Deconstructing Farmville

I started playing Farmville a couple of months ago, as a part of my continuing education in games and game design. The surprise? I'm still playing it. And I even ponied up some of my own cash to keep Zynga running. (If you like a creative work, it behooves you to support the people who made it, right, kids?) 

It's not like me to play a game for more than a few weeks. Treasure Madness and Packrat? Ancient history. Kongregate keeps me coming back for twenty minutes a pop, but I hardly ever play the same game twice. Oh, sure, Clockwords, Chain Factor and Boomshine all kept me for a while, and I might still play from time to time, but it's nothing like the dedication with which I play Farmville. So what is it about Farmville? What makes it so special? The answer is that it absolutely nails all of the things I like best in a casual game.

  1. Multiple goals. For those of you who don't already know, Farmville is at its heart a very light, easy resource management game. You have a limited amount of land and money, and it's up to you to work out how to use them to get what you want. Better, it's up to you to decide what you want. Farmville offers experience points and levels, achievements and ribbons to earn, and sets of objects to collect. You can play to make the coolest 8-bit image on your farm, play to master all crops, or change from one goal to another depending on your mood. The more things there are to do, the more likely it is any given player will find something that floats their boat and stick around.

  2. No penalties. You might be able to lose Farmville, but you'd have to work really hard at it. The only limited factor is time -- you need to harvest crops before they wither. But you know how long that takes, and the time between ripening and withering varies from 2 hours to 4 days, depending on what you planted. And even if you neglect and lose all your crops, you're unlikely to have lost all your money. If you have managed to burn through it all, you can always visit neighboring farms to earn a little seed money for your next crop. I don't know about you, but I play games to relax. For me, keeping the stakes and pressure low works way better than ticking clocks and hordes of zombies shambling toward me. And I don't imagine I'm a special flower, unique in my gaming tastes.

  3. Effort is always rewarded. In Farmville, you get out of it what you put into it. It's just like the grind in Warcraft, an invigorating contrast to the uncertainties of real life. In Farmville, as long as you keep trying, you'll keep moving up. This is the secret sauce that makes World of Warcraft the behemoth it is, and one of my foundation principles of game design.

  4. Shiny new content. Farmville is very much not a finished product. Zynga's developers are constantly unrolling new features and virtual items, holding limited-time events, and refining the interface. The game hasn't been the same from one week to the next since at least Halloween, when I began playing. And a lot of this content has limited availability -- you can plant forget-me-nots and buy moose right now, but they'll be gone again in five days. (But something else will come along.) That keeps players coming back; there's less chance to become bored if there's always something fresh.

  5. Collaboration, not competition. The only rivalries here are the ones you make yourself. But Farmville's social mechanics encourage you to not only play yourself, but to get your friends to play, and to play more often. There are objects you can only receive if a friend has sent it to you, and collections you can only complete by interacting with a friend's farm. The more friends you have in Farmville, the better you'll do. Peer pressure to play is a subtle but powerful thing.

  6. Value for money. Farmville lets you buy FV money with real dollars, not to be confused with the lesser gold currency. FV money lets you buy some things that you might otherwise have to save up scads of gold for; but there are also animals, objects and other incentives you can only get with FV money. The game is very cleverly designed to show you the advantages of paying Zynga for play without being a spammy pest about it. They put the incentives for paying in front of you, but they aren't shoving your nose into it. Their method works.

  7. Low time commitment. This is the kicker. I can play Farmville for ten minutes in the morning, for ten minutes every couple of days, or I can spend all day planting 2-hour raspberries, visiting my neighbors' farms, and rearranging my orchards and flocks. And if the phone rings, or my kid spills Goldfish all over the floor, or I remember it's time to make dinner, I can walk away and come back later. (See point 2, No penalties.) I wish more games were like that!

What about you? Are you a Farmville fan or foe? Are there reasons I've missed that you think make it so successful, or do you think I'm completely off base? Let me know what you think!

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