Back in October, Mike & I & others mulled for a bit about Farmville and its place in the gaming/MMO sphere. Recently, a lot of other people have been mulling about Farmville too, in a crabbier sort of way. From various sources, it seems Farmville was the bête noire of GDC this year (see this Sauron reference), both envied (for numbers, revenues, and buzz) and despised (for various reasons, but it seems to me, at least in part, for not being anything remotely like Portal).
Today Soren Johnson worries that Farmville's prominence threatens good game design. Scott Jennings (who wasn't at GDC but is a celebrity) had a nice summary a few days ago of the popular zeitgeist: "Farmville Killed Gaming, V-Worlds, And Your Dog." (Notably, Mark Pincus took exception to this characterization.)
Following on Scott's post, Raph Koster's thread has some of the best commentary so far, imho, on "what the heck do we make of Farmville?" I think Raph is right that this resistance to social gaming is partly about game designers historically inhabiting a particular gamer subculture where "playing house" is simply beyond the pale, and the "tank-nuker-healer" mechanic is engraved somewhere on sacred stone tablets. Yes, Farmville is not WoW, Second Life, or LambdaMOO, or some expensive or innovative virtual world. And yes, the game play in Farmville isn't the game play in Settlers of Catan or GTA or Civ IV or World of Goo. And the constant push to find new ways to monetize the millions of free players is a drag on the desired freedom of the game designer.
But just because Farmville and free-to-play social games have exploded overnight, this doesn't spell the end of gaming and virtual worlds. (For what it's worth, I actually think Farmville is a virtual world by the majority academic definitions, though just barely.) While I haven't got the numbers, my impression is that most of today's social games aficionados have left Solitaire and Minesweeper (not Call of Duty) for this brave new world of MMO-super-lites. Scott Jennings is right -- this is growth, not creative destruction.
I think the hard part about Farmville, for "core" MMO players, is understanding the appeal of the game. Earlier this month, on a visit up to NYU's Game Center, I heard Eric Zimmerman boggling over Farmville's popular appeal. Like many people, his general take was that Farmville was ludically sub-optimal. Ken Wark was there too, and he seemed less surprised about Farmville's popularity. His view, I think, was that Farmville offers players the realization of our cultural mythology of a capitalist consumerist meritocracy... just without any of the nagging failures of the dream that are found in reality.
I actually do think there's something to that, but for me, having chatted with those who farm and farmed a bit myself, I'll take a shot at a different explanation for the popularity. As we all know, Farmville gets introduced to people in the first place because it tries very hard to grow by, shall we say, aggressive attempts at the use of social networks. But that alone doesn't make it popular. I think, on first encounter, the Farmville appeal is largely about the 8-bit-cutesy graphics. (This reminds me of something Nick said about WoW way back when.) Farmville is all agrarian unicorn & rainbow happiness and some people do find this appealing. (This sends MMO "core gamers" running, but compare Plants vs. Zombies -- same sort of agrarian cuteness, but with brain-hungry zombies, so not offensive to gamers.)
Farmville follows the cuteness with a ridiculously simply user interface with near zero learning curve. When you click with the hoe icon, there's something oddly captivating about the scratchy sound accompanying the transformation of an isometric green (or icky brown) square into a furrowed rich brown square of plowed soil. Clicking again, you get more scratchy sounds, more transformation. Liz once talked here about the similarity of the pleasure of the WoW grind and pulling weeds in a garden. It may seem odd, but I think the micro acts of simply plowing, seeding, and harvesting are a key part of Farmville's appeal. They're just as vital as the trademark boingy jump featured in the Mario games. When you combine this micro-experience of growing with the joy of purchasing with the sticky social gifting and conspicuous consumption aspects of displaying your wealth -- the things that really drive some people nuts, but apparently not Farmville players -- the whole experience clicks.
Yes, it's pretty shallow, predictable, formulaic, and not so much about skill. But isn't that the same as romance novels and Hollywood blockbusters... and, dare I say it, MMOs? And yes, it's driven by virtual property sales and a spammy approach to social networks. But, as they say, TANSTAAFL.
I'm not saying Farmville is a great game. But quite a few people seem to be enjoying it and de gustibus non est disputandum. When I hold it up against your average FPS, RTS, or Mortal Kombat rehash, I can't say Farmville's popularity spells the end of civilization, at least in my book.