Remember when “casual game” meant something that you can pick up and play in short spurts, without needing any previous knowledge of how it works or investment in a character to get to the good stuff? Your arcade games, puzzle games, indie games, maybe some platformers and racing games… Like friends with benefits, they’re up for having fun at short notice, regardless of how little time you have to spend with them or how much you’ve been neglecting them in favor of your more serious relationships. They’re quick, convenient, and always there for you when you’re not interested in committing to anything long-term, which is why we love them. (I think I’m still talking about games…) Now, with the surging popularity of social networking and mobile technology, a genre that once resigned itself to the most secluded corners of the interwebs has mutated and infected computers, tablets, and phones everywhere. Like a herpes sore on the once ruggedly-handsome face of PC gaming, these family-friendly non-games are all the rage amongst demographics that have not traditionally considered themselves fans of video games. And that is why we hate them.
With that said, I admit I have dabbled in a few Facebook games in the past. Of course I was curious to try FarmVille, though that was mostly because my girlfriend plays the crap out of it and I thought it’d be fun to join in. It’s actually kind of amazing how quickly and easily you can get drawn into it… Starting out nice and easy, you harvest a few crops, plant a few more, and before you know it, you’ve leveled up. Everyone loves to level up and be awarded that new title/rank with a tiny bit of fanfare, and hey, you can share your success with your friends! But pretty soon after that, it becomes harder and harder to progress. But like a new drug, the first taste is something you’ve never experienced before, and if you like it, you’ll strive tirelessly to recreate it.
That is the turning point, when you decide whether or not you’re going to stick with it or get out while the gettin’s good. For some people, it becomes a competition amongst friends, since your rank is clearly displayed next to theirs at the bottom of the screen. Others can’t help but complete all of the achievements, master every crop, reach the highest level, and buy all the most expensive decorations from the shop. For one reason or another, perhaps a combination thereof, you’re likely to get hooked. That means dollar signs for Zynga, creator of FarmVille and several other similar Facebook games -- they’ve become insanely successful (and rich) throughout the past year and a half because they figured out how to exploit non-gamers everywhere.
What makes these games so engrossing, that they can gain audiences of tens of millions of people around the world? For starters, they’re very simple, easy to learn, and require no skill at all to succeed. (The standard cutesy, mass-appealing visual style doesn’t hurt, either.) Basically, these are games that are playable by anybody that might have a Facebook account, from the tech-savvy teen to the house-ridden senior citizen, and are blatantly designed to be addicting. If they’re not built around inherently addictive elements (i.e. Texas Hold’em Poker with gambling), they get you to keep coming back for more by placing the faintest of restrictions on how much you can accomplish in any one session.
FarmVille makes you wait any number of hours for your crops to mature before you can harvest, while other games involve spending energy to complete tasks, which regenerates slowly over time. The player ends up checking back with the game multiple times in a day to spend their energy, so as not to allow the meter to get full and thus “waste” the opportunity to gain more. Speaking from experience, it’s also not uncommon to be short by a few energy and wait around for a few minutes to get enough to do what you wanted to do. The worst part of playing these games is that you know you’re addicted, but you don’t care because they do such a good job at making you think you’re being rewarded. Not to mention, they allow you to slap down your credit card in exchange for any of a vast selection of gameplay advantages or exclusive items, and we all know what happens to a fool and his money…
Firing Points is a weekly editorial that explores popular, pressing, or otherwise provocative topics in the world of gaming. The opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the rest of the FiringSquad team, or anyone else for that matter.
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