Play the Game!

It’s all Alison’s fault!¬† smile_regular¬†About a year ago when she was still taking care of me she introduced me to a game called Farm Town that was just starting to make its presence known on Facebook. Up to this point I’d mainly been using the social website as a means to keep in touch with family and friends. So when Alison sent me an invite to join her in Farm Town I wasn’t sure what to make of it. After all, the whole concept of working a computerised version of a farm hardly sounded gripping. Little did I realise then how addictive it would turn out to be and how it would spawn a whole host of imitators, one of which appears to have totally eclipsed it and gone on to become the biggest game on Facebook.

Farm Town is one of the new generation of social games built around the industry standard Adobe Flash technology and designed to run within a web browser such as Internet Explorer, although to be more specific in this particular case it is designed to run inside Facebook, another web application. Delivering games in this fashion offers some distinct advantages over conventional distribution methods such as CDs, DVDs and downloads. For instance there is no program to install, configure, update or patch. The games themselves generally load very quickly, do not consume gigabytes of hard disk space, and hardware requirements are no more than you would use to browse the web. When looked at in this way it is easy to see their appeal, at least for the casual gamer whose expectations will not be the same as those of the hard-core gaming fraternity.

So what is Farm Town? Well basically it’s a game that simulates the workings of a farm albeit in a dumbed down fashion. There are fields to plough, seeds to sow, crops to harvest, and fruit to gather from trees. By necessity (i.e. a desire to build as large a user base as possible) the basic game mechanics are kept simple. Like so many other games Farm Town is split up into a multitude of levels which you progress through by accumulating experience points. These points can be earned by ploughing fields, sowing seeds and purchasing various decorations such as buildings. Harvesting crops yields coins which enable you to buy more seeds, decorations and land with the objective of reaching the highest level and the biggest farm. And for the artistically inclined there is plenty of opportunity to embellish your farm with animals, trees, buildings, fences, and rivers etc.

Now if all this was done in isolation I suspect that you would soon grow tired of it but social games by their very nature have an ace up their sleeve which of course is the interaction with other people. When the game is built within the very fabric of a social networking site such as Facebook you potentially have a ready-made group of participants in your ‘friends list’ which you can invite to be your neighbours. This then opens up the possibility of hiring your neighbours to work on your farm at harvest time, something that Alison, Francesca and I would often do in the evenings (oh yes, Francesca became just as hooked as the rest of us!). It was often a case of let’s meet up by the scarecrow under a full moon! But Farm Town has another little trick up its sleeve which is to allow you to interact with other players worldwide either in an informal surrounding such as the inn where players can just socialise or in the market where players can hire one another to perform work on their farm. It’s this social aspect that has proved very popular with the Facebook community. Gifting is another idea designed to maintain interest in the game. Players can select from a variety of gifts such as trees and animals etc and give them as gifts to neighbours. This was something that proved very popular in the early stages of the game when Alison, Francesca and I were trying to develop our farms. In the later stages of course its usefulness diminishes as by this time farms are probably overflowing with decorations.

From humble beginnings... crops of potatoes, tomatoes and rice. Anybody familiar with the 70s sitcom 'The Good Life' will recognise the significance of my avatar's name.

The store is where you buy things, in this case seeds. Choose wisely! Crops ready to harvest in the shortest times tend to yield the least coins when sold at the market.

Oh look, Francesca has come to visit me! Reaching a new level increases your options on what can be bought from the store and what you can gift to your neighbours.

It's harvest time and Francesca has come to lend a hand!

The fruits of our labour (pun intended!)

Francesca , don't you have a home to go to? Things are starting to take shape. We have a nice variety of crops, a good selection of trees, some animals and a few decorations.

Reaching certain levels allows the purchase of more land which means you can grow more crops and earn more coins.

This is how things looked shortly before I stopped playing Farm Town.

Home sweet home! A new feature introduced some months after launch was the ability to plant flowers.

So for a few months Farm Town provided a bit of free entertainment that was fun to play for an hour or so each day and provided a nice diversion from other more serious stuff. Alison, Francesca and I got some real laughs out of it as we each tried to outdo each other so I guess in that sense it succeeded. But games that are structured in such a way that all the new and exciting stuff is in the early stages when you are busy building an environment often reach a point where interest begins to tail off once you have acquired everything. But a copycat game would soon appear that would take the best bits of Farm Town, add in lots of new features, and a big dollop of fun and wrap the whole thing up in a set of crisper, more vibrant graphics. That game was FarmVille and it quickly became the number one game application on Facebook.

Apart from the fact that this game looks a generation on from Farm Town in its presentation and slickness, I would say its key reason for success lies in the fact that it is being updated on a weekly basis so there is always something new to see. A popular addition are the themed releases where seeds, decorations, buildings and animals etc are released to coincide with a calendar event (Christmas, St Valentine’s Day, St Patrick’s Day etc) or connected with farms in some way (country fairs, autumn). And in FarmVille players can interact with animals by milking cows, collecting wool from sheep, collecting eggs from chickens etc which was something sadly lacking in Farm Town. There are lots of awards and incentives to make the players feel like they have achieved something, and there is a big emphasis on fun in the style of graphics and humorous animations. For instance in the run up to Halloween last year they launched some Halloween themed farm decorations and amongst these was a gravestone and if you watched it long enough then occasionally the ghost of a cow could be seen floating skywards! Another example is the hot air balloon complete with a black sheep in the wicker basket, a decoration that was issued to commemorate a milestone in the number of players they had. All of this is a far cry from the straitlaced Farm Town and judging by the amount of people now playing the game it’s clear they have a winning formula.

FarmVille is an excellent example of the rising popularity of social websites as gaming platforms. The advantages are many but chief among these is the fact that the basic game is always free. They don’t require you to devote many hours at a single time, and instead you can just dip into them as you feel, play a little and then come back another day. I’m sure that the hard-core gamers out there would laugh at such simplistic games but it is important to remember that not everybody has the time, the inclination, or the physical ability to play the latest PC and game console titles. Games such as FarmVille fulfil the needs of the casual gamer.

Where they tend to make their money is in all the extra enhancements and decorations for which real cash is required. Now the cynic in me might say that before the game became very popular practically everything was free and that now it has over 80 million people playing it most of the new enhancements cost real money. But at the end of the day the basic game is still free and there is no pressure to part with real cash and buy the extras so it is still possible to have an enjoyable game with family and friends. Also it’s important to remember that somewhere along the line somebody has to pay for the running costs i.e. the servers, bandwidth, artists, and programmers so we can’t begrudge them for trying to recover their costs.

Sadly the disease has been steadily chipping away at my enjoyment of this game for some months now. A year ago I could quite comfortably navigate my way around the play area just as long as my arm was supported in an ergo rest. Now it’s a different story as month by month I grow ever more tired of fighting against the encroaching paralysis. The repetitive nature of the finger and arm movements that are required to ‘work the land’ often means performing the same physical task several hundred times in a row (depending on the size of farm and how much land has been allocated to farming). No wonder then that at times my fingers have almost stop working and it becomes impossible to do anything. So to try and overcome this problem I’ve been experimenting with controlling the game using my speech recognition software. Now in theory you could play the game in this manner, however you would need the patience of a saint and you would have to ask yourself if the enjoyment you got out of it justified the huge amount of time invested. Another option I’ve been looking at is controlling the mouse pointer using my foot switches and trackball. This is certainly a lot quicker than issuing verbal commands but once again the repetitive nature of the physical actions required soon start to tire my feet. At the moment I’ve adopted something of a hybrid solution by using a combination of voice commands and foot movements. In the long run I can see myself devoting more and more of the land to decorations such as wooded areas, water features and buildings. In other words anything that doesn’t require constantly reworking in the form of plough, sow and harvest. My days of farming are slowly drawing to a close.

Anyway, you’ll have to excuse me. It’s time to milk the cows and feed the chickens and I need to be up early tomorrow to plough the South field smile_regular.

On-screen help and crops ready for harvest as soon as you begin draw you into the game very quickly.

Same function but different name. Everything is bought in the market.

Neighbours can send gifts to one another which are held in the gift box until required.

Frequent rewards via a series of ribbons provide continued incentive to play the game.

Various pests such as crows, foxes, and gophers as well as weeds and leaves can be cleared from neighbours farms. Removing these pests earns a few extra coins.

There are several features in this shot pioneered by FarmVille: 1) commemorative decorations - the hot air balloon was issued to commemorate a milestone in the number of active users playing the game; 2) farm vehicles which are capable of working large areas of land instead of one plot at a time; 3) animals that transform e.g. an ugly duckling that will become a swan.

Some of the many different ribbons that can be awarded when certain tasks have been accomplished

A few examples of Farmville style humour: alien abduction cows and crop circles!

Flowers can be grown as crops which periodically generate 'perfect bunches' which can either be sold to other players or used to decorate your own farm.

Winter comes to FarmVille. A nice touch is that the land can be switched from green pastures to snow blanket. During the run-up to Christmas players were able to send mystery gifts to their neighbours that were wrapped up and couldn't be opened until the holiday season. As the amount of gifts accumulated the Christmas tree with its pile of presents beneath would grow larger in stages until the maximum amount of presents allowed was reached.

Mark

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