If you're on the internet at all (and you obviously are) you probably either play Farmville or get bombarded with invites from one of the 60 million people who do, and think less of them for it. You might have wondered how such a dumb Flash-based game can be hooking so many people. Are people so stupid? Or is Farmville smart? Both, probably, but we've got enough articles about the first thing. What doesn't get discussed much is how fiendishly clever Farmville's creators are.
Most video game companies spend their money on game quality, believing that game quality will lead to people wanting to play the game, which will lead to money. The philosophy behind Zynga (Farmville's creators) is: Why make the process so convoluted? Skip game quality and just focus on figuring out what you can do to make people want to play any game, no matter how bad it is. To that end, they've hired a full-time behavioral psychologist to figure out how to manipulate players like lab rats.
A cry for help from within the game.
And as Zynga founder Mark Pincus freely admitted in this popular quote, he won't confine himself to using those powers scrupulously: "So I funded the company myself but I did every horrible thing in the book to, just to get revenues right away. I mean we gave our users poker chips if they downloaded this zwinky toolbar which was like, I dont know, I downloaded it once and couldn't get rid of it. *laughs*"
Pincus around the office.
And it worked. Zynga is projected to rake in $1 billion in 2011 and Google has poured $100 million into the company in an attempt to get in on the action before it's too late.
Here's how they pull it off:
What They Offer You: Have more fun playing with friends!
What The Real Point Is: Help us disguise spam as Facebook messages between friends.
For some of you, 90% of your messages on Facebook are acquaintances bombarding you with Farmville spam. When you play, Farmville has approximately 1000 ways of saying, "Send An Ad For Farmville to Your Facebook Friends!" If it just blared the same, "Invite a friend! Invite a friend!" message at you every two minutes, you'd not only quit the game but take a shotgun to their headquarters. So they ask you in a different way every two minutes. Advertising the same thing in different ways lets them keep throwing ads at you in a way that avoids triggering the parts of your brain that make you begin to hate the product, a psychological trick advertisers have been using for decades. Since these various hints come up in relation to many different features and items you want, the only subconscious pattern that gets picked up is that you can get a ton of sweet shit if you just invite some friends.
Prompts from just five minutes of playing the game.
You can either recruit friends who don't play the game, or spam friends who do play the game with "gifts", which helps remind anyone beginning to drift away that, hey, free shit. Many games send messages to lapsed players trying to lure them back with free shit, but Zynga uses you to do it, so it's coming from a friend and not a company robot. Your friend Andy sending you a free goat doesn't set off the same mental defenses as "Zynga Games (tm)" sending you a "Special Offer (also tm)".
Once you're involved in a game with friends, it adds a subtle pressure to not just quit when you feel like it. Quitting right in the middle of helping build your friend's barn? Dick move. And as these guys describe in detail competitive gaming types will be drawn in by the urge to one-up and brag to their friends.
And to find new ways to do so.
And thanks to the Facebook connection, you don't even have to leave the game to bombard your friends with these ads. As the above article mentions, Farmville actually auto-sent these "updates" at one point without even asking you, until angry Facebook users inundated by spam made them put in a prompt. Sadly for Zynga, there's no way to vary Facebook spam ads enough to avoid making people angry.
What They Offer You: An indefinite amount of time to play all the features of the game - free!
What The Real Point Is: More time to get you hooked.
"Sure," you might think, "of course it's `free'. But the moment you want anything decent, you have to pay, right?" No, you don't. Impatient companies give you short, minimal demos of their games, and before you've gotten attached enough to set your heart on it, the "please pay to continue" window comes up, which ends the flirtation for most users. Zynga puts off that moment as long as possible, letting you get more and more invested. The pressure to pay is low and gradual - a lot of, "You might want to buy this new faster plow. No? That's cool, I'll just get out of the way and let you keep playing. I'll just sit here as an icon on the side of your screen in case you change your mind."
These icons sparkle like a Twilight vampire every 30 seconds or so, in case you forget you can get free Farmville tractor fuel for playing Mafia Wars!
It's a slow buildup of a few popups and many small, unobtrusive reminders in every screen, with no sudden jarring demands to put you off, and by the time you're really feeling the pressure, you're probably hooked enough to not storm off in a huff of righteous indignation.
What They Offer You: Tons of games, and constantly updating content in each!
What The Real Point Is: Stolen and copied content looks new, and costs nothing.
The lack of actual gameplay content means a lot of downtime, and Zynga doesn't want you spending that downtime reading Cracked when you could be playing more Zynga games. There are easy links to Cafe World, Fishville, Mafia Wars, and many other free Zynga games on every Farmville screen.
Bars at the top of the Farmville and Mafia Wars games.
Making so many games sounds like a lot of work, but almost every game was bought, stolen, or copied - they licensed Texas Hold'Em for their poker game, purchased existing games like YoVille, and imitated previous farm, cafe, and aquarium games. Farmville itself is ironically derived from a Chinese game, with Zynga defending themselves from legal action by claiming it was Opposite Day.
Upon which the Chinese, not to be outdone, gamely participated.
So, stealing is a great way to keep costs down! Another is to keep giving people the same things in different packages. "New" items are introduced almost weekly - new only in appearance. It's a pretty rare case when a new item actually takes new programming. But to the player, it's seven new barns! Holy shit! Look at all those completely different barns!
If you're a gamer, you're probably familiar with the phrase "palette swap".