Universal Paperclips is an incremental game that starts out in a humble factory and ends somewhere after the fall of humanity. Like most titles in the category — which folks also call “idle” or “clicker games” — it’s all about the numbers as you buy wire, churn out paper clips, and amass enough wealth for what’s essentially a hostile takeover of the entire planet. It’s a free web game.
Game designer Frank Lantz created Universal Paperclips as a solo project. He’s an industry vet who’s the director of the New York University Game Center. Previously, he was the director of game design at Gamelab, the studio that developed the hit game Diner Dash. He also founded Area/Code, a social game studio that Zynga acquired in 2011.
“I’ve always been interested in incremental games,” said Lantz in an email to GamesBeat. “I played one called Kittens Game that I really loved, and I wanted to make something like that, with lots of complex overlapping systems, only smaller and more focused. Also, I’ve been following the debate about AI safety with a lot of interest, and I thought that this would be a perfect theme for a clicker game. After all, when you play a game like this it gives you direct, first-hand experience of what it’s like to be a disembodied intelligence that is ruthlessly pursuing an arbitrary goal.”
The industry has seen quite a few unique incremental games in the last few years, and all of them have distinct personalities, like the dystopian A Dark Room or the cheer ASCII art of Candy Box. Spaceplan Prototype has you shooting potatoes into the sun, and Kittens Game calls itself the “Dark Souls of incremental gaming.” And, of course, Universal Paperclips has its AI that’s singlemindedly pursuing paperclip manufacturing.
Like most of the games cited above, Universal Paperclips has a minimalist interface. To start, it’s just text and numbers. Some geometric shapes are introduced later on, but I won’t spoil it for you. Suffice it to say, you start with a simple mission: to make paper clips and sell them. Eventually, you’ll be doing things like curing male pattern baldness and curing cancer. And it only grows in scale from there.
“For me, I love the way [incremental games] make abstract mathematical relationships feel palpable, concrete,” said Lantz. “The human brain isn’t really designed to intuitively understand things like exponential growth, but a good clicker game allows you to directly engage with these numerical patterns, to hold them in your hands and feel the weight of them. And of course, a good clicker game puts you directly in touch with the raw, goal-seeking id that is a fundamental part of your psyche, and that’s a scary and sometimes wonderful place to be, at least for a little while.”
Watching the numbers tick up well into the decillions is hypnotic. As you unlock different parts of the dashboard, it feels productive, like you’ve accomplished something. Maybe it’s because the interface somewhat resembles an Excel sheet at times, with fields and charts and status updates. Still, the game has a surprising capacity to keep you off balance. I found myself delighted by sudden musical cues and the occasional koans that appeared in the activity log at the top of the page.
Though the idea of maniacally creating paper clips as a means unto itself seems nonsensical, there is a story and a progression to the plot in Universal Paperclips. It’s a kind of one-upsmanship — once you’ve developed a paperclip monopoly, where do you go? Lantz follows it through to the absurdist end.
“Once I had a basic idea for the overall arc of the game it was just a matter of getting from A to B to C,” said Lantz. “Then I just tried to make each step of the way genuinely entertaining and interesting in terms of what the player was actually doing moment to moment. I didn’t think of these plot points as twists, I just thought about it as a story and tried to make each step flow logically from the previous ones. A lot of the time it was also thinking — what would Erik Wolpaw do, or Ted Chiang, or [Jorge Luis Borges], you know? What would a great storyteller do?”