The Evil 27 Farmstead

Now....should I apply Lean principles or Six Sigma???

Excerpt from paper I am working examining the Farmville and general social gaming explosion….first, trying to understand the success and appeal of  Farmville. ……

    1.0       Successful gameplay characteristics of Farmville (and other social games)

    From a gameplay standpoint, Farmville initially seems to offer a fairly uninventive, un-ambitious and not terribly interesting game experience. This is inaccurate and for two primary reasons:

    Firstly, to judge Farmville through the lens of a ‘hard core’, card-carrying ‘Gamer’ or even to analyse it from the standpoint of a frequent casual gamer is a profound mistake as PC, console or even downloadable games are very different animals and intended to deliver a quite different experience to an often much narrower (and smaller!) clientele.

    Secondly, Farmville, although a simple game (technically and in terms of user challenge) is not simply a game…it is Social Game. The differences may seem subtle, at first, but are, nonetheless, quite profound.

    It may be stating the obvious to social media and social gaming professionals but it is the social interaction that is the primary defining characteristic of Farmville over and above any gaming characteristic (or innovation). I by no means seek to diminish the technical challenges of delivering a stable and consistent experience to twenty two million daily players – or handling vast volumes of micro-transactions – but the game, per se, is not technically innovative. But this is, again, the point is it not? To older game industry professionals Farmville can easily be dismissed as an inferior product in terms of technical, creative or sheer game craft. Yet the scale of the user base, the rate of user adoption and the sheer commercial metrics are something to behold and dwarf practically anything that the mainstream games industry has ever achieved.

    To many observers and, probably, to many of the 64 million or so players, the social aspect may not be acutely apparent. The pop up prompts to “Share the wealth”, embedded messages telling you that a friend’s farm needs your help or the stream of updates in your News/Live Feed can be easily ignored at a conscious level. Yet, on a subconscious level, it seems that they are, perhaps, the critical components that have made Farmville the commercial success it is.

    This author vociferously fended off the constant streams of references to Farmville that he found all across Facebook for many weeks before finally succumbing, in late October 2009 to become player number 64million or so. Initially my mission was to “see what the fuss was about” but it did not take long for the uniqueness of the experience to take it’s grip upon me.

    The Farmville experience exists ‘in game’ and ‘out out of game’ namely when the user is interacting with the games Flash front-end and when they are interacting with a part of the generic Facebook interface to share, post, comment, or to do a bit of ’liking’.

    I credit the following aspects of the experience as particularly relevant:

    Gameplay that encourage endless iterative enhancements (to your farm).
    I have personally found that even late at night, when the urge to sleep is overwhelming, it is incredibly tempting to make ‘one last’ improvement…one last effort to, for example, plant another crop, or prettify your creation one little bit more.

    The sense of responsibility…or wasted endeavour
    The persistent characteristics of the game – crops grow and wilt on a timeline irrespective of whether you happen to launch the game’s interface – leads to a, perhaps reluctant desire to ensure that you have not forgotten about a crop that is ready to harvest because of some sense of being responsible for it. Equally or perhaps alternatively there is a distinct feeling that one should check because, after all, you did bother to plant all those seeds so it would be a waste of that effort not to harvest it.

    Out-‘perfarming’ your friends
    This is a pretty obvious and well-understood motivational factor. If you harbour any competitive instinct at all then to see that your friend or relative has just reached a higher level than you (or even purchased a better tractor than you) serves as a powerful incentive to play a bit longer.

    Getting creative
    Much in the way that Sim City, whilst ostensibly a nerdy or uninteresting concept, allowed players to create complex, unique and fascinating cities, Farmville certainly has an appeal that is about allowing players to generate something that is theirs. It is, somewhat bizarrely, an opportunity to express oneself. The static screen shots that briefly display as the game is loading are testament to this. Some people’s farm layouts are exceptionally logical and well-ordered. Some are very quaint in nature, like something from some lost age of ruralness. Some are clearly designed to maximise productivity with a focus on harvestable land and no space wasted on pointless decorative items. Others are painfully chaotic but say no less about their creators than any other creation.

    The ‘Tycoon’ aspect
    Farmville obviously has an economic simulation model at it’s core. It revolves around acquiring seeds, trees or animals from which economic produce can be derived and (virtual) money acquired. Several elements are at play including the large selection of seeds that are available, the different times it takes for these plants to grow, the economic benefits to be gained (coins, XPs etc) and, of course, the cost of acquiring the seeds in the first place. This involves quite some thought if one’s aspirations are driven by the entrepreneurial gameplay aspects. Although relatively simplistically applied in Farmville, it is well understood that business simulations are a long-standing and popular game genre.

    Simplicity of participation
    It is one of the most frequent criticisms of Farmville that there is little skill factor involved. Putting aside the ‘Tycoon Aspect’ (above) – which clearly does involve a process of analysis, consideration, decision and resultant outcome – this is an accurate but also irrelevant statement. The very fact that one can successfully interact with the game and progress through it without having to master any advanced gaming skills or keyboard dexterity is an attraction to mass hoards of Facebook users who are not hard core gamer folks.

    Achievements (Farmville “Ribbons”)
    Not exactly a major gaming innovation but nonetheless, clearly an important factor in the success of Farmville as was demonstrated when this particular mechanic was added to Farmville and instantaneously caused a massive acceleration in the growth of the user base.

    2.0       Successfully social characteristics

    Farmville makes full use of the Facebook API and from being on Facebook network. It does so to a level where the ‘in game’ and ‘out of game’ interactions are probably not that apparent to the majority of users.

    Send invitations (to other Facebook friends) – obviously a method to encourage users to add their friends.

    Send / request virtual gifts – the interesting thing here is (a) people like to collect and acquire stuff, and (b) when someone ‘gifts you’ there is an unsaid social pressure to ‘gift’ them back. Each action maintains and strengthens the bind between gamer and game and between the gamer and their friends in the context of the game itself.

    Add neighbours (other Facebook friends who are already Farmville players) – you have encouraged your friends to play, now make them virtual neighbours which results in a series of new possible interaction methods.

    Visit (and assist on) neighbour’s farms – whether this is done for altruistic or selfish purposes (help your friend or earn some hard cash) this action further keeps the interest going and, as a result of the visit, probably serves to illustrate new possibilities (new items, interesting layouts) for the visiting player himself. It also serves to fuel the fire in the competitive player when he/she sees their friend and neighbour ‘out-perfarming’ them.

    Post to Newsfeed/Livefeed – tell others when you level up or gain achievements – fulfils a need to show what you have achieved, attained or created which can only otherwise be demonstrated by your friends actually visiting your farm.

    Take and post a photo of your farm – a distinct “look what I have made” utility.

    Leave messages – more time-consuming that penning a Facebook mail or posting on a friend’s News Feed but with the added spice of leaving your mark on someone else’s ‘land’ is a gentle form of graffiti.

    Friend’s farm status – occasional messages to tell you that your friends farm needs some help and, by doing so, you can earn some financial reward.

    (more to follow….all comments welcome!)