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Your time is worthless…until you’re told otherwise

June 29, 2010 1 comment

In the past couple of years an incredible phenomenon has occurred in the online world: gaming. Yes, there’s always been PC games that have “revolutionized” the industry, but I’m talking about this new gaming…within sites like Facebook, made by companies like Zynga. This games aren’t like anything that you see anywhere else. Seriously, watch about twelve seconds of any video gaming convention, or read any game review for a game released on the PC or a console and the descriptions of these games and what makes them good is nothing like what you see in social gaming. What makes console games good, you might ask? Well as a relatively involved gamer I look for: content (plot strength, gameplay depth, etc.) and graphics. Content is important because it is how the game is played and how enjoyable it is. Better graphics = better game is a huge myth in the gaming industry, but is an almost universal one. Now look at social gaming…can you think of even a handful of games that tout their amazing graphics or incredibly deep story? No. It doesn’t exist. While the offline and console gaming industry is evolving graphically and technologically, the social gaming industry is reverting back to old-school Nintendo style graphics and strategies. And it’s working!!

The most amazing/unbelievable things about social gaming is that it offers games that require constant repetition and boring, monotonous grinding in order to increase your level or improve your character (or farm, just to throw it out there). What is the attraction with this? I recently watched a video of Jesse Schell presenting on the absurdity and unpredictability of social gaming, specifically within Facebook. Watch it right here. Skip to about 9:25 and he talks about the psychology behind games like Farmville and Mafia Wars. What makes millions of people willing to spend millions of dollars on virtual goods that can’t benefit them beyond minor bragging rights? Basically it’s all about how the consumer views their time, and how valuable it is. Roughly, this is the thought process of a social gamer who pays money for a game:

Step 1) My friend is playing this game, I’m going to join.

Step 2) My friend is better than me, I MUST GET BETTER

Step 3) How is this game worth my time? Oh yeah, because I’ve already spent a ton of time playing it.

Step 4) Hell, I’ve played this game for weeks, might as well pay $20 to boost straight past my friend instead of grinding for any longer

Step 5) Only an idiot would pay for a game then not play it, so I have to keep playing

Step 6) Start cycle over from the beginning (if there’s another friend), or from Step 3 otherwise.

Farmville: 4 months in

This is a vicious cycle but I’ve seen many friends get drawn into it…I have as well. I have never paid a cent for a game, but I’ve spent so much time that is apparently worthless (since I didn’t actually spend my money) on these games and I think it was foolish in hindsight. But just to humor myself, and the gaming industry…why haven’t they taken it to the next step? Take out the “how much time am I wasting with this, and how valuable is that time?” step and just tell the consumer exactly how much it’s worth…then the $20 the spend to gain a level will seem insignificant.

What I propose is this: When a user joins up on a game…keep track of how long they play. Don’t tell the user because they may realize just how much time they have spent growing and selling strawberries, but just keep the amount of time recorded for each specific user. When they hit a certain milestone (5 hours of playtime, etc) reward them with virtual currency. Get even more specific, give them a badge or other visual reward for being dedicated to growing a certain crop. The user gets a reward, then also has to spend more time catching up all of their other crops in order to earn the specific reward for that crop…it’s a never-ending cycle of constant play that would generate even more revenue. ┬áSet up the rewards given for time spent on a certain task or goal on an variable-ratio ┬áschedule (the same type of schedule slot machines are on) and people won’t be able to stay away for long. Yes, this idea was being thought up as I was writing this post and is very unpolished and could be fleshed out more. But the point I am trying to make is…make users know exactly how valuable their time is by rewarding them for the amount of time they spend in an application, not just by how productive they are.