[The following text is part of my upcoming master’s thesis on the use of game mechanics in therapy games for children. This is just a rough first draft, and I gladly welcome all critique and suggestions – be it on a content level or regarding my use of language.
As part of my master’s thesis I am analysing already existing games that are commonly known to be addictive. A lot of those games are Facebook games. As it is paramount for the business model of Facebook games to keep players coming back to play again and again, they need to be built for a high retention. In my analysis of some of the most played Facebook games, I would like to figure out the secret ingredients that make those games so “good”. The analysis of some of those games will be published on this blog, including an overview of the usual “social mechanics” at play that are usually claimed to be of special importance in Facebook games.]
FarmVille by Zynga1 is probably one of the best known Facebook games to date, both because of players that cannot seem to quit the game and their Facebook friends that are annoyed by the game’s ceaseless stream of pleas for help, designed to suck in even more players. The newest iteration, FarmVille 2 is no different. Apart from updated graphics, similar feedback loops are in place to keep the player occupied.
In FarmVille, the player is tasked with building and tending a farm, planting, growing and harvesting crops, taking care of cattle and selling produce. The success of the Farming Simulator2 and its successors shows that farming seems to be a topic that people like to engage with. Graphically, the player moves an avatar around on an isometric playing field. The playing board (the “farm”) is divided into rectangular areas. At the start of the game, the player has only three rectangular areas at his disposal onto which he can place his objects, but it is possible to unlock more areas with more playing time and when certain criteria are met. Some areas have additional objects placed on them; upon unlocking the area, these objects as well as their specific behaviours are unlocked and offer more variety when playing. The areas are themselves divided into a grid, and all objects that can be placed on the farm snap to that grid. The player can plant trees (that give fruit), create patches of field which allows planting of crops as well as have cattle, that roam freely on the player’s unlocked areas. Additionally, the player has a small market stand, where he can sell the produce. A large shop, where the player can buy seeds, decorations and other objects for the game has no representation within the game world and is only accessible through a button in the user interface. The user interface shows various stats: the amount of money in the two in-game currencies, the amount of experience points gained, and the amount of feed, water and fertiliser in possession. On the bottom of the screen, a list of FarmVille “neighbours” and Facebook friends with their FarmVille level overlaid is shown.
The main game mechanics
The most remarkable thing about FarmVille is how well-crafted the feedback loops are. The game has one basic game loop onto which all other game loops latch on. The basic loop consists of planting seeds, watering them, harvesting the resulting crops and selling these at the market stand, which gives you coins. The coins can be used to buy seeds (among other things). The seeds can be planted, the cycle begins anew.
The basic loop is expanded by at least two secondary game loops. The first auxiliary loops is built around cattle. The crops that have been harvested can be turned into feed for animals, which can be fed to the animals. The animals then produce milk and eggs (and, surprisingly, also cheese) that can be sold for coins or used in the second auxiliary loop.
The second auxiliary loop consists of crafting objects. Both crops and animal produce can be used in workshops. For example, in the kitchen, the first workshop to be unlocked, the player can create food according to fixed recipes. This food can be sold at the market stand or is used as an ingredient in yet other recipes3. Additional buildings available at later stages add additional crafting loops, most of them having multi-step recipes, too. Crafting rewards the players with coins and experience points.
Both auxiliary game loops are not fundamentally different from the basic game loop. All they do is delay the point in time when the products are exchanged for coins – in the best case adding to their value while doing so. By using an in-game currency, the game allows the player to convert his successful actions into the basis for his next actions: an infinite loop has been created, as long as the conversion is in favour of the player.
Despite those intricate feedback loops, the thing that keeps the player attached to the game is the continuous stream of quests. Right from the start, the player is tasked with fulfilling certain conditions in order to gain coins, experience and other bonuses. These quests are rather small, with only two or three tasks to fulfil, and give the impression of being easily accomplished. However, due to the aforementioned intertwined setup of the game loops, a seemingly easy task may demand several other actions to be taken beforehand. Feeding animals, i. e., requires feed, which can be produced using crops, which are gained by harvesting fields; all of which has to be done before “Feeding the animals” is possible. Creating a cake in the kitchen will require the planting and harvesting of the right crops, the producing of feed for the animals, the feeding of the animals and then crafting several intermediate products using that produce, until the actual cake can be made out of the intermediate products. Therefore, while appearing deceptively simple, those quests often resemble more celtic heroic tales than simple task lists. Additionally, soon into the game, more than one quests are active at a time, so that the player is never left without a clear goal to achieve. These clearly displayed goals differentiate the game from a sandbox game and remove any uncertainty what to do next for the player.
Most of the actions the players perform give them experience points which are used to unlock new items and abilities, another important game mechanic. At fixed intervals, the players’ in-game character levels up, giving them access to new items: seeds for crops that have a higher yield, new animals, new crafting recipes as well as new decorations for their farm. This “unlocking” mechanism is well-known in game design, and can be a powerful motivator for players to keep on playing, in order to gain access to items or abilities that are perceived as being more powerful and valuable. Possessing certain items or abilities, apart from giving advantages in the game, can also give the player more bragging rights: because these items are only available after a certain length of playing time, their possession is a measurement of dedication (or addiction) to the game. Prestige is gained when those items are compared with other players.
Another element that makes FarmVille 2 attractive to some players is the heavy emphasis on decoration: there are lots of different items that can be bought in the in-game store that have purely aesthetic function, turning the game into a virtual dollhouse. These decorative objects are regularly part of quest lines and have to be bought and placed in order to fulfil those quests. Through these decorations, FarmVille gains the qualities of a dollhouse, allowing the player to seemingly shape a farmstead according to his ideas and imagination.
FarmVille 2 would not work as well without the visual feedback that is used throughout the game to keep the player engaged. All objects have clear visual states that tell the player what the next steps to take are. There is hardly any second guessing what can be done next. Animals, for example, show the resource they need in thought bubbles above their head. Crops have distinct growth states and the mouse pointer gets an additional visual cue when hovering over an object. All resources available are shown: the in-game currencies, the experience points, as well as the amount of feed, water and fertiliser. Additionally, all open quests are represented by large portraits of the quest giver on the left hand side of the screen. Other prompts are given at various points of the game, most notably a pop-up bubble announcing that the player is “About to level up!”, motivating her to keep playing for a few minutes more, until she reaches the next level (and unlocks further items and abilities). The amount of visual feedback leaves very little ambiguity, guiding the player and therefore keeping her in the game.
Additional Elements common to Facebook games
A recurring game mechanic in Facebook games is the use of two in-game currencies that help monetising these games. FarmVille 2 does the same. One currency are the previously mentioned coins. These coins give access to many game objects, but not all. Various prestige objects can only be bought by using so called Farm Bucks. These Farm Bucks have to be bought using real money, using Facebook’s micropayment service. The same Farm Bucks can also be used to skip the time the crops take to harvest. In various ways, spending Farm Bucks helps circumventing and speeding up the game. This is of course not desirable in a therapy game.
FarmVille 2 is tightly integrated into the Facebook social graph. The players can gain coins and experience points when they visit the farms of “neighbours”, “help” them out and gift them various objects. A part of that may happen voluntarily, forming a social context in which play happens. It also introduces a competitive element into the game: the looks of the farms are compared, and prestige objects that are only available with a certain level are proudly put to the show in order to impress visitors.
However, FarmVille also forces players to ask other players for help, as some parts of the game can only be completed when a certain number of Facebook friends also join the game. This is one of the main reason why FarmVille (and with it many other games that work similarly) evokes such a deep hatred in Facebook users: it forces players to bug their friends with an endless stream of requests, which many see as spam. The only way to circumvent this is to spend Farm Bucks, a. k. a. real money.4 This “mechanic”, which can be seen in other Facebook games as well, is part of the business model of Facebook games, and will be explored in more depth in the chapter on social mechanics in Facebook games.
Another common behaviour of Facebook games is the fact that they usually don’t let the player play as long as he wants. The makers of Facebook games are more interested in getting their players to return to their games repeatedly instead of playing prolonged amounts of time. FarmVille does this by having the crops take several hours they are ready for harvesting. The players are forced to plant the crops, leave the game and return several hours later in order to harvest. This is encouraged by the fact that when waiting for too long after the “growth” time has passed, the crops will wither and die off. Once more, these waiting times can be cut short by paying money using the Farm Bucks, giving players who are willing to spend money an advantage. This, too, is not a game mechanic that is suited for therapy games, since we do not want to keep the patients from playing.
In conclusion, we can see that FarmVille 2 has several tightly interwoven game mechanics that manage to keep the player glued to the game. The most important among them are the tight feedback loops, where finishing one task has an immediate effect on the next task at hand; a constant stream of quests that provide temporary “winning” conditions in an otherwise endless game; the possibility of self-expression through decoration, even if severely limited and finally the integration of Facebook friends that “ask for help”, cleverly exploiting social norms that result in players returning to the game again and again. In the end, FarmVille is nothing more than a baroque, graphically rich Tamagotchi that exploits players, either monetarily or socially.
Ammann, C., Geiger, S., Frey, T., & Thönen, R. (2009). Farming Simulator 2009. astragon Software GmbH. ↩︎
Apparently, the assumption is that if you do not have any friends, you are at least rich. ↩︎