Gamification Research: How FarmVille uses Game Mechanics to become Winning & Addicting

13 min read

The following is a guest post from fnBlog Contributor Yu-kai Chou, Co-Founder of RewardMe. Yu-kai previously contributed to What is Gamification. This post, originally posted on theGamification Expert Blog, discusses gamification in FarmVille.

Gamification Research on the Game you don’t want to play but have to play

Most people know about FarmVille, either because they have played it themselves, or because they’ve been harassed by their grandmas to give their farms a nice virtual crop.

FarmVille is one of Zynga’s best performing games, and for some time was Facebook’s most popular game of all time. Currently, it still remains one of the Top 10 Games on Facebook.

The interesting thing is, FarmVille really isn’t that “fun” It just mastered some very strong game mechanics to get everyone addicted to it, and then have them invite their friends to play with them.

When you ask FarmVille players whether the game is “fun” or not, you never hear people say, “Its SO amazing!” What you actually will hear is, “it’s okay… I play it every day so I guess it’s pretty fun. You should try it, and make sure you become my neighbor and give me these special crops!”

Similar to my post that analyzes the game mechanics of Diablo 3, this post analyzes the game mechanics that FarmVille uses to become Winning & Addicting.

Basic Game Mechanics

Virtual Reality and Fantasy

Like all sim related games, FarmVille allows the player to imagine herself living the life of someone else, in this case the exciting life of a – woopdidoo – Farmer!

Unfortunately, even though there are some applications in this within Gamification, it mostly ties into the concept of Serious Games, so we won’t be learning too much from this here.

Virtual Currency, Goods, and Values

This first thing a game needs to do, is to get the users to care about something. Sometimes it’s overcoming challenges, sometimes it’s finding out more about the storyline, and in Farmville’s case, it’s caring about virtual goods and properties.

FarmVille players are quickly introduced to a FarmVille currency system called Farm Coins, and as they invest more and more time to accumulate Farm Coins, it establishes value in the players head.

More importantly, because players are trying to build the best farm possible, there now is a new value system based on various crops and properties. Points (coins) aren’t just there for kicks and giggles, but there is actually an ecosystem where they could convert into other things that the player has learned to covet but are difficult to obtain.

Most of the other game mechanics can only work because of this value that is installed into the mind of players.

Ownership and Possession

With a new base of value established, FarmVille then gets the player glued onto the idea of ownership and the insatiable need to possess more.

You now have a farm, and its your responsibility to take care of it and grow it. No one’s going to force you to grow it, but if you don’t, you would have owned something very lousy. You would grow it by possessing more things on your property, which will then require more responsibility to maintain.

The concept of ownership is very important in the work place and education as well. If you are constantly forcing employees or students to do something, they will lack motivation and only do the bare minimum of what you will accept (which sometimes end up being good enough). But if you give them ownership of what they do, they often go above and beyond their responsibilities.

It’s been well studied that employees who are empowered and told “this is your project now. Do whatever you want with it but you will be remembered by what comes out at the end” will perform much higher than those who are just told what to do.

Progress and Development

Everyone needs to feel that they are growing and getting somewhere. In FarmVille, even though every single day players are engaged in the same monotonous tasks of clicking endlessly on their crops, they feel a sense of progress as their Farm Coins go up, and more importantly, when they can spend their hard-earned Farm Coins to expand their land or buy an expensive mansion.

This is the reason why a kid would wake up 3AM behind their parents’ back, just to kill the same monsters again and again in order to level up – even though the task itself is considered grunt work by definitions, seeing a sense of progress and a keen site to the end-goal (being strong enough to beat a boss) is enough to get them motivated.

A feel for progress and development is essential for any product or project. Similar to the saying, “If you can’t measure it, you can’t improve it,” in Gamification, If you can’t keep score, you can’t motivate.

Advanced Game Mechanics

Scarcity and Impatience

Scarcity (both in time and resources) is a given in life – you can’t have everything you want – and when that scarcity is controlled by a master game designer, it can turn a a crowd of intelligent people into an anthill of mindless drones.

Once a set of values and sense of ownership is established, Farmville uses many “Time-Based Limitations” to create Scarcity as well as impatience.

When the player plants a crop, he needs to wait a few hours to a few days before he can reap the goods. The required waiting, or so-called appointment dynamics creates eagerness and impatience from the player. And as a result, the player feels anxious to check up on his crops regularly and see if the waiting period is over or not, even if he intellectually understands that the appointed time has not passed yet.

On a bigger scale, Farmville will dangle something even more grand, perhaps a larger farm, or a big mansion, which will require another 100 hours of gameplay to obtain. Players stare at those amazing virtual pixels, and they need to have it. The problem is that they can’t have it now! This sets the path to the grinding that they will do for the next 3 weeks, because there’s no other way to get what they want immediately.

Oh actually, there are other ways. Users can simply invite their friends to give them stuff, or spend $5 real money to get what they want immediately.

“WOW! I can just spend $5 and save myself 100 hours of playing Farmville! That’s a no-brainer!!”

Suddenly, a user is no longer spending $5 for a silly picture of a house on his screen. He is spending money to save the time and work required to get that silly picture of a house. And of course, his time is much more valuable than the silly house itself right?

So now we see the bizarre phenomenon of people playing games for free, and then paying real money in order to skip much of the required playing.

Scarcity and Impatience is a very powerful mechanic, and is one of the most dominating sources of monetization for social games these days, primarily because most social gamers are not very patie

Imagine if you could harness the power of impatience to do good – where a person must do something that benefits society in order to get what he really really wants quickly. That would be something.

Companionship and Social Pressure

Social Pressure is another strong force that drive our actions (that’s why peer pressure is that powerful in our lives). Farmville skillfully manages Social Pressure by giving players bonuses whenever they invite friends to the game. Yea, every social game does that so thats not special. What’s special about what Farmville does is that it makes you “earn” by harassing your friends, much like Network Marketing.

In Farmville, there are regular crops and buildings you can obtain through massive amounts of time invested and Farm Coins. However, there are some items that you generally need to purchase with real money. MAN, I need to spend REAL money on this game?? Grr….but oh wait! If I have some neighbors, they can give me the same thing for free!

Now by asking your friends to join Farmville and be your friend, you effectively got something that was worth REAL money! What a deal! More importantly, Farmville’s mechanic is that it doesn’t cost your neighbor a dime to give these high-end items to you – its just created from thin air when they agree to give you something.

So basically, harassing friends to join Farmville and give you high-end stuff is a win-win situation! <3

Just like how paying $5 in real money is an amazing deal to save 100 hours of work, forcing 2 friends to join is an amazing deal to save $5 off buying that awesome cow!

And that’s how the game becomes viral and profitable at the same time.

This is a similar concept to what Andrew Warner, a friend of mine and the Founder of Mixergy, the BEST entrepreneur education resource online, coined as “Must Marketing” – in order to play, you MUST invite your friends. Farmville adapts a “freemium” model where users can play for free, but to access premium content, they must invite their friends (or pay money). Perhaps this is called “Must Marketing Freemium.”

Loss and Avoidance

Studies have shown most people would do more to prevent a loss than to obtain a gain.

In FarmVille, if you happen to collect your crops a few hours late, your crops would die with ugly, uninspiring graphics. That means all the mindless clicking you did 10 hours ago were completely wasted!

To avoid the death of crops, users are required to go back to Farmville every single day (or every few hours, depending on how impatient they are) to prevent the world-ending disaster of seeing dead crops on their farms.

Its mechanics like these that make my mom, who barely even checks her email, wake up at 5AM in the morning just to reap some of the crops that she has sown the evening prior. And I thought gamers were supposed to be an escapism away from daily responsibilities. When did gaming become another set of obligations that could be even more demanding than real life?

More importantly, with far higher implications, players fall into a large scale psychological spiral called the Sunk Cost Fallacy. I’ve had many friends who acknowledges to themselves that Farmville is truly a waste of time in their lives, and they really want to quit.

However, if they quit, then the hundreds of hours they spent on Farmville will TRULY be wasted. So players keep playing to “avoid feeling the pain of loss and the ugly sensation waste creates.” And as they spend more time protecting themselves from feeling the loss, they invest even more time into the game, creating a bigger loss.

Hmm, how depressing.

I remember when I quit Diablo 2 many years ago, I too felt the resistance to avoid the pain of loss. The way I could finally get out of that trap was to think BIG enough. I thought “Okay….20 years from now, I wouldn’t be playing Diablo 2 – if I did, I would be a sad sad fool. So if I’m not going to be playing 20 years from now, why play 5 years from now? If not 5 years from now, why a year from now? Why today?”

Thinking about the future is the medicine to cure you from attachment to the past.

There are many employees who work at their companies and completely hate their jobs (if you are the employer, consider using Gamification to make the workplace more fun, but more importantly, show CARE and APPRECIATION to your employees!) However, many of these employees stay at their jobs because they don’t want to waste the time they waited for their stock options, the work they accumulated in their projects, or the “almost getting a raise!…maybe…” period.

While Loss and Avoidance is not a very honorable way to keep employees and customers engaged, it is one of the most powerful gaming mechanics, so if you do happen to utilize this technique, make sure you attach it to positive activities that would be a win-win situation for all (for instance, have people accumulate their work in an amazing and impactful project, within an working environment that cares about them!)

With Great Power, Comes Great Responsibility.

Empowerment of Creativity and Feedback

At this point, it’s pretty apparent that my position towards Farmville is not a favorable one, as I believe most of the time it is a mind-numbing machine that simply brilliantly utilizes all the right game mechanics (and my goal is to help people learn these mechanics and do good with it!). However, there is one element of Farmville that I think is positive and addicting for the right reasons – it allows everyone to creatively express themselves.

Have you ever played Lego when you were little? Who would ever say that playing Lego is a bad thing? (unless it makes you lose your job or kill your child) It allows you to expand your mind and turn that spark of genius into reality through little building blocks.

In the same way, when Farmville players plays the game for long enough, some of them become Farmville Artists to express their creativity and create amazingly beautiful pieces of art through the digital pixels of Farmville (using Paint might still be more efficient, but Hey! Its your farm!).

Because there are so many things you can do with your crops, this element of Farmville is truly an Evergreen Mechanic, where users can continuously stay engaged without adding any additional content, just like how paint and a paint brush can be Evergreen material.

Here are some pretty noteworthy pieces of art:

Here’s a recreation of the Mona Lisa

 Amazing Spiral Design

 Lady Gaga?

And this is a very creative idea of building a QR Code with your farm!

Applying Gamification Principles to the Real World

One of my biggest passions in life is to really take these game mechanics, the elements that motivate people to continue on an action, and plug them into productive and good activities (like…actual farming). I think if you can apply these principles to your work place, your product, or just your life, it would make a ton of difference.

Have you used or seen any of these Game Mechanics get applied in your life? I look forward to your shares below!

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