OP/ED: Farmville Ghettos -- The New Reality in Farmville

The recent Lighthouse Cove expansion reveals the revenue stream flowing below the surface of the game, serving as a rude awakening for many players.

OP/ED: Farmville Ghettos
-- The New Reality of Farmville --

by Heather Savage, GU Staff Writer

"A look at the recent content and farm expansions on the Facebook social networking game Farmville has revealed how the focus of the game has moved towards a stronger emphasis on players spending their real-world money in order to remain competitive in the addictive world of farming simulation."

When Zynga first introduced the population of Facebook to Farmville in 2009, the introduction of the game was practically the first exposure many users had to the sub-genre of simulation social networking games and, despite the fact that it was really only a clone of games like Harvest Moon, Happy Farm, and Farm Town, its brilliant combination of farm management, attractive animals and special crops combined with its strong application of rewards for immediate gratification with a slight delay -- simulating the idea of having to work towards your goals that makes the achievement of them all the sweeter -- resulted in a game that was an instant hit with gamers.

Structuring Farmville as a 'Fremium' game -- some parts cost the gamer real money to obtain, but for the most part the game could be played for free -- was a stroke of genius for Zynga, as the strategy practically guaranteed profits through word-of-mouth recruitment by players from within both groups. Farmville has lately been criticized for being a gender-targeted game, with its contents and play style allegedly targeting girl gamers, who are thought to be particularly susceptible to games whose focus includes warm fuzzy animals with an upbeat message -- harvesting animals in the world of Farmville does not require you to kill them -- and a form of nearly-instant gratification and game progress that is thought to be more appealing to women.

Recent unofficial surveys of Farmville players suggests that there may be something to these allegations, as the player base is predominately female (78%) with girl gamers more likely to purchase Zynga cards at retail or purchase Farmville Bucks via the online store in the game -- with sales of Farmville Bucks providing an estimated revenue for Zynga of roughly $1-million dollars a day, while Facebook rakies off an impressive 30% of that as its take for hosting the game and providing the user base. Those estimates only cover sales related to its Farmville game -- the average daily revenue is thought to be about twice that amount when the other games in Zynga's Facebook network are factored in, but the important figure here is that each day roughly 65% of those Farm Buck purchases are made by girl gamers.

If one in every 50 gamers has the discretionary income to purchase Farmville Bucks and the premium items that ultimately make up the revenue stream for the company, it is clearly worth the cost of developing the free content that the other 49 gamers find themselves hooked on.

After its introduction to Facebook, and for most of its first two years, Farmville was the King of Apps, the most popular and powerful economic success on the games side of the social networking site, and one of the few IP apps on the service that had the power to disagree with the people that run Facebook and largely get away with it. In fact until very recently it was viewed as the perfect example of how to balance free and paid content to literally define the Freemium category of online games, and that is saying something.

Many gamers believe that the almost unchecked expansion to the game combined with the new premium content that has been introduced over the course of the past 6 months is largely responsible for Farmville's being toppled off of its throne, as according to the last estimated positions on Facebook (September 2011) it is now the third most popular game, following another Zynga title, CityVille (2nd), and the newest game on Facebook, first-place The Sims Social from gaming powerhouse Electronic Arts, a game that started out as lightning in a bottle and just kept going up from there.

A typical farm scene in Farmville, a new farmer starts to slowly build the size and capabilities of their farm, adding regular animals until they reach the point at which they can begin increasing the size of their farm and adding more expensive and less common animals and the special buildings that they require to be a success.

Most gamers find their early farming career to be an immensely satisfying gaming experience.

Unchecked Expansions?

The signs of problems began to appear as Summer approached, and Zynga began rolling out new content in Farmville that coincided with the last farm size expansion options, a pair of selections called Grand Farm Estate (180 Farm Bucks) that increases the size of your farm to 30x30 tiles, and Lush Spread (200 Farm Bucks) that increases it to a new maximum of 32x32 tiles, making for an impressively large farm it is true, but the point that it can only be obtained through spending real money should not be lost on gamers.

The introduction of these newer size options was quickly followed by the introduction of new content that allows gamers to breed and store new animals in the game, including a Horse Paddock, Cow Pasture, Livestock Pen, Aviary, Zoo, Pet Run, and Wildlife Habitat, which join the already established Duck Pond, Sheep Pen, and Pig Pen.

"The folks over at Zynga are sensitive to
finger-pointing of this sort. . ."

Each of these new content items allow players to expand the types of animals that they raise on their farm, and to obtain new animals whose mastery -- as part of the recently introduced and newly-expanded mastery system -- represents a mixture of desirable results from the perspective of the gamers. They obtain XP and money (Farmville Coins) as well as bragging rights in the form of mastery signs that they can place on their farm to show the world that they are not only keeping current with the newest changes, but as a veteran farmer are excelling at them! Remember, this is a game that is based upon nearly-immediate gratification and bragging rights.

The catch to all of this -- and the connection between the real-world-money expansion to size and these new capabilities is the size issue itself -- by the time most farmers have expanded their farm to the maximum limits allowed using in-game coins (free on other words) their farms have already reached the saturation point that, in order to deploy the newest of the special animal buildings, requires them to expand again, only now it means spending real money.

The folks over at Zynga are sensitive to finger-pointing of this sort, and when this connection between the two content expansions was held out as an example that forces the gamers to spend real money in a game that has always claimed it can be played and fully enjoyed without spending dime one, they point to the recent game expansions that are represented by the new English Farm, and the newer-still Lighthouse Cove expansions, a pair of content improvements that give farmers two additional farms to play on, bringing the total to three farms, even if there is a catch to this that we will get to in a moment...

Posted: 28th Sep 2011 by Heather Savage
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