Some Awesome Things

The world is full of completely awesome things that you should be paying attention to right now.

If you haven't checked out Him, Her and Them yet, you really, really should. (But you probably have, because I'm late to the party here.) The project is Murmurco's "social film," and I wanted to see it badly enough to ignore my idealistic stance on Facebook. It is a really lovely experiment in building a framework of story, and then letting a group add in layers of shared depth and meaning.

While I'm at it, don't miss Veronique is Visiting from Paris. This is the work of Hugo winner Elizabeth Bear and the stunning photographer Kyle Cassidy. I don't want to wade into the transmedia definition debate by calling this that, but it is very definitely an innovative exercise in fragmented story.

And finally: If this picture does not fill you with joy, then I... I just don't know what to say to you.


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Quitting Facebook

If you've been reading me for long, you know I talk a big game about ideals and activism. I'm all about taking principled stands for what I believe in -- at least in writing. But sometimes, you have to walk the walk, too. That's why I'll be deleting my Facebook account one week from today. 

Facebook has done some tremendous things for me. It's allowed me to connect and reconnect with friends and family I've missed terribly (or never even knew as well as I'd have liked to). And I'm going to regret losing that more than I can say. 

But Facebook has also crossed over so far to the Dark Side that I can no longer defend keeping an account just because it's a convenient method of keeping tabs on my Auntie Jill or my crew from high school. 

Facebook's corporate ethics seem nonexistent. The result is eroding privacy controls, selling out your personal data and habits via your friends, even installing apps to your profile without your knowledge or consent.

I can't condone this. I think Facebook has gone so far that even writing an angry blog post and email campaign just isn't sufficient; why should Facebook care how mad people get, if they still use the service?

So that's it for me. Sayonara, Facebook. I'll miss my friends, but I won't miss you.

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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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I've been playing a little game on Facebook called Packrat. (OK, I'm a little embarrassed to admit it, but there it is anyway. So sue me.)

There's an interesting sociological phenomenon going on here, though, and I thought it deserved a few minutes of prodding. See, on the surface of it, this game is designed to be absolutely cut-throat competitive. The object of the game is to collect matching sets of digital picture cards; there's a collection of candy-themed items, for example, and a tiki set, a zoo set, and so on. To do this, you can purchase items with money you randomly accrue while looking through your friends' current packs... or you can filch an item from a friend (and leave another item in return).

If you don't want an item taken, you can lock it by buying a lock and playing a minigame -- but another player can always try to break the lock by playing the same minigame and scoring better than you. Once you find five items from a matching set, you can vault those five things, adding it to your permanent collection and making them unstealable. But there are, in every set, numerous items that can only be built by acquiring and combining other items. So for example, to make a hula dancer, I'd need to combine a coconut palm, a grass skirt and a lei.

Some items are very scarce, and never sold in markets at all. And there are several rats -- basically faux friend profiles -- that will try to take your stuff; and there are some items that can only be built by combining several different levels of items. (There's an item in the Montezuma collection, for example, that can only be built by combining 27 maizes, 27 gold coins, and one rare two-headed serpent.)

With this setup, you'd expect to see a lot of nasty behavior, right? Lots of stealing that rare item from under a friend's nose, intense competition for the same super-rare item from an expired set that you might never see again. If this were how the game was currently being played (at least among my peers -- and I have no doubt it's being played that way by other groups) then it would be absolutely zero fun to me and I'd have stopped playing as soon as it became apparent.

In practice, though I see people making sets and completing collections in a community-based, collaborative fashion. If I'm working on the shoe set and I need the rare Fellini Eight Point Five pink pump to drop, I tell my friends, and they keep an eye out for me. If a rat turns up with something I need, a friend will steal it for me; and if one of their friends has the shoe but doesn't need it, because they don't want to collect that set, or because they've already vaulted that item, then it's going to make its way toward me.

I even have one friend who's working toward vaulting a set of items from a collection that expired in early March -- and he's got four of the five items he needs, because he has a broad network of people looking for him.

I'm just fascinated at how this really friendly, supportive community has grown up around something that at first presents as an astonishingly competitive game. I wonder if this was a conscious choice on the part of the designer, or just a decision to build up a more satisfying set of rules around the existing framework of the game on the part of the player community?

If somebody knows the designer for Packrat and could put me in touch, drop me a line. I'd love to hear about it.

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