On a random whim, I checked out a game called Cookie Clicker, which was described to me thusly: “you click. You get a cookie. That’s the game”. I pictured some kind of freemium nonsense that I would leave within ten seconds; just another Zynga wannabe, basically.
I’m writing this 24 hours later. In that time, I have exported my save twice, from my MacBook to my work PC and from that to my Windows PC, so that I can gather cookies overnight. I have spent hours watching my cookie count rise up, apropos of nothing. I have gained numerous achievements, all while entering into what would become an unofficial contest of sorts with a younger coworker on who had the bigger Cookies per Second (CpS)1, a notable statement considering we were at work and I’m his direct supervisor. I have bought devices that change the universe’s antimatter into cookies, and am currently producing 140 millions cookies per second. Have I mentioned that making cookies – with no end in sight – is the entire point of the game, itself just someone’s experiment?
My first thought: what the hell is wrong with me!? But then I thought about it, and I’ve realized: Cookie Cutter is not just a microcosm of both life and capitalism, it’s actually not a bad game.
It starts out easy. You have no cookies, and no way to make more cookies automatically, with the exception of a giant cookie on the left side of the screen. So you click. “+1” pops up. Yay, a cookie drops down! So you click some more. More cookies! Fifteen clicks later, you can buy your first upgrade: a cursor that clicks the cookie for you, once every ten seconds. Progress! You work a little bit more, and a little bit harder, and eventually are able to hire grandmas to do some more baking for you. You can get to the point where you’re baking a cookie a second, and while all of this is going on, achievements pop up. It’s the ultimate in tertiary feedback; do an action, get a result.
This process continues and repeats itself. Eventually, other additions for cookie making can be made. Farms. Cookie making factories. In the search for the ultimate in cookie-making efficiency, upgrades can be purchased to make all of the tools better. Items can be sold, including the grandmothers, though that tends to make them upset. While all of this is going on, a news ticker flashes at the top, giving updates on the progress of your cookie-making empire. While at first, it takes effort just to get your family to eat your cookies, eventually, they become more widely known, being talked about the world over. Eventually, the very fabric of the universe is able to be altered. Cookies can be transported via outer space, just past a portal that brings cookies from the past, which is necessary to buy a device that turns every particle of matter into cookie.
The cookie dream has become a cookie empire, with cookies taking over the world. This would be a good place to stick a Jay-Z song.
However, it’s a fleeting success. As items are purchased, other items in that category become about 10% more expensive, leading to even cursors eventually costing a ridiculous amount of cookies. This largely offsets the gains made by growing so many cookies per second; in the end, the only thing that changes is that the big cookie doesn’t have to be clicked quite as often; while I’m now earning about two million cookies per click, that’s nothing compared to the 790m cookies I automatically make every second. I’ve largely been priced out of upgrades as well, some of them costing almost a trillion cookies a pop. No matter how many cookies per second can be cranked out, the costs to get there keep increasing, putting the player on a never-ending cycle of escalating costs and diminishing returns.
Maybe Biggie Smalls’ “Mo’ Money, Mo’ Problems” would be more appropriate.
The funny thing about all of this is that I still have at least a passing interest in a game that features no end, no conflict, no story beyond “yay cookies!”, and no real reason to keep playing it other than achievements that are in their own ecosystem. It’s like I’m mainlining the video game equivalent of crystal meth; there’s not much there, but it’s addictive. In all actuality, beneath the simplicity and the laughing at such a nakedly vapid game lies some outstanding design fundamentals. Everything is balanced well, and continual balancing is being done as people play more. Exporting saves is pathetically easy – just clicking on “export” and copying a link – and those saves can be played with on multiple computers; since the game is browser based, the operating system doesn’t matter. Restarting the game is not only easy, but it has advantages as well, leading to advantages in the next game – think of it as New Cookie+ – as well as achievements. Even the simple act of playing the game is done well; it’s the epitome of a positive feedback loop, with every action causing something to happen. It’s gaming stripped down to its purest form, and believe it or not, it works.
I don’t know how much longer Cookie Clicker will hold my attention; it could be a day, it could be a week, I could be one of those people who maintain the Cookie Clicker wiki – yes, there is a freaking Cookie Clicker wiki because I’ve become so obsessed with the game. Either way, it’s been at least 24 hours of fun, for literally zero cost. I can’t argue with that, even if I went in expecting to mock the game.
1 – I won.