty quickly.

The game's website advertises dreeps as an 'opportunity to use [your] imagination to understand the story and the universe as there is almost no text in the game,' which 'let[s] the the user enjoy gazing at the various landscapes and visuals and listen to the chiptune soundtrack.' I would argue that this is difficult when the design of the world is so enticing; the delightful pixel art, dreamy music and hinted narrative cause you to be invested but the absence of something more falls short of fulfilling that investment, leaving you thinking, "Who is the scientist woman in the beginning of the game? What are these strange lands that Robot Boy is travelling? Why the hell is there an anthropomorphic owl? What is everyone saying? I want to know!"

At the time of writing this, eight months after its release, dreeps has generated some conversation on the internet, but little in comparison to other similar titles. What I have read of others' opinions about the game is generally positive, and many seem not to mind its lack of exposition. To be clear, when I bought this game I was fully aware of how little plot would be provided, and it was the game itself that incited in me a wish for more content, not any sort of misinformed expectation. It may therefore be the case that I am simply not the type of person that this game was designed for, and of course, that's fine. I will say, however, that dreeps' indie production and lack of prominent advertisement aside, perhaps the type of person that this game really appeals to is more niche than that of RPG Clicker, for instance, and might be why it has gotten lost amidst the current idle game fad.

Yet despite my complaints, it is undeniable that dreeps: Alarm Playing Game possesses a lot of charm, even if it's only short lived, and for that reason alone I would take it over free-to-play clicker giants like Tap Tap Infinity any day. It's only £2.99, it's very pleasant to look at, and while I play it I can dream for what more it could have been.