“Why is my sister attached to a green alien cow?” he asked, with an exasperated look on his face.
I shrugged, running over in my head the countless times that my own friends and family rushed to the computer after a day out, with an earnestness that puts a die-hard Brangelina fan to shame. “If I don’t harvest my farm right now,” my 13-year-old cousin told me last month, explaining why exactly she needed to use my computer RIGHT AWAY, “my strawberry crops would die.”
Her terribly rendered pixel strawberries, with the shiny strobe effect that would put a dentist to shame. Her hot red strawberries, that smell like nothing and taste like nothing. They would die.
Of course, I let her use my machine, but several months on, I am still trying to understand what exactly is it that has managed to attract 70-fricking-million users to Farmville, the Facebook-based real-time farm simulation game developed by Zynga.
All Hail Pixel Crop Farmers
The concept behind Farmville is quite simple: you start a game with six plots of land, two of which are fully grown. The player can then purchase items using coins, including trees, seeds, animals, buildings, and vehicles. The player can also purchase special seeds, fuel for his/her vehicle, and special “decorations” for cash, which is naturally, micro-money.
The player plows, plants, and harvests his/her farm, increasing its size and the amount of crops. Increased size means a WHOLE lot of time spent plowing, planting, and harvesting, one plot at a time. To understand the absurdity of the situation, let’s say that a Farmville addict has say, 350 plots of land (400 is the maximum). To get them up and running, you will have to plow with 350 clicks, plant with 350 clicks, and harvest with 350 clicks. That’s 1050 clicks of pixel crop maintenance.
(Remember, 70 million users!)
Farmville’s Happiness Fix
We usually play games to gain psychological reinforcement from the process of becoming experta at a certain game, which releases dopamine, a feel-good chemical in our brains. Dopamine is a natural response to good experiences, such as eating good food, partaking in a fun activity, or listening to favorite music.
Somehow, Farmville’s reward system (gaining coins by selling crops, expanding one’s farm, and beating your Facebook buddies) manages to fix its players with enough dopamine to make the game so popular. I would like to believe that their reward system is extrinsic, meaning that players find pleasure from “fitting into the crowd” and reigning supreme over their buddies in Farmville Kingdom, rather than from the game itself. It would be a dark, dark day when users are finding pleasure in pixel cultivation via excessive clicking. It would be an even darker day when dopamine is released at the “pleasurable” site of a green, alien Farmville cow.
That’s possibly the lamest excuse ever for a happiness fix.
Pay a Penny, Make a Million
Lame or not, Farmville is probably the smartest online business model ever. Capitalizing on its users absurd addiction, Zynga have incorporated a form of micropayment that is referred to as “cash” in the game. With 70 million users, the prospect of how Farmville cash can change the way internet entrepreneurs think of digital money is quite fascinating. If a measly 1.5% of Farmville gamers decide to spend a dollar on Farmville cash, Zynga will instantly make $1,050,000.
Chew on that for a minute.
What Do You Think is the Secret Formula?
Have you ever played Farmville or any other real-time flash games? Have you ever invested real money in digital goods? Although I’ve tried on several occasions, I have never really managed to get myself to get into the flow of these real-time games.
I’d love to here your thoughts on why you think Farmville is so addictive, and why its players are fascinated by the most random things, like an alien green cow.