Looking at Facebook games I’m going to tackle a big one first: FarmVille. The idea behind the game is that you build a farm, harvest crops and stuff for money which you use to build more farm. There are two forms of money in the game, Coins and Cash. Coins are what you get naturally just playing the game for most actions, Cash is what you can buy with real dollars. Now, you can buy Coins with real dollars and you can get Cash through the game, but they are primarily obtained as first described. You can also visit your neighbors’ farms and do chores to help them out.
One of the first things you are likely to notice if you go visiting other people’s farms is that the majority of them have something like pictured to the right. A few carefully arranged objects, be they bales of hay or fences or whatever, so that your character can’t move. See, when you click on things in your farm, like land to plow or crops to harvest or cows to milk, your character will walk over to those things and then do the work. By restricting character movement, all actions are performed as you click on them instead of waiting for your character to walk to them. This, of course, is preferred since the game involves lots of clicking and, if you go on long enough, big farms with lots of walking. My farm doesn’t have this, because it looks stupid. However, I have noticed that many of my neighbors stopped coming to do chores at my farm after the first time or two because without me putting up the barrier it just takes too long for them to do chores.
To the left here, you’ll see animals, the other large aspect of FarmVille. Animals wander around if you let them, but this can lead them to finding their way into places behind things where you can’t click them, so most people just place them, click them and issue the “stay” command so they don’t move around. As you get more animals, you need room for them and since space is scarce in this game, most people end up just packing the animals in a corner, sometimes in a pen, all lined up. It makes for easier care, though PETA would be very displeased. I let my animals wander, which only affects me since visitors interact with buildings (like chicken coops) and not individual animals. Overall, like the barriers, lines of animals looks stupid, but the game doesn’t reward you for pretty, it rewards you for clicks.
The game also rewards you for spam. I respect that FarmVille is intended to be a social game, but every time something happens in game there is a pop-up asking me if I want to post this event to my news feed. I tend not to do these because I find them to be tacky. Choosing that road limits my game, of course. When I do chores, sometimes I get prizes, like special mystery eggs for feeding people’s chickens, but I don’t really get those prizes. Instead, I get a pop-up that says I found an item to give away, and I have to post an announcement on my feed for people to click on so they can get the prize. I never see these posts from other people because I long ago hid the FarmVille application since the constant bombardment of posts was destroying my ability to actually read real feed updates from my friends. Facebook has evolved, and I probably could find a way to see what my friends have to say without game spam, but I’m too lazy to figure it out. So, since I don’t see people giving away stuff, I don’t give stuff away. Not by news feed spam anyway.
Reciprocity is the center of FarmVille. When someone gives you a gift, you are able to send them a thank you gift, and it is really easy to do. So in order to get gifts, you have to give some away. In order to maximize your advancement in the game, you need items and the best way to obtain those items is to give those items away. If, for instance, you want to build your stable for horses, you need items like nails and bricks and harnesses. The best way to get those is to give them to other people. It is sort of accepted in these games that if someone gives you an item, when you thank them with a return gift you should give them the same thing back. So, give to others what you want to get for yourself. Don’t worry about the cost, giving gifts is free, but I believe Facebook imposes a limit on the number of “invites” a game can send out per day, so make sure you only send to people who always return the love. This is also why FarmVille is constantly asking you to post things to your news feed, because there is no limit to how often a game can post to your feed.
So, beyond the clicking and the gifting, what is there to do in FarmVille? Design your farm! However, very few people really do this as a good looking farm is less efficient than it can be, so most farms are just clumps of money earning with little eye for design. I wanted to make my farm look as farmy as possible, but the game hindered me in that because a number of items, most noticeably many buildings, cannot be rotated. This restricts the number of places I can put these items and have them make sense. In the end, I was frustrated that I couldn’t get my farm to look the way I wanted. All the pieces were there, I just wasn’t allowed to arrange them in the way I wanted. This led me to not caring about my farm, which led me to playing less. I began intentionally choosing crops that matured in 4 days so that I could return less often. This decision restricted my choices of crops which further led me to not want to play.
Overall, the game is boring. This parody commercial actually captures much of what I feel about the game.
Back to the beginning of this review, Coins and Cash. FarmVille is made by Zynga and if you’ve been floating around the gaming end of the Intarweb you might have heard two things about them. First, they have made buckets and buckets of money. Second, they made that money, in part, by scamming people. Games on Facebook make money in three ways if I understand it correctly. The first is the old Internet standby of Ad impressions and clicks. The second is direct sales (buying game cash). The third is through partner referrals. The third one is where the trouble pops up. Essentially, you go into the game and click on the tab to buy game Cash and down at the bottom they have a bunch of deals. You can buy 115 Cash for $20 direct, but they’ll give you 127 Cash if you click the Blockbuster link and sign up for an account (and pay for at least one month). Now, from the consumer perspective, the Blockbuster link is the best deal because you can get a plan for $4.99 a month (plus some taxes and fees) and cancel after 1 month: 127 Cash for $5. The reason they do this is Blockbuster is betting that they’ll turn enough of those first month people into subscribers (and they probably have details statistics that say something like 1 in 10 people who sign up remain subscribers for a year, 1 in 10 for 6 months, 3 in 10 for 3 months, and so on), so Blockbuster kicks back to Zynga an amount of cash per person that makes them want you to do the partner link instead of giving them a straight $20. In fact, the values of Cash purchased direct are more than likely priced specifically to make you prefer the partner links. $5 with Zynga only gets you 25 Cash, but $5 with Blockbuster gets you 127. Where would you rather spend your $5?
But where does the scam come in? It is in the other links. You see, many people don’t want the hassle of signing up for Blockbuster, even if it is the “better” deal, so they’d rather just give cash for Cash. Zynga directly accepts Visa, MasterCard, Discover and Paypal. But not everyone has credit cards or use Paypal, however just about everyone has a cell phone. Through a number of partners, Zynga accepts payment through cell phone. You just click a link and then text a code to a number and you get your Farm Cash and the charge is just added to your next cell phone bill. How easy is that? Super easy!! What is usually hard to tell, though, and is where people cry foul, is that some of these cell phone pay services charge a monthly service fee. So while you might jump at the chance to send $20 to Zynga for FarmVille and just tack that $20 on your phone bill, the company handling all that money moving is going to require (usually in the fine print and terms of service that 99.99999999999% of people foolishly never read) that you subscribe to their service (which you do by simply authorizing the original charge with that code you text) which is often anywhere from $9.99 to $19.99 a month. And, naturally, Zynga gets a kickback on that. We could argue until the sun burns out about who is responsible, the consumer for not reading the terms, the service company for not making them more prominent instead of buried in legal jargon, or Zynga for not mentioning that those services charge a fee, but at the end the truth is that they are all responsible. People should pay attention, service companies should be required by law to clearly and prominently explain their fees, and Zynga should section off those alternate payment methods under a label that says they charge a fee.
At the end of the day, FarmVille gets a “C” for being mildly amusing yet boring and annoying, but Zynga gets a giant “F” for being unapologetic money grubbing douchebags. Making money isn’t evil, but you don’t have to be a dick about it.