The Game Design that Made Farmville
Until Zynga’s Cityville took the world by storm, Farmville enjoyed its place as the king of Facebook games for quite some time, still holding over 60 million users after a year and a half. Despite this, I couldn’t find much online analyzing the design of the game and what contributed to it being so successful.
Social games depend on players returning to the game day after day. Games that have players install the game once, count as a Monthly-Active-User (MAU), and then never return are useless. That’s why the DAU/MAU, or “stick” of a game is so important — it shows how many people are actually playing the game regularly instead of just visiting once.
So what does Farmville do to retain all those users? What keeps them coming back for the second day, third day, and beyond? There are many aspects to Farmville’s success, but it is my personal belief that there is a single design that can take most of the credit for what made Farmville what it was.
The Harvesting Mechanic
The main activity in Farmville, as everyone knows, is planting plants. Players select what they would like to grow from a menu, including raspberries, pumpkins, flowers, squash, whatever you can think of. Each of these different plants have different looks, prices, and time to harvest.
This all feels and seems like a traditional game up until this point. But there are a few key components to planting a plant that make it an incredibly strong design for the player returning to the game:
Time to Harvest. Different plants have different times to harvest. Once a seed is planted, then the player needs to come back to the game at a later time to harvest it. The times for harvest are all displayed to the player so that they can pick their own schedule. If they know they’re going to be free in a few hours they can pick the raspberries. If they want to wait longer they can pick the pumpkins.
Cost. The second crucial component is that the player pays for the plants when they plant them, not when they harvest them. This means that the player has already made an investment, they have spent the coins on the seeds to watch them grow. If they come back in time then they get their investment back and more. But if they don’t come back in time, then their crops wither.
This feedback loop, making an investment, setting a time to return, and losing your investment if you don’t keep your promise to return to the game, is what is responsible for Farmville’s high stick rate. Players plant their plants and then arrange to come back to the game later on — or else. And since they have their virtual currency on the line, they are very likely to hold up their end of the bargain to come back and play again.
Psychological Power of Withering
Psychologists have studied the phenomena that humans are very scared of loss. One often referenced study is the following: participants are given a coin and told that if they flip the coin and it lands on tails, they will lose $100. The experimenter then asks the participant “How much would you need to win if it lands on heads in order to take this bet?”
What would you say? I personally would probably need about $500 or more to risk losing $100. And while people may vary in the amount they would need to take the bet, the important point is that almost no one will take the bet for a chance to win $100.
Why? Because people hate losing things. They don’t like opportunities being shut, ideally all the doors would always be open. When something is lost, it hurts a lot more than the enjoyment that was received from gaining that same item.
This is the psychological foundation of Farmville’s core mechanic. By having players sign that they are going to return and then having them face an embarrassing loss if they don’t, players are compelled to come back and enjoy the game further. Since these harvesting contracts are being made ever play session, the game’s design brilliantly has the player schedule a return session each time they play. Every session encourages the next, and so forth.
Getting Them In and Keeping Them In
Of course there are other factors that made Farmville so successful. Its unfortunate predecessor, Farmtown, had many of these exact same mechanics but was not marketed in the same fashion. Thus the retained users at a similar level but their user influx was much less than Zynga’s.
Some designers also think that tactics like this are immoral, but I don’t buy into that personally. I think that while those ethical discussions are important to have, the design itself is amoral and can be used however the developers want. Game designers who want to increase the odds of players returning to their game would be wise to consider similar designs. Have them make an investment, set up a time to reap the rewards, and then take away the rewards for a loss if they don’t return in time. (Source: The Game Prodigy)