The Mass Appeal of Farmville

The most common description that I’ve heard for Farmville is that it’s a pyramid scheme. Nels Anderson, a designer at Hothead games, commented on Twitter that it was the most cynical game design that he had ever seen (“Ending Up Back in the Arcade”, Above 49, 6 October 2009). It is also one of the most played games on Facebook with more accounts than World of Warcraft or even Twitter (“Zynga Facebook App Data”, At GDC this year, Farmville was one of the most debated topics, both hailed as the future of video games and as the end of the industry as we know it. What is the appeal of such a successful but criticized game for players and developers?

It would be more accurate to call Farmville a pyramid game, instead of a scheme, because there is no real deception occurring between user and developer. You don’t have to give them money, click on the ads, or hassle your friends if you want to play. Instead, those options exist if you want to speed up the game’s leveling process. To most gamers, the design will remind them of a very simple RPG. To plant crops, you pay money and then gain experience. After a set amount of time goes by, you can harvest the crops for more money than you paid to plant them.

If you wait too long, the crops will begin to rot one grid at a time, so you have to make sure to always check up on the game. Gaining experience lets you level up and plant different crops that are more profitable. There are two kinds of money: the abundant gold coins that you get for harvesting crops and the more tricky to accrue Farmville Money, which you only get randomly or by paying for it with a credit card. Gold coins pay for crops and basic farming, Farmville money buys rare decorations or luxury equipment like tractor fuel. That’s the basic design of the game.

Where Farmville differs from other games of this type is the way that goods and values shift by incorporating the game into Facebook’s social network. In order to upgrade the size of your farm, which allows you to plant more crops, you can either “neighbor” a certain number of people or pay real money. Neighboring someone in Farmville is a bit like friending them on Facebook in that you’re probably not going to expose yourself to a total stranger, so this usually means recruiting people from your social circle to play.

Neighbors are also handy to have because you can go visit their farm to gain experience by weeding or fertilizing their crops. This tends to help the person doing the fertilizing more than it helps the one receiving the service, so such motivation is automatic. The ultimate effect is that Farmville creates a strong incentive for players to recruit their friends, and perhaps more importantly, to actively visit each other’s farms and look around. Players cannot negatively impact each other in anyway. They can only help.

With everyone constantly visiting one another’s virtual farms, an incentive to decorate your own farm is also created. Crops and basic goods are usually bought with gold coins but decorating your farm can be very expensive in terms of both spending in game coins and real money. As various holidays or sporting events come up, players will decorate their farms to show off to the people visiting their farms. During every loading screen, Farmville will show the developer’s picks for the most glamorous farm that week.

This creates a purely social aspect of the game that is not enforced by the design. During my own experience with the game, several players criticized my farm’s appearance without me even asking. Things like how I only grew one type of crop or not putting up Christmas decorations seemed to always come up during Farmville discussions. Like many massively multiplayer online games (MMOs), the real experience of the game is not leveling up in isolation, but instead, it is about working in groups. The competitive element is almost entirely imposed by the perception of your own friends and virtual neighbors.

Farmville is able to make itself an intrinsic part of social networking because it supplements one of the biggest weaknesses in Facebook’s system. Your connection to others always ends up decaying. If you aren’t seeing someone on a daily basis and working with them, you slowly have less to talk about and thus not much to discuss unless you have a deeper bond.

A study on Facebook conducted at Indiana University argues that social networks are often used by people experiencing a major life change such as college students. Thus, Facebook allows college students to stay in touch with their high school friends and maintain social capital. It’s also a handy way to solidify temporary “acquaintanceships” by establishing a connection between new friends beyond just seeing them in class.

What’s interesting about the study is that the website is only good for maintaining weak social ties, it doesn’t facilitate deeper relationships. The study points out that: “It can lower barriers to participation and therefore may encourage the formation of weak ties but not necessarily create the close kinds of relationships that are associated with bonding social capital . . . it may help individuals to maintain pre-existing close relationships, just as it can be used as a low-maintenance way to keep tabs on distant acquaintances” (Nicole B. Ellison, Charles Steinfeld, and Cliff Lampe, “The Benefits of Facebook ‘Friends’: Social Capital and College Students’ Use of Online Social Network Sites”, Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication 12.4, July 2007).

Think about it this way: how often do you have an actual, legitimate reason to talk to that one person that you used to be friends with years ago? Maybe when it’s their birthday? The rare occasion that they announce something important on their newsfeed? Or maybe some old photos get posted that spark a conversation? By contrast, Farmville gives you something to talk about everyday no matter where your friends live.

This isn’t just about college kids, though. Most of the players that I discussed the game with picked it up based on the invitation of co-workers in order to promote social capital with them. Jorge Albor wrote a great post discussing his mother’s fascination with the game. He writes, “Office-Game relationships emphasize relative gains, with each participant was eager to match, if not surpass, the accrued wealth of their friends. In game achievements and announcements create virtual pride and jealousy.

In fact, the entire system looks very similar to existing office culture. In an environment that combines teamwork with the chance of individual promotion, office workers become adept at measuring the relative success and failures of their co-workers” (“Farmpocalypse Now”, Experience Points, 7 Sept 2009) .

My own playthrough was not so much competitive as it was just something to chat about. Of the sixteen people that I could find to neighbor with and who played consistently, only two were men. The rest were female classmates, long distance friends, and women that I’d met while going out on weekends. The nice thing about Farmville is that it gives you something to do that isn’t a tedious or creepy, “What are you doing?”, internet chat session. You can just go fertilize their crops, send them gifts, or ask them for tips on the game. The game will let them know that you did it and suggest that they go visit your farm.

The gift system makes it possible that you’re always giving out resources, and it makes for an ice breaker as you negotiate what items to exchange. What was refreshing about all these conversations is that they occurred out in the real world. Chatting in game isn’t really effective, so instead, it came up in bars, over the phone, and in other social settings.

Dirt Cheap / Rich Soil

Dirt Cheap / Rich Soil

Farmville is able to maximize the profits from its revenue sources by making each play session always put you within a few coins of the next big thing.

So, what’s the financial appeal of these games? For starters, Facebook games are dirt cheap to make. Farmville only took five weeks to produce. The average expenses for Facebook games are $100,000 to $300,000, games spend about four- to 12 weeks in development, and they staff roughly ten or so people (“Zynga’s chief designer compares social games development to video game development”, Games for Social Networks, 19 Feb 2010). By contrast, your typical AAA game is going to take about two years in development, potentially require dozens of employees, and somewhere in the millions of dollars to produce. A company like Zynga has several RPG variations on Facebook that are all producing respectable incomes. Farmville just happens to be the most successful one because the subject matter is accessible to a broad audience.

Your basic microtransaction MMO like Silk Road operates on a five percent principle. Ninety-five percent of the people who play the game never pay money for anything and take great pride in that fact. If anything, microtransactions make the game more engaging to play because the player will always feel like they’re “winning” because they’re not coughing up money.

One of the most common features that I saw in Farmville strategy guides was to break cropping and harvesting down into how much money you’re making (a.k.a. not spending) when you plant certain crops. (Adam Nash, “The Personal Economics of Farmville”, Psychohistory, 22 August 2009) The concept is that if your game has a large enough population of people who all think something is valuable about five percent of them will always be competitive enough to pay real money so that they can be the best. To give you an idea of the price range of Farmville’s rarer goods, you can buy a 40 dollar ring that results in your crops never having to rot. Other decorations like luxury houses, landscaping, or seasonal decorations all require real money.

The other way that Farmville makes money is through a very clever advertising model. Throughout play, you will see banner or box ads that will provide you in game money if you click on them. While relatively few people are willing to flat out pay money for the game, most are happy to click through a few windows to get some extra cash. Michael Arrington says that the system allows credit card companies to coerce players into filling out entire credit card applications for Farmville money.

Arrington calls this tactic “unethical”, provoking many of his respondents to simply label it “fraud” (“Scamville: The Social Gaming Ecosystem of Hell”, TechCrunch, 31 Oct 2009). There was a bit of controversy over the matter, and during my own playthrough of the game, it seemed like Zynga had cut back on this sort of thing. I had no trouble ignoring the ads and didn’t even notice them until someone pointed them out to me.

Farmville is able to maximize the profits from these revenue sources by making each play session always put you within a few coins of the next big thing. Your average MMO like World of Warcraft relies on several addiction mechanics that Nicholas Yee compares to the research methodologies applied by B.F. Skinner. Skinner developed a process called “Operant Conditioning” by putting a hamster in a box with a button that dispenses food pellets. If the button dispenses food pellets every time it is pressed, the hamster grows complacent. If you set up a transparent system where five presses dispenses a pellet, the hamster will work harder. Set the dispenser to random and the hamster will work hardest of all. (“The Virtual Skinner Box”, The Norrathian Scrolls: A Study of Everquest).

For your average subscription based MMO, the developer will employ all of these reward systems to try and keep people playing. The most prized items are dropped randomly by monsters and leveling up is a transparent “Do this X times to get prize” system. In Farmville, random drops are usually just things like virtual money or cheap trinkets. All values and goals are transparent so that you are always aware of how close you are to the next big purchase. It maximizes the temptation to click on an ad or spend a few bucks on Farmville dollars because you always know just how much you need.

There are a few catches to this. For starters, design cloning is rampant on Facebook. There are numerous Farmville knock-offs providing essentially the same product for cheaper microtransactions. It is also highly unlikely that a social network like Facebook will continue to allow social game operators to retain 100 percent of the revenue they generate. As Greg Costikyan points out, the traditional casual games portal only pays 20 percent of the profits to the game developer.

That’s a worst case scenario. Facebook is currently experimenting with an internal payment system where you can buy Facebook Credits and spend them on services integrated into the website. This program will take a 30 percent cut of revenues to sellers of virtual goods. As Costikyan notes, this is the going rate for XBLA, WiiWare, and iPhone apps. Costikyan explains, “The social networks are in the whip hand. They are the main providers of value. The social network game providers are like intestinal bacteria; they may help their host, but their survival is entirely at the host’s whim” (“Pay With Facebook and Why Pigs Fly”, Play This Thing!, 1 March 2010).

It should also be noted that most game developers and designers see Farmville as a threat to the traditional business model and ethics of video games. David Hayward points out that Farmville‘s model of game design threatens a developer’s sense of identity because, instead of having an artistic vision, a designer’s job is now to just modify a money making machine (“Zynga: The Future, Or Just A Bit Of It?”, Gamasutra, 15 March 2010). The majority of Farmville’s creation did not occur in the five weeks of coding it, but in the months after release, when feedback was studied and refined to suit consumers’ desires.

A great recap post by Soren Johnson breaks down several other hostile reactions to this trend. For example, he reports that Daniel James points out that the game is little better than a scam that exploits basic psychological flaws in the human brain. He reiterates that Chris Hecker argues that the reactive-design approach to games tends to overvalue external rewards and will end up making a game dull because you win excessively. Johnson himself comments, “Games will no longer be a manifestation of an individual’s (or a team’s) pure imagination and, instead, will grow out of the murky grey area between developers and players” (“Fear and Loathing in Farmville”, Designer Notes, 19 March 2010).

In a research paper on MMO economies and the effect of microtransactions, economist Edward Castranova called the perplexing situation of people paying money for virtual goods the “puzzle of puzzles” (“On Virtual Economies”, Game Studies 3.2, December 2003). The basic worldview of economics asserts that there is always a conflict between our ends and our means. All human behavior is understood as the process by which people choose conduct based on the fact that you can’t always get what you want in real life. Video games, Castranova asserts, are unique in that people seem to instead be paying money to facilitate both a feeling of accomplishment and an accompanying sense of challenge. Castranova writes, “The ‘puzzle of puzzles’ is resolved here by recognizing that constraints can have a positive effect on emotional satisfaction, and therefore states with tougher constraints may actually be more desirable.”

In that sense, Farmville is yet another video game where you can escape reality’s limits and achieve your desires if you work at it long enough. By integrating itself into Facebook’s social network, it magnifies that sense of accomplishment because the challenges come from your community rather than an unknown developer. The appeal of the game is otherwise the same as any other. People will pay you with time or money to have challenges imposed on them so long as they are challenges that can be overcome.