Has someone you know recently become obsessed with melon farming? Or spoken ominously of ‘whacking’ a friend? If so, they’re probably a fan of Farmville or Mafia Wars, two of the most popular social games on Facebook. Perfect for whiling away a few minutes of your lunch break, or a fallow period in the TV schedules, these simple online titles attract the video game industry’s most prized quarry: the casual gamer.
As well as the aforementioned examples, games like Bejeweled Blitz, Vampire Wars and Texas HoldEm Poker have spread throughout social networks like an aggressive virus, turning people into farming fanatics and card sharps almost overnight. And once they’re hooked they want their friends to join them.
Farmville has attracted 82.4 million users since its launch last June. After installing the application you’re presented with a plot of land to cultivate and a wad of virtual money. Seeds and livestock need to be brought, trees planted and buildings constructed. All of which hoovers up ‘farm coins‘ quicker than a pig on a truffle hunt.
Good harvests gradually earn you more farm coins, as does inviting your friends to play and then visiting their farms. But when rivals are already lording it over a virtual Duchy of Cornwall progress can feel frustratingly slow.
To quickly develop an impressive estate you need to buy tractors and other high-end items with ‘farm cash’, which can be purchased with a credit card as well as earned. It might sound crazy to spend real money on a virtual combine harvester but it seems a lot of people are happy to do so: Zynga, the creator of Farmville, Mafia Wars and host of other titles, is estimated to make between £315 million and £420 million this year.
The company has expertly tapped into a fundamental video game mechanic: the play/reward cycle. The more we play the more we are rewarded – in Farmville’s case with coloured ribbons, coins, an experience bonus or a special item. So far, so standard. But the addition of a micro-payments platform, coupled with real-time peer pressure, makes social games a different prospect to traditional home console or PC releases. True, Massively Multiplayer Online games like World of Warcraft have operated on a similar basis for many years. But they’ve never attracted the huge numbers or diverse range of people currently playing social games.
The success of this business model will have caught the attention of the video game industries big beasts; you can bet that Sony, Nintendo and Microsoft will be wondering how best to exploit social gaming on the home consoles. Of course downloadable content – new guns, maps, cars or characters – has become a nice extra revenue stream for developers since the launch of the current generation of consoles, and online play is built around a virtual community. But these extras tend to be the preserve of dedicated gamers, and consoles don’t have the ‘always on’ presence of laptops and PCs running Facebook in the background. For now at least, console manufacturers will find the social gamer a hard breed to catch. Now I’d better go see how my melons are doing…
Duncan Jefferies is a freelance journalist, writing for the Guardian, The Observer, Daily Telegraph and others. As TalkTalk’s resident gaming blogger, he’ll be providing us with insight into the world of online gaming. Like all our guest bloggers, the views expressed are his own and do not necessarily represent those of TalkTalk.