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Facebook, FarmVille, and Milano Cookies

October 11, 2009

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.

Yummy. And evil.

Yummy. And evil.

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?

– Ian

9 Comments leave one →
  1. October 13, 2009 2:39 am

    Agreed. It’s a very good player trap. Though personally I got tired of the grass-watching. I did get stuck in the Mafia Wars one, however, for similar reasons, there’s always a small effort thing one can do and one’s rackets/business (the mafia equivalent to crops apparently) will be ready in the next X hours. That classic short, medium, and long-term goal philosophy holds here, too.

  2. October 15, 2009 2:48 am

    Ha, so that’s what those little paper things are for! I guess you have to share the cookies with a friend if you want to avoid the addictive loop – at least, that should reduce your momentum.

    I like the way you break down this mechanic. Scary stuff, though. I’d rather make a game that teaches players to recognize these addictive patterns and break out of them, rather than trap them into my own timewaster. But the dark side is seductive…

  3. October 19, 2009 1:45 pm

    The model for web applications can best be imagined as crack cocaine or maybe an STD…

    Which isn’t to say that can’t, instead, be a force for good. But the ones that win will be the ones that destroy lives. I know friends who have had their lives seriously disrupted/taken up by playing Travian…

  4. November 5, 2009 3:55 pm

    That and it’s just mindless entertainment, like the rest of facebook. Although I quite like your analogy, and have never played FarmVille, I feel like the mechanics of the game itself is not quite enough to warrant repeated playing.

    But then again, I’ve never tried. Simply reading about it makes it sound not at all appealing…although that doesn’t explain the friends and the people I always hear about playing it all the time. Sigh.

  5. larksilver permalink
    December 4, 2009 10:35 am

    I am a Facebook game junkie, but I’m cutting back, I swear. These things *are* addictive, and yes, they do cause one to say “I’m tired and want to log off my computer, but my Lasagna will be finished in 20 minutes, so…”

    I at least have all my games where I only check them once a day, now. Then of course I go back to my primary time-waster, World of Warcraft. But I can quit anytime, I swear!

  6. January 17, 2010 3:39 pm

    Totally addicted to Farmville at the moment! I wonder how much longer the craze will continue for though? Or what will be the next big thing, Fishfille perhaps?


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