Something strange happened to video games in 2009. A low-budget Facebook title involving the care and upkeep of farm animals became one of the industry’s hottest properties. Now, gaming’s big studios have finally taken notice.
There are more players in Zynga Game Network Inc.’s FarmVille (82.4 million, or 1% of the world’s population) than there are Twitter accounts. The collective bafflement of game companies the world over was best illustrated at one of the industry’s major annual conventions in March, the DICE summit in Las Vegas, where Facebook was called “strange, big and terrifying”. “Facebook kind of knocked us all on our collective backsides, don’t you think?” said academic and game designer Jesse Schell in a keynote lecture.
FarmVille was launched in June, and it’s taken names such as Sony Online Entertainment (SOE) and publishing giant Electronic Arts nearly a year to brave the wilds that is the Facebook game market. In March, SOE launched PoxNora, a combination of a turn-based strategy and collectable card game set in a fantasy world of creatures, relics and spells. The object is to accumulate nora or magical energy which helps collect decks of cards called “runes”. The runes allow you to battle creatures your friends control.
Animal planet: A still from Digital Chocolate’s new Facebook game Safari Kingdom
In an email interview, Chris Barnhart, consumer insights manager at SOE’s San Diego office, likens the gameplay to board game Risk, with a fantasy bent—strategy heavy, where other Facebook games are more casual. The game has around 2.5 million registered accounts.
Around the same time, the Electronic Arts-owned Playfish Studios launched Hotel City, in which players managed and ran their own hotel franchises. “It’s similar to our previous game Restaurant City, which is Playfish’s second most popular game with more than 16 million players monthly around the world,” says Tom Sarris, director of communications for Playfish, via email.
Digital Chocolate, a popular mobile phone game maker, considers social networking games integral to the “Facebook experience”. After their Facebook debut with Tower Bloxx in 2008, they’ve increased their presence with a number of new launches.
One of them, Safari Kingdom, brings with it 20 wild animal species, 100 different characters and around 80 types of decorations to personalize it. All animals, (genus and species notwithstanding) begin their existence as eggs. Players can also visit their friends’ kingdoms and help take care of their pets while they’re away. The developer hopes the game will give players a positive vibe about protecting the environment.
Facebook games make money through “micro-transactions”, or sales of virtual goods. While all the games are free to play, certain “premium” items require real-world money. Players spend real money to buy virtual credit in a game’s currency. A mystifying side effect of the popularity of this model has been the rise of a virtual finance industry—advertisements in Facebook now offer “virtual credit cards” that generate in-game money the more you play a certain game.
Indian game companies are not far behind the Facebook trend. Zapak Digital Entertainment currently has two games on Facebook. Mahindra Great Escape, started in February, and Crazy Idiots Test (C.I.T.), started in December. Mahindra Great Escape allows players a 4x4 experience of a sports utility vehicle (SUV). It has three camera modes—the top, dashboard and hood views. The SUVs can be customized and let you drive along the roads of the Himalayas, the Kanha National Park and the Thar desert. The game has attracted around 50,000 players so far. A slightly different experience from their sporting game, C.I.T. lets users test and flaunt their IQ (Idiot Quotient in this case).
So should dormant gamers become part of the craze? Barnhart feels social gaming is here to stay. “Facebook makes it that much easier to play games with people you already know,” he says. “They also extend your Facebook network as you find new friends who share the same interests as you.”