Jul 02, 2010

Game Mechanics in Farmville and Foursquare

Marsha Plat's picture
Marsha Plat
Director, User Experience

Mashable.com recently held a poll about Farmville and Foursquare after TIME.com listed both applications in an article titled “The 50 Worst Inventions.” TIME.com described Farmville as a “time suck” and Foursquare as “narcissistic.” Mashable brought the question to its readers: Are Foursquare and Farmville really among the worst inventions ever?

Now as it happens, I’ve played both Farmville and Foursquare extensively. It all started out innocently enough as research for a project at Hot. I was working on concepts for an iPhone application and immersed myself in various online games for inspiration.

I am not the stereotypical gamer—or so I thought. I recently discovered that I am quite close to the average age of a social gamer. According to PopCap Games, maker of popular video games like Bejeweled, “the average social gamer is a 43-year old woman.” The key word here is “social.” We’re talking about Farmville and Foursquare–not the traditional video games you might find on Xbox or PlayStation.

Farmville, the incredibly popular Facebook game from Zynga, was both addictive and tedious. It felt like a chore to have to click every square plot to plow, plant, and harvest my crops of virtual wheat or raspberries. Yet I continued to plant and click and was rewarded with gold coins, higher levels, and… And what? Was it a sense of accomplishment? The thrill of advancing? The competition with my neighbors? Why? Why was I spending my time on all this tedious clicking? I got so bored with it that I had my seven-year-old daughter click everything for me.

The answer is the “compulsion loop,” as it’s called in the gaming world. The idea here is that the player plays the game, achieves some goal, and then receives some sort of reward for achieving the goal. The reward induces the player to keep playing the game and the cycle–the compulsion loop–continues.

At the same time that I was playing Farmville, I started playing Foursquare. Foursquare is an iPhone app in which players “check-in” to various locations and get rewarded with points and badges. Like Farmville, it has the same compulsion loop popular in game mechanics. Checking in multiple times a day gets you more points. Checking into 10 unique locations gets you the Adventurer Badge. Whoever checks in the most at a certain location becomes the “mayor” of that location. However, unlike Farmville, I loved playing Foursquare. It didn’t feel tedious. It didn’t feel like a chore. I loved posting tips on what to order at my local café (a bellini at happy hour, for instance). I loved checking into obscure venues like Sleeping Beauty’s Castle at Disneyland. I liked seeing the check-ins from my Foursquare friends.

There are a number of reasons why I preferred Foursquare. One is that the Farmville compulsion loop is based on an "appointment gaming" mechanism. Players must come back to the game at a certain time in order to harvest their crops (and get the reward) before the crops wither and die. This is known as a hard penalty. It seems so clear that a game designed to mimic my real-world life of appointments would seem like a chore. Working full-time and raising two small children with my even-busier husband, I really don’t need more appointments in my day. I don’t want to log in and see that my raspberries have withered and died because I forgot to harvest them.

The gaming mechanism in Foursquare is based on rewards, not penalties, and there is no appointment mechanism. I can check in as much or as little as I like. I was delighted when I got my Adventurer Badge. When I was mayor of my local café, I felt like I had finally arrived. (Mayors often receive special deals or discounts.) It’s true there are some penalties. If I don’t check in enough, I might lose my title of mayor—but it felt different then being greeted with a bunch of dead plants.

Game mechanics aside, the social rewards are the real difference between these two games. Farmville will (optionally) post updates to Facebook if a player wins a new ribbon or needs help on the farm, but these activities don’t feel real to me. They’re based on rather boring virtual activity–the mindless clicking of plowing, planting, and harvesting. The truth is, I really don’t care what my friends are planting in Farmville.

The posts on Foursquare are based on offline activities that are, by their nature, more interesting. They aren’t pre-programmed; they’re real. Take this example from my friend and colleague, Josh, who checked in at the Fillmore: “Listen to live jazz while shopping the Farmer's Market every Saturday.” These posts are more like Facebook posts; mostly about activity happening in the real world. I suppose the activity doesn’t have to be offline, but at least right now my friends tend to do more interesting things in the real world.

So do Farmville and Foursquare both qualify as being among the 50 Worst Inventions, along with New Coke and Subprime Mortgages? Not in my book, and according to the results of the Mashable Poll (below) at least 42.4% of readers agree with me.

Mashable Poll

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Tyler Beerman's picture

Hey do you know where I can get the 411 on social gaming mechanics? There's gotta be a cheat sheet or a focused URL that describes all the social gaming mechanics and explains their process....

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[...] qual não é minha surpresa quando vejo esse post da Martha Plat do Hot Studio fazendo comparações entre Farmville e o Foursquare. Pra mim, comparar os dois é como comparar um [...]

Miles Lennon's picture

Your opposition to appointment gaming is valid. However, keep in mind that you're highlighting a scenario in which your daily return to harvest crop is entirely for your own benefit. But when you introduce social responsibility (which is really the core of the Farmville game mechanics) your sense of obligation to return increases dramatically and the stakes are way higher. Don't underestimate that. It could be more exciting that way.

That being said, thanks for this post.

Peter | laptop comparison's picture

I have never played Farmville, it seemed always so pointless to me. You can't kill stuff (I am male if you didn't guess). I was however pretty addicted to World of Warcraft. At one point I had to decide if I rather finish my Masters degree, or play WoW, it was a rather difficult decision to make.
A few years later I learned a few valuable lesson from this:

1. getting your masters degree is worth it

2. it is amazing how much time and energy people gladly invest in those games. Just imagine if one could design a job with the same mechanics.

I know some companies are doing something like that (lovemachineinc.com), but no one made a Farmville / WoW for small business jet. I would find that revolutionary.

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Mark Sage's picture

Great article Marsha. I completely agree with the addictiveness or compulsion loop as you refer to it. I too was sucked into FarmVille and after coming out the other end thought what a fantastic mechanic. As a loyalty marketer I think brands have a lot to learn from the techniques that gaming companies are using to help make their services both enjoyable and sticky. I'm now hooked on Foursquare and see so much potential in this as well - exciting times.

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