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FarmVille: revenue, inspiration and imitation

4:40 PM on 03.01.2010 // Brad Nicholson

As social games become more and more accepted, and the base continues to grow and grow, I decided it was time to start asking some Facebook developers about the platform. This is the first article in a weeklong series that examines multiple angles: the division between social and hardcore, big publisher invasion, the necessity of notifications, and social games' future.

This week we're taking a look at the Facebook platform. One of the three developers I spoke with was Zynga Games, creators of the wildly successful FarmVille.

FarmVille a sim in the style of Harvest Moon -- minus the fat. You won’t find yourself giving eggs to the librarian in hopes of scoring a child or tickling Pixies for golden tools. No, FarmVille is a real-time game that has you planting crops and immediately selling them in order to get access to more profitable crops and cute decorations. It's never-ending, addictive, and a huge source of revenue for Zynga.

This revenue is not produced solely by ads, but real money from players in exchange for items. These range from the mundane to game breaking -- in the sense that they don't follow the base rule set -- and are used to simply get ahead and defeat foes' Leaderboard scores.

Think iron-clad Hoplite with a birdshot-loaded shotgun staring down a throbbing mass of axe- and stick-armed Persians and you’ll get the idea of the advantage of some of these items. If you still don't picture it, then read up on the $40 "Wither Ring," a promotional item that stops crop rot -- the penalty for not being mindful of what's growing.

Regardless of its "pay to get ahead" free-to-play model, FarmVille has over tens of millions of players. It's an important game for Zynga in terms of the money it brings in, but it has also proved to be something of a petri dish.

"FarmVille is very important," Bill Mooney, VP and GM, FarmVille at Zynga told me via e-mail. "It is not only the most popular social game, it’s also the #1 app on Facebook with over 70 million people playing the game around the world every month. FarmVille has also been key in the discovery of great game mechanics that we are incorporating into existing and future games."

But it’s a petri dish with imitators -- clones. Zynga Games is aware, almost flattered by the amount of developers attempting to cash in on their formula. They use it as initiative to keep building.

"We see [imitations] as validation of our game and our desire to provide best of breed. We continually add new, fun elements and surprises to FarmVille so players keep coming back." 

Players do keep coming back, in fact. The loose tally as of this morning is 81 million or so active monthly users. I asked Mooney if he and Zynga Games created the ideal Facebook game. He agreed to some extent, hailing its simple theme and mechanics as reasons it has performed so well.
"Clearly, FarmVille is the ideal game for Facebook based on the sheer number of players. Farming is familiar to everyone and brings out the nurturer in all of us, which is part of the reason FarmVille is so popular. 

"In addition, FarmVille is user-friendly and easy to play.  Through a lot of hard work and strategic gameplay, players earn virtual money and experience in order to upgrade their farms with advanced crops, better buildings and fun decorations. We constantly add new elements and surprises that our players love to keep them coming back."

If the numbers keep scaling the way they have been recently, FarmVille will have over 100 million active users by this summer. But Zynga isn't sitting on the behemoth, sipping cocktails on that private continent they could have purchased last week: it's churning out new games, and as I've been alerted, using the likeable mechanics from FarmVille to shape and mold them somewhat in its image.

"Additionally, we have a lot of other games on Facebook, including hits like Mafia Wars, Café World, FishVille, Zynga Poker, PetVille, YoVille, etc. -- and with each game, we release new levels, new offerings and new features to keep players engaged and content fresh. "

And fresh is the word. At some point, perhaps within the next century, FarmVille numbers will begin to dwindle. As to what Zynga might consider next, well, you'll have to tune in a bit later.

Brad Nicholson,
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