Facebook bragged to the public this week that Farmville
, a farming sim game hosted on their site, is now more popular than Twitter, with over 26 million daily users and in excess of 69 million monthly users to its name.
Farmville's popularity is impressive on a few levels--more people are playing it than World of Warcraft, than ever bought a Wii, and a look at my own Farmville friends list indicates it's seducing players to the joys of gaming who would never even pick up a video game under normal circumstances.
Granted, Farmville exists with a very different business model than most video games: you don't pay by the month to play it, you don't even shell out a one-time payment to play: you play for free, and then the game tries to sell you in-game perks and a chance to skip the grind to unlock all of the game's content by spending money rather than time.
It exists in a social rather than solitary space, while it's not an explicit pyramid scheme like some online games such as mybrute that rely on referrals, Farmville locks you out of some content unless you have enough friends playing Farmville with you, and having friends in your network playing Farmville is a reliable source of coins, experience, and gifts, the main resources of the game.
Farmville leverages the social aspects of Facebook very effectively: every time you so much as sneeze in Farmville, a message pops up and asks you if you would like to share with your friends how much fun you're having sneezing and and encourage them to come sneeze in Farmville with you.
The game is also more than happy to bribe players for participating in its viral spread: cute lonely animals will show up on your farm periodically and as a player you face a dilemma in sentencing them to virtual abandonment and death unless you post on your Facebook wall that you need one of your friends to start playing Farmville and "adopt" the adorable little self-promoter.
When a Farmville related message pops up on someone's wall you'll typically get a nominal reward for clicking on it, and the person who posted it usually gets an in-game bribe as well, on top of the constant encouragement from the game to share with the world how thankful you are that your friends are asynchronously playing Farmville with you and helping you out.
The grind in Farmville is different than most RPGs I'm familiar with--most RPGs require more and more experience for each level you gain in order to nudge the player towards taking on greater and greater challenges--you face diminishing returns for grinding unless you keep moving forward in the game. Farmville's grind appears to get progressively longer for the sake of getting longer.
You can go up seven levels in your first day, two on your second, but before long you slow down to gaining a level or less a day. Farmville bestows ample amounts of beginner's luck on anyone who's just starting, but gradually puts the brakes on their pace of progress until going from level 23 to 27 will mean doubling all the experience you've earned up to that point.
The rate at which you earn experience does gradually increase; provided that you have enough Farmville friends to allow expansion of your farm you'll start earning more XP a day due to that space. You can also trade coins for experience by buying buildings, but progress in the game is scaled to happen more and more slowly as you advance in it.
Farmville is not even the first farming simulation game I've played: the Harvest Moon and Rune Factory games share many of the same conventions, while Farmville takes them in a slightly different direction. For the Harvest Moon games the limiting factor is most often time and dividing it up among all the things you want to accomplish over a real-time day, in Farmville the limiting resources are money and space, both of which can be purchased if you're willing to donate to the developer.
The Harvest Moon games are designed to be played full-time so you have no downtime and can always be accomplishing something, Farmville is designed to draw you back in small doses scattered throughout the day. In Harvest Moon you plant crops and keep yourself busy while in-game days pass, in Farmville you plant crops and harvest them on a real-world schedule, crops come due in hours or days and you have a limited amount of time to harvest them before they rot.
And the most significant difference is probably that in the Harvest Moon/Rune Factory games, investing in building up your farm and acquiring a fortune was a means to an end, the money and resources you acquired were funneled into secondary gameplay systems like wooing a wife, befriending your neighbors, or acquiring enough resources to fight your way through a dungeon. In Farmville, building a farm is the ultimate end-goal, and all the money you acquire is spent on decorations or the ability to arrange your farm for purely aesthetic purposes.
The genius in how Farmville has succeed in getting so many people addicted comes down to how it handles commitments on a player's time: every time you play Farmville and plant a crop, you're making a commitment to come back during a 12 hour window or so to harvest your crop, or else you forfeit your investment.
You can pick the size of your window to be anywhere from two hours to four days: that time period determines how long you have to wait until you can flip your crop and get your money back, as well as how long you have from harvest time to when it rots. And so Farmville fulfills the classic elements of addictive behavior: it rewards you for playing it by letting you have the sense of advancing in the game, particularly early on, it punishes you for going too long without playing, and it rewards you for coming back at predictable habit-forming intervals.
In order to quit Farmville you'd have to make a conscious choice after harvesting your fields to not re-plant them, or else leave all your currently planted crops to die. Some of my friends have even handed out their Facebook passwords to get their friends to babysit their farms for them when they're on vacation, or just put up with the ongoing multi-minute demands of their virtual fields.
I got roped into playing Farmville when my girlfriend insisted I needed to help her out and play with her. Together we worked up a spreadsheet to figure out what the profit per hour was for each crop in the game, which lead to some interesting results: unlike the other farming games that I'd encountered, trees and animals seemed to simply be an afterthought, they offered nowhere near the profitability of harvesting crops.
Even the larger investments you can make like a dairy farm which earns hundreds of coins a day would take a few months to become profitable, which is an eternity for a simple online farming game. Analyzing the profitability per crop also revealed some odd results, while the newer crops always offered a better return over their given time period than previous crops, the most profitable crops per hour remained fairly fixed throughout most of the game, and in some cases didn't change for more than 10 levels.
We came to the conclusion that a large number of features in Farmville were purely decorative even when they weren't intended to be--the game has a number of ribbons and achievements designed to reward players for pursuing something other than the simple profit-maximizing strategy of farming the heck out of their most profitable crop, but the returns offered told their own story.
I think Farmville does a lot of promising things for a social game, you get to build and arrange your own farm and show it off in a social space that overlaps with the most widely used social network in the world--there really aren't any other games I can pick up and immediately know whether any of my friends from high school are still playing it. The interactions with other players are largely superficial--you can fertilize a few of their crops an hour, and give them gifts at spaced intervals, but there's no real economy between the players for the resources you produce, which would undermine the real purpose of the game, getting you to spend actual money on its perks.
Farmville does seem consciously designed around that goal: it virally spreads itself throughout your social network as innocently as it can, and subtly convinces players that it's more worthwhile to pay actual money than spend all their time farming to get ahead, and tempts them with decorations you can't achieve any other way. What it's missing is a depth of strategy found in traditional out of the box games, a more substantive end-game, and a more balanced grind and progression through its content.
Frankly, I think Farmville is more addictive than it is fun. I like the fact that it's instantly networked in with my social sphere and it's proved accessible to people who don't normally indulge in my hobby of choice. I would love to see a game do all the things Farmville does in terms of its accessibility and ability to leverage existing social networks, I just want that game to be better, even if I have to pay for it.