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Mar 22, 2010



Farmville is sort of the extreme of the shadowy threat of F2P, too. People have terrible issues with F2P games. (I wrote about those here: http://www.memesplice.com/?p=72).

And Farmville is also part of the totally fluff virtual goods market, which dismays and confuses a lot of gamers. Why spend money on something that doesn't give leet skilz or at least looks completely awesome? This baffles some of my friends.

I spent several weeks playing Farmville recently just to try to understand it -- I have close friends who love it, and many of them are smart women in isolated urban or suburban settings. I spent a bunch of time trying to understand the motivations and such, and that's on gamasutra here:


I'll be at PAX East on a press pass this weekend, and I think one of my running questions may be to ask people to reflect on how much and why they think they hate Farmville. Could get some interesting answers.

Me? Can't say I hate it, but I wouldn't spend time on it. It's like the tabloids by the checkout -- you know people buy them, even if as a guilty habit. Or the really violent foul FPSs I wouldn't play, because I game for fun, and don't find the testosterone level enjoyable.

At least Farmville is a model of civility.


I don't dislike farmville as a concept, I mean, I love harvest moon, for much of the reasons listed above.

The game however is irrelevant and that's the problem.

Farmville and its ilk are a result of advertising over content the only reason they exist is that spam your friends is the new super advertising mechanic of the decade.

Advertising never deserves a pat on the back.

Spam, it's the taste of a new generation.

If you are in advertising, kill yourself.


A lot of people outside of this collaborative weblog had the same to say about Second Life which, let's be fair, is a glorified chat program.


Farmvilles' success boils down to one factor and one factor alone.

There are millions addicted to Facebook and no other game therein offered a platform of mass appeal and acceptance.

Sure, poker and other games were immediately popular, but card games always have and always will have a limited scope of player base or interest.

Any other game could've (should have?) taken Farmvilles' place, but they got in there first, THAT is where most of the hate is coming from, jealousy, not elitism or purists.


@Kriss - where I'm not in advertising, do you have a concept as to how to subsidize content creation in general otherwise?

@Cunzy1_1 Not to derail the topic, but OK, now I know what *you* do in SL. Be happy to introduce you to the art folks there, the nonprofit community, and so on. I mean, yes, people chat. They also build, collaborate, and create art. They perform art. Like most of the online world it's majority consumer/casual. But isn't this a little like saying guilds are useless, because they are just group chat?

@neysu I think besides jealousy, there's the factor that a lot of gamers feel about games like Farmville like core hiphop culture feels about hiphop fashion being co-opted by consumer culture. It's not "real" and it's like taking a culture that's previously been harshed by society and sanitizing it for the masses and using it as a way to make money for money people.


The wheel comes around yet again. Pen & paper players looked down on text MUDs as too shallow and constrained. Text MUD players looked/look down on graphical MMOs as too shallow and constrained. Today's mainstream MMO gamers look down on Farmville as too shallow and constrained.

(To be fair, Farmville is so shallow and constrained I'm not sure there'll be a new type of multiplayer game for them to look down upon.)



I played Farmville heavily through last semester's finals season, and over winter break. Interestingly, almost without exception, the subset of my Facebook friends who played were games studies or other social science grad students and academics.

As Greg says, some of the appeal was at an emotional level, of seeing the farm prosper, of the simple mechanical act of tending to it - much like weeding an RL garden indeed.

At the gameplay level, the mechanic is clear, the tradeoffs simple: time, money, and XP interchange, and one chooses crops on the basis of which of the three one wants to maximize at a given time.

Simple decisionmaking with clear outcomes has its appeal: the MMO grind is a bit different, but only a bit, and making these clear choices while writing seminar papers was a refreshing break.

A retreat from complexity isn't a sign of stupidity, sheeple-hood or lack of an e-peen: honestly, it's perhaps the core pleasure of play, a notion lost to some professionals and scholars who have managed to leach the *play* out of what they do.


Can we go as far as to compare this 'weeding' analogy to players tending their tamagotchi?

If so, why has no virtual pet type game grabbed a foothold on friendface yet ?


@Neysu: They have. Inside Social Games is tracking the numbers, and Petville is 9. Petville is a social Tamagotchi with some added bells and whistles. Two fish tank games and Pet Society are also in the top 10.



Thanks for the link.

After a quick check, only one person out of my 450 'friends' has Petville installed, where as 85% have Farmville installed.

EA's acquisition of Playfish for $400 million grants them three in the top 30 there, two in the top 15.

I'm not sure that is a purchase I would've made!


One interesting criticism of Farmville and similar low-tech games is that a lot of the resources that might have gone into better graphics or story have instead gone into "metrics." As I take it, the metrics strategy has the developers fine-tuning each tiny aspect of the game to get the maximal immediate return in terms of revenue per player-hour and so on. The focus is on extremely fine gratification of extremely immediate desires. Impossible to do systematically with a big game with a lot of features, not so hard to do with a simple game. "If we make the apples 0.1mm larger, ARPA goes up by 0.03%."

Purist game designers don't like this for a couple of reasons. One is aesthetics, but the other is deeper psychologically. The concern is that if people are presented with short-term gratifications like this, they will lose their zest for longer-term gratifications. Longer-term gratifications - delaying gratifications - involve games that frustrate you for a while (and maybe quite awhile, like EQ1) before you get good stuff. This has also been expressed as a conflict between intrinsic and extrinsic motivation - give people extrinsic motivators, and intrinsic motivation atrophies. There's a Scott Jennings column about this that references Raph Koster and Jesse Schell. I'll try to get back in here and provide the link. I think it was on MMORPG.com.

Anyways, the far end of this spectrum has us plugged into a machine that simply douses us with endorphins and dopamine whenever we wake up and continues until we fall asleep again.

Reason for concern, certainly, but also kind of predictable. Games can be like drugs without hangovers, I suppose. There's are good reasons we restrict drug use. Paternalistically, we assert that drug use can be bad for a person in ways that the person will not understand or control. Moralistically, we assert that a life of drug dependency and semi-consciousness is not a good life and we are confident enough about that as a society to make it against the law.

It is better to be a parent than not, even though every "metric" of the activity especially in the early years indicates that it is a miserable job. Long-run satisfaction far outweighs that short run cost. Similarly, it is better to play delayed-gratification games than not.

Hedonic psychologists identify several types of happiness, from immediate joys to those long smiles of satisfaction that you can only get from overcoming odds and attaining lifelong achievement; doing good for the world; living virtuously. Is there a moral element? Yeah, sure. Can't avoid it. Thus while there's nothing horrible about Farmville, it does make me think twice when recommending games for my kids to play. Their formation demands long-term games as well.


ARPU not ARPA. sheesh


Interesting thoughts.

Re extrinsic motivations, I think you're thinking of this, which Scott pointed to.

You can unpack this question at least two ways.

1) From a design perspective, a focus on metrics may lead to a focus on the micro-design at the expense of the macro. But this reminds me of some of our humanities/empiricism brawls in the past here. It seems to me that just taking the measure of user behaviors and gathering data doesn't necessarily mean you've got to favor short term reward design over long term. In fact, you could look at the numbers with a preference toward long-term retention.

2) From a policy perspective, it seems the animus here is a little paternalistic -- we, the game devs, want you, the player, to struggle through something unpleasant because, while you might not know it now, you'll be happy you did it. Compare, e.g., "eat your vegetables."

It turns out that eating vegetables *is* good for you, but is playing difficult games good too? Ideally we'd grant the subject autonomy to decide when to choose short term discomfort for long-term gain. The designer is not intrinsically capable of making good choices in that area. (This relates to the larger debates, I think, over what Cass Sunstein calls the "nudge" -- a preference for architectural designs that reinforce valid paternalistic goals.)

In terms of our trajectory in the 20th & 21st century, I think you can see the preference for quick rewards over long-term gains across the spectrum. Albums --> singles. Books --> blogs. Opera --> music videos. Company jobs --> free agents. Slow food --> fast food. And yes, I see market economics at the root of much of this.

I could go on, but I've got to run. Anyway, the problem you've identified is bigger than Farmville, I think.


@ted again

Just a couple follow-up points.

* I'm with you, pretty much, on need for shifting to long-term strategies. "Sustainability" should count for more, life should be less distracted, and these goal probably have some application to the way we make the games we play.

* At the same time, if you take the magic circle seriously (and I think *you* do), you've got to see games as a separate sphere that's somehow inherently tension with life's "big picture" -- they're about leisure and play and escape. The game world needs to be balanced against a background of necessary toil. I think the real reason Jesse Schnell's paternalistic ludification idea shocked folks (and I think he's right that we're moving toward this) is that people expect games to be separate from real life. (That's the "intrinsic" motivation point, as I read it.) When we turn life into a game, we will expect the rules and goals dictating our behavior are arbitrary. Which is why the crowd laughs at his examples of two people high-fiving because the game tells them to do this.

* On Farmville particularly, there actually *are* long-term goals. Indeed, the focus on metrics is all about retention, and a key part of retention is getting people to buy into a long term process. So, e.g., "barn raising" (for horses) is all the rage at the moment, and I'm sure the user metric engineers have decided that the best way to get people stuck on the platform is to engage them in a long-term collaborative activity.


Mike just posted something that I think it very relevant to the problems with micro-monetizing...


@ted: why can't I continue to have endorphins and dopamine pumped into me while I'm asleep ;-)

@kriss: Advertising is one of the original virtual worlds. For a very, very long time, X = X, especially when it came to almost everything in people's lives except religion and, for the privileged few, art. Pants are pants, beans are beans, water is water, horses are horses.

Advertising adds layers of meaning on top of reality. Some of that meaning is helpful, some is entertaining, some is inspiring, some is insipid. Same as games. Homo Postmodern is so used to advertising in so many spaces that it becomes part of the scenery and, in many cases, is only obvious when it's either very good or very bad. Online, social and interactive advertising is so new that I'm not surprised it's generally awful. The ads on FB are almost entirely devoid of any art or decent craft. But that's just because the truly skilled practitioners aren't on the scene yet. Same for game advertising. It's in the proto stage. Doesn't look anything like what it will in even 5 years, when it will disappear into the forest of metaphor and become part of the thing, rather than an ugly growth on the thing.

Why do some people love their Apple products past the point of reason? Because of the advertising (which I use as a shorthand for all Apple's marketing decisions). A Mac may be, functionally, a few percent better than a PC. Maybe even 25% better. That doesn't explain the level of fervor with which Macadicts embrace their machines.

You don't really hate advertising; you hate bad advertising (badvertising). But if you have any feelings of joy in a material product that you haven't made yourself, part of that joy is based on the advertising; the story embedded in the product. Put there not to trick or coerce you, but to give you a meta-reason to be involved with it.

You can have a product without a story if you want. But it generally doesn't cost anything more to invest in something with a narrative that's compelling to you.

Most people consider themselves (even if subconsciously) the heroes in their own stories. Properly done, advertising imbues our possessions with meaning, such that they become more than just "stuff..." they become important props in our personal games and tales.


Ted: I thought ARPA = Average Revenue Per Apple :)


Nintendo should re release the Legends of Zelda. People will love it if they love Farmville.


Got this critique of Farmville on a mailing list today:


I think a lot of the points made are weak (social capital as a measure of production? Really? Every non-single-player game does that), but I think this goes a long way to putting into words why I don't like Farmville and its ilk.


"Cunzy1 1 says:

A lot of people outside of this collaborative weblog had the same to say about Second Life which, let's be fair, is a glorified chat program."

Hey be fair, back when I was posting more regularly, I was pretty adamant about my moral disdain for the second life model. Mixing work and play always ends up in more work and less play, and I maintain that vehemently. Its about finding more ways to monetize peoples private lives and I think its insidious and destructive.

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