Facebook, FarmVille, and Milano Cookies
Like Brenda, it has been awhile since I posted something here. I’ve been busy with other things this summer, and am finally resurfacing.
I’ve been taking another look at some Facebook games recently. When I start seeing that ten or twenty of my Facebook friends are all dropping newsfeed items about a game, I’ll play it just to see what the big deal is. It was through this that I encountered FarmVille, by Zynga, an iteration on Farm Town by SlashKey. I have since encountered similar games with different themes, but I’ll talk about FarmVille specifically.
The basic mechanic here is that you plant crops (which costs money), the crops take anywhere from a few hours to a few days to grow, and then you come back later and harvest them (which gives you more money than it cost you to plant them). If you wait too long, the crops wither, and you get nothing. There are other mechanics in the game, but this one is the core that drives everything else.
I realized why this is so insidious. I’ve been calling it the Milano Cookie Effect.
When you open a bag of Pepperidge Farm® Milano® Cookies, you see five cookies there in a paper sleeve. Your first expectation is that this is a single serving, so you eat the cookies. And then there’s just this paper thing in the bag, and it doesn’t take that much effort to get rid of the thing, so you take the paper out. And then you look back in the bag. And now you see five new cookies just staring back at you, so you eat them. And you repeat this process until the entire bag is empty. (Okay, maybe this doesn’t apply to you, personally, but this is what happens to The Rest Of Us.)
What’s going on here is that the product is intentionally designed with a never-ending feedback loop. Doing one thing naturally leads to the next, and each extra step is just one little extra thing, and so you keep going because the behavioral loop you’re in has no natural exit point.
How does this apply to FarmVille? First, you plant crops. Suppose you plant something that takes a full day to grow. You have now just made a contract with the game. You have said that you will come back tomorrow to harvest your crops. If you weren’t planning on coming back, after all, you wouldn’t have bothered to plant anything. The effort to plant the crops isn’t much – just click on a square – but you have taken some effort (and spent in-game currency), and this creates an emotional bond between you and the game. Oh yes, you’ll be back.
And then you come back tomorrow. You harvest your crops. And then what do you do? You could walk away… but instead, as long as you’re already here, you may as well plant more crops. It’s like the paper wrapper with the cookies that just begs to be removed. It hardly takes any effort, you may as well plant some more crops… and now you’ve guaranteed that you are coming back again. In cookies and games, there is no natural exit point, no time when you can just say “okay, I’ve done all I want to with this game, I think I’m done.” Because there are those crops you just planted that you need to come back to harvest. Or you’ve harvested, and with minimal effort you may as well just plant some more since you’re already in the game.
Add to this all of the modern innovations in game design – achievements, unlockables, gifts, experience points – and you have a game that is very sticky. I expect that in the future, Facebook games will need to start doing this more, giving the players endless feedback loops to keep them invested and coming back regularly. How else could you make a popular game where the main activity is watching grass grow?