In early 2009, when Facebook was still nascent to swallow as much of the Internet as possible, online games weren’t yet the giant they were going to become.
Then, in June, FarmVille came along. If you weren’t one of the tens of millions of people who cultivated a comic strip of land on Facebook every day and amassed an endless stream of cute collectibles, you still got plenty of nagging from your friends asking for help. The game either obsessed Facebook users or persistently reminded them that they had missed one.
Developed by Zynga and developed for Facebook, the flash-based game closed – yes, it was still playing – although its sequels, which can be played through mobile apps, will survive. But the original FarmVille thrives on the behaviors it instilled in everyday internet users and the growth hacking techniques it perfected, now built into virtually every website, service, and app vying for your attention.
In its prime, the game had 32 million daily active users and nearly 85 million players in total. It helped transform Facebook from a place where you’ve checked in updates – mostly in text form – from friends and family, into a time-consuming destination.
“We saw it as this new dimension in your social environment, not just a way to make games accessible to people,” said Mark Pincus, who was Zynga’s chief executive at the time and is now chairman of the board of directors. “I thought, ‘People are just hanging out on these social networks like Facebook and I want to give them something they can do together.'”
This was achieved in part by dragging players into loops that were difficult to pull out of. If you didn’t check in every day, your crops would wither and die. Some players set alarms so they wouldn’t forget. If you need help, you can spend real money or send requests to your Facebook friends – a source of annoyance for non-gamers who have been besieged with notifications and updates on their newsfeeds.
Ian Bogost, a game designer and professor at Georgia Tech, said FarmVille normalized behavior made it a pace car for the 2010s internet economy.
He didn’t mean that as praise.
The game encouraged people to make friends as resources for themselves and the service they use, Bogost said. It has grabbed attention and encouraged interaction loops in a way that is now being mimicked by Instagram to QAnon, he said.
“The internet itself is that bazaar of obsessive worlds where the goal is to get you back there to do what it offers, to get your attention and advertise it or otherwise get value from that activity “said he said.
While other games had tried many of the same tactics – Mafia Wars was Zynga’s top hit at the time – FarmVille was the first to become a mainstream phenomenon. Mr Pincus said he had frequent dinners with Mark Zuckerberg, a co-founder of Facebook, and that he was told in early 2009 that the platform would soon allow games to be posted to a user’s news feed. He said Mr Zuckerberg told him Zynga should flood the zone with new games and that Facebook would weed out those that caught the response.
Although farming was far from a hot genre of gaming at the time, Mr. Pincus saw it as a relaxing activity that would appeal to a wide audience, especially among adults and women who had never spent hundreds of dollars on a console like the Xbox 360 had spent, PlayStation 3 or Nintendo Wii. It would be a preview of the soon to explode mobile game market, with casual gamers stepping away from the desktop while smartphones make the move.
The game industry has always been cool to FarmVille, despite its success. A Zynga manager was booed when he received an award at the 2010 game developer conference, and Mr Pincus said he was having trouble recruiting developers who thought their coworkers would not respect them for working on the game.
In 2010, Time Magazine named FarmVille one of the “50 Worst Inventions” and recognized how irresistible it was but called it “Barely a Game”.
For many, the game will be remembered more for its presence in people’s news feeds than for the game itself. Facebook was aware of the complaints.
After hearing from non-gamers that the game was spam, Facebook limited the number of games that could be posted to newsfeeds and notifications sent. Facebook now wants to send fewer notifications only when they’re more likely to have an impact, said Vivek Sharma, vice president and head of gaming at Facebook.
He attributed much of the rise of social gaming to FarmVille, saying the “saga” of excessive notifications taught Facebook some important lessons.
“I think people started figuring out some deeper behavioral aspects that needed tweaking in order for these apps to be self-sustaining and healthy,” he said. “And I think part of that is the idea that people actually have a limit and that limit changes over time.”
Even if people were upset about the notifications, there’s little doubt they worked. Scott Koenigsberg, Director of Product at Zynga noted that the requests were being sent from players who chose to send them.
“Everyone saw a ‘lonely cow’ notification at some point, but these were all shared by their friends who were playing the game,” he said.
Mia Consalvo, Professor of Game Studies and Design at Concordia University in Canada, was one of those who kept seeing FarmVille.
“When you log on to Facebook it says, ‘Oh, 12 of my friends need help,’ she said.
She asked how social the game actually was, arguing that it didn’t create deep or sustained interactions.
“The game itself doesn’t encourage conversation between you and your friends, nor does it encourage you to hang out in the game room together,” she said. “It’s really just a mechanism for clicking a button.”
But those who came back every day said it kept them in touch with friends and acquaintances and gave them something to talk to.
Maurie Sherman, 42, a radio producer in Toronto, said he and a receptionist played together and went to her desk daily to talk about it. “She would tell me about the pink cow she got,” he said.
He enjoyed it as an escape, a virtual stress ball, and a calming activity that let his mind wander. He said he’s spent more than $ 1,000 – that’s real money – over the years improving his farm or saving time.
And he was absolutely guilty of sending the notifications, he said – but they always managed to get him the help he wanted.
“There are people who mute you or make you rude just because they’re tired of hearing you need help with your cows,” he said.
Jaime Tracy, 59, of Lancaster, Pennsylvania, said she was “one of those annoying people” who often asked for help until her friends and relatives told her to stop.
But she loved the game, which she viewed as a form of meditation, and played it for over five years. When her children were grown up and away from home, she said, “I had nothing else to do.
“You could just turn your mind off and plant some carrots,” she said.