March 07, 2010

Yes, I am a Farmville addict

CNN: The Facebook Games that Millions Love (and Hate)
Zynga Games Network, Inc.

A long time ago, the creator of SimCity decided to go rural. He came out with a farming simulation called, "SimFarm". It took awhile to learn, and many of its user interface elements were decidedly counterintuitive, but after a couple of weeks I was able to build a pretty decent farm growing a variety of products including strawberries, corn, wheat, and potatoes. I played SimFarm for a couple years, but then Maxis sold out to Electronic Arts and EA was in no mood to mess around with niche games. The only Maxis product they continued to develop was SimCity. They, in my opinion, destroyed the finest video game ever developed. The last version of SimCity I played was SimCity 2000. It was pure torture!

I also played SimEarth and SimLife. I never saw the attraction of "The Sims", but then I've always been an oddball that way.

So, after much coercion by several key members of my family, I finally signed up for Facebook. Within a couple days I discovered that people I had not heard from in years were posting their daily life on Facebook and as long as I was in their "Friend's" list, I could follow along. In many ways, Facebook is more intimate than living next door!

And then one fateful day somebody sent me an invitation to play a game called, "Farmville". Within a couple days that same person sent me invitations to dozens of games, all based on Macromedia's excellent Flash technology and all playable from inside Facebook. I now play many of these games, but my favorite is still the first one, Farmville.

In many ways Farmville is everything SimFarm should have been but could not be because the technology would not yet allow it. It is so easy to learn that within fifteen minutes a brand new player can master everything the game entails. And yet, in the early stages a fifteen-minute gaming session is far too long and the player quickly runs out of things to do. Many people quit within the first few days because the early stages are so unchallenging that calling it a "game" almost seems like a joke. As time goes on and your farm expands the time element increases as well. Now, at level 27, I have to be careful or a "quick" gaming session can suddenly run into a couple hours!

Much of the game play is tedious, but over the past couple weeks they have added several "Hot Rod" farm implements such as a "Hot Rod Tractor", "Hot Rod Seeder", and "Hot Rod Harvester" that have automated many of the most tedious chores simply by expanding the reach of each game tool. (Not to mention given me some really cool farming implements to show off to my neighbors every time they stop in for a visit!)

The game play is pretty simple. You have "plots" where you use a tractor tool to plow and then a seeder tool to plant seeds. Different plants have different germination times so if you are going to be available you can plant something like Raspberries that mature in a couple hours but produce little experience or gold. If you're not going to be online for awhile you can plant something like Artichokes that take four full days to mature. There are many vegetables and flowers with germination times in between these two extremes and every plant has unique, attractive graphics for three to six stages of maturity from seed to harvest. There are also trees which a player can plant once and then harvest every couple of days for a consistent source of gold, but little or no experience.

As your gold increases you can purchase a variety of things to decorate your farm including houses and barns in many different colors and several styles. Recently they have introduced Chicken Coups and Dairies, making it easy to harvest the production of many different animals with a single mouse click.

Speaking of animals, every holiday they come out with unique, colorful, seasonal animals, trees, crops, and buildings. On my farm in addition to chickens, cows, horses, geese, and ducks, I have a Tiger Cub and a couple "Clumsy Reindeer" with Christmas lights tangled in their antlers! In my chicken coup there are four different kinds of chickens: white, brown, gold, and black. Each produces different eggs with different values. The colored chickens will occasionally produce special "mystery" eggs that when hatched will sometimes produce decorations or unique, collectible items.

The real secret to enjoying Farmville is visiting your "Neighbors". Every Facebook "Friend" who becomes a "Neighbor" dramatically increases your ability to earn experience and gold. By visiting your Neighbor's farms and performing a few simple tasks, you gain extra opportunities for advancement so that the farmers with the most Neighbors also wind up having the largest, most productive farms! Naturally, every time a Neighbor visits your farms and performs a few simple chores, your productivity improves, sometimes dramatically!

Take flowers, for instance. All flowers have a chance to produce a "Perfect Bunch" which you can post to your Facebook profile and share with your friends. If your friends stop in and fertilize your flowers, they produce even more Perfect Bunches, adding to your rewards while providing them the opportunity to decorate their farms with colorful Perfect Bunches retrieved from your profile posts! In this way Farmville, and other Zynga games, encourage and expand opportunities for interpersonal interaction and friendly cooperation. The more you cooperate, the more competitive you become! This makes for a far more enjoyable ingame experience than the endless bouts of sadistic PvP contests most online games use to encourage "player interaction".

Even when games such as Mafia Wars provide an opportunity for "PvP", most of the action takes place offstage. There have been many times when I was playing Mafia Wars when someone "attacked" and I didn't even realize it until I was ready to log off!

Zynga games has hit on a rare and wonderful combination of playability, competitiveness, and interactivity that was impossible to achieve even five years ago. The advent of Facebook as a social networking site with 24/7 interconnectivity among friends as well as dramatic advances in Flash API programming interfaces has made it possible to broadcast game events around the globe instantly while still shielding players from the brutality of hypercompetitive and highly personal interactions such as those that occur in a World of Warcraft battlefield. Flash keeps the interface simple, yet colorful and attractive, while also providing mathematic processing and database organizational tools the likes of which game designers as recently as a decade ago could only dream about. All it took was a design team with the creativity and wherewithal to put the pieces together.

Don't misunderstand me. Creating and marketing these games is still a lot of work and Zynga deserves every bit of the success they have earned. If you watched the interview above and read the article, then you know the road has not been easy. There were many unforeseen obstacles to overcome, but overcome them they have and in doing so, laid a solid foundation for future growth.

Provided Pres. Obama and Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi can be prevented from bankrupting the country, then once the economy begins recovering a few years from now Zynga games will be positioned to expand as rapidly as any traditional brick and mortar retailer and far more rapidly than some. Assuming, of course, they can continue coming up with interesting and entertaining ways to make their games more enjoyable without making them overcomplicated.

Yes, I am a Farmville addict and I am loving every minute of it. Nice work, Mark Pincus, you have every reason to be proud of what you have achieved.