I’ll bet $20 that you or someone you know has gotten an invite to play Farmville. Ha haaaa, YES! Twenty richly-scented, plastic-infused Australian dollars, right into my bank account. I’ll bet you know someone that’s played Dragon City too, the game that looked like Farmville with dragons. Maybe you even know some peeps that have played Game of War, Clash of Clans or Boom Beach and wondered how many skin packs there are for Farmville. To the outsider, it’s a mundane orgy of design standards and mobile ecstasy, folding in on itself with the same geometrical features of a tesseract that can’t be bothered animating itself. To me, it was something I had to experience first-hand to come to terms with the popularity of cow clicking. So, naturally, I played one for 100 days.
NOT THAT ONE.
You might be wondering why I’d torture myself so flagrantly despite my previous experiences with monotony. Well, apart from the fact that I don’t seem to get this whole ‘learning’ thing, cow clickers are a huge effin’ deal on mobile platforms, and I needed to know why. Game of War: Fire Age, the cowiest of clickers, has got Kate Upton and Stannis Baratheon in it’s ads. Yeah, The One True King and Kate Upton’s boobs (mostly the latter) are shilling a game about tapping a screen to make sweet F-all happen. How!? Had I been so ignorant to the genius and wonder that cow clickers had to offer?! To find out, I picked one that wasn’t sold by Kate Upton’s heaving bosom and jumped down the rabbit hole of tapping squares for pleasure.
If you’re unfamiliar with the term ‘cow clickers’, don’t feel too bad; I just made it up. Back in 2010, following the insane popularity of Farmville and a speech from Zynga’s boss detailing their business practices, a man named Ian Bogost released a game called Cow Clicker. In it, the player is given a cow in a pasture which they can click once every six hours. Clicking the cow earned you clicks (i.e. points), and inviting friends to join would earn you clicks every time they clicked their own cow. On top of that, you could skip the six hour wait via micro transactions (a la Candy Crush), as well as purchase ‘premium’ cow skins, like Cthtulhu or BP Oil Spill skins. It was a brilliant albeit disturbingly popular satire of the social games being released at the time, and it’s influence has been… Uh, well, it got made.
Big cows. Big clicks. Big plays.
The game made its point, but you can still find plenty of cow clickers on the app store. They’re nowhere near the popularity of Farmville’s prime, but they’re still more common than specials at EB games. As of writing this, Hay Day, Empire: Four Kingdoms and even Jurassic World: The Game are in the top grossing list of the Google Play store, and they’re all cow clickers in disguise! They’re built around asynchronous gameplay, grinding and subtle gambling tactics that are key to their proliferation, but we’ll get to that in a bit. What’s important to note is that it wasn’t hard for me to find a cow clicker that caught my interest, at least aesthetically. In fact, I tried out a few before settling on EmpireZ, which is exactly what you think it is.
Yes, the game I finally decided to waste my life on was EmpireZ, a game from Ember Entertainment (who I’d never heard of either) about – wait for it – zombies. The idea is that you’re the leader of a group of survivors that are rebuilding an abandoned city yadda yadda zombies and stuff. The key mechanics of the game include building buildings, allying with alliances and waiting for almost everything to finish happening. You can build up your army and storm another player’s city for supplies if you’re game enough, but there’s no way to lose your city, so you can’t lose. As per the MMO standard, there’s no real win condition, but there are leaderboards to compete on, which drives the high-end PVP play if nothing else. So, what is the point of playing a game where you can’t win or lose, you need to wait for things to happen and just accrue meaningless ranks over time? Because it’s fun, in a braincell-killing way.
This is what I looked like on Cow Clickers. Not even onc- well… Once.
Cow clickers work on very similar principles to slot machines. They’re variable interval, variable reward systems designed specifically to get you hooked but not necessarily engage you. These mechanics are based on the principles of operant conditioning, which is a fancy way of saying they train you to stick with them. The key to how they do this is a combination of making sure you don’t get bored or excited over them, and being very careful with how you are stimulated to encourage your return. The most obvious way of doing this is by making you wait for everything.
In EmpireZ, everything you do requires resources and time, because waiting is a powerful mechanic. Every action that you make is associated with a waiting period, and while they start off small enough (~a minute) they become monstrous (~a week). Besides allowing for asynchronous gameplay, forcing you to wait will ensure the novelty of the game doesn’t wear off each time you log in. By slowly building up the wait times (or costs for things to happen instantly), you’ll slowly be conditioned into waiting (or paying), and it totally worked on me. I was willing to wait for days for things to happen, and I’d keep coming back every day to keep my efficiency up, which leads me to the randomness of the mechanics.
See all those timers? Random! And long.
Every good cow clicker implements randomness into it’s gameplay, and this was no different in EmpireZ. One example is the supply drop, a randomly scheduled cache of randomly selected resources that the player can get by tapping on it every 10-30 minutes. There were also random missions, which were functionally timers that gave randomly assigned resources upon completion. There was more randomness in the forms of daily events, random handouts and an inbuilt gambling mechanic (chips go in, wheel spins, random resources come out). The uncertainty fostered by these mechanics made it difficult for me to know what to expect whenever I returned to the game. I could end up with 500 wood or 10,000 gold, but I couldn’t know until I tried. I was gambling every time I played, and the only thing that was consistently rewarded was my return.
Assuming a player will keep returning to chaos is like expecting your weird neighbour to stop collecting metal boxes, so cow clickers will often have consistency placed into them. The obvious way is through daily login rewards and ensuring random events re-spawn quickly enough to give players something to do when they come back. When you mix this in with the more random elements of the game, you’re left with a system that combines the occasional huge wins of gambling with the frequent stimulations of satisfying returns. This is exactly what a slot machine is, except the small victories are the dazzling lights and sounds, and the wins are… Well, you get conditioned to losing. Thing is, I’m a smart dude that can see through all of these sly mechanics, so while I let myself become absorbed by the mechanics, I never paid for anything with real money. It was a very appealing option though.
There’s a sale on, so it must be bargain! Jackpot!
Cow clickers offer premium currencies that can only realistically be acquired through IRL money. In Game of War, it’s gold. In Clash of Clans, it’s Gems. In EmpireZ, it’s… Uh… Gold again, but it’s still very shiny. In EmpireZ, gold lets you skip wait times, buy highly specialised units and instantly receive whatever resource you want, and other cow clickers offer similar rewards. Call it pay to win, but you don’t have to buy it if you don’t want to, and the game is totally cool with you doing that. Mind you, when it starts taking you a week to do literally anything, it becomes hard to justify not paying if you want to keep playing. However, the game does have ways of acquiring gold without paying, but I did emphasise ‘realistically’ earlier, didn’t I?
There are many ways to get premium currency in cow clickers, but it’s a pittance compared to what you’ll want. In EmpireZ, I could get the most free gold by taking part in sponsored promotions and watching trailers for whatever was hype at the time. Trailers typically gave out ~10 gold max, 50 if it was a good day, and other promotions offered one-time payouts of up to 600 gold. The other big payoff was through random events, which offered up to 10,000 gold as a top-tier reward, but securing it practically meant using as much gold to get it. Also keep in mind that bypassing waiting periods costs 1,000+ gold, and considering how many there are, 10,000 gold offers as much longevity as my erections. On top of that, you can’t buy anything worthwhile with premium currency, you can just get rid of the shit surrounding everything, and that’s the core problem.
… Maybe a bit more than core.
With premium currency, you can buy niche troops and practically ignore the game’s economy, but most of the time, you’re just paying to make the game half-playable. Cow clickers don’t offer riveting gameplay, that much is clear, but it says a lot about a game’s design when it’s necessary to pay money to remove mechanics. I couldn’t afford to do much with the free gold I’d accrued after 100 days – let me repeat that: A HUNDRED DAYS – and the game was bordering on unplayable before I stopped. Of course, I could succumbed and paid for a bunch of gold to stay active in the game, and the store made it abundantly clear that it was a good decision to make.
Literally every time I logged back into EmpireZ, there was a gold sale happening. It was obviously fostering a sense of artificial scarcity, but it was also providing me with a dangerous rationalisation. I was never going to get enough gold by grinding it for free, and the gold was on sale, which meant I was saving money, right? When there’s a sale on literally every day, you’re just paying the asking price, but it’s a well designed trap for sure. The cow clicking needed to continue, and by providing as many reasons as possible, EmpireZ could incept some warped rationalisation that buying gold was the way to go into my head. All it would afford me was more cow clicking, albeit with less bullshit in the way, but that was the point all along.
After an extended period with a cow clicker, I finally get how they’ve grown the way they have. They’re filled with mechanics designed to get you addicted and, eventually, frustrated, but more worryingly, they’re sneaky. They incentivise the removal of the very mechanics they slowly make you abhor, and if you want to keep actively playing after so much investment, there are reasons put into your head to rationalise paying up. Still, I wouldn’t stop anyone from playing them if it wasn’t problematic, that’d be douchey of me, but I’d recommend they go with the one where they get to gander at Kate Upton’s cleavage instead. It just seems like a less frustrating experience. For some reason. A heaving, bouncing reason. Can’t put my finger on it though… Unless I download them- IT! The game, I mean. Yup. Definitely not boobs.