Sunday, November 08, 2009

The Strategy and Ethos of Optimized Farmville

Introducing Farmville

My girlfriend recently became obsessed with a Facebook game called Farmville, which has become the most popular game Facebook has over the last five months, and by way of strengthening our relationship and indulging her casual nerdiness as she does for my more intense variety, I decided to check it out. As a gamer I tend to engage primarily with engrossing long-form gaming experiences. I think of a long form gaming experience as something where you progress through increasing levels of difficulty tied together by a narrative, and in which very often your character or state in the game develops according to choices you make. And I think of an engrossing game as one that demands your full attention, you play the game when you're ready to sit down at home, turn off the lights, unplug your phone, de-wire your doorbell, load up on food for the weekend and hunker down to just play, rather than something you idly mess around with when you're bored.

Exceptions to long form games would include puzzle games or games played competitively, and exceptions to "engrossing" games would include RPGs in some cases(FFXII is the worst offender that I'm aware of, although I certainly play RPGs) as well as a new brand of game exemplified by Facebook's Farmville. Farmville works on a different timetable than most games, it's real-time, but not in the sense of a game like Zelda where an hour takes a minute to pass, it runs on real-world time. You plant crops that you can only come back and harvest after a day, multiple days, or hours. It's not a game designed to be played full-time, it's a game designed to draw you back in spurts all throughout the day.

Farmville and Other Farming Games

Oddly enough, I am no stranger to the world of simulated farming games, I've played games in the Harvest Moon series for a while, which are designed to be played in a sort of "game real time" with no downtime between accomplishing things. You have many of the same features as Farmville, you plow fields, raise animals, make investments in seeds, harvest crops, and then re-buy more seeds to increase your capital, while sometimes investing in larger projects like houses. Farmville takes the farming theme a step further in letting you interact with nearby farms and show off your farms to your friends, while it also leaves out some features in terms of having a secondary system in the game for making friends with people while putting your crops and goods to a secondary purpose as gifts. Unlike the Harvest Moon games the social aspects of Farmville are largely independent of the core economy of the game. There's not a significant world to interact with outside your farm, and it also lacks the mechanics used by the Rune Factory spinoffs which introduce crafting and combat to the world to provide a further purpose for all the money raised and goods produced.

A few parallel elements are handled differently: Harvest Moon makes a big deal out of clearing your field so that you can reclaim all the space to plant crops, Farmville has all the space initially available, the way you increase your usable farmland is to buy more. In Harvest Moon (and a limited-round board game that involves farming called Agricola), a plowed field is plowed forever, you can keep re-using it to plant more crops of different types, while Farmville increases your clicking requirements by making you re-plow a field in between each crop you plant. In Harvest Moon, animals are a useful source of fixed income year-round since you have to deal with seasons when you can't grow certain crops, in Farmville animals seem like almost an afterthought since they provide nothing close to the money gained by crops, which require far more time and maintenance, which is what the game is built to reward. Quite a few features of Farmville simply end up as decorative, sometimes because they are intended as such, and sometimes because they're completely outpaced by other factors of the game in making money.

Farmville and Optimization

My girlfriend and I noticed that people used a wide variety of strategies in playing Farmville, some filling up their field with a single crop, raising a lot of animals or simply none, and their farms ended up looking very different for non-aesthetic reasons. So we decided to run the numbers Harvest Moon style and figure out what crops gave you the best return. There are two main resources you get in Farmville, coins which you use for your investments, and XP, which lets you level up and gain access to more crops and goods. Crops have turn-around times ranging from 2 hours to 4 days, offering larger or smaller returns. So the two things we wanted to calculate were the profit per hour for each crop, the XP per hour, and in some cases the XP per hour per coin, if your goal was to level up as quickly as possible where coins were your limiting factor.

A spreadsheet quickly (relative to the amount of time spent playing Farmville) showed that the lone 2 hour crop had the best profitability simply because of how often you could flip it and re-plant it, although later on in the game the margins of longer-running crops catch up, which also means that the game after a certain point no longer takes regular two hour obsessive re-checking to maximize profitability, you can be on an 8 or 10 hour schedule. We also noticed that some of the worst crops in the game were being heavily used by several players, and that in some cases the next 10 crops you could look forward to unlocking offered no improvements in profitability over the previous ones. Figuring out what crops to plant optimally is a calculation of the most profitable crop you have access to over the time interval at which you next expect to check the game.

While most of the fixed income assets of the game are amazingly inferior in profitability compared to the benefits of planting crops, there is an expensive building that offers more profitability than using the same stretch of land for crops, which raised the question of when it's appropriate to make that investment. We eventually realized that while on a per-square basis, the building beat the benefits of growing crops, it was a worse utilization of capital than using your money to fill your field with crops and harvest them continually. If you were in a situation where squares were a limiting factor and you had enough capital to grow crops on the rest of your field, you should buy the expensive building, but if you were in a situation where capital is the limiting factor and you could either buy the building or fill your field with crops, you should fill your field with crops.

The single most profitable long-term investment is expanding the size of your field to give you more squares to farm, since after a certain point your total assets are too high to be used on your entire field, although obviously buying a larger field is only worth it if you can still fill your field with your leftover capital, or else you're cutting your income for no reason. The only other trade-off worth considering is increasing your XP as quickly as possible to get access to better crops and assets compared to increasing your coins as quickly as possible to gain existing resources. However, those goals overlap closely enough when you use fast growing crops to not represent much of a dilemma. From the track my girlfriend seems to be on, if she keeps re-investing her capital in the most profitable crops and increasing the size of her field, she'll hit the maximal levels of prosperity the game is capable of representing, and at that point have little to do but decorate.

Pursuing the goals of ruthless optimization revealed a few things: the optimal strategy is fairly easy to discover when you run the numbers, and disappointingly predictable: you fill your field with the best crop available to you, which is what we noticed most of the top players doing. A lot of players preferred to keep an area of their farm "just for fun" and fill it with the gameplay features that were decorative by design or hopelessly inefficient, while using the bulk of their field for wealth maximization. There are ribbons and achievements that seem intended to give players incentives to diversify and try out strategies other than the obviously optimal, but because of the way the curve of the game is set up, you're locked out of most of its content until you grind your way to the top, so even if you simply want to make a beautiful farm with the minimal amount of effort, minimizing the time spent grinding via optimal farm-building seems to be the only way to go.

Farmville, Addiction and Money

While Farmville is open to being played intermittently rather than in more focused sessions, playing the game still takes a good chunk of time since it is set up to reward you for coming back regularly to get your small chunk of gameplay in. Its main advantage over the Harvest Moon games for me is its social aspect in showing off your farms and interacting with your friends by giving them help on their farms or gifts, and it benefits from its accessibility to anyone with Facebook and a web browser at all hours of the day.

The points I'd make against it are that I think it's a less deep system than the Harvest Moon games offer in terms of optimizing the use of your time and resources, and the end result of the game in achieving decorations and badges of achievement seems less satisfying than channeling the results of your income into the secondary gameplay systems offered by Harvest Moon. You're able to show off your success, but there isn't anything meaningful to do with it. And while being rewarded for coming back every few hours to play the game and punished when you don't is probably an optimal formula for addiction by creating a regular habit, I prefer my gaming in controlled well-scheduled bursts that don't represent a constant invasion upon my schedule. Farmville is an itch that keeps building and rewards you for scratching it in predictable intervals, I prefer a gaming experience that puts itself entirely at your mercy to control when you reap its rewards rather than demanding real-time effort to keep up.

The last comparison I'd make to Farmville is to massively multiplayer games like World of Warcraft or Second Life. World of Warcraft tries to maintain itself as a meritocracy--buying your way into the upper echelons of the game is a violation of the community ethic, and will get you banned from the game if you're caught selling resources acquired in the game to another player. Second Life makes real world money transactions an essential part of the game, to accomplish anything significant in the game's world you need in-game currency, which can only be obtained by exchanging real dollars. Farmville does a little of both: it has definite meritocracy elements since it's possible to work your way to the top of the heap, but they are perfectly happy to sell in-game perks to players who are willing to throw real money at them. Since the game's entire means of funding itself is getting players to spend money to get ahead, it's arguable that the whole purpose of the grind is to be painful enough to make players consider spending cold hard cash instead of time to unlock the game's content.

Farmville and Casual Gaming

I think of a good game as something you go out of your way to spend some time on, Farmville is the kind of game you stumble your way into getting an addiction for, and use it to fill up internet-enabled downtime. I'm more comfortable with the incentives inherent to a game you pay for in advance in comparison with a game that's "free, unless you want to buy your way to the top", and I prefer attention-focusing experiences in general to attention-splitting ones. I'm very guilty of multi-tasking my day, but I recognize that focusing all your attention on a book, movie, or game will get you a lot more out of it than juggling it with a number of other activities.

Now granted, every game is ultimately a waste of time, the only real metrics of comparison are how enjoyably it wastes that time and how meaningful the challenges are. 64 million people are playing Farmville, which eclipses the entire sales of the Harvest Moon series and its spinoffs by more than a factor of 10. I think the perfect Facebook farming game would have a meaningful interactive economy where users could exchange and directly deal in the game's goods themselves, a better defined end-game with a purpose for all the wealth gained, include more meaningful incentives for specialization vs diversification, and allow for more complex strategy than the game currently affords. However, that may not be compatible with the financial incentives of the developer: allowing players to have an economy between them directly could allow players to "buy into" the system from each other rather than the developer, Farmville is already wildly popular with mechanics that involve a fairly simple grind, and the ultimate purpose of the game is to make spending money on it seem like a better deal than spending time.

Casual gaming has opened up the world of simulated entertainment to people who don't normally consider themselves gamers, and have never honed the reflexes, the three dimensional spatial awareness, or the drive for eternally optimizing strategies that the hardcore gamers possess. Ultimately I hope it ends up filling a niche as a gateway for people to dip their toes into what games are capable of, rather than eclipsing and replacing the existing world of games catered to dedicated obsessives. But until that day comes when I have to rally the troops, my girl and I will keep farming away.

Update: Two other things I've noticed about farmville's addictive potential: investing your entire field in crops can be a risky move if your internet goes down or if you lose access, which has caused some people to recruit Farmville babysitters to harvest their crops so they don't rot. And Farmville is very clever about getting you to market it to your friends and draw you back in: occasionally a black sheep will show up and Farmville will beg you to ask your friends to "adopt" it and start a game, and if you go idle for a long time you'll receive notifications about all the people who are helping out on your deserted farm. But with all that said, I think Farmville is more of a triumph of social psychology and addiction than gaming quality.


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