FarmVille is a game about periodic, repetive action, grinding slowly over the course of days and weeks to a minor goal. When you get tired of grinding, you can spam your friends to get rewards faster. And eventually, when you get sick of that, you'll just pay to get where you need to be. Is this really fun? Well, it's "fun pain", as Roger Dickey of Zynga puts it.
I'll leave it to this article (http://www.gamasutra.com/blogs/TylerYork/20111129/9000/) to explain exactly how the Zynga's strategy works. Me, I'm in this to find someone to blame. Zynga didn't start this mess. FarmVille (2009) is a clone of Chinese developer Ellison Gao's "Happy Farm" (2008), which in turn was a clone of a Russian farming game. Going further back in time, World of Warcraft (2004) is often cited as one of the originators of the addiction model, for creating a "rested XP" system that encouraged players to log in every day to reap the rewards of boosted experience points. However, I think that "fun pain" is much older than that.
Tamagotchi was a virtual pet sold by Bandai in 1996, created by Japanese designer Aki Maita. Tamagotchi is responsible for the entire virtual pet craze, predating Pokemon(1996), Furby (1998), and current generation mobile pet-raising games like DragonVale (2011).
Tamagotchi is responsible for the periodic attention mechanic that "social gaming" is now known for. In order to keep your Tamagotchi alive, you had to check on it about once an hour. You pull it out of your pocket, feed it, play with it, clean up after it, and then that's it. Nothing left to do after a couple minutes. You put it back in your pocket and wait for it to need you again. The more periodic attention you gave it, the better a final form it would achieve. Treat your Tamagotchi well, and you were rewarded with the cute and well-behaved Mametchi. Treat it poorly, and you were punished with the odious and short-lived Tarakotchi. You couldn't pause the original Tamagotchi. It was a commitment. Tamagotchi could live anywhere from a month to years, and if it died early you knew it was your fault.
If Tamagotchi and Farmville have the same core mechanic, why do I still get a warm fuzzy feeling when I remember my Tamagotchi, but an oily prickling when I think about my days playing FarmVille? I think it has to do with the intent of the creators, and why and how they used the realtime mechanic. Tamagotchi's realtime mechanic was designed not as a way to support in-app purchases and frustrate gamers, but to create a feeling of connection with a virtual animal. "I think it's very important for humans to find joy caring for something" says Aki Maita, the woman who created Tamagotchi. Maita didn't just spout this truism, she designed and playtested for it. Maita spent weeks observing how high-school girls used her Tamagotchi prototypes, optimizing her pets for cuteness and emotional attachment. Compare this to the philosophy of Marc Pinkus, CEO of Zynga: "I don't want innovation. You're not smarter than your competitor. Just copy what they do and do it until you get their numbers."
You can see the difference in intent in the way the realtime mechanic is handled. Tamagatchi is a living, feeling creature. When it needs to sleep, it sleeps. When it's hungry, it whines at you. You can't pay gems or gold to force it to stop being hungry. Compare to the more recent Dragon Story by Storm8-- if it's taking too long for an egg to hatch, you can pay gems to make it happen instantly. Rather than simulating a biological need, the game is transparently making you wait in order to bait you into paying. Periodic events aren't a mechanic for you, the gamer, they're a mechanic for the company to get you to pay them. The fact that it's possible to pay a dollar to bypass waiting demonstrates how badly this mechanic is being abused. Waiting should be used as a mechanic to foster anticipation and surprise, not as a money grab.
I think that if creators keep in-mind the emotions and feelings they intend to instill in their audiences, and design their game mechanics around those rather than money, they will create happier games that enrich instead of detract from people's lives. In the long term, money, success, and fame will come to those designers who seek to add value to players, rather than go for quick cash. Periodic gameplay is being derided as "skinner box" gameplay, but it doesn't have to be that way. Social games and social mechanics don't have to be evil. They can be used to give busy people fun, interesting toys that grow, change, and surprise them, to create vital worlds that live and develop even when they aren't playing. As game developers and designers, it's our duty to create those worlds.
- Why you implement game mechanics is just as important as what mechanics you implement.
- If you have good intentions and design your mechanics to create good feelings in your players, it will show.
- Realtime mechanics don't have to be evil. Use them to foster immersion and anticipation.
- Don't allow people pay gems to avoid waiting. Make waiting part of the enjoyment of the game, or take it out.
- Don't use realtime mechanics to hide your lack of content.