i’ve never played farmville, but i have a pretty good idea of how the game works because several people have described it or other similar games to me. what has become blatantly obvious is that the developers of these games are not at all concerned with the quality of the gameplay. their prime concern in developing the game is:
how do we get people to think about this game as much as possible throughout their lives, and how can we reinforce that they need to come back and play as often as possible?
the reason for this is simple. the more you think about doing something, and the more time you spend on it, the more likely it is that you are forming a habit of doing it, and the less likely it is that you will ever quit. i’m sure this sounds familiar to many of you at this point. yes, zynga and others simply want you to be addicted to playing their games. the reason this is beneficial to them is obvious as well: the more people are playing the game, the more likely it is that they will be buying products for use within the game.
game designers have become pretty adept at understanding what keeps people playing a game. the main method i’m going to be talking about here is scheduled rewards. over the years, game designers have quite literally run experiments to find out exactly how often it is that people want to be rewarded in a game in order to keep playing it. now, they have it down to a science.
you may be thinking that this sounds a bit far-fetched, but if you just think about the game mechanics it becomes pretty obvious that this is what’s going on. the most important mechanic in games like farmville is that you have only a certain number of turns to use each time you play the game. this means you can pretty easily complete all the tasks that you want to complete in just a few minutes. this seems counter to the goal, but you can also buy more turns for real money in the in-game store, so whether you continue to play or not, the developer has profited in some way. if you opt not to buy turns in the store, you can do other pointless tasks for a while or wait for your turns to replenish. this is where it gets insidious. if your turns have replenished to the maximum possible amount, and you do not log in, you are basically wasting turns that could be replenished if you weren’t at the maximum. this is not an accident. it literally means that if you don’t log in before you’re maxed out, you are getting behind in whatever goal it is you’re trying to accomplish in the game. it’s quite deliberately designed to force you to pay attention to the game on a very regular basis. another mechanic of these types of games that accomplishes the same goal is forced deterioration of in-game resources. if you don’t log in soon enough after your crops have sprouted, they will wither and die, costing you time, effort and in-game money. again, if you don’t want to get behind, you have to log in exactly as often as zynga wants you to.
this problem doesn’t only come up in social games behavioral manipulation engines. world of warcraft is a prime example of a game that is designed to force players to log in, but the methods they use aren’t quite as insidious. blizzard genuinely wants people to enjoy their game. any mechanics that happen to look like manipulation for the sole purpose of retaining subscribers are created through the thought process of “in order for people to keep subscribing, we have to make interesting content and mechanics for them to experience, as well as reward them with cool stuff. what can we create to satisfy these requirements?” unfortunately, most of the stuff that is put into the game isn’t really that interesting, but it’s not for a lack of trying. the thought process for games like farmville is “what manipulative tactics can we use in order to keep people playing as often as possible and hopefully buying things from our virtual goods store?”
the reason i know this difference exists goes back to what i said at the beginning. the developers of these games do not care about the quality of the gameplay. the easiest way to look at this is to think about what is a scheduled reward in the game, and remove them all. if farmville did not have these scheduled rewards, would anyone still play it? the answer is that some people would, but the vast majority of people would never have heard of farmville if it weren’t for these purposefully addictive game mechanics. in other words, it’s not fun like people are forced to think it is, it’s simply designed to manipulate people into wanting to continue playing.
i know that even if everyone who plays farmville and other similar games read and understood this, many of them would still continue to play them. people don’t like to have their feelings challenged. i’m just hoping that some people, particularly family and friends (i actually have no idea who of the people i know play these games), will realize they are being manipulated and change their behavior. i strongly feel that zynga and other developers of these games do not deserve the success they have garnered. hopefully as more people come to realize what’s going on, they will be forced to change their ways, but i honestly don’t see that happening. i guess we’ll see.