Farmville is a Networking Marketing Scam, not a Social Game

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Matt Barton's picture

ScamvilleScamvilleThere's a post over at Slashdot declaring a "new reality of gaming." Basically, they're arguing that recent trends in social gaming, particularly Facebook games like Farmville, are showing an increasingly skewed demographic of middle-aged female gamers entering the market. The post points to a number of articles that make the usual assumptions about this demographic, namely that their time and tech skills are too limited to enjoy traditional videogames, but they are willing to play these because of the simplicity and social aspects. Rohin Dharmakumar of Forbes argues that games like Farmville and The Sims, which simulate reality, "are the new escapism." All of this is leading up to the prediction that it's just a matter of time before social games start hitting a billion or more in sales, perhaps eventually eclipsing sales of conventional videogames.

I've been studying casual social games for a few weeks now, focusing mainly on Farmville. I wanted to understand exactly how they are "social," or how they rely on social networks to fuel the gameplay. I was also curious about the economic aspects and how these games try to make money. There's a video here from Carnegie Mellon professor Jesse Schell that discusses it at some length, but it basically amounts to a prestige item system. While you can enjoy the game for free, you can get some strong perks by paying actual cash to acquire the in-game currency. This article argues that traditional advertising is dead in these games because people hate the interruptions too much. However, they are willing to click on ads that promise in-game rewards. Click on this ad and receive five Farmville bucks, basically. I've been playing Farmville now for several weeks and have yet to give them any cash, but I imagine I would be willing to click on an ad or two to get some FV bucks.

As for the social, my friend Max and I have been debating this quite heatedly. He argues that Farmville is not social at all because you don't actually cooperate with each other directly. Instead, each player has his or her own farm, and all help is indirect and performed only for mutual gain. He contrasts that to playing co-op in Halo with his buddies.

I have other problems with calling these games "social." The main thing is that there is actually very little communication that takes place. Sure, you can visit other farms and help them by fertilizing their crops and so on. True, there is a mutual benefit (you can find fuel and get experience and coins). You can also leave a sign (a brief message), but I've seen very few people using these. Perhaps the only "social" thing I can see is that certain people decorate their farms, ostensibly to please or impress their visitors.

Instead of calling Farmville a "social game," I'd call it a "network marketing game." Mostly what you're using Facebook (and your Facebook contacts) for is to spam their walls. It appears that you are doing so for their benefit; you are constantly interrupted during the game to "share" things with your friends, such as fuel or other freebies. Of course, the real purpose of all this sharing for Zynga is free advertisement; they want you constantly spamming your friends' walls to keep them invested in the game. Likewise, there are many, many perks that come with recruiting new people into Farmville. Players who have lots of neighbors are much more prosperous, for instance.

This isn't a social game so much as a network marketing scam. It's rather like the way Amway works--once you buy in, you're encouraged to recruit as many friends into it as possible to maximize your profits. Both Amway and Zynga make their profits from their distributors, though Zynga doesn't promise (unlike Amway) that the distributors will ever make any real money. That's probably the real brilliance behind it; you're doing actual work (marketing) for virtual rewards, which Zynga controls via artificial scarcity. Arguably, all currency is virtual, and there is probably some way to sell Farmville bucks (I did some brief searching and didn't find anything, but there must be some folks out there doing the equivalent of gold farming). I don't really have a problem with people paying real money for virtual goods, but there does seem to be something insidious about having them do all this network marketing for you for those rewards. In my opinion, Zynga should pay you real money when someone you recruited buys a virtual tractor.

So, what would a true "social game" look like? I would point at something with a lot more emphasis on social interaction, such as Gaia Online, though I could imagine other forms. In any case, the gameplay would rely largely on players engaging each other socially, such as asking each other out on dates, drinking coffee together, chatting about news or philosophy, etc. The players could award each other points based on whether they like you or find what you say interesting or thoughtful. In short, it's a game version of what many of us already do on sites like Facebook and Twitter, amassing "followers" or "friends" in the same way we might acquire points in a videogame. The key difference would be simulating identities rather than assuming your own, so you might be tasked with playing the part of a philosopher, politician, preacher, prostitute, etc., some role that you'd like to take on for fun. I tend to see something like LARPing here, only more systematic.


Joined: 07/21/2006

This is the same casual game demographic, so I'm not sure about the skills part of the argument. A lot of the casual games require some serious clicking skills. My guess is if they were given the incentive, they would learn to use a controller.

Traditional games provide very little incentives, outside of trophies or achievements or a few genres such as RPGs. The player is left to rate his own skills, and assess how he is doing in the game. For example, in sports games you have difficulty setting and wins versus losses. In many of the facebook and casual games, what you have achieved is clearly spelled out. For example, In Peggle, you know exactly how much you have completed, or in Mafia Wars you know what level you are and how that compares to your friends.

I'm surprised that in game communications haven't been added to more games. I played one of the earlier Mafia game (Mafia World?) that had an in-game chat. The in-game chat was definitely it's best feature, and it enhanced the rest of the game. I believe the only two things that kept the game from being more successful was the difficulty of leveling up at the later levels and they were having a lot of problems when Mafia Wars was just coming out. People jumped ship because Mafia Wars worked, and the early part of the game seemed pretty exciting.

Chip Hageman
Chip Hageman's picture
Joined: 10/06/2010
Having played it with the

Having played it with the wife, I have to agree.. They make a habit of _almost_ giving you what you need.. in the hopes that you'll pull out the credit card and buy the rest. I stopped playing when I saw them getting even more greedy than they originally were.

Mark Vergeer
Mark Vergeer's picture
Joined: 01/16/2006
It's like the banks....

It's all very much like what the banks were/are doing and people buying into it - greed and status being the main motivators here. It is much like these stupid pyramid schemes.

It will not grow or overshadow conventional gaming as there is very little gameplay and the interaction and social aspects are very limited. Farmville is like a bunch of 'Lemonade stand' programs exchanging unexpected pieces of info. It's raping game mechanics to squeeze money out of people. There's no real goals or ending it just goes on and on. It'll hollow out people's conceptions of games.

I played Mafia Wars, actually was in Nolan Bushnell's Mob for a bit and disliked it when the interaction with friends basically was none and discovering they wanted my money for virtual meaningless thing quickly amounting up to quite huge sums of money if one is not careful.

Games like this in the hands of children can be a financial disaster.

Obviously I am NOT a fan. Although the concept without the real money with more real interaction and skill among friends has potential.

Markus (not verified)
I agree with your analysis

I agree with your analysis Matt. And I also agree with Mark, the single worst aspect of this game is when kids are introduced to it.

Joined: 10/07/2010
I think I agree with the analysis

I mean the games themselves as far as I'm concerned are cheap knockoffs of existing games and have been done better everywhere else.
Farmville just a copy of Harvest Moon.

The main focus of these games is that they are on Facebook that's the reason why people are playing them.
I mean there's loads of places where they have had games like these with in game chat but none of them got the same kind of attention or popularity as these.

In all honesty I'm just not interested in these games but people that are addicted to social networks just find other things to do on facebook and games are a part of it.
The fact that facebook has a 3rd party API for developers means that there is an endless list of things to do for those addicted to it.

I guess games will get better with browser technologies really developing such as webgl for hardware acccelerated games in the browser.
I'm not keen on the whole micro transaction bullshit but then again I'm not keen on the whole dlc crap they put out on the Xbox / 360 either.

One thing that just came to mind is that the same games that are available on Facebook will only be more accessible in the future since there are more technologies on the way such as the Google App Store.
Iphone and other mobile devices already have versions of facebook games that have all their settings available to them wherever they are.

To me casual games are those that don't really play video games and probably won't go out their way to buy a dedicated gaming machine but will probably have the internet and a mobile device that will play these games

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