Lessons To Be Learned From Cookie Clicker

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.

Developer Orteil admitting to Cookie Clicker being a joke game
Developer Orteil admitting to Cookie Clicker being a joke game

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.

What Cookie Clicker looks like when players first play it
What Cookie Clicker looks like when players first play it

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:

  1. The gigantic cookie is the first thing players see when the game is first loaded, and the thing that captivates players the most. The cookie is much more interesting visual-wise and curiosity-wise than anything else on the screen.
  2. When the mouse is hovering over the cookie or when the cookie is clicked, there is visual feedback given back to the user. This encourages users to interact with the cookie.
  3. Once the gigantic cookie is clicked on, the cookie counter increases by 1. The first time this happens, the player will be positively surprised and learn that clicking on the gigantic cookie will increase their overall cookie supply.
  4. Players will notice that parts of the screen are empty. This piques the curiosity of the players.

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.

The "item visualization" panel (left) and the shop panel (right)
The "item visualization" panel (left) and the shop panel (right)

Several observations are to be made, again:

  1. The currency for the upgrades is cookies. This gives endogenous value to the cookies, since they are now given a purpose (to buy upgrades) and further gives incentive for players to gain more cookies.
  2. Upgrades increase the player’s rate of increase for cookies. This, in-turn, gives endogenous value to having upgrades.
  3. The silhouette for the next upgrade is shown once you reach a certain threshold. This piques the players’ curiosity and further gives incentive for players to gain more cookies.
  4. Each upgrade has a humorous description that is only available after purchasing the upgrade. It connects the upgrade to the unifying theme of cookies. Having a unifying theme makes the game overall more interesting, and the humorous description acts as another curiosity piquing mechanic.
  5. The threshold for the next upgrade to unlock is different from its price. For example, you must reach a threshold of 400 cookies to unlock the farm, but the farm costs 500 cookies. This gives players a clear goal, a clear next-step. It gives the players direction.
  6. Players don’t know what a new upgrade gives until after purchasing it. The new upgrades are also balanced in a way whereas the most recent upgrade is the most cost-effective. This gives players a pleasurable surprise upon purchasing a new upgrade, as well as piques their curiosity.
  7. When a new upgrade is purchased, a visualization of the upgrade will be displayed in the middle. This again acts as a curiosity piquing mechanism.

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 many cookies!!! :D
So many cookies!!! :D

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.