Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Farmville and Perpetuity

People die. We do our best to stave off the inevitable, but inevitably death happens. When I go one of my final thoughts will not be 'at least my Farmville farm will live on in perpetuity'. But it will. My friends will be able to feed my chickens and fertilize my crops until someone decides to flip the almighty switch.

This perpetual existence is a problem for today's social game designers but not because of the implicit database overhead of game accounts belonging to dead people. I can guess that when Farmville was originally designed, no one on the design team knew how popular it would become.

My game design experience led me down a practical path with Farmville. I made an Excel spreadsheet as I played and mapped out the ROI of every type of crop. I quickly converted my property into an industrial farm, picked the best crops, and logged in religiously to fast-track my progress. Soon I was ranked first amongst my few friends who played.

It was a simple Farmville time. There were seeds, trees, sheep, cows, ducks, fences and not much else. The game was easy to understand. I played, contentedly, for 39 levels. During that time the game became more complex. At level 37 I noticed the game design flaw that proved the Farmville designers did not expect its phenomenal growth.

At level 37 there was only one more gift to attain, leaving experience points as a weak motivation for continued play. The designers had to scramble to build in ways to keep people engaged at the 'end game'. Like all designers in a pinch trying to make a product do something it wasn't meant to, the Farmville team complicated things.

I recently visited my mostly retired farm to explore the horse barn and storage expansion concepts. I could not figure out the horse barn without asking someone how it worked. And apparently my friends are having difficulty coordinating enough people to expand their storage facilities.

Let this be a lesson to designers of future Facebook games: Facebook games must be built assuming a perpetual lifespan. Easier said than done, as we live finite lives and the concept of perpetuity is unnatural. But as time played equals emotional investment, and emotional investment equals trust, and as trust is a predetermining factor in making purchases online, designers need to create simple and engaging perpetual 'end games'.

© Jeremy Buehler and Rogue Tendencies ( 2010.

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