Posted on Oct 8, 2009 | 7 comments

FarmVille? That stupid Facebook game that clutters my news feed all the time with random messages about lost pigs and ugly ducklings? Really?”

When I decided I was going to do these deconstructions, Facebook games were the last thing on my mind. This time last month, I had never even played a Facebook game. I thought the very concept of Facebook games was backwards – I have Steam to play games on my computer, after all. Facebook should be strictly for staying in touch with friends. But after hearing that FarmVille has over 11 million active users on a daily basis – even more than World of Warcraft – I figured that there must be something about the game that the average Facebook user finds attractive. And in always trying to expand my knowledge of games, I finally gave in and started playing.

farmville

FarmVille

Developer: Zynga
Genre: Simulation
Metacritic: N/A
Price: Free / Optional Microtransactions
Length: Indeterminate

Background
FarmVille is Zynga’s answer to Farmtown, another popular farm simulator for social networks.

Gameplay
FarmVille is designed to be played in short segments of five to ten minutes every day. It’s a never-ending cycle of planting crops, waiting for crops to grow in real-time overnight or throughout the day, and then harvesting the crops before they whither. The objective of the game is highly open-ended, but players can progress by gaining experience points and “leveling up.” Each level unlocks a new set of crops for players to plant worth more than the previous ones.

The game uses two types of currency: “coins” and “farm cash.” Players earn coins by planting and harvesting crops, but farm cash is much harder to come by. To get more than one farm dollar per day, a player has to spend real money through Zynga’s payment system. In the in-game marketplace, some things can only be bought with coins, some things can only be bought with farm cash, and others can be bought with either.

Players can also earn “ribbons” (achievements) that reward them with coins, experience points, and gifts. There are four tiers for each ribbon, each more demanding than the previous. For example, the criteria for one ribbon might be “earn 10,000 coins.” The next tier for that ribbon could be “earn 100,000 coins.” The game keeps track of the player’s progress by offering helpful counters such as “only 2,460 coins to go.”

Being on Facebook, FarmVille taps into the social networking bug and lets players send gifts to each other for free and “help” each others’ farms by visiting and clicking a button to scare away crows or rake up leaves that litter the fields. The game tries to make players invite more friends to join at every turn, whether it’s through publishing updates to the Facebook news feed or sending explicit invites through Facebook’s notification system. As players make “neighbors” (or FarmVille friends) with their Facebook friends, they are able to build bigger farms. It’s worth noting that players cannot see anyone on FarmVille who isn’t already one of their Facebook friends, so it does not act as a tool to meet new people like many other online games.

Where’s the fun?
There is nothing particularly innovative about FarmVille‘s gameplay, but it still manages to attract millions of players. Obviously, then,  there has to be something more going on here than just a stripped-down copy of Harvest Moon. What keeps players coming back? I think we can learn the most from FarmVille from breaking down how users interact with the game.

I can think of a couple possible answers. For me, a competitive Counter-Strike, Starcraft, and Rock Band player, I felt the need to level up faster than my friends to illustrate my farm’s superiority. I also fell into the achievement-whore mentality, playing just one more day to earn the next ribbon and see what I would unlock. I consider this to be the traditional or “hardcore” gamer’s approach to FarmVille.

The other answer, which I witnessed on some of my friends’ farms, is to play the game more like the decoration-centric approach to The Sims. Whereas my farm was almost entirely filled with plowed land and rows of trees, some farms I viewed were full of animals, ponds, houses, and haystacks.

casual
Example of what I call a "casual" farm

hardcore
Example of what I call a "hardcore" farm.

For someone playing the unwinnable game to win, wasting space like this is absurd. To gain the most experience points and the most coins, the farm should be full of top-grossing crops, save for a little bit of room for trees and animals to work towards the ribbons you can earn for harvesting them. For someone who isn’t a traditional or hardcore gamer, though, the game takes on a different goal where experience points are merely a byproduct of enjoying the game at a slower pace. This is a “casual” approach to FarmVille, where players have fun by exploring what the game has to offer – as a sandbox of sorts, not by working towards arbitrary goals in hopes of being rewarded.

Lasting Appeal
I played FarmVille for almost four weeks before quitting. I am a level 23 farmer with just over 100,000 coins in the bank. I can buy just about anything in the game’s virtual store. But I noticed that most of my friends’ stopped playing after a while, and as a result, the challenge of leveling up the fastest sort of fell apart. The game caps at level 70, but I don’t have any desire to go any further.

12 million players does not make a game an MMO, yet many of FarmVille‘s hardcore players seem to treat it as such. Leveling up in an MMO is fun because of the social interaction with other players. That social aspect is so limited in FarmVille that it cannot sustain gameplay, so while MMO players can look back on their hours of gaming with fond memories, FarmVille players are left with a bad aftertaste. The variation of gameplay is somewhat greater than FarmVille‘s offerings in even the most vanilla of MMOs. As farms get larger, the game degrades to clicking every single patch of land on the screen three times: once to harvest a crop, once to plow the fallow land the crop leaves behind, and once to plant the seeds of a new crop in its place. When I quit playing, my farm was 18×18 tiles large, meaning I found myself clicking around the screen a total of 972 times in a period of 10 minutes to complete a day’s worth of farming – not including time spent to collect eggs from chickens or fruit from trees, or to re-arrange animals and fences to get ribbons. It’s not fun, but it’s the fastest way to level up.

Is this really fun?
Is this really fun?

In the Gamasutra article I linked to at the top of this post, one of the commenters quipped “It seems you win Zynga games when you realize they aren’t really games and quit. the lower level you are, the better you did.” I think this was true for me, and possibly for many hardcore or traditional gamers, but it’s wrong to assume it’s always the case:  some of my friends who I grouped into the “casual” category are still playing almost daily. They aren’t leveling up as quickly, but they seem to be re-arranging their farms a few times per week, exchanging gifts with friends, and rescuing lost sheep to their hearts’ content. If these types of players are still farming, then the game is a success for them.

Building a Better Farm
Being a “free Facebook app” is an excuse to some extent, but if a game that relies on a “five minutes per day” play attraction fails to keep a significant part of its audience interested after a few weeks of play, there’s a design failure happening somewhere. FarmVille is still in beta, and towards the end of my time playing the game, Zynga added a new RPG-element in allowing each individual crop to “level up” in terms of proficiency. I think this seems like a move geared towards the hardcore audience, but I’m not convinced it addresses the issue. FarmVille could benefit from more social elements, such as cooperative farming or teams working towards a goal. Players should be able to buy and sell crops from each other to earn high-grossing crops before their levels unlock them.

These types social elements in browser-based games are already a proven success. Cybernations, for example, has minimal graphical elements and shares FarmVille’s philosophy of gaming in five-minutes-a-day. Some people play it as such. The game’s “hardcore” audience, however, spends hours a week in the game’s forums engaged in foreign relations issues with other teams or alliances. Cybernations‘ ultimate failure is in allowing this battle of alliances take over the game – unaligned players are always at risk being attacked because no one will step up to defend them, and being a member of an alliance is demanding of much more time than many players are willing to invest. In terms of FarmVille, the game needs to offer hardcore gamers a way of playing for more than five minutes a day while still giving them a purpose. The most compelling reason to play these games, at least as far as I have seen, is to be a part of a team working towards a goal that players cannot attain by themselves.

Finding an Audience
Facebook has over 300 million users worldwide. 12 million of those users are playing FarmVille. It’s a big number, but it’s only 4%. By contrast, there have been about 32 million Xbox 360s sold worldwide. 8 million of those Xbox 360 owners, or about 25%, own Call of Duty 4. It’s clear that Facebook games have a long way to go before they reach the relative appeal of the most popular console games.  Not everyone on Facebook plays games, but not everyone who plays FarmVille is a gamer. Many gamers on Facebook won’t play games on Facebook. Why?

I realize that Facebook and the Xbox 360 don’t exactly have the same target audience, and Xbox 360 owners are more likely to play games even though they have to pay money for them. But look at the iPhone – a device for a broad audience where games have consistently topped the list of most-downloaded applications. There’s something that FarmVille or Facebook itself is doing wrong where a barrier to entry is being created.

For me, the barrier was installing the app to my profile. When apps were first introduced, they were intrusive and annoying. I hate having my news feed overwhelmed by silly apps my friends are using that I don’t care about. As a result, I always deny apps access to my profile when they ask. My decision to start playing FarmVille changed that habbit a bit, but I’m still more hesitant about installing an app to Facebook than I am to installing an app to my iPhone, despite the former being a much easier process overall.

Summary
The Good: Extremely easy to learn, fully playable with minimal time investment, free.

The Bad: Sometimes too simplistic for hardcore audiences, limited social interaction.

I realize this decon was probably a lot longer than it needed to be. Hopefully you can learn from it. I would advise any developers out there who haven’t tried FarmVille to give it a shot – everything points to these types of games playing a bigger role in the future of our medium. If you’ve already played it, please share your thoughts with me in the comments below – there’s only so much I can deconstruct on my own!