What I Learned From FarmVille – So You Don’t Have To Play It

Introduction

I’m a “traditional” game designer, lately of Deep Blue Sea 2, and working on Chase Ace. I’ve spent a few months and some money playing FarmVille, to understand what makes it work. I’ll continue playing it for a while yet, since there’s still ground I haven’t covered.

I would definitely recommend other game designers to do the same, even while they rightfully laugh at the gameplay. The key is to look beyond the core game play, which is bad, and realize that the reason why FarmVille is very widely popular is not that the world is broken, but rather that Zynga are very good at something else than gameplay.

Why you should play FarmVille, even though you think you are better than Zynga

Zynga are very good at compulsion and viral pressure, and even though you are probably better at designing basic game play than them – judging from FarmVille alone – you can learn from what Zynga are good at, and improve your regular games and their viability with social mechanisms that may actually improve the game experience for your players, even if you are not interested in making so-called “social games”.

Fun vs Compulsion

I usually distinguish between Fun and Compulsion, when talking about gameplay. World of Warcraft and other RPGs have a lot of innate Compulsion mechanisms, but usually also give you some Fun to balance it out. Most games have a mix between Fun and Compulsion, but games that keep you playing for 60 hours and have a strong collection element are usually heavy on the Compulsion side, with varying success on the Fun side.
I personally think that Compulsion taps into some hardwired reptile-brain behavior in people, which came about because covering all the territory or collecting all the [valuable stuff] was beneficial to survival at some point in human history.
You can usually tell if you’ve been the victim of Compulsion without Fun, if you end a game much later than you intended, and promptly feel kind of stupid for not turning it off 3 hours earlier.

I’m pretty sure Zynga is not concerned with Fun gameplay at all – they are only interested in Compulsion and viral pressure, both of which feed their primary interest: making money.

I am not prone to play or become hooked on Compulsion heavy games that are light on Fun. Ever since I missed a couple of weeks of university classes back in the day when Fallout 2 came out, I I became very aware of Compulsion vs Fun and hypersensitive to games that offer too little Fun per time unit.
I’m playing FarmVille in spite of this, because I think it’s interesting to learn what makes Zynga worth more than EA (6 billion USD vs 5 billion USD), and I think it’s my duty as a game designer to keep an open mind, step outside my comfort zone and play shit that I really don’t like, when it seems to work for so many players.

FarmVille did not become like this by accident

It’s worth noting that Zynga are very heavy users of analytics, and every change to their game is heavily tested and mined for data, to determine whether it was beneficial to their bottom line. If it’s not, it’s scrapped. This is business-smart, but designing games purely on the basis of metrics is ultimately the kind of thing that leads to the game-equivalent of a McDonalds meal – overly optimized to sell and with zero soul, inspiration or nutrition.

While Zynga are pretty sleazy in their practices, there are a lot of fundamental lessons to learn from FarmVille that can be applied in various degrees to games that offer actual gameplay.
In other words – you can use these powers for Good!

In my opinion, FarmVille is quite a crappy game with zero to no Fun game play and a downright horrible user interface, but it is full of clever compulsion-inducers and viral mechanisms that keeps you playing, and incentivizes spreading the game to friends in ways that push hard up against – but usually don’t overstep – the threshold of feeling like you’re outright being paid to spam other people.

In general, FarmVille is clever about generating real value – or rather, perceived value – only when two or more people are interacting “socially” with each other or if you straight up give them real human money.
This means that either Zynga is directly making money on the user, or they are at least keeping each other playing, which in turn raises the possibility of them eventually spending money or generating more users by involving their friends. It’s a lovely pyramid scheme.

Semi-structured list of FarmVille mechanisms

Below is a dumping ground for various observations about viral and compulsion mechanisms in FarmVille that work pretty well.

A quick introduction to the currency types in FarmVille.
As Teut Weidemann, a free-to-play game consultant, recommends, the game has two types of currency

1. Abundant Currency: FarmCoins, which can be had for free by playing. You often have hundreds of thousands of these, if not millions.
2. Rare Currency: FarmCash, which is rare and hard to come by – you get 1 FarmCash per level up, or you can buy FarmCash for about 1 DKK (0.2 USD) per FarmCash unit. This is what the game is all about – getting Cash Value.

Completion Urge

FarmVille uses a simple mechanism to get you to benefit them in various ways, like pressing “Like”, allowing them to email you and finally post spam automatically to your wall – which I never allowed.
They do this by simply showing you a progress bar, and appealing to your need to finish things. That 80% filled progress bar just sits there right above the game screen and beckons you to complete it. (Thanks to patio11 from hacker news for reminding me).

Email harvesting – Offering Value in return for your email

  • Within a short while in the game, you find a locked box which requires a passcode that can only be emailed to you.
  • Daily reminder emails (Daily Email Only Fuel Boost) to play farmville, that have value for the player, but also works as a daily reminder to go and play.

Viral Pressure Mechanisms

Neighbors

  • You can invite friends to be your farm neighbors.
  • Most of the interesting stuff, like good farm machines, can either only be purchased with FarmCash or you can buy it with a lot of FarmCoins but only if you have a lot of Neighbors.
  • Having many neighbors and playing a lot makes it possible to get a lot of the things that are otherwise only possible to get with FarmCash. They cost enormous amounts of FarmCoins then. You pay 2 million FarmCoins for a farm expansion that can be bought for 60 FarmCash.
  • Kids and other people who have no respect for digital boundaries – the kind of people who will email you and 600 other people a fake virus warning with everyone in the To: field – will be inclined to spam heaps of people with neighbor requests, resulting in more users. People who are playing FarmVille already are in the same boat of needing as many neighbors as possible, so they will be happy with the neighbor requests.
  • Sleazy: FarmVille slightly obscures which of your friends are already playing FarmVille and who aren’t, on the “Invite your friends to become your neighbor” screen, so you’re likely to spam non-FarmVille playing friends with “PLAY FARMVILLE!” ,requests..

Gifting

  • Objects worth 1–2 FarmCash are available for Gifting
  • When you give people gifts, you are not losing it yourself – you never owned it, you are just able to pull it from a magical cloud, but only if you give it to someone. Zynga gives you something of value, but only if you give it to someone else, which reminds the recipient of playing FarmVille some more.
  • Gifting basically lets you spam a friend with a FarmVille reminder, but it comes with something of actual cash value, that can otherwise only be purchased with coveted FarmCash. Any FarmVille player will welcome gifts.
  • Gifting frequency is limited, meaning you can’t ”farm” infinite amounts of stuff by ganging up with a friend. You are typically limited to one gift per friend per day (around there).
  • When you receive gifts, you are prompted to return the favor, which you typically do, which is then returned again, etc, resulting in what I call “Gift Tennis”. This accrues slightly valuable items for both parties, but also has the effect of users reminding each other to play FarmVille all the time.
  • The frequency limiting of gifting for a certain user motivates users to gift to as many friends as possible, as often as possible. This probably widely keeps people coming back, long after they intended to stop playing FarmVille. I am very interested in seeing how much pressure (and in how many forms) I’m going to be getting when I stop playing – I bet it’s impressive.
  • Sleazy: FarmVille doesn’t make it clear to you who of your friends are already playing FarmVille and who is not. You may well be sending gifts to people that arrive as “Your friend thinks you should start playing FarmVille, and has given you this gift to get started”.

Asking people for stuff (Inverse Gifting)

  • You can let FarmVille post requests on your wall (that will show up in your friends news streams) for certain items (of the type that are typically giftables – low FarmCash value, not possible to buy with FarmCoins).
  • Your friends can click on the news item and be brought directly to FarmVille through a “Gift sent!” screen.
  • This is yet another reminder for people to get back to the crackpipe.
  • Sleazy: As everywhere else, FarmVille does not make it clear to you who is already playing FarmVille and who isn’t, so you can easily spam all your non-farming friends with “Start playing FarmVille and send me a gift” messages.

Collaborating

  • You can complete challenges with friends (farm X amount of Y crop in Z days).
  • The point is to have players nag each other to plant certain crops, which has the usual reminder effect, plus it might change people playing cadence.

Trading Goods

  • When you farm a lot of plots, you sometimes get “bushels” of the crop you are farming. These bushels can be used to create goods, or you can share them with friends.
  • The bushels payout is random, and forces you to farm a lot of plots (classic random reward scheduling, as per Skinner boxes)
  • They motivate people to diversify the crops they plant, possibly creating a bit of variation in this boring game.
  • Gaming Cadence: Forcing people to plant new crops (which have different grow times) has the effect of forcing people to change their “Gaming Cadence” (a term I just invented), since they might suddenly need to start playing in the evening and daytime to be able to harvest the 12 hour crops they need (where they used to only plant 24 hour crops and harvest / plant at the same time of day).
  • They have yet another digital hoarding aspect, where you can collect recipes, upgrade them, etc, etc. All feeding back to planting different crops and bugging your friends (the entirety of core gameplay in FarmVille).
  • You can buy goods from friends with FarmCoins and turn them into fuel (the only way to get fuel from FarmCoins).
  • Since you can only buy one good per neighbor per day, you are (again) encouraged to have as many neighbors as possible.
  • Every time you purchase a good from a friend (or a friend purchases a good from you), an email is sent to the seller to remind them to play farmville, but under the guise of “you sold a good! collect your rewards!”.

Consumables: Fuel / Feed

  • Fuel is important in FarmVille because it saves you a lot of clicking – it runs farm machines, like tractors, harvesters, seeders, etc.
  • Fuel is not strictly necessary, but it can cut your boring farming (click, click, click) by up to 27 times (if you have a Hot Rod Combine Harvester) and possibly more with more upgrades.
  • Fuel is a consumable – you use it quite quickly, especially if you have an expanded farm. You will always need more.
  • Fuel costs FarmCash, and can’t be bought with the abundant FarmCoins
  • The Daily Email Only Fuel Boost is therefore worth real money.
  • You can gift fuel to friends (without taking it from yourself), and ask for it from others.
    Fuel supposedly recharges over time (I’ve heard, but this might have been replaced with the Email Only Fuel Boost).
  • There is a way to get fuel for coins, but only indirectly by involving your friends/neighbors: You can buy “goods” from your friends for FarmCoins, and then cash these goods in for fuel (they don’t seem to have any function besides converting to fuel). Once again, you can avoid paying FarmCash for a valuable consumable, by involving others (i.e. reminding them to play FarmVille).

Capturing Quitters

I’ve heard that Zynga are phenomenal at capturing people who are tired of one of their games, and roping them into playing a different Zynga game – this gives them great retention across their portfolio.
They also have cross promotions, like a huge “billboard” for CityVille suddenly standing on the edge of your FarmVille farm.

That’s it for now.