This past weekend, I took a trip out of town. I went outdoors, I sat in the sun. I drove through Northern California, past vinyards and polo fields, plots of land with a strip of earth out front for growing tomatoes and corn. I didn't really have my computer with me.
When I got back, I found my FarmVille 2 farm waiting for me, but something was different. Some of my crops had withered on the vine. For a formerly fastidious farmer like myself, this was unprecedented and more than a little bit embarrassing. Right then I realised I was probably done playing FarmVille 2.
I gave Zynga's latest Facebook social game a real, honest go. The developers at Zynga gave me an earnest sales-pitch for why I'd like the game. I wanted to give it a fair shake, and so I did.
The day the game launched, I started building my farm. And for a couple of weeks, it was really fun! Honestly — I know there's a lot of Zynga/FarmVille hatred around these parts, but the game can be a really good time if you approach it with the right attitude.
I decided to fully embrace my virtual farm, and to be as "good" at it as I could be. And to my surprise, I got very wrapped up in it! I wound up rolling with a group of friends (mostly game designers and critics) who regularly helped out on my farm, and I regularly helped out on theirs. A real sense of community emerged, in a warped sort of way — one of our members was the dedicated min/maxer, focused on getting the most out of his land and levelling as fast as possible (You may know him as Tim Rogers (he will invariably have some unkind things to say to me about this article (probably will call me a quitter or a "nub"))).
Other friends were purely helpful and supportive, and we all had fun posting pictures of our farms and talking about our strategies. It was all mildly sarcastic and ironic — many of us have conflicted feelings about Zynga. But the presence of neighbours meant that I was finally playing a Zynga game the "right' way — the annoying social blockades (e.g. "You can only get this chicken if you have two milk bottles, and you can only get milk bottles from friends!") ceased to be a concern.
I had fun outside of the game as well, goofing around, playing up my love of the game and letting others joke at me about how I should just marry FarmVille if I loved it so much. I had a great time talking about farming like I was talking about sex. As Stephen so excellently articulated yesterday, the game can become something of a fun — if strange — obsession, and can prompt all sorts of enjoyable conversations. There's no denying that my friends, co-workers and I were having fun. Some of it was at Zynga's expense, but much of it was genuine.
Even more than that, I really felt like I was playing a game. People often criticise Zynga's games by saying that, with their constant positive reinforcement and pyramid-scheme-like social mechanics, that they're not "real games." But FarmVille 2 most certainly is a game. The weird thing about the game is that your adversary isn't time or money, it's Zynga itself.
In his New York Times review of the game , our boss Stephen Totilo called FarmVille 2 "a game that is as enjoyable to play as it is to defy." And that hits right on my experience — there's real fun to be had in seeing how grand you can make your farm without giving Zynga a red cent — and it's a challenge, believe me.
When talking about the game's always-up, always growing mentality, Stephen remarked something to the effect of, "This game only goes in one direction, huh?" And that's just it — the game continues to grow and become more complex, and at some point it all got to be too much like work.
FarmVille 2 (and games like it) work best when you can fit them into bite-sized slots in your busy life. I don't have time to play games during the workday, but I did have time to play FarmVille 2. I'd pop in, harvest my crops, think about my timetable, plant some more, go through my water, feed my animals, then craft and sell whatever I could. It felt satisfying and strategic, maximizing my time and resources to get the best possible yield.
Thing is, I'm still doing all of those things, but now that I've unlocked more land and the ability to have more animals, I just do them all more. For the first couple of weeks, I'd unlock a new thing every few days — maybe a new type of animal, or a plot of land, or the ability to craft. But none of it took more than about five minutes a pop. Now that I've got everything unlocked, the game has lost any sense of discovery and become a grind of busywork.
Each time I log into the game now, it takes me at least 10 minutes to clear out my to-do list. 10 minutes is, I humbly submit, too long to spend on a session of FarmVille 2.
Each time I log in, I feel compelled to:
- Harvest my crops.
- Let my visiting friends (whose avatars have been patiently waiting) to fertilize whatever remains.
- If it's morning, figure out what that "Ginger" character who's always visiting wants to do and set her about doing it.
- Plant new seeds and go through my reserve of water to get them growing.
- Refill my water at my two wells and deciding what to do with the additional water the wells yielded.
- Usually this involved watering some of the trees in my orchard, which demand a lot of water.
- Head over to feed my ever-growing menagerie of animals. The critters are tricky to click on, and crowd all over one another, so feeding them is a bit like herding cats.
- Stop regularly to grind up more feed because I haven't unlocked the silo that lets me store more feed in my inventory.
- Go to my crafting kitchen to make whatever I can, hoping that my strategy of planning my crops gives me enough of the various components I need that I can make the priciest stuff. (I never can seem to get enough wheat).
- Sell whatever I crafted and make note of whatever partial recipes I've got going for the next harvest.
- Once a day, make a tour through every one of my neighbours' farms to do my obligatory "fertilize five strawberries/sunflowers" routine and reap the XP.
- Come home to see that the chickens are hungry again, so feed the chickens
- Use whatever water remains and close the window.
Now, you may be reading that and thinking, "That sounds awful!" But actually, for a couple of weeks, a similar routine to that one was really fun. The farm wasn't that big, and I didn't have that many neighbours, and everything was more manageable. But the game is designed to grow, grow, grow — your farm gets bigger, you unlock more space and animals, and you get more and more neighbours. And suddenly, what once was a fun 5-minute diversion becomes a grindy, fifteen-minute ordeal that you undertake three or four times a day. Add to that the fact that I've got about a dozen pending "community" neighbour requests, and the future becomes clear: An ever-increasing time investment for an ever-growing farm, heading nowhere in particular.
When the game begins, you're given a level 40 neighbour named Marie, who shows you the ropes. Marie's farm is… amazing. To give you a sense of it, I've been playing for three weeks and I'm still level 12. The game moves slowly. Achieving a farm like Marie's would take months, if not an entire year. I used to be jealous of Marie's farm, but now I'm sickly apprehensive. How the hell does she water all of that mess? Does she not have a life?
It's fascinating, really. I think about how FarmVille mirrors real life, the Peter Principle of ambition and happiness. We're trained to always want more, we want to grow and grow; but often it's the decision not to grow, to live a sustainable, balanced life, that leads to happiness. FarmVille 2 feeds on all kinds of ambitions — the ambition to level up to have the biggest farm, to have the rarest decorations, to move through the levels the fastest — and it mercilessly pushes us to follow them. Sure, no one's forcing me to move beyond my comfort level. But just like in life, it's hard to stop growing, to stop climbing towards the next level. Isn't this what we came here to do?
When I think about FarmVille 2 now, I can feel it in my bones — that feeling when you lose the thread on a game you were playing. I can see the endgame here — my farm is only going to get bigger and take up more of my time, and it's time better spent elsewhere. I'm sure there are things that will bring me back — some radical shift or other to make things Really Feel Different, or maybe a fun seasonal thing come Halloween — but for the time being, I've had my fill of virtual farming.
The irony here is that despite the constant accusations that FarmVille is "casual" and "not a game," the fact is that I liked how casual it felt. It's as things have become more hardcore that the game lost me. I'm not interested in sinking an hour a day into my virtual farm.
Occasionally over the last couple of weeks, I'd go to visit a friend's farm and find that all their crops had withered. Their animals were wandering, hungry. Their avatar stood in the field, blithely smiling as their farm lay in ruins. I'd diligently revive some of their crops before moving on. But the memory would remain — That one's not going to make it, I'd think. Next stop: Washout lane.
I see now that I've become that person. I'll soldier on for a while, but I can't promise that my neighbours won't find a nightmarish wasteland the next time they come by my farm. My new longhorn cow will be wandering listlessly through the wrecked pumpkin patch, softly lowing as a "feed me" thought bubble floats from his head.
And there, in the middle of it all, will stand my avatar, smiling off into the distance at nothing in particular.