Define incremental games

r/i_g got in yet another discussion about defining what is an incremental game, that can include the vast variety of incrementals without also including related genres like rogue likes or factory/automation games.

I’ve become quite sure of my own method for defining the genre, which is to make a list of traits that incremental games tend to have. If a game has enough of these traits, they are an incremental game. I believe this method creates a useful definition for the actual purpose of genres: setting expectations, and helping a player make assumptions about what the game will be like. It handles exceptions and the blurriness of genre definitions quite well, by not requiring any specific trait. Just enough traits.

Anyways, I’m not 100% sure what that list of traits would look like, but here’s a rough list:

  • Contains optimization problems
  • Has large numbers, or fast number growth
  • Has exaggerated sense of progression
  • Has no lose state (suboptimal play typically just leads to inefficiency)
  • Earlier mechanics are automated as new mechanics are introduced
  • Progression is replaced by a meta-progression (sometimes resetting the base progression), sometimes with many of these “layers”
  • Problems can be solved by waiting a sufficient amount of time, and certain actions can reduce the amount of waiting required (I’m not sure how different this point is from the optimization problems point though)
  • Contains one or more positive feedback loops, where a resource can be spent in order to gain more of said currency

And again, a game doesn’t need to have all of these, and maybe not even most of them. It can be a spectrum, and people can put their personal “required amount of traits” at whatever number suits them for a more or less “pure” incremental experience. Ultimately I think if you have more traits common to incremental games than other genres, then you’re an incremental game.

I’d be interested in hearing other people offer their own definitions or try to help refine this list of traits.

2 Likes

I wonder if being able to save the game at any time could count? Like, in many games you need to use a save point or the game autosaves/gives a password after levels, and even in an RPG with a save button you can’t do so during battle, or sometimes there’s no option whatsoever.
But in a game where there’s no lose state and thus no possible true punishment for failure, devs can give the player the option to save at any time without it trivializing gameplay (since some could see save states in an emulator as cheating), which can allow the player to pick up and check numbers at any time they like for as long as they like. Also export saving is way more common.

2 Likes

A lot of your traits seem to apply - not all to every game, but some more so than others. The two that stand out, somewhat related, are “optimisation problem” and “no lose state” - generally the core of the gameplay amounts to “how can I get there better” rather than just “how do I get there” (though because of the scale of the numbers, taking the wrong approach could mean anywhere from a few-minute to a several-year wait).

I think this is the other key takeaway from your post, but I tend to think of it in the opposite direction - I’m more likely to consider something an incremental if it doesn’t match other genres. I guess that makes it more of a definition of what’s not an incremental game, though.

You brought up factory games and roguelikes (I guess moreso “roguelites”?) as genres with overlap. I haven’t played much of Factorio or similar games but I can see the parallels, and depending on the day I might even argue that factory games are a type of incremental. As for roguelikes generally their gameplay loops fits them into another genre (e.g. Dead Cells is a “Metroidvania” game).

The other genre that tends to raise overlap questions is RPGs. I’d say some come closer than others - Disgaea, for example, definitely toes the line with how daft the numbers can get - but there the incremental mechanics support the main gameplay loop, rather than being it. I could call it an “incremental RPG” (an RPG, with incremental elements), but not really the other way around.

As I’ve typed this up it’s got me thinking about some of the older games that are considered “classic incrementals”, and whether I’d consider them incrementals or something else if I was forced to pick a genre for them…though that might be straying a little far off the topic.

3 Likes

There was a point briefly made on the r/i_g discord that A Dark Room was considered an incremental when it first came out, but probably wouldn’t be considered that by today’s standards. It calls itself an “unfolding” game, which has been associated heavily with incremental games in the past, but I’m not sure its something I’d really consider unique to incremental games, and certainly wouldn’t be enough to make a game (with no other real similarities to incrementals, e.g. ADR) an incremental game.

2 Likes

I’d agree there - and I think a few of the old classics are similarly “unfolding” games more so than incrementals (the likes of Space Lich Omega, and similar ASCII games, spring to mind).

Unfolding certainly isn’t unique to incrementals - it’s just an approach to gameplay (and a good one, IMO). Plenty of games will open up in their early stages. Incrementals are probably more likely to unfold later on in their gameplay, but that’s more likely a result of the way the games are developed - incrementals, as a whole, are much more likely to be released in stages, so the new content will naturally take the form of a separate layer or tab. In comparison, most “normal” games tend to be developed and released as a complete experience, and additional content or DLC is an extension of that same experience.

2 Likes

makes you grind

I disagree; many games involve grinding but aren’t considered incremental. Nearly every RPG would count based on that basis

1 Like