FarmVille, the casual Facebook farming sim, is an important game. But no gamer nerd I read has taken it seriously (other than Tobold). 22 million people play every day, there's 60 million plus registered users. That makes it 2-5x as big as World of Warcraft. The parent company, Zynga, is rumoured to have $100 million in sales this year over all their Facebook games (including Mafia Wars and Zynga Poker). Maybe more, I've heard numbers as big as $250 million in 2009. At least some of that revenue is from scamming users, but there's enough people playing and enough legitimate commercial potential in this kind of Facebook game to be worth investigation.
FarmVille has a very interesting game mechanic for a casual, persistent MMO. Actual gameplay just takes a few minutes a day. You plant some crops, milk the cows, maybe buy an improvement for your farm. Then you have to wait. Wait for the crops to grow. Wait for the cow to make more milk. There's nothing you can really do after your few minutes a day. But then 24 hours later, when the crops are grown, you can log in again and harvest. If you don't get there soon enough (in about 12 hours), the crops wilt. Picking crops gives money and XP, your basic advancement treadmill. That's the basic game: plant crops, come back a day later, pick them. Over and over. The main gating factor is clock time, with a secondary tax of user interface time. Clicking to do stuff gets tedious.
There's a little variety. Some crops take 96 hours to grow, some take 8. So if you want to "play" several times a day, or just twice a week, you can choose that. Different crops give different rewards, but it's basically a constant money and XP per hour, not much variety or room for interesting choices. You can also plant trees and buy farm animals to make money, which has slightly different economics, but nothing particularly complex.
Honestly, it's a pretty terrible game by the standards of gamer nerds. So what makes Farmville interesting?
Part of what makes FarmVille fun is it has the same building-a-dollhouse gameplay as The Sims. You choose where to put the crops, you place decorative items like houses and barns and fences and Christmas decorations. There's no real gameplay incentive to decorate, in fact it makes your farm less efficient. And the user interface for arranging items is atrociously bad. But it's somewhat creative. I particularly enjoyed abusing the coloured hay bales, they make fine pixels. In my case a rainbow flag, "Allah" in Kufic, and my final protest against the game when I quit. (My farm above is not representative; I deliberately made an ugly, run down farm.)
The other thing that makes FarmVille compelling, the insidious thing, is the way Zynga leverages the social network of Facebook. The moment you start playing you're constantly needled to involve your Facebook friends in the game. Every minor milestone is marked with a public Facebook update: "Nelson reached level 5!". Random events brings opportunities to spam friends with a call to action: "You just picked a perfect bunch of flowers! Click here to share the flowers with your friends". There's also a paper-thin way to interact with your friends' farms. They can come fertilize your fields, you can go chase the crows away from their crops, and you can give an endless stream of free gifts to your friends who play.
From a game design point of view the social network stuff is pretty weak sauce. There's no real choices or strategy. But it works perfectly in the context of Facebook, a constant stream of social updates from friends playing the game. Those free gifts create social pressure to play, to gift back. The fact your friends visit your farm makes that half hour you spent dropping hay bales worth it, because they left a note saying it looked good. FarmVille brings social reinforcement to casual gaming, in the exact same way an MMO like Warcraft brings social reinforcement to hardcore RPG gaming. It's really clever.
How do they make money? Free-to-play business model with microtransactions, advertising, and some slimy offers. The game's plastered with ads. And there's a second currency, FarmVille bucks, which players can only practically acquire by buying with dollars or signing up for credit card and mobile phone scams they don't want. There's been a backlash to the offer part, and last I heard Zynga was removing them entirely. I hope so, but you can bet some less honest game publisher will fill that void.
So FarmVille is a great social, viral app. The puzzle I can't work out is whether FarmVille would be more successful if it were a better game. I think probably not; the casual, simple gameplay along with the fun Sims-like construction is a pretty sweet spot for the Facebook market. Too bad, I'd love to play a game like this that was actually interesting as well.