"What does a re-imagination of virtual farming look like?"
Something of a silly question on its face, and yet one that Zynga vice president of games Tim LeTourneau is fond of asking. Then again, what does a re-imagination of virtual farming look like? Do you farm on the moon? Must you plant crops while defending against waves of onrushing zombies? Or maybe you have to keep your family from starving, despite the bad economy and impossible new farm legislation?
It is, I suppose, unrealistic to expect FarmVille 2 to actually look like a true re-imagination of virtual farming. And yet as I sat in a a boardroom at Zynga headquarters in San Francisco, LeTourneau asked the question several times. He was making his pitch for FarmVille 2, the newest of Zynga's famous (or infamous, depending on who you ask) Ville games. The more we explored the question, the more interested, if not entirely convinced, I became.
Keep Playing. Keep Playing.
Here's my thing with Zynga games: Imagine you're in a world where people only say "yes." Nothing ever goes wrong, nothing ever breaks, the worst thing that happens is you have to wait a little while for whatever next thing you've ordered to come to you. Would you like more food? Sure! Would you like to have a better house, or a more well-decorated lawn? Awesome, it's all yours!
A compulsively positive design is a hallmark of Zynga's Ville games, a lineup that in addition to FarmVille includes CityVille, CastleVille, FrontierVille and of course, the legally contested, possibly copyright-infringing The Ville. None of those games have ever been that exciting for me, because while they may feature minor setbacks (for example, if you don't harvest your crops in time, they'll wither and you'll have to plant more) but in general, a as I play them, I can feel the underlying pull: Keep playing. Keep playing. Please keep farming.
That vibe turns me right off. I know that most games are made with the hope that I'll want to keep playing, but something about how Zynga games remove challenge in order to foster continuous play strikes me as uninteresting, or even vaguely sinister. Here's your farm! It's sunny! Your crops are growing! It's all good!
And yet plenty of people obviously don't mind at all. Zynga's numbers are staggering: People play the pants off of Zynga's games. According to numbers the company sent out with their FarmVille 2 announcement, at the farming game's peak, more than 83 million people were playing every month. Appdata reports that the game still has 3.2 million daily players.
Keep playing. Keep playing. Keep playing.
The Zynga Complex
Let's back up. Zynga's building is a massive complex in San Francisco's SoMa area -- you can see pictures of it in this profile by Stephen, and I shot this video of the cavernous main area while I was visiting for an earlier press event.
As I was escorted to the conference room where the FarmVille 2 demo would take place, my PR handler said that they employ thousands of people in the San Francisco office alone -- he didn't have precise numbers. The massive building is a hive of activity and action, floors upon floors of desks, monitors and workers.
Zynga is the biggest video game operation I have ever seen. It's also one of the most disliked. When our boss Stephen Totilo recently took a closer look at the company's philosophies and practices and mostly let the company's employees speak for themselves, I was taken aback by the vitriolic reaction from readers and some members of the press. "I'm not retarded, Kotaku," wrote one commenter. "Zynga has a couple of massive PR bodyblows in the past couple of days, and then I come on here and see an article full of hilariously vile info in it with the headline 'Hey, not so bad!' I'm not buying it, even though they bought you."
In other words, this guy was convinced that Zynga had paid off our editor-in-chief in exchange for an article that was honest, fair, and if anything, critical of the company, their practices and their games.
It seems there is a subset of people so focused on hating Zynga that they won't settle for anything less than a polemic. I'm not here to write that polemic. I'm also not really here to write a straight-up preview of FarmVille 2 -- the game comes out today on Facebook, and you can play it for yourself and read about the new features here.
While I was at Zynga, I talked to two of their top guys: Tim LeTourneau, who used to work on The Sims for Electronic Arts, and director of design Wright Bagwell, who used to work on Dead Space, also for EA. I was there to talk about their newest game, to see if they could sell me on it, and to see if I could get them to assuage any of my scepticism about how they do what they do.
It's A Sequel. No It Isn't. Yes It Is.
An exchange from early in our conversation:
LeTourneau: "We made a decision really early on that these are two different games. We don't even really call FarmVille 2 a sequel."
Me: "Except that you call it FarmVille 2."
LeTourneau: [Laughs] "I know, that's a weird thing to say, and I agree with that… FarmVille is such an important franchise for the company and for social gaming in general. [FarmVille 2] was the name that resonated with people."
So: Yes. Definitely a sequel. Both LeTourneau and Bagwell were hot to talk about water, the most game-changing new mechanic in FarmVille 2. In the first FarmVille, irrigation wasn't a consideration -- it was possible to grow crops simply from soil and fertiliser. In the sequel, crops will require water to grow, but you'll only have a finite amount of it.
When LeTourneau talks about the game, he keeps coming back to the way that it's a game like any other. "I think that when you play Farm 2 what you feel is, 'Wow, these are all these little systems that are bouncing against one another, and I've gotta figure out the best way to manage my farm, to get to the highest level, to win, to score, and that's no different than any game, right?"
But is that really true? I asked how you "win" FarmVille, and LeTourneau deferred to Bagwell. How do you win FarmVille?
"You don't," Bagwell said. "I think you can feel like you are winning -- "
"That's what I meant to say," LeTourneau interjected, "was not that you win FarmVille, but that you feel like you're making progress."
"It's about feeling like you're sort of in a groove and making progress," Bagwell said, "it's not, obviously, these games aren't designed to have an end. You keep coming back."
A fun-sounding new mechanic is the fact that every time you hit a new level, your whole farm blooms. "Because we're all hardcore gamers," LeTourneau said, referring to the team at Zynga, "we definitely wanted to highlight reward, and working toward reward and giving you a payoff. So one of the things we added came late in the design, and it's turned into the thing that people absolutely love the most. And the thing that you strategize for the most, which is really funny. We added this thing where on level-up, everything on your farm will grow. So, everything blossoms. So it's almost like you set the table for level-up. Especially in the early levels, you're out of water, and you're like, 'Shit, I'm out of water,' because the stuff won't grow because it's not watered, and you're going to your friends' farm and harvesting their water so you can water your farm, and then you hit that level-up moment and have everything go [makes exploding sound]. It's such a rewarding moment, and we all sit and strategize against it. You totally get hooked on the adrenaline of having your whole board pop."
"A Nintendo-ish Vibe"
The new 3D graphics in FarmVille 2 are lovely, to be sure. Plants bounce and sway, animals roam around the farm, and a kite bobs in the breeze. (LeTourneau on the kite: "Do we need a kite that bounces around? Could the game exist without it? Absolutely. But is it super cool? Have I bought one for every one of my farms? Yes, I have.")
LeTourneau said that he and Bagwell are using their experience working on Wii games to infuse FarmVille 2 with some Nintendo magic. "One of the things that [Bagwell] and I talk a lot about, we've both made Wii games, and in terms of mainstream interactivity, the Wii did something where, it just allowed people to interact with the screen in a different way. We wanted to capture some of that; I think there's definitely a Nintendo-ish vibe to [FarmVille 2]. Just being really tactile, it feels good to touch it. It's fun to touch the board."
That may be something of a leap. Making games for the Wii does not make claims that your next game is "Nintendo-ish" sound any less hubristic. But FarmVille 2 is certainly a step up from the first game in terms of bounciness and tactile enjoyability.
The Pinch Is Time
In a FarmVille 2 farm, the philosophy is that "nothing falls from the sky." You'll need to create things on your farm in order to use them, or you'll need to rely on the help of your friends. In a change from past games, your Facebook friends' avatars can physically visit your farm to help you out.
"So one of the things that's really funny in social games is learning how social actually helps relieve challenges or pinches in the game," said LeTourneau. "Every game has a pinch, you know, Super Mario has a pinch, in that I only have so many lives." (Again with the Nintendo comparisons.)
Nintendo's famous platformers have a distinct pinch, as LeTourneau points out. If you make a mistake, you lose a life and progress, and if you run out of lives, you fail and lose the game. But what exactly is the pinch of a Ville game? As I mentioned before, one of my main criticisms of Zynga's games is that they're so positive that they feel meaningless. Compare FarmVille 2 to SimCity, where your city can turn on you, your people can go homeless, and a fire can burn down everything you've built. What are you up against in FarmVille 2?
"I'd say first and foremost, in most social games, what you're really combatting is time," LeTourneau said. "For example, that your crops wither if you don't come back and take care of them. So it is really positive, the pinch is really the speed at which we progress, or really, the loss of your effort. But I think that how these games are different is that in something like Sim City, I would continually be resetting the board. I wipe out my city and I start over. These [social games] are really different. I think they're much more almost MMO-like in that respect. Which is, how much would it suck if every time I came back to World of Warcraft, if you'd been away for a while, or if you died in a dungeon, and all of a sudden you reset to level 40. MMOs don't punish you that much either, for failure in the game. Because they want you to keep playing."
That's true, to a point. It's something I've noticed in my first foray into MMOs playing Guild Wars 2. And yet I fail all the time in that game -- I go up against enemies I can't handle, I die, I fail instances, my armour is broken and I beat a shameful retreat. Can anything like that happen in FarmVille 2? Your crops can wither, but can your animals die? (Okay, yes, this is a silly suggestion.)
LeTourneau and Bagwell both laughed. "No, that would be dark," said LeTourneau. "You can't harvest [your animals] for food, either."
It's Not Art, It's Business
As I began to list the sorts of hardships that would make me more interested in a farming game, LeTourneau turned to games and art. "I think, you know, honestly, when you step back… I love the notion of games as art. I always have. But at the end of the day, most game-makers are making games to support an audience and support a business. That's ultimately what you're doing.
"Movie maker… I don't care what you do. If you make blockbusters, yeah, you have a vision of what you want to make, but you're also thinking about the audience, and you're thinking about 'How is this thing going to be successful?' These [games] are no different. And so, I think, what you have to look at is, 'What are the products in this space that have been the most mainstream? That have been the biggest? You know, take away the Kotaku audience and just think about it as an experience. If your girlfriend or your mum plays FarmVille, do you think she'd be psyched to come back to her farm and have all her animals be dead?
"So you kind of have to think about who you're going after. Could we make a really dark, harsh, brutal FarmVille? Absolutely. But not for the audience we're going after. You have to decide who your audience is, and you have to decide how you have the widest funnel, and then provide as much entertainment for the outliers as you possibly can. And that's how I think about that for any game design, not just these games.
"And you know what," he continued, "you should make crazy indie things, and you should find your audience, and like I said, I'm not a doubter of games as art, I just think games as art -- as commercially successful -- is a different business. There are breakouts, but in general, we're paid to create what I could call commercial art, and that's what these games are. And we try to put as much creativity, and ourselves, into them, but we also want to hit a big audience."
Keep Playing. Keep Playing.
So much of what Zynga does is governed by metrics -- they have access to an insane amount of information about what their players do and for how long, and those metrics are invaluable for creating compelling games. "Specifically where Zynga is so powerful," LeTourneau said, "the analytics backend of this is the holy grail. Even for us, coming from traditional games, you can see what people are actually doing. We're guessing! We guess with any traditional game, what people are actually touching and playing with."
I asked if they ever worried about letting metrics dedicate game design to the point that the game was ruined. How do they, as designers, differentiate between the broadest possible appeal and the lowest common denominator? LeTourneau said that even though the game is very accessible, they still have conviction in what they want it to be. "Water's a great example. Water's a challenging system. It's challenging. There are going to be times where you might leave the game with nothing planted because you burned through all your water. And all you've left is just an open field."
Okay, but can't players just buy more water with real money? "Sure. You can always pay to progress. My point is, as a system, and as a lowest common denominator, it's something that you're going to have to work with. For us, it's such a foundational part of this idea of a working, living farm, you ask this question of 'You know, do you just end up with the lowest common denominator,' you still have to have a vision of what the game is, you have to have a fiction that you believe in. You're telling a story. I can't tell a story credibly about this working, thriving farm that you're trying to grow and develop and say, 'everything grows magically.' To a certain extent, you're still making decisions about the integrity of the system that you're designing, even if you're making decisions that 'the lowest common denominator' won't be happy with. I don't want people to think that we're designing for people to just click a button."
And yet often it does feel like Zynga games have been designed just for people to just click a button. If Zynga has numbers telling them that people like to just press a button, like a slot machine, what's to stop them from just making a game that's a slot machine? (Like, say, the mobile slot-machine game Zynga Slots?)
"Here's the secret in that," LeTourneau said. "It's not about somebody pushing the button. It's about somebody pushing the button again. And if slot machines weren't tuned and balanced in a way where you got a reward based on the number of coins that you put in, and the frequency, and all of those things, you wouldn't sit and push a slot machine button. So to a certain extent, it's understanding the backend, it's understanding what drives that behaviour."
The Big Payback
Sequels tend to get us thinking about the future, about other sequels that we haven't seen yet, and about where the games we play are going. When I think about sequels to Zynga games, I can't help but picture the world four or five years in the future. People are on Facebook playing FarmVille 3, and CityVille 2, and The Ville 2. And suddenly, 10 years after the rise of social gaming, they look at the number of hours they've sunk into these games, at the thousands of dollars and bottomless piles of Facebook spam, and think, "Oh, god."
LeTourneau and Bagwell are less pessimistic about it than I am, and make the fair point that the same shocking realisation could be had for any game or pastime. "If I ever stopped to think about the hours that I've put into something like WoW," LeTourneau said, "thinking 'I've spent four weeks of my life, straight,' or whatever I've put into this game. If I stop and I rationalize it, I'm like 'Oh my god.' But I had such a great time. And I'm sitting here thinking, 'I can't wait for Mists of Pandaria. I lapsed out a while ago, but Mists is coming out, I'm gonna go check it out a little bit…'
"Do you look back and do you regret all of the time you spent playing your Super Nintendo as a kid? Absolutely not! I think there will be people who say, 'Oh my god, I can't believe I wasted all my time playing that,' but I think you could say that about anything that you do as an entertainment, that's a passion. Because as you grow older, you recognise the value of your time more. I think a lot of people will look back and go, 'That was really fun, I had a good time.'"
I'll certainly give FarmVille 2 a go now that it's launched. (In fact, I've already accidentally spammed my Facebook feed with some crap about my first crop. Whoops.) But as Zynga's stock hits trouble and its legal woes continue, it's clear that the company needs a big hit. Will FarmVille 2 be that hit? Put another way: Will I, and everyone else who tries the game this week, keep playing? That remains to be seen.
(Seriously, sorry about that, everyone.)