Searching for the Moon

Shannon Clark's rambles and conversations on food, geeks, San Francisco and occasionally economics

Archive for October, 2009

Lessons from the success of Farmville

Posted by shannonclark on October 26, 2009

FarmVilleShannon

At the moment Zynga is one of the most talked about new social game companies with rumors that they are making tons of money and may consider an IPO in the near future. Last I read they are rumored to have revenues approaching $200M a year and have announced over 120M players across their range of games.  Until a few weeks ago I have not been a player of any of their games, I’ve been avoiding most Facebook games for the past few years as I haven’t yet found any that really engaged me or were much fun for me to play. Earlier this month I signed up for Farmville to test it out.

It is well designed to pull someone into spending money (or following offers to get the in game currency) and in that respect I have a lot of admiration for the game designers. Visually it is cute and pretty to look at and I can see (provided you grind enough to get the resources or spend cash) it could be enjoyable to decorate the screen with the various options and elements and there is a degree of interest in the resource management and balancing acts of what works best.  And the game is designed to become a habit, to reward the player for returning on a regular basis (and nicely on a basis that corresponds with the level of engagement the player wants to have with the game vis choosing crops with maturation periods that match the play cycle the player prefers).

And like many “social’ things I suspect the game play changes when you have friends who are connected with you via the game (out of over 500 friends I have on Facebook just 37 are playing Farmville and of those only about 10 have actually been actively playing the game the rest are still at the very beginning early stages of the game.)

I spent about two weeks explore Farmville, logging into it at regular if random intervals and very rapidly rising to level 21 (out of I think some 38+ levels which can be achieved). The game introduces many new elements on a regular basis both as you gain levels, as Zynga adds new features and as they add elements of a seasonal nature – currently decorations and other elements with a Halloween theme.

This pattern is actually not new, online games have followed a similar pattern to retain interest over time for a long time. A game I used to play, Kingdom of Loathing, has had seasonal events in the game since the start in 2003. And earlier games such as Everquest and Ultima Online also had seasonal in game events (as has World of Warcraft).

So what is new about what Zynga has done with Farmville (as well as many of their other games which share similar patterns)?

The simple answer would be Facebook. And certainly the viral elements Zynga uses from news feed posts to notifications help attract new players as well as get current (engaged) players to return are one key reason for the large numbers of players.

And the design of the game is clearly built to inspire many players to pay money or complete offers to get to the rewards faster (or to keep up with/impress their friends).

As a game player the actual game design of Farmville is very simple. Michael Arrington had a tweet that sums it up very well

Farmville is like simcity without any of the good parts

His point is that to do the fun stuff, if you want immediate gratification, you have to fill out an offer for Netflix or the like for each new thing you want to build.

But even if you have patience Farmville is not a serious game, it has some limited elements of resource management but for the most part it is more like gambling (of the slot machine variety not poker) than it is like playing a serious game of skill. Seemingly every other time I log into the game I’ve “Won the Daily Raffle” and there are many other elements in the game to grant you free in game resources. Including viral elements such as clicking through on “rewards” via postings from your friends who are playing the game on their newsfeeds who have chosen to “share the wealth” when they have accomplished some in game award.

However evaluating Farmville on the gameplay is missing why it is fun (for many people). Like a slot machine, Farmville is all the sights and sounds – in this case the clucks and moos.

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The big tables in the cafe principle

Posted by shannonclark on October 22, 2009

This afternoon I had the pleasure of attending Lunch For Good here in San Francisco, organized by my friend Chris Heuer, the lunch gathered around 50 people together for a tasty meal and serious conversation about how to inspire critical thinking.

At my table as part of our conversation I mentioned my “big tables” principle in evaluating cafes as part of our conversation about groups and spaces. At the table the pet owners were all sharing how much enjoyment they get from talking with fellow dog owners at dog parks. I mentioned that I could never even be in such a space, couldn’t ever own pets of any type.

If you are wonder, no I don’t hate animals, I’m just seriously allergic, so allergic that I stop breathing and have asthma attacks along with concurrent serious skin rashes, red eyes and stuffed sinuses. For a short time I can take some allergy medicines and endure brief exposure, but I refuse to take medicine every day of my life just to live with a pet – and furthermore such prolonged exposure to both the medicine (which does have very real side effects) and to the pet dander which has extreme impact on my well being is not conducive to my overall health.

My point in bringing this up is that while the interactions between pet owners are fantastic and it is great that such spaces spark interactions between folks who might not otherwise meet (though likely they share some common interests and traits since they have chosen to live in a near geographic area) such spaces are not, in fact, truly universal, there are folks, such as myself, who not only are unlikely to be at such a dog park my in fact be completely unable to enter such a space.

We then started talking about online spaces and communities and here I brought the discussion back to physical spaces. Cafes are often cited as spaces where strangers can meet, interact and get to know each other. However as a frequent cafe denizen (I’ve been working from cafes since the early 1990’s) I have observed that there are simple steps a cafe can do that dramatically change how the cafe functions as a social space.

Hence my “big tables” principle.

The bigger the tables in a cafe the more social interactions between strangers are likely.

My ideal cafe has tables big enough for two people to work on laptops comfortably while simultaneously having a plate of food, a coffee and some books or other materials open in front of them. Such large tables usually can readily accommodate more than two people and easily inspire ad hoc conversations and interactions between strangers – starting with the simple question ‘do you mind if I share your table” but often ending up with philosophical discussions.

Today, however, in the era when many folks, myself included as I write this post from a cafe in the West Portal seated on a couch (by myself)  frequently shut out the world via listening to headphones as we work, a cafe needs to take further steps to truly inspire people to converse with each other, to actually create a space where social interactions happen.

A few steps I have observed that help.

  1. Watching the volume of the music including any live performers to be quiet enough to enable comfortable conversations. A quiet cafe without any background music however isn’t ideal as people will turn to their own soundtracks. But a cafe with pounding music makes it hard to converse even with friends
  2. Regular events which help spark conversations and interactions. One cafe here in San Francisco (On the Corner) has a weekly games night sponsored by a nearby games shop. Such events give strangers a reason to do more than just talk in passing with each other. Other cafes have regular art openings, cuppings of coffee or other events which help inspire people to interact.
  3. Sociable staff. This is simple but friendly, sociable staff at a cafe will spark conversations with strangers and regulars alike (and help make strangers into regulars). In turn these conversations will then often offer reasons and entrypoints for strangers to interact with each other. Some cafes (and other spaces) take this to an extreme but generally speaking friendly, outgoing staff help create a space where people get a bit out of themselves and interact with others.
  4. Hours that encourage social interactions. Cafes that are open late inspire people (often but not always) to linger and hangout, to use the cafe as an alternative to other evening entertainment options such as bars or nightclubs. One of the more social cafes I have spent time in here in San Francisco is, in fact, a Starbucks. However it is also open 24hrs a day six days a week. Being located near to universities it is full of students studying and interacting with each other until the early hours of the morning.

What lessons can be drawn from such cafes (and other spaces) for online businesses seeking to spark conversations and interactions?

  1. The design details matter a great deal. Small, tiny tables in a cafe or a web design that emphasizes an individual experience will lead to individuals being alone in that space.
  2. Small gestures can inspire and spark interactions. Many of the cafes that most impress me, where I most quickly feel comfortable and at home are cafes where the staff take a simple step of learning my name from the first time I am there – and not just to call out my order but to greet me by name as they interact with me.
  3. Hours and patterns matter.Yes, the web is a global usually open 24hrs a day space but even online most successful communities and sites find rhythms and schedules to fall into. Here on my personal blog I fail in this regard, I do not post nearly enough. In contrast many of my favorite blogs have gotten into a pattern of one or more “open threads” posted every day specifically to create spaces for readers to converse with each other. These posts, in turn, supported by a regular pattern of other posts (the frequency and form of which differ by the blog). Cafes with short hours cater to one audience, cafes with longer hours open later reach a different group.

How do you judge a space? Whether online or offline what about a space inspires you to join it, to engage with the people who might share it with you?

Posted in customer service, digital bedouin, geeks, networks, personal, working | Tagged: , , | 4 Comments »