Farmville: I Need Federal Subsidies


It’s got what plants crave.

As you all know, I loves me my Zynga games. That’s why I was excited when I saw Farmville advertised during Mafia Wars as released. Unfortunately, Farmville‘s dynamic is essentially waiting which usually isn’t really a fun activity. Given the choice between farming and La Cosa Nostra, clearly the latter is more appealing.

You take the role of a farmer and lay down SimCity-esque isometric plots which you can then fill with any of a number of crops. You then wait for the crops to grow. When they are ready, you harvest them and get coins so you can start anew. Whereas in Mafia Wars the different jobs provide different rewards and outputs (fill up the job mastery meter, get loot items), the different crops in Farmville provide no differentiation. All plants provide same benefit, only a matter of scale. The soybeans provide greatest return/cost, so I plant those. There is no reason to plant corn or strawberries or any of the others.

If you don’t harvest a crop in time, the crop withers and rots. This is a surprising use of negative reinforcement in an extremely casual game. Instead of rewarding players each time they come back, the game punishes players for not coming back. It is a subtle difference that has enormous impact on the players. Most games of this type use a sort of contra-positive reinforcement where you simply miss out on gains rather than incur losses by not signing on. The lesson is taught in decision science: people would rather miss out on gains than incur losses, even if they are the same economically.

Negative Reinforcement: Farmville – Plants die if you don’t log in to harvest them in time.
Contra-positive Reinforcement: Mafia Wars – There is an opportunity cost to having not logged in if your energy meter is full.
Positive Reinforcement: Parking Wars – You can only ticket people in your lanes if you constantly log in to check.

Then there is this cow.

I hate her. One of the first things I did was buy her. It cost most of my money, yet she has no benefit. I figure: Oh, a cow. She is expensive. Her price must be proportional to her benefit. She must make milk that I can sell at market. No dice. She just stands there, mocking me. In a pure min/maxing sense, the value of an in-game asset is the discounted future benefit it provides. In the simplest analysis, a Mega-Casino in Mafia Wars gives me $300,000/hour. I can calculate a break-even. If the Mega-Casino costs me $30 million, I know that in 100 hours I will have made my money back and every thing else is gravy. If I plan on playing more than a week, this is a good investment.

The exception to the rule is cosmetic changes. I could spend money on something that provides no future return if I get utility from the decoration aspect of it. For instance, some people spend hours upon hours looking for certain equippable items in WoW because it will make their character look cool. In cases where the item provides no game benefit, it is usually clear that the item is purely cosmetic. Rather than deriving benefit from the mechanics of the item, they derive benefit from the item’s appearance.

The cow does neither. I can almost smell the methane.

Now, I trust that like all Zynga games that this is a work in progress. But right now, the game is so bare-bones that it doesn’t feel ready for release. The tipping point in Mafia Wars came when they added job mastery – that wasn’t in the original release. This changed the gameplay dynamic from min/maxing on the same job to trying a bit of everything. Collectibles helped. Achievements helped. One can imagine that these are in the pipe for Farmville.

If not, well, I’m available for freelancing, Zynga. 🙂

2 Comments

  1. Your cow actually does make milk, it just takes a couple days to harvest and then you make coins from it.

  2. For the record, the cow didn’t do that when I wrote this post.

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