Though FarmVille bears almost no relation to real farming and its concerns, Pincus (owner of Zynga) attributes FarmVille’s fanbase to an urban fantasy of owning one’s own smallholding. «I’ve lived in a little row house in the middle of San Francisco for 14 years,» he says, «but I dream of having my own organic farm with lots of space, and animals running around. I think that might be the ultimate fantasy for anyone who’s cooped up in an office all day. It’s also universally acceptable: you can show somebody a field and, whether they live in China or Manhattan, and whether it’s your grand- mother or your niece, they’ll all know what they’re supposed to do with it.»
Farms are a compelling daydream, agrees Tom Chatfield, the author of Fun Inc: Why Games Are The 21st Century’s Most Serious Business: «Psychologically, people like greenery; they like having grass, water and sky on their computer screens. But FarmVille is also very good at demanding your time, forcing you to tend your crops. It’s like a virtual pet, a Tamagotchi; you have to nurture it and look after it every day.»
The power of online social games first became apparent in 2007, with the spectacular rise and fall of Scrabulous, a wildly popular Facebook game that imitated Scrabble to such a degree that Hasbro had it shut down; «With Scrabulous,» explains Chatfield, «people realised that a social platform like Facebook gives people ways to show off to, or compete with, their friends. It’s so much more engaging to do something with people you know than to do it with strangers. You can cheat if you’re playing online with strangers, but playing with friends is an incentive to be fair, and that brings the emotional rewards of competition. FarmVille is in the tradition of family board games, as are many of the most successful social games. These are not high-production, high-budget, high involvement games like World of Warcraft or Halo. They’re low-risk, low-barrier games. Lots of people are playing FarmVille who never played a proper videogame before, but now might.»«Social» videogames have already found a place in the family home with the success of the Nintendo Wii console and family-friendly music games like Guitar Hero. But online social gaming allows people to enjoy that traditional gaming experience with friends anywhere in the world. Significantly, Scrabulous did not require its players to be online at the same time; like FarmVille, they could check their game’s progress at intervals.» This, says Chatfield, «was a way to get people playing one another across time as well as space.»
Cassandra Innes, an MBA graduate from London, is 49 and a FarmVille addict. «Normal business principles apply to FarmVille,» she insists. «It’s a strategic process. But you have to decide whether you just want to get rich quick, or whether having fun is part of the process. It’s not enjoyable if it’s just about grabbing as many coins as possible.» No strawberries are permitted to wither in the Innes household: when her partner accidentally planted a field full of them in the evening, Cassandra set her alarm for 3am so that she could wake to harvest them as they ripened. «FarmVille reminds me of the toy farm I had as a child,» she says, «We’d make our own buildings out of cardboard and spend our money on the animals. My 19-year-old daughter, who’s my neighbour on FarmVille, says she’s grown up with The Sims and other computer games, and she sees FarmVille as a free version of that.» Cassandra, meanwhile, is worried for the welfare of FarmVille’s animals. «Some of my neighbours’ farms are awful,» she says. «Their whole plot is given over to crops, and their cows and horses are all squashed into a corner with no room to move. The game should be structured so that it’s more animal-friendly and you get punished for having too many battery chickens.» Cassandra Innes has even made new friends via FarmVille, after visiting fan sites in search of neighbours. «I introduced one of them to my sister because they had similar interests,» she admits. «I find myself talking to my family more about our nutty farms than about normal things. We have long phone calls about it. The farm is like a comfort zone; it’s easier to communicate about that than about who’s going where for Christmas.»
Maya Forrester, a 39-year-old human resources executive with 57 FarmVille neighbours, is less romantic about her reasons for loving the game. «It’s the competition that got me hooked,» she says. «I don’t have a farm fantasy, but FarmVille fulfils my inner need to beat my Facebook frenemies.» Maya disapproves of some of her neighbours’ approach to agriculture; particularly the factory-style farmers who sacrifice their integrity in favour of easy profits.
Pincus would no doubt be overjoyed by the sincerity of his players’ views on the game. «To be that impactful on, and that representative of, the culture totally excites me and my team,» he says. «I love the idea that we can put out a game that’s as popular as Seinfeld.»
My strawberries have withered. I planted them this morning, after acquiring the seeds for the bargain price of 10 coins and being assured of their profitability as a crop.
But I let the day get the best of me – I had work to do, lunch to eat, emails to read – and when I finally returned to check on my plot, the fruit had flourished, matured and died in the space of just a few short hours. This is not the real world, and these were not some mutant GM strawberries; in fact, they weren’t really strawberries at all. This is FarmVille, a Facebook game for which I’ve been tilling digital soil all week, planting crops made up of mere bytes and pixels.
Perhaps you’ve only heard of FarmVille from your cluttered Facebook news feed, informing you that so-and-so has just planted their 15th field of soybeans, or built their first barn, or earned a brightly coloured ribbon in recognition of their virtual agricultural achievements. Perhaps you’ve joined one of the Facebook groups that have been created in protest at the game’s pervasiveness. But your protests would be in vain: FarmVille, the world’s biggest social game, has almost 80 million players – that’s around 20 per cent of all Facebook users; more people than use Twitter or, indeed, live in the UK. Some 30 million of them tend their crops daily. When the site allowed its gamers to exchange virtual Valentine gifts online, 220m were sent and accepted within 18 hours; to get that into perspective, it’s worth noting that Hallmark sells approximately 200m e-cards over the entire Valentine season.
The object of FarmVille is to build and maintain your own virtual farm – pay virtual coins for seeds, plant virtual crops and earn virtual profits. As the game goes on, players can gross enough to buy tractors and livestock, construct outbuildings and expand their plot well beyond the borders of their browser window. The key to its success is social: if a player persuades their Facebook acquaintances to become their FarmVille «neighbours», they can be rewarded for fertilising their friends’ fields or feeding their hogs.
Once, online gaming was the preserve of youngish men in darkened bedrooms, studying strategy guides for World of Warcraft and Halo. Now, thanks to FarmVille and other games like it, that demographic has shifted dramatically towards the mainstream, taking in office workers and stay-at-home mums, children and their grandparents. A recent survey concluded that today’s average social gamer is a 43-year-old woman.
Crucially for its players, it is free to join FarmVille and you can enjoy a long and fruitful relationship with the game without ever spending a (real) penny.
Crucially for its creators, there’s a second option: you can use your real-world credit card to buy virtual goods and stay ahead of your friends in the FarmVille rankings. Most of these digital products are reasonably priced, but among the Valentine gifts on offer was a limited edition, $50 «diamond ring», which protects its recipient’s crops from withering in perpetuity. My strawberries are still dead; romance, it would appear, is not.
FarmVille is a real-time farm simulation game developed by Zynga, available as an application on the social-networking website Facebook. The game allows members of Facebook to manage a virtual farm by planting, growing and harvesting virtual crops and trees, and raising livestock. Since its launch in June 2009, FarmVille has become the most popular game application on Facebook, with over 82.4 million active users and over 23.9 million Facebook application fans in May 2010. The total FarmVille users are over 20% of the users of Facebook and over 1% of the population of the world.
Upon beginning a farm, the player first creates a customizable avatar.The game is based around the «market,» where seeds, trees, animals, buildings, decorations, vehicles, and more land can be purchased using «farm coins», the generic money of FarmVille, (Farm Coins are earned by selling crops) or «farm cash» (which the player earns at a rate of one dollar per experience level). A player can choose to buy FarmVille coins or cash from Zynga. The player plants seeds, which grow into crops, which can be harvested to earn farm coins. Animals and trees can be purchased and harvested for profit. The player earns experience points (XP) by purchasing items, and plowing, planting and harvesting. Earning XP increases the player’s level, unlocking more items. Most items can be bought with farm coins, although some (e.g., certain decorations) must be purchased with farm cash.
Each plot of land costs 15 farm coins to plow. Seeds cost from 10 to 400 farm coins. Each crop sells for a set price that is greater than the price paid for the seed. The ratio of seed cost to coin yield for crops varies based on harvest time and initial seed cost. For example, raspberries, with a two hour growth time, cost 20 coins and yield 46 coins per plot, a ratio of 2.3:1 (excluding the plowing charges). Watermelons, with a four day growth time, cost 130 coins and yield 348 coins, a ratio of 2.68:1. Depending on the plant, growth time varies from two hours (raspberries) to four days (artichokes, watermelons, yellow melons). If a crop is not harvested within twice the growth time, it will wilt and must be plowed under, and planted again, unless the unwither feature is applied. For example, pumpkins will grow in 8 hours. If the pumpkins are not harvested within 16 hours of planting, they will begin to wither and die. The player will not be able to harvest them for farm coins or XP, unless the unwither feature is applied.
As a player progresses, he or she can expand the farm (for a payment of farm cash or farm coins) to get more room for farming, animals, and decorations.
Like most Zynga games, FarmVille leverages the social networking aspect of Facebook. Along with their own farm, players can invite their friends to join and be neighbors. Acquiring neighbors has benefits in gameplay — not only can one earn money and experience (by visiting and helping on neighboring farms), but with eight or more neighbors, a player can expand their farm. Gifts (such as trees, animals, and decorations) can be sent to both confirmed neighbors and any other Facebook friends even if they do not use the application. The Gifts received from neighbors usually have relatively expensive buy prices in the market, so getting gifts from friends is one of the best ways to get relatively expensive items at zero cost. Many of the items available as gifts for friends are not available in the FarmVille market. This includes many themed decorations.
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