In this guide, we lay out in simple terms how to make an idle game when you’re not a developer yourself.
Incremental games took the mobile gaming world by storm in 2013. Today, clicker games remain popular, and their return on investment continues to steadily increase.
How did incremental games, also known as clicker games or idle games, become so popular? And how can you make an idle game? If you’re interested in answers to these questions, you’ve come to the right place. If you decide to outsource your idle game design to a game development company, here’s what you’ll get.
What are incremental games?
Incremental games, clickers, idlers, self-playing games — these games go by many names. But no matter what you call them, the core idea of these mobile games is that progress can be made without a player’s constant involvement. You start with furiously clicking (or tapping) the screen to earn in-game currency and buy upgrades. After that, you can put the game away and just check it once in a while; your purchased upgrades will earn money for you.
The mechanics are exceptionally easy. Idlers require a single action: clicking. You click to receive currency and click to spend it on upgrades. That’s basically it.
Sounds way too simple to be truly engaging.
Why have a game you don’t really play?
Surprisingly, idle games have high retention rates, and among core gamers to boot. Users continue to come back to them even after weeks of playing. Why?
The psychology behind mobile idle games
Fun fact: One of the first clickers — called Cow Clicker — was built to mock what the creator (Ian Bogost) saw as the oversimplification of social games. And it became a hit in no time. The inexplicable logic of this phenomenon is bugging people to this day.
But if you really think about it, the concept is tempting. Who wouldn’t want to get money without lifting a finger? Quite literally. You go about your regular business — work, school, maybe even some other game that actually requires your attention. And when you check your clicker, you’ve got more currency than when you left. If only real life was this easy.
At the same time, idle games still pose a challenge. Upgrades get more and more expensive with each new level, and eventually, a player has to choose which upgrade to spend their currency on. Which investment will bring in revenue faster? What upgrades should you combine? This choice allows players to feel smarter by being better strategists.
Another major selling point of idlers is that they let a player take as long of a break from playing as they want. There’s no pushing you to come back when "your energy has been restored" — which also always happens when you’re busy. A clicker can play itself in the background for hours, days, or months. You can go back to it when you’re ready. In the end, players come back sooner rather than later. And, what’s more important, they come back to stay.
What’s in it for idle game owners?
Entrepreneurs and individual developers alike are jumping on the incremental game bandwagon. There are many reasons for developing an idle clicker game:
It can be done fairly quickly
A Cookie Clicker game clone for mobile devices (iOS or Android) would take a skilled development team about two months of work, give or take. A game like Tap Titans 2 would take about six months. Compared to most mobile apps, let alone games, this is really fast.
It doesn’t cost too much
Since developing an idle game takes relatively little time and effort, the costs aren’t too high either.
The revenue from a well-made idle game can exceed development costs several times over
The retention rate of idlers is high, meaning that ROI is steady.
From whatever side you look at them, idle games are a win for owners. That is, if they’re made professionally and marketed properly.
If you are intrested in idle game development, you can always contact our team for a free consultation.
Examples of popular idle clicker games
When talking about idle games, the first that comes to mind is Cookie Clicker. This game, not too surprisingly, invites you to tap on a big cookie! Each tap on the screen earns you cookies with which you can buy upgrades: Hire grandmas to bake more cookies, build cookie factories and mines, and more. The upgrades will then earn you cookies even when you’re away and the game is in the background. No need to tap anymore. With more cookies, you can buy more upgrades and speed up cookie making. Rinse and repeat. Endlessly.
Similar to the Cookie Clicker in mechanics, there’s the popular AdVenture Capitalist — an idle clicker game where you build a business empire starting with a single lemonade stand. After its huge success, the market got full of any and all kinds of idle games where the player becomes a tycoon of some sort.
Cookie Clicker is a pretty straightforward idle game. It’s also fairly easy to design. Hence, the idle game market has hundreds of Cookie Clicker clones. Idle game developers have to get more and more creative.
Games like Tap Titans 2, for example, take longer to build. Tap Titans 2 has more refined graphics, and its gameplay includes level bosses, pets that help your hero, and faeries that drop gold if you’re there to tap them. It’s still pretty straightforward, but already there’s more complexity to it.
Stepping up once more in complexity, we have Almost a Hero, an idle clicker where you’ll need to upgrade your character with equipment and artifacts to evolve them for faster grinding.
In AFK Arena, instead of building an empire or evolving your one hero, you collect heroes of various ascension levels, upgrade them with levels, equipment, and outfits, and conquer a fantasy realm. The winning points of this game are its stunning anime-style art, unique intertwining background hero stories, plenty of events with hero skins as rewards, and the occasional addition of heroes from all kinds of other popular games, movies, anime series.
Finally, there’s a unique combination of active and idle gaming — Realm Grinder. It’s one of the most complex idle games, development-wise. It’s got unusually many mechanics for an idler: besides the core mechanic of building your realm from the ground up, there are also spells (temporary boosters), faction coins (in addition to normal coins), hidden achievements, and regular events. Oh, and you can choose to be the bad guy and build a demonic abode 😈
Let’s talk about the process of creating an incremental game and what you’ll need to consider before you get started.
How to create your own idle game
Creating an incremental game is relatively simple. Developing a game for browsers is the easiest. Mobile games are tricky.
It’s just clicking, you say. How difficult can it be?
But, as with many seemingly simple things, behind the curtain everything is a bit more complex.
The first thing you need to do when you hire developers to outsource your clicker game idea is, of course, to explain the idea to them. All major details of the game should be considered.
Idle games have evolved fast since Cookie Clicker was introduced. Cookie Clicker is a simple linear incremental game. But today’s market already offers all kinds of idle clicker RPGs, simulations, arcade games, mergers, and management games. It’s not even surprising to find clicker games with a full story behind all the activities. So you’ll have to go into detail about which type of incremental game you want.
Game setting and concept
Mobile incremental games have little to no limits when it comes to settings. Cookie Clicker is simply a cookie; Tap Titans 2 can probably be considered a fantasy RPG — you do have a hero who kills monsters, after all. If you look up idle games on Google, you’ll probably find a clicker in every possible setting, from sci-fi and space to jungles, mines, dojos, and stock exchanges.
How will users interact with the game? What can they do? What upgrades are available? What decisions can they make? Things like this will have to be outlined.
How are you going to make money with your idle clicker game? Ads, in-app purchases, pay-per-download: all monetization options are open for you in the gaming section. Choose one or combine several.
This is also the stage where you can expect a very rough estimate of the time and cost to develop your idle game.
Next comes the design of your idle game. If you make your own idle game with the help of a development company, you can expect your development partner to provide you with the following.
When it comes to gaming, visual appeal is arguably the most important part. Even more so if we’re talking about mobile games, which usually lack plot depth compared to computer and console games.
That being said, we’re not saying that to be successful you need to create an idle game with the graphics of Shadow of the Tomb Raider :) For starters, most smartphones and tablets can’t handle that level of graphics.
There’s beauty in simplicity as well, and idle games are a perfect example of that. Depending on your concept, game type, setting, and designers, the visuals can be more high-end or less.
Before starting to write code for your game, your team will offer mockups of visuals. Drawings of backgrounds, character designs, objects, animations, 2D or 3D graphics — there’s a lot that needs to be taken into account.
The game design stage is the most important. You may or may not know this — it’s a fairly common misconception among non-developers — but “game design” not only determines how a game looks but also how it works. The game design stage is about defining the core mechanics and user experience as much as it is about visuals. Sometimes more so.
Core mechanics are those actions players repeat: running, jumping, collecting loot, building houses. Whatever actions can be considered main are core mechanics.
In clicker game development, core mechanics are simple. Basically, these games are about clicking (or tapping or swiping) and waiting. Players start by clicking as fast as they can to generate some sort of resources to purchase upgrades. Then they wait as upgrades start generating resources themselves.
Core game loop
The core loop is the sequence of actions the game goes through. Most idlers have a simple core loop: Click to earn cookies/kill monsters/collect money –> upgrade –> click more. When a certain level is reached, you earn a prestige level and go back to the beginning but with bonuses. Then you repeat the loop. Here’s the core loop of an average idle game:
It’s possible to make an idle game with more complex mechanics and a more complex core loop, of course. However, one might say it kills the purpose. Simplicity is one of the selling points of clicker games, after all.
Only when all parts of the game have been designed and approved does the actual idle game development start.
We won’t tire you with too much technical information. The list of game development technologies is nearly endless, and programming languages and frameworks pop up semi-regularly and deserve their own articles. You can ask our product developers for details if you’re interested in that. Or we might write a separate article later. For now, we’ll just scratch the surface.
The two most popular game engines today are Unity and Unreal Engine. Both are common among developers and are really good options. Unreal Engine offers better graphics, especially in 3D. Unity’s 3D graphics aren’t half bad, though. Unless you’re into making an Assassin’s Creed idle clicker with the graphics of the original (which — why would you do that?), Unity is a perfect engine for incremental games.
High processing power requirements make Unreal a go-to choice for PC games rather than mobile. Most mobile game developers would make an idle game in Unity.
Besides, there’s the money issue. While developing on Unity can be a little expensive initially (the free version is workable but abridged and Pro versions come with a subscription), Unreal Engine is completely free to use but takes 5 percent of your revenue after you publish your game. This can be a nice chunk of your money in the long run.
The server side of your game can be written in Python, Ruby, or Elixir. However, we’re talking about how to make a simple idle game, and chances are you don’t really need a server side. Incremental games are light enough that most data can be stored on players’ devices or in the cloud. So you won’t need servers, and thus you won’t need a backend.
A soft launch is a test run of a completed game. If you’ve ever dealt with regular app development, not game development, you might compare a soft launch to launching a minimum viable product. There are differences, of course.
A soft launch is performed to test new features. Usually, the game is launched on a limited territory — a single state or country — to test the waters. Will people pick it up? Can it hold their attention? What will be day 1 retention? How many users will return to play after a week?
During a soft launch, your incremental game development company will monitor the game’s KPIs to see if it performs well. If everything is peachy, it’s time to do a full release and promote your game.
If all is not peachy, you can analyze the data and go back to square one: the design or development stage (depending on what the analysis says).
Repeat this cycle until the KPIs are good.
Congratulations! Your idler is up and running, taking the world by storm because it’s awesome.
Now you can rest. (No, you can’t.)
Post-release, you’ll need to run marketing campaigns and advertise your incremental game to catch the eye of more players. Your journey is only beginning. May it never end.
How much does it cost to develop an idle clicker game?
It’s more difficult to estimate the cost of game development than it is to estimate the cost of developing almost any other mobile app. And simple as they are, clicking games aren’t an exception. The development cost will depend on the complexity of your concept, the visual design, and the number of people involved.
Let’s say you go for a Cookie Clicker clone. It requires few people:
- Game designer: 1
- 2D designer: 1
- Sound designer: 1
- Unity developer (for Android and iOS both): 1
With a team like this, it will take about two months to make a clicker game like Cookie Clicker, and the approximate cost will be $5,000–10,000.
However, if you’re aiming at something more complex — like Tap Titans 2, for example — the development will take longer: around three to six months. And the cost will differ significantly due to the longer development time and possible involvement of more people. Expect to pay about $20,000–40,000.
The more complexity you add, the longer the development time and the higher the cost. But chances are your revenue will also be higher when the game is launched.
How to promote your idle game
A successful launch requires thorough research of the game’s target audience as well as competitors. This is done to choose the right marketing strategy.
LTV / CAC > 1
As you hold various marketing campaigns, measure their effectiveness. If you’re spending more on acquiring a customer via a specific channel than their lifetime value is, the channel is unprofitable or the way you market through it doesn’t measure up. Compare, improve and test the effectiveness of several marketing channels and keep those that perform well.
Numerous promotion channels exist for games in general and idle games in particular. Here’s a list of your options to promote your idle game:
Pitch to several publishers
Game promotion is easier if you launch your game with a known publisher than if you do it on your own. Game publishers already have an audience and can promote your game among them — for a part in your income.
On the other hand, it no easy task to get a deal with a popular publisher. Your best bet is to apply to as many publishers in your niche as possible.
Word of advice: When applying to a publisher, don’t just pitch an idea. It’s better to at least have a beta version of your game.
Soft-launch for a test group
Soft launch — releasing a game for a limited audience — brings two advantages:
App store optimization
ASO is your best friend in making your idle game foundable via search. By carefully crafting your game’s description, tags, and choosing the right categories, you’ll increase your chances manyfold.
Video ads. This is the most widespread way to promote idle games — via video ads in other — often similar — games. This works particularly well with idle games. While the market seems oversaturated, the low requirement for active engagement from users makes it so gamers often install numerous idles on their devices.
Banner ads. This type of advertisement is more passive than video ads as banners can be overlooked — it’s bad taste to put a banner ad mid-screen, after all. But with idle games, banners work fairly well.
Social media ad campaigns. People spend hours on YouTube, TikTok, Instagram, and more. Investing in social media ad campaigns is one of the most rewarding game promotion strategies today.
This type of advertising became popular recently. An offer wall is an option to play other games to gain something in a game that hosts the offer wall. Something like “Achieve rank 4 in XXX game to get 200 gems in YYY game”.
If you’ve launched several games already, you can (and should) cross-promote them.
This option for promoting your idle game might be a bit more expensive than others but it also often brings a large inflow of users. Finding influencers with the audience that fits your target audience profile and working with them can be exceptionally rewarding.
Tip: You can contact influencers to be part of your test group of users with early access to a beta version of your game. This will get you early feedback and public reviews.
Reviews in gaming outlets
You can get reviews from online magazines like PCWorld.com. Multiple platforms offer paid reviews for new games, and sometimes, you can get a review if you grant a journalist early access to your beta.
Promotion by the app store
This one is the hardest way to promote your idle game but it’s undoubtedly the most rewarding too. To get into your app store’s listings of recommended apps even for a day, you’ll need to pitch your game to the store’s moderators. With the overwhelming number of idle games, yours will need to stand out to be selected. Your selling point might be outstanding graphics, the use of new technology, a particular theme that’s been in the community spotlight, etc.
When you’ve launched and users come running, marketing doesn’t stop. In idle games, players don’t need to actively engage for the game to progress, and smart use of push notifications will keep them opening the app frequently.
Right now, incremental clicker games are still all the rage. Are they here to stay, or are six years on stage enough and will idlers burn out soon? The forecast looks good, if not perfect, so the best time to make idle games might be right now.
At Mind Studios, we have a game development department. If you’d like to know more about how to make a Cookie Clicker game or wish to know the precise cost to develop an idle game, contact us and ask any questions via the form below.