Explaining FarmVille’s Exponential Growth

After all the press lately about online casual gaming, I decided it was finally time to join the 70 Million other people who currently play FarmVille (down from 80 Million 4 months ago). Sidenote: to put that in perspective – Twitter – a media darling for 2 years now – has only 20 Million active users.

History of Farmville

Facebook launched its application platform. Games like MobWars are created, which take online gaming and infuse your social graph. Then games like GreenPatch are born – they are super-simple graphical games that allow you to grow a garden and buy equipment for your garden. Then Farm Town is created. It rapidly goes from 12 beta tester users to 3 Million users. A few months later, Zynga rolls-out a copy of FarmTown – calling it FarmVille. Using it’s network of other games as well as deep pockets to buy Facebook ads, Zynga grows FarmVille rapidly and zooms past.

In February, FarmVille crossed 80 Million active users. At the time, Facebook had 400 Million active uers – and the vast majority of FarmVille users were accessing FarmVille via their Facebook account. Making FarmVille a potential driver of 20% of all Facebook Active Usage.

Since then, FarmVille’s numbers have begun to delcine – dropping to 69M Active Users in June – while Facebook officially crossed 500 Million active users a couple weeks ago. In this post I’ll analyze why FarmVille was successful, and in follow-up posts I’ll look at what caused it’s decline and what to expect in the social gaming space going forward, with the growing speculation about Google taking-on Facebook.

Why was FarmVille a success? Four reasons:

Broader appeal than previous online games – women, casual, and mainstream

Built-in reason to come back

Interlocking levels, points, and tiered products

Making it Social

Appeal to men & women

Unlike games like Mafia Wars that can be more violent, farmville is appealing to women. You can be creative, beautifying and accessorizing your farm with colored fences, signs, flags, topiaries, and more.

Furthermore, whereas historically online gaming has been dominated by games like Warcraft, Starcraft, and Quake, which are fast-paced, highly-competitive, and adversarial, this new brand on online gaming is more focused on the casual user, and the online components are that of collaboration – sending gifts to neighbors, fertilizing each others crops. This appeals to a demographic that might be interested in online gaming, but that was intimidated by the competitiveness of a game like Starcraft, where if you don’t know what you’re doing, you’re bound to get creamed by some teenager in Korea within the first five minutes.
(Aside: after a recent conversation with a friend at Blizzard, maker of Starcraft, I learned that with the launch of Starcraft II, solving this problem so that new players have an enjoyable online / multiplayer experience was a top priority in game development.)

Finally, FarmVille is uniquely appealing because it doesn’t feel alien or cult-like to new users. The concept of farming is very relate-able. As opposed to something like Starcraft, which is science fiction, or Warcraft, which seems like a cult, or worst-of-all SecondLife – which for all its hype – is ultimately thought-of as slightly eccentric.

Built-in reason to come back

The primary function in farmville is raising livestock and growing crops. Those two things take time. So you spend ten minutes plowing the fields and planting seeds, or spending your hard-earned cash buying a cow, and then FarmVille tells you – ok, come back in eight hours and harvest the crop or milk the cow. Bye now. And so of course you now have to come-back in 8 hours for the payoff. It’s this delayed gratification that keeps users engaged and coming back day-after-day.

Never-ending levels, with satisfying and low-effort ways to level-up

FV has done an amazing job creating reward systems. Many games have points and levels, but FB translates points and levels into “tangible” assets. You can see all the crops, but FV makes sure you know that you won’t be able to plant blueberries till level 17, and won’t be able to buy a manor till you have 100,000 coins. And there’s always another, higher level to strive for. They make it easy-enough that if you play the game once per day, every day you’ll get some kind of achievement, and some kind of surprise, but they always make sure there’s something more down the road. There is a powerful inter-dependence – you grow crops to make money to buy fancy things to customize your farm to level-up so you can plant more-advanced crops so you can make more money so you can buy fancier things so you can level-up-faster and so on. And they’ve continued to layer-on more complexity over time.  Tiers of awards for farming various crops. Tiers of fancier houses. Tiers of collections of gemstones and flora and fauna. Tiers of animals. Of decorations. of tractors. And now your own market – your own small-business where other farmers can come to buy & sell.

This tiering is powerful, but there’s something much-more more elemental in how Farmville works. Very low-intensity positive-reinforcement is at work here, acting at a very basic level on our psyche. I spend some time on Farmville, I make some money. That feels good, but immediately I’m presented with a new challenge, and I soon overcome that as well. It’s just easy-enough, but not too easy, and the payoff isn’t real, its virtual dollars, and they convert to virtual goods, but somehow they start to feel tangible. Perhaps it’s that very duality that makes it work. The barn and the mansion are virtual. But the points and virtual-dollars are also virtual – but that second layer of virtuality makes the first layer seem more real.

Making it Social

At first, I was underwhelmed by the social characteristics of FarmVille. I had been playing for 3 days and had so-far experienced little or no value in having FV friends. FV encourages you to visit your friends’ farms and do chores for money or points, share your achievements with your friends, and send your friends free Gifts. However the payments for doing chores were small. And the guy who keeps sharing FV achievements on his Facebook profile just looks like an idiot, and nobody wants to be that guy. So I really dismissed that element of the game.

FarmVille encourages you to add your FB friends as your FV “neighbors,” and shows you which FB friends are also playing FV – so I started adding them. I sent 70 requests to friends who are also on FarmVille. 5 days into the game, only 8 friends had accepted my FV “neighbor requests.” I actually have over 130 Facebook friends on FarmVille, however 60 of them have so-few points that I didn’t bother sending Neighbor-requests to them since clearly they weren’t actively playing. Breaking-down those stats that means:

8 / 70  = 11% of friend-requests were accepted

8 / 130 = 6% of my friends who have tried Farmville are active FV players – playing once per week

130 / 1600 = 8% of all my friends have ever played Farmville

8 / 1600 = 0.5% of all my friends are active Farmville users

And then I decided to buy a Beehive. My initial reasoning was that if I bought buildings like a house or a barn, I would accrue points faster, level-up faster, and finally be able to buy more-advanced crops that would help me make-money faster (you’re starting to see how this whole never-ending levels thing works). And I already had a bee – which I had gotten as a free gift from – but couldn’t use until I had a beehive to store him in. I figured I’d get some points, and have a new way to make money – harvesting the honey that my free bee was making for me.

So I bought the beehive – only to discover that I couldn’t start using it until I bought a bunch of tiny parts – nails and wood and beeswax. And until I had all these materials, my beehive would remain idle. Well Shit. I looked at the prices for all these little parts – and I simply couldn’t afford them. However, these were all items that you could receive as a free gift from a friend – now all I needed was for 10 friends to send me these 10 items. And then the social piece became clear to me. Who did I know who was also on FV that I could ask to send me these gifts?

Now the social connections are starting to make sense. After establishing some solid background on FarmVille, I started to move onto a larger set of questions – how is FarmVille’s creator – Zynga – doing? Where is all that revenue really coming from? And with increasing tensions between Zynga and Facebook, a big investment in Zynga by Google, and rumors that Google will use big social-gaming investments to take-on Facebook with its own social network – what’s in Zynga’s future? Stay tuned for Part 2 on FarmVille.


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