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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:

6
Invite A Neighbor! Share An Achievement! Give a Gift!

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.

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5
Hey It's Actually Pretty Free

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.

Only a small percentage of players give in, but that's all they need - 82% of Zynga's customers pay nothing, but the company rakes in $1 million a day from the other 18%.

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4
"Variety" For Less

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".

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3
I Can Stop Whenever I Want But Not Now, My Crops Are Due In 30 Minutes

What They Offer You: You can come back in two hours, eight hours, four days! You're the boss!

What The Real Point Is: Oh, but you are coming back.

It's hard to get addicted if you can just stop by whenever you want. To that end, Farmville crops wither if left up too long (although you can "unwither" them with the power of real cash money) and other games have their own time limits.


If they had this technology in the Farmville world, wouldn't they want to spend it on curing Alzheimer's and reversing old age instead of on saving raspberries?

But if the game explicitly set a rigid time limit, you'd be aware of it and resent it (like people gripe a lot about having to do dailies in WoW every 24 hours, and a bunch of people are always upset about what time Cracked's Craption Contest starts), so Zynga generously lets you set your own time limits. Sort of. By choosing what crops to plant, you choose when you have to come back - anywhere from two hours to four days for most crops. Zynga is putting up their hands and saying, "You're the farmer. Come back whenever you want." Which is bullshit. You might have 50 different choices, but none of them involves coming back whenever you feel like it.


Guess which one of these isn't available.

And studies have shown that people who think they chose to do something (even if they didn't) are more motivated than people who were forced to do that same thing.

If the game directly told you, "You must come back in two hours to continue playing," two hours might pass and you'd blow it off because you don't owe a stupid game anything. If you yourself decide to plant two-hour raspberry crops, you might willingly rush home early from dinner with friends to tend to "your" responsibility.


A Farmville-related early exit is one of the leading causes of not getting a second date.

Make no mistake, they're quite insistent on making you come back, but they'll let you think you're making yourself do it.

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2
$5? That's Just 500 Pennies!

What They Offer You: Just $5 gets you a bargain bin worth of exclusive goodies!

What The Real Point Is: If it's only $5, maybe you won't think too hard about what you're buying.

The upside of not spending any money on their actual game means they will make money no matter how little they charge you. So for just $5, you can buy a ton of "Farm Cash" to buy exclusive items.


Or for buying "Farmville" food at the 7-Eleven. Really.

People who balk at buying $60 PS3 games or even $10 bargain bin games suddenly find their Scroogelike reflexes dulled when the price is as low as the cost of a McDonald's value meal. But that meal will only allow you to feel greasy and queasy for a few hours while $5 of Farmville money can keep you entertained for weeks.


Maybe too entertained.

They call these "microtransactions," and it's become the next big thing in internet moneymaking. Everyone has a psychological price point and considers any amount below it "small change," and considers anything above it "enough money that I should be careful with it." This point varies from person to person and depends on what they're buying with it, but $5 usually comes in comfortably under, which gets a lot of people turning off the part of the brain that usually asks, "Do I really need this? Is this in my budget? Am I really thinking about buying fake money?"


Basically the same thoughts that go through your head when you exchange your money for Canadian currency.

Iphone apps have been raking in cash on the same principle. Thanks to the App store and in Zynga's case, Paypal, lots of tiny transactions are no hassle, so the number of customers they gain from cutting prices is a big win for them. I mean, would you rather make $20 selling a $20 game to one person or make $50 selling a $5 game to ten people?

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1
Nag? Pay? Both? None?

What They Offer You: It's your choice how you want to play. You're in charge!

What The Real Point Is: We'll use you either way.

No matter which path you choose, Zynga gets something out of you.

If you decide to pay in microtransactions, that's straight up cash. They get $5 for investing close to $0 in you.

Zynga gets:

If you decide to get bonus items by inviting and spamming friends, that's cool too. If just two of those friends end up paying, that's even better than if you'd paid yourself.

Zynga gets:

But it's not like they won't do their best to get both out of you. Bonus items from paying and bonus items from recruiting overlap, but not completely. If you're an obsessive completionist who wants all the goodies, you'll have to pimp and work.

Zynga gets:

Even as a free player, you're still in the game, and they're getting their hooks into you every day you're there. Maybe you'll misclick and invite a friend one day, or get tricked into a scam offer as one 15 year-old girl did. She clicked to accept "free offers" in return for in-game currency and through the fine print, found herself enrolled in 17 SMS subscriptions charging $10 a month - or rather her mom found her enrolled in them when she checked her phone bill.

Zynga claims they don't allow this anymore but it's up to you if you want to believe Mr. Every-Horrible-Thing-In-The-Book or not.


This guy, remember.

Everything - the soft sell, the low price, the illusion of choice, the corny graphics, sending invites through friends you know - is designed to avoid triggering red flags that make you put up your anti-salesman defenses. If the amount of subtle and subconscious pressure they put on players was overt and direct, even the three people that liked the game for itself would have been driven off. People usually aren't very fond of pyramid schemes, but slap on some dopey graphics, push it on grandmas and teenage girls, and suddenly it's just "one of those cheesy fads" like Justin Bieber, and Zynga, the evil genius, can recede unseen into the background.


For more about the seedy underbelly of gaming, check out 5 Creepy Ways Video Games Are Trying to Get You Addicted. For more from Christina, see The End of Online Anonymity.

And stop by Linkstorm (Updated Today!) to discover ancient videos of Y-chromosomal Adam and Eve totally doing it.

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