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Tamagotchi, FarmVille, and "Fun Pain"
by Rosstin Murphy on 06/13/13 06:50:00 pm   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.

     FarmVille is a game about periodic, repetive action, grinding slowly over the course of days and weeks to a minor goal. When you get tired of grinding, you can spam your friends to get rewards faster. And eventually, when you get sick of that, you'll pay to get where you need to be. Is this really fun? Well, it's "fun pain", as Roger Dickey of Zynga puts it.
     Why do this to gamers? It's a lucrative strategy. From 2009-2012, Zynga was a supergiant of social gaming, experiencing high growth and huge success, with millions of daily active users. Regardless of Zynga's eventual fate, for those years they were king. Let's get something straight; I'm not here to demonize Zynga. They capitalize on an evil mechanic, but it's our job as game designers to create something both better and more lucrative than "fun pain". With the current trend towards Freemium mobile apps and in-app purchases, this is a significant challenge, but I think we're up to it. I'm here to tell you that in the long run, creating games that add value to people's lives is a better strategy than getting them addicted to fun pain.


     I'll leave it to this article to explain exactly how Zynga's strategy works. I'm just here to figure out where this all started. Zynga didn't make this mess. FarmVille (2009) was a clone of Chinese developer Ellison Gao's "Happy Farm" (2008), which in turn was a clone of a Russian farming game. Going further back in time, World of Warcraft (2004) is often cited as one of the originators of the addiction model, for creating a "rested XP" system that encouraged players to log in every day to reap the rewards of boosted experience points. However, I think that periodic gameplay is much older than that.


     Tamagotchi was a virtual pet sold by Bandai in 1996, created by Japanese designer Aki Maita. Tamagotchi is responsible for the entire virtual pet craze, predating Pokemon(1996), Furby (1998), and current generation mobile pet-raising games like DragonVale (2011).

     Tamagotchi is responsible for the periodic attention mechanic that "social gaming" is now known for. In order to keep your Tamagotchi alive, you had to check on it about once an hour. You pull it out of your pocket, feed it, play with it, clean up after it, and then that's it. Nothing left to do after a couple minutes. You put it back in your pocket and wait for it to need you again. The more periodic attention you gave it, the better a final form it would achieve. Treat your Tamagotchi well, and you were rewarded with the cute and well-behaved Mametchi. Treat it poorly, and you were punished with the odious and short-lived Tarakotchi. You couldn't pause the original Tamagotchi. It was a commitment. Tamagotchi could live anywhere from a month to years, and if it died early you knew it was your fault.

     If Tamagotchi and FarmVille have the same core mechanic, why do I still get a warm fuzzy feeling when I remember my Tamagotchi, but an oily prickling when I think about my days playing FarmVille? I think it has to do with the intent of the creators, and why and how they used the time mechanic. Tamagotchi's real-time mechanic was designed not as a way to support in-app purchases and frustrate gamers, but to create a feeling of connection with a virtual creature. "I think it's very important for humans to find joy caring for something" said Aki Maita of her creation. Maita didn't just spout this truism, she designed and playtested for it. She spent weeks observing how high-school girls used her Tamagotchi prototypes, and used the feedback to optimize her pets for emotional attachment. Compare to the philosophy of Marc Pinkus, CEO of Zynga: "I don't want innovation. You're not smarter than your competitor. Just copy what they do and do it until you get their numbers."

     You can see the difference in intent in the way the time mechanic is handled. Tamagatchi is a living, feeling creature. When it needs to sleep, it sleeps. When it's hungry, it whines at you. You can't pay gems or gold to force it to stop being hungry. Compare to the more recent Dragon Story by Storm8-- if it's taking too long for an egg to hatch, you can pay gold to make it happen instantly. Rather than simulating a biological need, the game is transparently making you wait in order to bait you into paying. Periodic events aren't a mechanic for you, the gamer, they're a mechanic for the company to get you to pay them. The fact that it's possible to pay a dollar to bypass waiting demonstrates how badly this mechanic is being abused. Waiting should be used as a mechanic to foster anticipation and surprise, not as a money grab. 

     I think that if creators keep in-mind the emotions and feelings they intend to instill in their audiences, and design their game mechanics around those rather than money, they will create happier games that enrich instead of detract from people's lives. In the long term, success, fame, and money will come to those designers who seek to add value to players, rather than go for quick cash and addiction. Periodic gameplay is being derided as "skinner box" gameplay, but it doesn't have to be that way. Social games and social mechanics don't have to be evil. They can be used to give busy people fun, interesting toys that grow, change, and surprise them, to create virtual worlds that live and develop even when they aren't playing. As game developers and designers, it's our duty to create those worlds.

  • Why you implement game mechanics is just as important as what mechanics you implement.
  • If you have good intentions and design your mechanics to create good feelings in your players, it will show.
  • Realtime mechanics don't have to be evil. Use them to foster immersion and anticipation.
  • Don't allow people pay gems to avoid waiting. Make waiting part of the enjoyment of the game, or take it out.
  • Don't use realtime mechanics to hide your lack of content.

Rosstin is an indie game producer who loves virtual pets. Check out his latest game, King's Ascent, on Facebook!

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Daniel Belchamber
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Great article! I absolutely agree that social games have gotten a bad rap of late. They can be so much more if designed with good intentions. Games should be about adding to people's lives and exploring new ways to create valuable experiences and new ways to play. They should definitely not be designed solely for profit. This is not to say that profits are not important, just that the purpose of creating a game should be to make something you would want to play, and profits should be sought after for the purpose of allowing the creators to maintain their games and create new ones.

"I don't want innovation. You're not smarter than your competitor. Just copy what they do and do it until you get their numbers."
- Marc Pinkus, CEO of Zynga

I believe that this is a shameful philosophy for creating games. It is for this very reason that the social game market is flooded with terrible games and has turned many players away from the genre. However, I believe that the genre is soon to experience a comeback. And hopefully, with the right games becoming popular, this solely-for-profit game design principle will cease to be as profitable.

Rosstin Murphy
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Background on the quote. Apparently, it was "I don't want *&^*ing innovation."


This is why company culture and attitude matters. What you really think and feel about your players has a way of getting out.

Joel Simon
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I remember having a Tamagotchi, that was a loong time ago. I think it successful partly because it tapped into our natural paternal and maternal instincts. That was part of why we felt so compelled to care for this strange thing.

I completly agree that the emotion felt by the player should be a focus of the design. What is the player feeling?, how are they thinking? when they play this part of the game.

Fortunately the crappy, shallow social games like farmville and the rest of what zynga barfs out are on the decline. As this fad ends hopefully new games arise that better utilization the potential of massive scale. In the creation of any medium the first way of products are usually shit, so i'm very excited to see what comes next.

Rosstin Murphy
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Tamagotchi was cool because it wasn't just a pet, it was also a cute monster. There actually weren't that many games about cute monsters back then... and we in the USA had to wait until 1998 for Pokemon to hit our shores.

I've always had an interest in the building/nurturing aspects of games, I'm glad that those types of gameplay are slowly becoming more relevant.

Jason Carter
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I never got into farmville too much when I saw the gated system baiting you into paying.

It didnt' make sense to me. Why ruin what could be a fun game by removing any achievement from it? There isn't anything fun about paying for a little picture of a house and crops, but EARNING those crops? Yeah you feel an achievement there.

It would be nice to see more social games incorporate things like this and make them fun and rewarding.

Also, I don't get that quote by Zynga. I really... just don't get how you could be the CEO of a company and say that.

Rosstin Murphy
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You have to remember he didn't think he was saying that to us... he was saying it to a group of employees. OK, it was still pretty dumb.

Josh Bakken
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I usually stay logged out and just read the articles but I wanted to say I think you may be more right than maybe you even know. In the toy industry you have evergreen brands that last for decades. In the game industry not so much unless there is an emotional attachment to a character people generally love and had fun with as a child...or sports.

The thing is most free-to-play companies (Most, not all. Hi CCP, you guys did a great job on DUST!) just don't really care about making long lasting brands...they just don't. I know this firsthand. I was a Producer on two Free-to-Play titles. They want you to get in, suck the players (and the IP) dry and get out. This is because most of them are money driven shells that have no soul run by people you probably wouldn't want your children turning out like. Oops, did I just write that?? Anyway, that was something I never really understood or respected even though my team and I were responsible for record-setting sales.

But here's the other thing, and this is something I'm pretty sure of, true intentions of producing and supporting quality games/content that both the developer and consumer care about, will ultimately win the day. Yes, it can be out-marketed by crap with more money, but that's only for the short term. Long term it will win out and grow into a trusted brand that is rock solid...until someone eventually sells it out and dilutes it.

Anyway, just last month I licensed one of my game designs, complete with great art from 17 different and unique artists to a mobile developer. We all have high hopes for it. But it will only succeed if it stays true to the spirit upon which it was made, monetize at an easy, understandable and sustainable rate, and be allowed to grow over time. Emotions and feelings will be key to its success or failure. Here's hoping we/they get it right.

Rosstin Murphy
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I truly believe that mobile and social games will eventually find their heart. Companies that last are those that form a lasting relationship with their consumers, and mobile game companies will realize that soon.

I'm interested in hearing more about the projects you worked on, Josh! You should tell me more about them some time, when they aren't secret anymore.

Robert Crouch
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I think it's funny that the implication is that World of Warcraft used rested XP to force players to log in every day to use bonus experience.

In actuality, when the Rested system was developed, WoW was being developed to compete against other more hardcore games. It was supposed to be more laid back and casual than the competition.

The rested system began as an incentive to stop people from feeling forced to play too long a stretch. The player would become fatigued when they played for too long and get reduced experience points. Players didn't like this idea of being punished for playing too much, so Blizzard changed it to be functionally identical, but called the default state rested, and give bonus exp, and the old fatigued state normal, and had it give normal exp.

Now instead of being punished for playing too long, it was more like you could take breaks without falling behind. Functionally the system was pretty much identical, names were changed, 100% and 50% became 200% and 100% and other values were updated accordingly.

I find it interesting that looking at it from yet a different perspective makes one infer that it was designed to addict players. Maybe that was the result, but I don't know if it was the intention. It didn't seem like it at the time.

Ramin Shokrizade
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I am in agreement with Robert. The "Rested XP" system can actually be used to mitigate addictive behavior, but in the form that Blizzard used the effect is too weak.

Rosstin Murphy
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Here's what is interesting-- originally, it wasn't a "Rested XP" BONUS, but a MALUS called something like "tiredness" when you played for too long. Players hated "tiredness", so Blizzard just flipped it around and called it "Rested XP", and then people loved it. (I wish I had a better source for this, Professor Schell mentioned it in-class and I can't find a good article about it at the moment.)

I agree that this mechanic isn't inherently bad. There is something really compelling about periodic gameplay, and being rewarded for checking in on a game every once in awhile to see what is new.

I used to be a really hardcore gamer who played at least an hour or two per day... Now that I work 8+ hours a day I really appreciate being able to log into Animal Crossing or Dragon Skies to put just a few minutes into a game.

Ramin Shokrizade
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I responded to that video of Roger Dickey in my 2011 "Two Contrasting Views of Monetization" paper. I find it interesting that the subject is being revisited a year and a half later, at a time when readers are more likely to be skeptical of Mr. Dickey's efficacy.

I think it is a bit weak to say that the designers of this game are not responsible for what we do with them. We see those that fall for these types of games as "weak" or "gullible". I just happen to be writing a paper that I will publish later this week that proposes that there are biological elements at play that make some people more susceptible to these techniques than others. In other words, there is a certain disability that neuroscientists are quite familiar with that is being exploited by these products. I think Zynga knows who these people are and has created their whole business around targeting these groups. Zynga is only the beginning. Armed with certain knowledge, it is possible to do even more harm than what Mr. Pincus and his employees have done to our industry and people, and the only final solution may be regulation.

Nicholas Lovell
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I agree with your thrust, but totally disagree with the Tamagotchi argument. In fact, I think Tamagotchi did the exact opposite of what you are saying.

A Tamagotchi refused to let you have control of your life. It wasn't up to you when you chose to come back (something you can control in Farmville and similar games by choosing the harvest time of the crops that you plant). A Tamagotchi required you to come back when the Tamagotchi wanted you to come back, not when you agreed to come back. If anything is cynical, it's that.

I agree that we need to care about what players are feeling. Value lies in how we make people feel, even more so when they expect their content for free. But Tamagotchi is an example of a highly exploitative mechanic that put the game above the real-life needs of its players, and I think we've moved forward from that.

Rosstin Murphy
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I agree that the Tamagotchi mechanic is one that intrudes on people's lives (in a similar way that FarmVille and other social games mechanics sometimes do.) In fact, a lot of modern social games at least don't punish you for inattention as the Tamagotchi does. Tamagotchi isn't a perfect product, even Aki Maita was quoted as saying that she was too busy to ever get her Tamagotchi to live for a few days.

I guess the point with Tamagotchi was that it was true to itself. It was meant to be like a baby, a little pocket responsibility, and it did that. It was annoying and intrusive, but this made it feel alive to many people.

I don't think you could make Tamagotchi today for the mobile market and have it succeed the way it did in the 90s. But I think at the time it came out it was a bold move.

Christian Nutt
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I think calling Tamagotchi "cynical" is a little strong. It was a simple simulation. And as I recall, it was pretty trivial to take care of it as long as you kept it with you.

And fun, for that matter!

Matt Cratty
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I'm sorry, but no.

It's not fun.

As Tarn Adams puts it, its abusive.

Chris Dias
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"Fun pain" is a weak euphemism for masochism.

Katina Ferguson
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Just wanted to point out that Pokemon came before Tamagatchi:

Pokemon was released on Feb 1996:
Tamagatchi was released on November 1996:

Rosstin Murphy
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You're right! Pokemon only came out "after" Tamagotchi from the point of view of Americans. Tamagotchi got to us at the end of 1996 but those of us in the US didn't see Pokemon until 1998, despite it being released in Japan in 1996.

Katina Ferguson
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Did you know that Pokemon almost didn't get ported to the US? There was a very interesting article in a super old Nintendo Power about why Pokemon hadn't made it to the US even yet though it was slated to release. They didn't think it would sale.