Welcome to FarmVille: Population 80 million

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How did virtual chickens, £10 tractors and acres of soya beans become the world's biggest video game?

My strawberries have withered. I planted them this morning, after acquiring the seeds for the bargain price of 10 coins and being assured of their profitability as a crop.

But I let the day get the best of me – I had work to do, lunch to eat, emails to read – and when I finally returned to check on my plot, the fruit had flourished, matured and died in the space of just a few short hours. This is not the real world, and these were not some mutant GM strawberries; in fact, they weren't really strawberries at all. This is FarmVille, a Facebook game for which I've been tilling digital soil all week, planting crops made up of mere bytes and pixels.

Perhaps you've only heard of FarmVille from your cluttered Facebook news feed, informing you that so-and-so has just planted their 15th field of soybeans, or built their first barn, or earned a brightly coloured ribbon in recognition of their virtual agricultural achievements. Perhaps you've joined one of the Facebook groups that have been created in protest at the game's pervasiveness. But your protests would be in vain: FarmVille, the world's biggest social game, has almost 80 million players – that's around 20 per cent of all Facebook users; more people than use Twitter or, indeed, live in the UK. Some 30 million of them tend their crops daily. When the site allowed its gamers to exchange virtual Valentine gifts online, 220m were sent and accepted within 18 hours; to get that into perspective, it's worth noting that Hallmark sells approximately 200m e-cards over the entire Valentine season.

The object of FarmVille (which was recently launched as a standalone game for Facebook-refuseniks on Microsoft's MSN Games platform) is to build and maintain your own virtual farm – pay virtual coins for seeds, plant virtual crops and earn virtual profits. As the game goes on, players can gross enough to buy tractors and livestock, construct outbuildings and expand their plot well beyond the borders of their browser window. The key to its success is social: if a player persuades their Facebook acquaintances to become their FarmVille "neighbours", they can be rewarded for fertilising their friends' fields or feeding their hogs.

Once, online gaming was the preserve of youngish men in darkened bedrooms, studying strategy guides for World of Warcraft and Halo. Now, thanks to FarmVille and other games like it, that demographic has shifted dramatically towards the mainstream, taking in office workers and stay-at-home mums, children and their grandparents. A recent survey concluded that today's average social gamer is a 43-year-old woman. Crucially for its players, it is free to join FarmVille and you can enjoy a long and fruitful relationship with the game without ever spending a (real) penny.

Crucially for its creators, there's a second option: you can use your real-world credit card to buy virtual goods and stay ahead of your friends in the FarmVille rankings. Most of these digital products are reasonably priced, but among the Valentine gifts on offer was a limited edition, $50 "diamond ring", which protects its recipient's crops from withering in perpetuity. My strawberries are still dead; romance, it would appear, is not.

***

FarmVille was reared by the world's most successful stable of online social games, Zynga, which was founded in San Francisco in July 2007 and already has more than 500 employees and an estimated annual revenue of around $150m (£97m). Mark Pincus, its 43 year-old founder and CEO – who named the company after his deceased bulldog – is a serial web entrepreneur whose previous businesses include the early social network Tribe. "Our intent when we founded Zynga," he says, "was to design a gaming experience for the mass market. Back in 2007 nobody offered games on the web that were available and accessible to everyone. They were confined to niches of hardcore gamers."

Thanks to Pincus's connections, Zynga's launch was supported by some of the smartest money in Silicon Valley. Once it became clear how profitable social gaming was going to be, more cash followed. One Russian finance group, which also invested heavily in Facebook, recently backed Zynga to the tune of $180m. That investment looks like being a good one; including FarmVille, Zynga today boasts 230 million monthly active game users. Among their other successes are Café World (a restaurant management title that's the world's second biggest social game, with more than 30 million users), Mafia Wars, Fishville and Texas Hold-Em Poker – all of them ranked in the top 10 social gaming applications of 2009. As well as Facebook, Zynga's games also populate MySpace and the iTunes App Store.

Zynga may dominate its market, but it's not the only game in town. The London-based Playfish, for instance, owns Facebook games with combined player numbers of more than 50 million, prompting a massive traditional games firm, Electronic Arts, to acquire it (for more than $300m) in December. Zynga has made no bones about copying the successes of its smaller rivals, and Pincus was always a fan of farm games such as Farm Town – by the developers Slashkey – which looks and sounds eerily familiar to FarmVille fans. FarmVille itself was launched quietly on 19 June, 2009. Zynga's staff expected that about 2,500 of their friends and family might take it up overnight. Instead, the game had 25,000 users within 24 hours. A week later, FarmVille's population was more than one million.

***

The continued success of The Archers should be evidence enough that people are fascinated by farms, whether they live in the country or not. Though the game bears almost no relation to real farming and its concerns, Pincus attributes FarmVille's fanbase to an urban fantasy of owning one's own smallholding. "I've lived in a little row house in the middle of San Francisco for 14 years," he says, "but I dream of having my own organic farm with lots of space, and animals running around. I think that might be the ultimate fantasy for anyone who's cooped up in an office all day. It's also universally acceptable: you can show somebody a field and, whether they live in China or Manhattan, and whether it's your grand- mother or your niece, they'll all know what they're supposed to do with it."

Farms are a compelling daydream, agrees Tom Chatfield, the author of Fun Inc: Why Games Are The 21st Century's Most Serious Business: "Psychologically, people like greenery; they like having grass, water and sky on their computer screens. But FarmVille is also very good at demanding your time, forcing you to tend your crops. It's like a virtual pet, a Tamagotchi; you have to nurture it and look after it every day."

Cassandra Innes, an MBA graduate from London, is 49 and a FarmVille addict. "Normal business principles apply to FarmVille," she insists. "It's a strategic process. But you have to decide whether you just want to get rich quick, or whether having fun is part of the process. It's not enjoyable if it's just about grabbing as many coins as possible." No strawberries are permitted to wither in the Innes household: when her partner accidentally planted a field full of them in the evening, Cassandra set her alarm for 3am so that she could wake to harvest them as they ripened. "FarmVille reminds me of the toy farm I had as a child," she says, "We'd make our own buildings out of cardboard and spend our money on the animals. My 19-year-old daughter, who's my neighbour on FarmVille, says she's grown up with The Sims and other computer games, and she sees FarmVille as a free version of that."

Maya Forrester, a 39-year-old human resources executive with 57 FarmVille neighbours, is less romantic about her reasons for loving the game. "It's the competition that got me hooked," she says. "I don't have a farm fantasy, but FarmVille fulfils my inner need to beat my Facebook frenemies."

***

The power of online social games first became apparent in 2007, with the spectacular rise and fall of Scrabulous, a wildly popular Facebook game that imitated Scrabble to such a degree that Hasbro had it shut down; for a while Scrabulous catered to half a million users daily. Facebook had opened its site to external developers that year, allowing anyone with the necessary programming nous to create add-on games, services and other applications for its users' accounts. FarmVille relies on Facebook for its existence, and without the social network its success would have been impossible.

"With Scrabulous," explains Chatfield, "people realised that a social platform like Facebook gives people ways to show off to, or compete with, their friends. It's so much more engaging to do something with people you know than to do it with strangers. You can cheat if you're playing online with strangers, but playing with friends is an incentive to be fair, and that brings the emotional rewards of competition. FarmVille is in the tradition of family board games, as are many of the most successful social games. These are not high-production, high-budget, high involvement games like World of Warcraft or Halo. They're low-risk, low-barrier games. Lots of people are playing FarmVille who never played a proper videogame before, but now might."

"Social" videogames have already found a place in the family home with the success of the Nintendo Wii console and family-friendly music games like Guitar Hero. But online social gaming allows people to enjoy that traditional gaming experience with friends anywhere in the world. Significantly, Scrabulous did not require its players to be online at the same time; like FarmVille, they could check their game's progress at intervals. This, says Chatfield, "was a way to get people playing one another across time as well as space."

Cassandra Innes has even made new friends via FarmVille, after visiting fan sites in search of neighbours. "I introduced one of them to my sister because they had similar interests," she admits. "I find myself talking to my family more about our nutty farms than about normal things. We have long phone calls about it. The farm is like a comfort zone; it's easier to communicate about that than about who's going where for Christmas."

Thanks not only to social networking, but to the rise of mobile digital marketplaces like the iTunes App Store, casual gaming is expected to explode even further in the coming months and years. Positive buzz surrounds Glitch, a forthcoming "MMORPG" (Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Game) whose developers claim the puzzle-solving sci-fi title will bridge the gap between FarmVille and World of Warcraft. Meanwhile, the Apple iPad and its imitators will make perfect platforms for casual online games. "[Those devices] will let people play games with high fun and social delivery," says Chatfield, "but which can be done in small amounts of time, picked up and put down, with long-term aims to keep you hooked."

Where else but FarmVille could you spend a tenner on a tractor and have enough change for a horse and a bag of aubergine seeds? And where else, you may ask, would anyone be prepared to spend real money on a farm vehicle that appeared only as an icon on their computer screen? Analysts agreed that the worldwide market in virtual goods was worth $6bn last year, with games accounting for 75 per cent of that figure. Customers at the Facebook gift shop, which is full of useless objects rendered even more useless by their non-existence, spent $150m.

Then again, few people question the success of the iTunes App Store, which has shifted more than 3bn downloads in less than two years – many of them no more elevating than an electronic whoopee cushion, or a fake glass of beer. "The concept of spending money on virtual goods ought not to be as foreign as it sounds," Pincus insists. "Most things that we buy are based on virtual perceptions anyway, whether it's a branded orange juice or a watch. If you go to a movie, that's an entertainment experience that you can't take with you."

According to Pincus, FarmVille derives more than 90 per cent of its income from virtual goods, but the ways it earns the other 10 per cent have caused controversy. "Zynga is very aggressive about finding techniques to keep people coming back and spending money on games," explains Chatfield. "They compel you to feed a virtual beast." Zynga's CEO was once quoted as saying that in the company's early days, he "did every horrible thing in the book, just to get revenues." An early Facebook poker game from Zynga allowed players to spend real money on their chips – but not to cash out. Those "horrible things" that Pincus may or may not have been referring to, however, were so-called "lead generators": in-game ads offering players FarmVille cash in return for filling in a survey or similar. The survey would ask users to give their phone number and create a password, and the user would thus unwittingly sign up to some unwanted subscription service that added mysterious charges to their phone bills. These scams earned Zynga the ire of Silicon Valley's most powerful tech blogger, Michael Arrington of TechCrunch, and Zynga and Facebook are now defendants in a federal class-action lawsuit.

Since the criticism, the company has cleaned up its act and removed all the offending ads, which it insists had been allotted their slots by third-party advertising networks, not by Zynga itself. Now every FarmVille ad comes from a small list of top brands, vetted personally by Pincus and his team. "We want to build a service that people will love and trust and keep using for many years – and feel comfortable letting their children use," says Pincus. "So we took those criticisms very seriously, not just for us but for the growth of social gaming."

There are some positive uses of the virtual goods economy, besides the simple pleasure it affords its users, and Zynga's founder is keen to emphasise its benevolent possibilities. Even before the recent earthquake, the company supported charities in Haiti. But when the disaster struck, Zynga introduced a new crop to FarmVille – sweet seeds – the profits from which were channelled into the aid effort. Within five days, FarmVille alone had raised $1m. "Because there are no costs attached to each individual virtual good sold, we can afford to do it," Pincus explains. "If we can productise causes or doing good, it would be good for the business, the user and someone else – and it could be a billion-dollar business."

***

Back in FarmVille, the players are concerned with simpler things than lead generators. Maya disapproves of some of her neighbours' approach to agriculture; particularly the factory-style farmers who sacrifice their integrity in favour of easy profits. Cassandra, meanwhile, is worried for the welfare of FarmVille's animals. "Some of my neighbours' farms are awful," she says. "Their whole plot is given over to crops, and their cows and horses are all squashed into a corner with no room to move. The game should be structured so that it's more animal-friendly and you get punished for having too many battery chickens."

Pincus would no doubt be overjoyed by the sincerity of his players' views on the game. "To be that impactful on, and that representative of, the culture totally excites me and my team," he says. "I love the idea that we can put out a game that's as popular as Seinfeld."

Parallel worlds: The top online games

World of Warcraft

WoW is the mother of all MMORPGs (that's "massively multiplayer online role-playing games" to you and me), and more than 11.5 million players have been sucked into the Warcraft world since it was first launched in 2004. The game's users pay a subscription for the privilege of becoming a sword-wielding knight of the digital realm. After choosing a character avatar to control, they wander through a fantasy world of trolls, orcs and assorted monsters, taking on quests and interacting with fellow players, often collaborating in order to complete said quests. And if they die on the way, they even have the option of resurrection. Lucky, that.

Scrabulous

This online version of Scrabble began life in India in 2005, the creation of the Scrabble-loving Agarwalla brothers. When Facebook opened its platform to third-party developers in 2007, the network of Scrabulous lovers expanded to 500,000 daily users, with more than 800,000 people adding the game to their Facebook accounts. After Hasbro (which owns the rights to Scrabble in North America) and Mattel (which owns them for the rest of the world) noted the game's success, they tried to purchase Scrabulous, and then took legal action to shut it down. Scrabulous is now known as Lexulous, with minor differences in gameplay – and far fewer users.

Second Life

The virtual world of Second Life is not, technically speaking, a game. It has the same social pull as FarmVille, but none of the competitive goals. Its 18 million "residents" instead go shopping, hang out with friends, work, trade and even have romantic entanglements. Sort of like real life, but without its consequences – or pleasures. The world has its own currency, the Linden Dollar, which is worth around 400 Linden to every £1. Last year it was revealed that thanks to their online trading nous, a number of players had even become Second Life millionaires. The virtual world was the creation of California entrepreneur Philip Rosedale, whose avatar within the game is known as Philip Linden.

Pet Society

Pet Society is the most successful game produced by Zynga's closest rival, Playfish. Played, like FarmVille, via Facebook, it allows users not to nurture a patch of land, but a series of animals, customising their appearances and keeping them fed and groomed. They can also persuade their pets to socialise with one another and earn "Paw Points" accordingly. Just as in the real pet economy, the virtual one gives owners a vast array of products for their pet to choose from, be it a garden to run around in, or a Jacuzzi to bathe in. Despite having almost 19 million users, Pet Society remains outside the Top 10 Facebook applications.

MyTown

MyTown has been described as "Monopoly for the real world". An iPhone app that mixes the digital world with the outside one, it works along similar lines to the "location-based" social network FourSquare, which allows its users to "check-in" to geographical locations. MyTown, on the other hand, allows you to "buy" and manage virtual versions of your favourite venues. Created by developers Booyah, the game now has more than 800,000 users.

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