Searching for the Moon

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

Lessons from the success of Farmville

Posted by shannonclark on October 26, 2009


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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