FarmVille: What Went Right and What Went Wrong
Excerpted from Making Great Games: An Insider's Guide to Designing and Developing the World's Greatest Video Games (Focal Press)
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FarmVille is nothing short of a phenomenon. Estimates have suggested that greater than 1% of the population of the entire world are playing FarmVille. Essentially a stripped-down, realtime farm simulation game, FarmVille was created by the San Francisco, California-based social games developer and publisher Zynga, and launched in June 2009 as an application on the social networking website Facebook. Microsoft’s MSN Games launched FarmVille on its own site on February 4, 2010. As of this writing (spring 2010), more than 20% of all Facebook users play Farm- Ville, making it the most popular application on the service, with over 88 million monthly active users. The Facebook FarmVille fan page boasts over 22 million fans.
In FarmVille, players manage a virtual farm by planting, growing, and harvesting virtual crops and other plants and raising livestock. After creating an avatar, players receive a basic plot of land on which they can begin planting their crops. Various crops have varying costs as well as growth times, which take place in real time. If not harvested when ripe, crops will be ruined, a mechanism that entices players to regularly visit and tend their farms. Players work to amass virtual currency, which they can use to buy more land, seeds, livestock, and a host of decorative elements for their farms. Players also earn bragging rights through the accumulation of ribbons earned for various achievements in the game.
I had an opportunity to sit down with Mark Skaggs, Vice President of Product Development for Zynga and Creative Director on FarmVille, to chat about what worked well and what he and his team gleaned from the process of creating Facebook’s most popular application. “Our original idea was to make a real time strategy (RTS) game for Facebook,” recalls Skaggs. “But after spending about a month exploring the idea, we realized that the Flash development platform couldn’t support all of the things we wanted to do. We knew we had to simplify our goals, and then it occurred to us that we could simply focus on the first part of a traditional RTS game — the resource accumulation and management aspects. That’s how we arrived at the idea of doing a farm game. When we saw some other farm games out there that people were playing pretty regularly, we knew there were at least some players enjoying this kind of thing. So, we set out to make the best farm game that we could make.”
Small, Experienced Team
Keeping their team small allowed Zynga to take advantage of something almost opposite to an economy of scale — it felt like scaling down enabled the team to tighten feedback loops and keep the entire process hyper-efficient. “FarmVille was actually a lot smaller than some of the typical products many of our team had worked on, so we could take advantage of that smaller size with our shared knowledge of the game development process. One small team, with one simple goal: make the best farm game we could. Because everyone had games experience, we could speak in a kind of shorthand with each other and get stuff done quickly.”
Keeping the core development team small allowed them to alleviate, or avoid altogether, some of the issues that we have learned about plaguing larger teams. This stands to reason, as many of the core issues boil down to breakdowns in communication, and with a smaller team, effective communication is naturally much easier.
As Little Reinvention as Possible
By taking advantage of working code bases that handled both player-facing and ‘behind-the-scenes’ aspects of the social application, the FarmVille team was able to save a lot of time, and a lot of headaches, in bringing their game to market. “Basically, if something worked that did what we wanted or needed to do, we used it. Doing this allowed us to build and ship the game as quickly as we did.”
Putting the right team together is always the goal, and luck is an important component whenever you wind up with a team that really comes together and gels. Skaggs agrees that luck was a factor, but also feels that their focus on bringing on the right people made a big difference in the assembly of the FarmVille team. “We were fortunate across the board, and made some really smart hires in some key positions.”
Tapped into Entire Company
This success factor assumes, of course, that testing was given a high priority during the game’s development cycle and that the team utilized testing feedback to help course correct and finetune the player experience. For informal testing, by looking outside of the core teamand tapping into the entire company, the FarmVille team was able to greatly expand their ‘test bed,’ and the overall quality of their game benefitted from this approach.
Launched on the Amazon Cloud
Skaggs told me the story of FarmVille’s initial launch to illustrate this point. “Our plan was to do a ‘soft launch’ on Friday, June 16, 2009. We just thought, OK, let’s turn it on. Just for families and friends — in fact we called it ‘family and friends weekend.’ We, the team, had made an internal bet to see if we could get 2500 players by the end of the first 24 hours. Well, in actuality we wound up with 25,000. On the next day, we had over 100,000 players. Day 3, we saw 500,000 players and on day 4 we crossed the 1,000,000 player threshold — all this with no announcement, no cross-promotion in our other games, no advertising, no nothing.
“It took us a while to grasp just how successful the game was, even after this incredible launch. I guess we had all seen Internet phenomena that experienced explosive growth and then petered out just as quickly.” Eventually, the game’s success pushed the boundaries even of Amazon’s Cloud. “Fortunately, Bing Gordon, a games industry luminary who happens to be one of our investors, was able to contact Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos and pull some strings for us,” remembers Skaggs, “so they were able to pull in additional resources and keep us afloat.”
What Went Wrong
Not Staffed Well for Success
Unlike more traditional game launches, social games are the gifts that keep on giving. New players continue to flock to the game, but current players also expect to expand their experience and discover new things as they continue to play. It can be a mad dash to try to keep up. “We had to initiate so many people so quickly into the Zynga culture. We also needed external help e for example, we eventually got a technical team in India looking after our servers so the American team could get some sleep at night. Looking back, it is clear we weren’t ready for our own level of success, but then again, how do you predict that kind of thing?”
Ongoing Leveling Curve Issues
As you level up in FarmVille, you unlock new crops and buildings, and these are important to motivating players to continue, and some of our levels were just taking too long to complete. Instead of taking a day or two maximum, some levels were taking folks five days to complete. Fortunately we are able to course correct — we do so all the time — but there is always a cost to your current players, and I think we could have done a better job tuning the game and tailoring our level curve to our target audience.”
This is another issue, it seems to me, that relates directly to testing. As we are starting to see in case study after case study, high-performing teams test extensively in an effort to tune the interactive experience of their game to the target audience’s expectations and abilities. Despite this focus, though, until the game is released more widely it remains really difficult to nail this down. Only more extensive testing can help alleviate this issue; I am still waiting to hear from the team that felt they did too much testing during the course of development of their game.
Soft Launch Became the Real Launch
Triggering Facebook Failsafes
This is the kind of problem all game developers would love to have — their game is too popular and overloads the system or platform. “Facebook was excellent to work with, and eventually we got it all figured out, fortunately,” concludes Skaggs, “but it was no fun at the time.”
Should Have Made Changes Faster
At the same time, according to Skaggs, it is a mistake not to go ahead and make the changes you realize that you need to make. “We definitely should have just gone ahead and made the changes. If you wait, you’re not really servicing the new players, or the current players. If something should be changed, go ahead and change it.”
I asked Skaggs if he had any parting thoughts, looking back on the process of creating Facebook’s most popular application. “I would say the biggest takeaway is to make sure your application has all the metrics and analytics tracking code in place before release, in order to keep track of what’s going on with it. Coming off the FarmVille experience, we now have a Zynga metrics team as well as an entire stats group — these are centralized resources that service all the teams. We are an extremely metrics-driven company. But this is one thing that is kind of cool about this space, and Zynga specifically. Instead of wondering what’s going on out there, or even if a button should be red or blue, we can track and analyze the statistics, and do a whole lot of A/B testing along those lines as well. So, be well metric-ed and know what’s going on before you go out the door.”
Skaggs has blogged about an underlying design philosophy he and his team employ at Zynga, which he calls ‘Fast, Light and Right.’ He explains: “Speed is very important in this space. Don’t think of design that you’ll do in 6 months; figure out what players want, and do it quickly. If what you’re working on is not getting your game ready for launch, or post-launch support, than you’re just wasting your time.”
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Excerpted from Making Great Games: An Insider's Guide to Designing and Developing the World's Greatest Video Games by Michael Thornton Wyman. Copyright © 2011. Used with permission of Focal Press. All rights reserved.