It all started with Clicker Heroes. Or maybe Adventure Capitalist. Now things are getting out of hand.
In the past few weeks, there’s been a veritable explosion of clicker games — that is, games where you mostly click on stuff until it dies to progress, slowly but surely levelling up to improve your clicking prowess — on Steam. Among others, we’ve seen Time Clickers, Tap Heroes, Tap Tap Infinity, Insanity Clicker, and most recently, the inevitable Sexy Ladies Making Questionable Noises take on the genre, Sakura Clicker.
In the grand scheme of genres represented on Steam, that may not seem like a lot. But again, these all appeared on the One PC Gaming Platform To Rule Them All in the span of about a month. Before that, we had Valve’s own take on the formula, the Steam Summer Sale Monster Game. And let’s not forget that fantasy clickventure Clicker Heroes has spent multiple months on Steam’s top ten most played list, next to obscure fare you’ve probably never heard of like DOTA 2, Counter-Strike, and Grand Theft Auto V. It’s time to face it: clicker mania — while not a wholly new phenomenon (remember Cookie Clicker?) — has come to Steam.
This might, at first, strike you as bizarre. After all, Steam’s 125 million users are about as hardcore as it gets. Based purely on numbers, their favourite game is the notoriously inaccessible DOTA 2, and their favourite recent genre is survival, where you’re often plopped into an inscrutable world and expected to learn the ropes before someone perma-kills you for shits and giggles (and probably also pants).
Clicker games, which practically play themselves, seem like the antithesis of that. Typically, you keep them running in the background of your  intimidatingly professional work environment  intimidatingly professional gaming setup [X] intimidatingly professional porn studio and check in on them occasionally. I once left Clicker Heroes alone overnight, and well…
But that’s kinda perfect, whether you’re playing another game or dicking around on the Internet or shooting high-budget porn. Clicker games constantly reward you. Click a thing and it dies. Don’t click a thing and it will probably die eventually. Leave for a bit and come back, and you’re flush with cash to spend on new abilities and other rewards. Clicker games let you level up between dreary spells of daily doldrums. They’re a minutes-long high, a fleeting shot of dopamine. They’re casual, but elegantly so. They serve as a compliment to just about anything else you could conceivably be doing.
It’s kind of strange that this only recently became the thing all the cool kids are doing on Steam, because casual games figured this shit out ages ago. My girlfriend plays multiple mobile games that slot similarly into day-to-day mundanity — often juggling multiple games at once — and sometimes I think that she cumulatively spends more time playing games than I do. While some of them pull time-or-money energy meter bullshit, the dark secret is that a good number of them are fun. They might not be quite as rewarding in the long run as something like DOTA 2, but they spirit your brain away to a different place for a few seconds or minutes at a time. Sometimes people need that.
The subtle genius of recent clicker games is that they make that appeal palatable to the harder-core-than-thou portions of Steam’s squirming mountain of an audience. They have snazzy art and graphics. They borrow themes and aesthetics of more traditional game genres. Also one is as close as Steam is gonna get to a sex game sans actual sex, but that’s kinda par for the course on Steam these days. Point is, this new crop of clicker games figured out how to unicycle across the line between egregiously casual and reliably core.
The clicker formula is also — for better or worse — infinitely malleable. All you’re doing is clicking; you can slap just about any theme or setting on top of that. Already we’ve got fantasy, horror, sci-fi, different fantasy, and, er, anime ladies. Plus, there’s room for a weird amount of depth in these games — even if developers don’t always take advantage of it. Game-changing abilities, experimental XP systems, new game plus modes, multiplayer, evil clowns, and the most revolutionary feature of all: aiming (in Time Clicker‘s case). Clicker games might not seem like much, but they can go on and on and on.
Or they can be lazy attempts at cashing in on something that’s clearly a craze right now (it doesn’t help that bolting microtransactions onto the formula is cake). Regardless, they’re coming in droves, and they continue to be well-received, so far. In all likelihood, more are on the way, and I doubt I’ll be able to avoid getting hooked on at least one more before I regain control of my life. Beyond that? Well, they’re kinda same-y, so burnout seems imminent. But you know, anything is possible.