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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.