Defining the Genre
Video games are placed into genres for a variety of reasons. They can give a mental shorthand to set the player's expectations up, they can help a game market itself by its similarities to other, already popular games, and honestly, people just love categorization for its own sake. For this guide, it's important to define the genre so it is clear what games it's even talking about.
This poses a problem. "Incremental" is a horribly vague way to define games. Most games have numbers going up in some form or another. We need a more specific definition - similar to how "strategy" can't just mean any game with any amount of strategy because that would be most games. What specifically differentiates incremental games from the rest?
"Incremental" implies it's a genre defined by a game mechanic, but all those game mechanics it could imply exist in many other games. Having a skill tree or upgrades doesn't make you incremental, and if a reset mechanic is all it takes then every roguelite would be an incremental as well. So clearly there's more to it than that - what makes an incremental an incremental?
I'd like to go over a couple of popular suggestions I've seen on defining the genre here. I have my personal preferences and will state them here, but I don't think there's a truly perfect answer here.
Disclaimer: I mostly play incremental games on my computer, and my definitions will be heavily biased towards the games I'm familiar with.
Incrementals vs Idlers vs Clickers
Oftentimes people refer to this genre as idle games and/or clicker games. You'll even find a trend of oxymoronic game titles that contain both terms. "Incremental games" is the umbrella term both those terms fall under. However, I'd like to argue that not only is it better to just use the term "incremental games", but calling them "idle games" or "clicker games" is wrong. Almost universally, these terms are used interchangeably to refer to the same kind of game, where you start the game click spamming and eventually automate the process. Frankly, that kind of game deserves neither title, and the genre of incremental games has trended away from ever requiring click spamming, as it's a bad mechanic, anyways.
While these games do span a spectrum of how active it requires you to be, and sorting games by that metric can be useful for those looking for a particular experience, the borders of when an incremental game counts as an "idler" is too blurry for the term to be useful. "Incremental games" may not be a great descriptive term for the genre (hence this many thousands of words long page on defining what the genre even is), but it's strictly better than calling them "idler" or "clicker" games. This guide will always use the term "incremental games" unless quoting someone else, as it is the term you typically see on all modern games in the genre.
Incrementals as Parodies
Let's start with one of the most interesting definitions of incremental games. Incremental games appear to be distilled versions of games or genres, "revealing" the naked game design at the core of these games or genres not unlike how parodies comment upon their source material.
To understand what that means, think of how a casino uses skinner boxes to emotionally manipulate its customers to keep playing, but "dressing" up the skinner box with tons of stimuli to hide that ultimately the goal is to condition you into coming back compulsively. The idea that incremental games are parodies means taking the stance that at some level all games are similarly manipulating you, giving dopamine rewards in a way that manipulates you to keep playing while not necessarily giving you any value or fulfillment. Incremental games, then, are any games that plainly display the skinner box, and the manipulative core of the game, at the forefront of the experience.
While incremental games can be fun and even healthy in certain contexts, they can exacerbate video game addiction more than other genres. If you feel like playing incremental games is taking priority over other things in your life, or manipulating your sleep schedule, it may be prudent to seek help. See r/StopGaming for resources.
This "undressing" tends to go hand in hand with a reduced focus on aesthetics, often just printing the game state directly to the screen as text. This makes incremental games much easier to develop, particularly for those with programming skills but not art skills, but that's a tangent for why Incremental Games appeal to Developers.
Before I continue, I'd like to make my stance clear that I love games and incremental games, and do not think they should be considered inherently bad or manipulative with the above logic. Skinner boxes are just a way of manipulating behavior via rewards. The games are still fun - that's the reward! I'd believe the real criticism here is that it is "empty fun", or "empty dopamine", that doesn't offer any additional value or sense of fulfillment. I don't think that's inherently bad in moderation, although it can become a problem if the game is manipulating you for profit-seeking, or if you play the game to the detriment of the other parts of your life.
Another interpretation of incremental games as parodies comes from several mainstream incremental games that are also parodies of capitalism, such as cookie clicker and adventure capitalist. It's a very common framework for incremental games to portray the ever-increasing numbers as an insatiable hunger for resources, like the ones observed within capitalism. Therefore, these games are used as evidence that the genre as a whole is about parody and commentary.
Popular videos on incremental games that portray the genre as parodies are Why Idle games make good satire, and how it was ruined. and Bad Game Design - Clicker Games. You may also be interested in this response to the latter video from a fan of incremental games:
BadGood Game Design - Clicker Games.
I think that this definition ultimately ascribes a motive to the genre as a whole that only happens to apply to some of the more mainstream titles. There certainly are incremental games commenting on different things, including the genre itself as in the case of The Prestige Tree Classic, The Ascension Tree, or Omega Layers, but certainly not all. And of course, not all games that comment on something or parody something are incremental games! Additionally, a very large majority of incremental games are mobile games using these manipulative strategies to get players to spend as much money as possible - hell, Adventure Capitalist is ostensibly a critique on capitalism but features microtransactions and gameplay that manipulates you into buying them! These profit-seeking incremental games certainly belong within the genre but are hardly parodies when they too use manipulation to serve their interests. Also, from my own anecdotal experience, those who use this definition seem to do so from a fairly surface-level familiarity with the genre, and often in the context of criticizing the genre or the fans thereof.
Incrementals as NGU
Another broad definition often used is that incremental games are games where the focus of the game is "numbers going up". This definition proposes that other genres simply use increasing numbers as a means to an end, but incremental games uniquely only care about the numbers themselves going up. Put another way, it implies there should be no narrative justification for the numbers going up other than "why shouldn't they be going up?"
While this definition is common because it feels easy to understand, it is difficult to formally define. Often phrases are used to describe games using this framework, such as having an "exaggerated sense of progression" or "big" numbers. These terms are vague and don't demonstrate an actual threshold between non-incrementals and incrementals. Most games have a sense of progression, so when is it "exaggerated"? How big are "big" numbers? Most notably, RPGs that are typically not considered incrementals will often pass this definition.
Additionally, a lot of incrementals tend to have some theme guiding the gameplay, or at least the names of mechanics. This makes the line blurred between when numbers are going up for their own sake versus for a contextual reason. I believe this point is best illustrated that, while most RPGs are not considered incremental games, there is a sub-genre of "incremental RPGs" that typically relates to RPGs that perform combat automatically. This definition of incremental games does not support RPGs and "incremental RPGs" being on distinct sides of the line if the only difference between them is manual vs automatic combat.
Incrementals as Strategies
This is a rarer interpretation, but there are similarities between incremental games and strategy games, implying incrementals might just be a sub-genre of strategy games. By this approach, incremental games would be defined by their relation to strategy games, and how they involve player strategy. Incremental games are often large optimization problems - above all else, the actual gameplay the player is performing is deciding what to do next. The consequences of wrong decisions are typically more lenient in incremental games - such as just not making optimal progress - but they certainly get complex.
So if we accept the premise that incrementals could fall under strategy, we still need to define what makes a strategy game an incremental versus some other strategy sub-genre. This is a bit tricky due to one particular sub-genre of strategy games: Factory Builders.
Factory builders, such as Factorio or Satisfactory, are games about gaining ever increasing resources, optimizing production, and expanding more and more. That... sounds pretty similar, doesn't it? In fact, there's been some debate on whether factory builders would fall under the "incremental" umbrella. I think it's safe to say the two are certainly related, and probably have quite a bit of overlap in playerbase.
Roguelites as Incrementals?
Earlier on, I mentioned reset mechanics shouldn't be used in the definition because that could make all roguelites incrementals... But what if it does? A lot of incrementals can be described as games with a strong sense of progression, often with layers of meta-progression. Roguelites fit that bill to a T. What would make roguelites not incremental? I honestly don't think there's a good explanation here, but many fans of incremental games will state they do believe the two genres to be unrelated, even if there's a significant overlap between their player bases due to having similar appealing traits.
At this point, it'd be appropriate to consider what part of the definition of roguelites precludes them from also being incrementals, but that reveals a new problem: What are roguelites? They're usually defined as rogue_likes with meta-progression, but that just pushes the problem back a step: Incrementals aren't the only genre to have difficulties defining themselves, it seems! Roguelikes are another genre where the community argues over the formal definition of their genre, although that means we can borrow from their process of coming to a consensus, and maybe come across a viable definition for incremental games.
The Berlin Interpretation
By far the most popular way of defining roguelikes is the "Berlin Interpretation", which acknowledged the diversity of games within the genre and argued the definition should not be based on any ideals about what the genre ought to be, but rather defined by "its canon". They argued there are a handful of games that can be used to define the canon for roguelikes, and from those games, a list of factors can be derived to determine a game's "roguelikeness". The more factors a game has, the more of a roguelike it is. This strategy is very lenient, allowing a game to not present any specific factor so long as it shows enough, and accounts for the blurriness of any genre definition by not explicitly stating how many factors a game must have to qualify as a definite roguelike.
I believe this strategy for defining genres can be applied to other genres as well. A handful of games can be argued to be the incremental games canon, and a list of factors derived from them can be used to judge any game based on its "incrementalness". I'll propose such a canon and list of factors here, but by no means should it be considered the end-all-be-all.
Note: The "Temple of the roguelike", an authority within the genre, has since replaced the Berlin Interpretation with a new set of factors here: https://blog.roguetemple.com/what-is-a-traditional-roguelike/
The Incremental Games Canon
Alright, time to get controversial. Up til now, I've been trying my best to stay objective and analytical, but now it's time to start making some opinionated decisions. Here is a list of games I think could justifiably make up an Incremental Games Canon:
- A Dark Room
- Clicker Heroes
- Kitten's Game
- NGU Idle
- Realm Grinder
- Universal Paperclips
- Learn to Fly
I chose a variety of games here, biasing towards newer games, purposefully to avoid making a narrow or "traditional" definition. The genre is growing and shouldn't be constrained by the traits of the early popular titles. A lot of these could easily be replaced with other games that are mechanically congruent, so ultimately I'm sure if you asked 10 people for their canon list you'd just get 10 different answers, but I think this should sufficiently allow us to determine what factors make a game have higher "incrementalness".
The Paradigm Shift
The Paradigm Shift is probably the highest possible value factor for an incremental. It's so common that for a while people referred to incrementals that exhibit this trait as "unfolding" games, to the point of trying to replace the term incremental due to their popularity. Paradigm shifts refer to when the gameplay significantly changes. There are too many examples to list here, but notably, every single reset mechanic is typically going to be a paradigm shift. Examples of games with paradigm shifts that aren't tied to reset mechanics include Universal Paperclips and A Dark Room.
There are many reasons for the appeal of paradigm shifts. Oftentimes each mechanic builds on top of the existing mechanics, increasing the complexity of the game in steps so the player can follow along. They provide a sense of mystery, with the player anticipating what will happen next. They shake up the gameplay before it gets too stale - allowing the game to entertain for longer before the illusion of content dissipates. Of the canon games selected above, I would argue every single one contains a paradigm shift (although I could see someone disagreeing with that statement wrt Increlution).
I should take a moment to say that while I'm hyping up this specific factor, we cannot just reduce the genre definition to "does it have paradigm shifts". Many games have paradigm shifts that are not incremental, so it's just an indicator of incrementalness. Additionally, it can become quite hard to determine how large of a shift is a "paradigm" shift. Take, for example, any game with a skill tree. In some games, each skill node might have a large impact on how you play with the game, and qualify as a paradigm shift for some players. In other games, each skill node might just be a small percentage modifier on some stat that doesn't really impact much more than a slight bias towards an already established mechanic that's newly buffed. Every single canon game may show that it's common amongst incremental games, but could just as easily indicate that they're common in games in general.
I won't take as long to discuss the high and low-value factors, as you've already seen most of them brought up earlier on this page. As a reminder, a game does NOT need all of these to be an incremental game, but these are factors that each indicate a strong possibility the game is an incremental, so having several of these means they probably are. These factors apply to most of the canon incremental games.
"Pure UI" Display. Incrementals typically have a textual presentation of the game state - there isn't a visual representation of the entities within the game. The interface is closer to what would be just the UI of a game in another genre or the control panel of a plane. If there is a visual representation, the player is often still interacting with non-diegetic game elements.
Reduced Consequences. Incrementals tend to have reduced repurcussions for misplaying. They very rarely have fail states, where often the largest consequence is simply not progressing - never losing progress.
Optimization Problems. The predominant gameplay of incrementals is typically solving optimization problems, from deciding which purchase to save up for to reasoning and deciding between different mutually exclusive options the game presents.
Resource Management. Incrementals tend to have a lot of resources within the game to keep track of.
These are low-value factors, meaning they aren't as strongly correlated with incremental games. Incremental games may have none of these, and non-incrementals may have several of these - if a game only has low-value factors, they're probably not an incremental.
Fast Numeric Growth. Numbers in incremental games tend to grow faster than in other genres. There are more instances of superlinear growth. The larger the numbers get, the stronger of a signal this factor is.
Automation. As an incremental game progresses, the player often no longer has to deal with earlier mechanics, by having them either happen automatically or otherwise be replaced with an alternative that requires less player interaction.
Goal-Oriented. Incrementals are often heavily reliant on extrinsic motivation to guide the player. Typically this is through some sort of in-game goal to work towards, such as a certain amount of a resource being required to unlock or purchase something new.
Waiting is a Mechanic. In incremental games, the player may come across times where there is no action they can take, and the game will progress automatically instead. The player must wait for some amount of this automatic progress to occur before they can resume interaction with the game.
Are Roguelites Incrementals?
Having made our variation of the Berlin Interpretation for incremental games, we can compare it to the Berlin Interpretation to determine if there's enough overlap that any game that "passes" the Berlin Interpretation would also pass the incremental variant. That is to say, whether any roguelite would also be considered an incremental game.
The meta-progression of an incremental game could arguably be considered a paradigm shift, and certainly adds some resource management. Goal-oriented would probably also apply. I think anything other than those would be a stretch, and in my opinion that just isn't enough to qualify. To be totally honest, I was never expecting to conclude otherwise though 😉
There are some trends in incremental games that go beyond just being a commonly used mechanic, such that they deeply affect the rest of the game design. These trends can be used to determine sub-genres within the incremental games umbrella:
- Loops games are a sub-genre defined by having a core mechanic related to a loop, where the player is deciding the actions taken per loop. Notable examples include Idle Loops, Stuck in Time, Cavernous II, and Increlution. You may also argue Groundhog Life and Progress Knight fall into this sub-genre.
- ITRTG-like games are a sub-genre defined by having a core mechanic based on clearing increasingly difficult battles and often tend to have a lot of different mechanics to become progressively stronger. Notable examples include Idling to Rule the Gods, NGU Idle, and Wizard and Minion Idle.
- Polynomial Growth games are a sub-genre defined by having a core mechanic related to a higher degree polynomial. Notable examples include the base layer of Antimatter Dimensions and Swarm Simulator.
- Upgrades Games is a category popular on flash games websites that featured games focused on buying upgrades that would allow you to attain more currency in some sort of minigame that would earn you more money to buy more upgrades, which I'd argue now belong under the fold of incremental games. Notable examples include the Learn to Fly series and Upgrade Complete.
Other Related Genres
- Cultivation RPGs are a genre of games, books, and anime popular in China that center around being in a fantasy world with characters getting stronger over time. While few of them get translated into English, a fan of incremental games may find the available games interesting.