Betting the Farm: Zynga Gives Its Top Facebook Game a Major Facelift
It’s time for FarmVille to get a makeover.
FarmVille deserves recognition for its role in social gaming history. The three-year-old game, which has been played by 100 million people, was one of the first social games on Facebook to capture a mass audience.
Amazingly, after all this time, FarmVille continues to attract more than 18 million players a month, making it Zynga’s sixth-most-popular game. It also brings in more revenue than any other Zynga title, accounting for 29 percent of the company’s revenue in the second quarter.
As such an important brand to the company, it makes sense to experiment with creating sequels — which have become the lifeblood of the traditional videogame market. But for the same reasons stated above, it will also be a delicate balancing act. One false move may irritate a legion of players, who have invested thousands of hours and significant amounts of money in the original game.
What’s more, Zynga desperately needs to prove right now that it can turn its past successes into franchises that will continue attracting players for many years to come.
Based on what I’ve seen in a brief online demo provided to me by the creative director and Zynga’s VP of games, the new game has a shot.
FarmVille 2 looks and behaves differently from the original.
In the first iteration, users were motivated to return to harvest crops before they wither. Zynga’s CEO Mark Pincus has famously talked about how its players were so passionate they’d set their alarm clocks to wake up in the middle of the night in order to plow their fields. But in the sequel, withering will not be a central theme.
In the sequel, there are much more realistic scenarios, including classic resource-management challenges. Players must make sure to have enough water to keep their crops alive, and must get fertilizer from the cows to make crops grow. To get eggs, you must feed your chickens; and to get milk, you must care for the cows.
The resources, including the eggs, milk, wheat and fruit from the trees, are then used in your farmhouse kitchen to make scones and other tasty treats that can be sold at your own roadside stand.
Instead of acting out some of these scenarios in solitude as in the original game, in FarmVille 2, the relationships on the farm are symbiotic — without one, the other is not possible.
“We wanted this very tactile and touchable experience,” said Tim LeTourneau, Zynga’s VP of Games. “We are embracing the technical advancements to make the screen come to life. The animals are fully animated and respond to your touch. You have a world that comes to life at your finger.”
In other words, coins don’t just fall out of the sky, LeTourneau said; you have to sell things in the market in order to earn them.
The game is also Zynga’s first developed entirely in 3-D, thanks to Adobe Flash 11.
For instance, shirts and pants are pinned to a clothesline, where they sway in the wind; a rocking chair actually rocks; a campfire crackles and wind chimes jingle in the breeze. Navigation is also vastly improved, making the game far less tedious to play. Instead of having to click on each individual parcel of land to plant new seeds or water, users can click and drag the mouse around on the screen. The movement, which Zynga calls “painting,” looks like a motion borrowed from a touchscreen, not a PC game. Additionally, to move different elements around on the board, far fewer actions are required. Now players must only right-click and drag.
The combination of better graphics and navigation results in much more active and fun game play. When relocating a cow from one side of the farm to another, the beast’s eyes bulge in surprise while the animal is suspended in the air, like a several-ton animal undoubtedly would.
“They don’t hate it, but they don’t love it either,” said Mike McCarthy, FarmVille 2’s creative director.
But the game is not mind-blowingly different — it’s still a game about a farm, as it should be.
Many of the tasks are the same in the two games, and even some of the colors and textures will be familiar. Still, the updates represent many positive changes that should attract some of the 100 million original FarmVille players — who have since retired their work gloves — back to the game.
Zynga is also sensitive to its original players, who are still playing the first FarmVille.
A year ago, it rolled out Mafia Wars 2, which pretty much put an end to the once very popular franchise. Original players of the game felt snubbed when the new version came out and it didn’t live up to expectations. All the time they’d spent on the previous version ended up being a total waste.
LeTourneau, who joined Zynga from Electronic Arts where he worked on the long-standing Sims franchise, said they took that experience into account when developing FarmVille 2. ”Although it’s a sequel, it’s not intended to replace FarmVille,” he said. “It’s not a continuation; it’s a reimagining of FarmVille. We are taking advantage of all the things we’ve learned about social games, and using the technology that’s available to create a new and different farming experience.”
For original FarmVille fans, there will be no way to transfer your accomplishments from one game into the next. Instead, Zynga will keep that version alive by continuing to create content updates for the players who still like it.
One very noticeable difference between the two games is that while the original was about creating a sprawling farm, this one is about the attention to detail. In other words, bigger is not necessarily better. Instead of creating vast spaces to mass-produce more crops, this one is about nurturing each and every tomato and pumpkin. Mini-competitions within the game challenge players to see who can grow the largest crops, like the exhibits you see at county fairs. In this game, strawberries can hit 12 pounds, so imagine how big pumpkins can get.
But just when you may find that too tedious or claustrophobic, players can zoom out and see the countryside. There’s a village off in the distance that’s not available today, but promises additional subplots where you can meet friends, trade goods and visit carnivals and county fairs.
Lastly, this is still a social game, so if you are looking for something different in that regard, you won’t find it here. There are still plenty of ties to your friends on Facebook. You can visit other friends’ farms, where you can potentially find a final ingredient you may need to complete a recipe. Friends are also allowed to visit your farm, where they can be “Farm Helpers.” Each action performed by a farm helper accelerates progress on the farm, including harvesting crops and feeding animals.
But most fun of all, it seems Zynga has learned a mechanic or two from more traditional videogames. At the end of each level, all of the players’ crops grow instantly — with a big “pop,” everything blooms. Not only is it a visually stimulating moment, it’s one that players can strategize around to make sure everything is watered and planted to get the biggest bang possible.
“All of these games are about progression, and feeling the reward and success of that progress,” LeTourneau said. “We want the level-up moment in the game to feel exciting.”
FarmVille 2 is live today on both Facebook and Zynga.com, and will be available in 16 languages, unlike the original, which only launched in English. There are no immediate plans for a mobile version, but with painting motions included in the game play, it only seems like a matter of time before it rolls out on phones and tablets.