Farmville and the plague that killed it
David Marin
March 2, 2021
  |  

Farmville and the plague that killed it

David Marin
March 2, 2021
  |  
Company Forensics - Learn from the mistakes of VC-funded startups | Product Hunt

Join 100,000 entrepreneurs who read us every month

We've got it!
You'll be hearing from us soon.
Oops! Something went wrong while submitting the form.


In 2010, Steve Jobs wrote a public letter to the software company Adobe. In it, he let them know why Apple would never install their Flash media technology on its devices.  

Roughly ten years later, Flash is now discontinued. The media player that powered years of website gimmicks, animations, and videos, was turned off on the last day of 2020. It was no surprise, Adobe and all major web browsers had been announcing it for years. 

But this story is not about Flash, it's about one of the biggest games built with Flash and, therefore, also passed away. We are talking about the once most popular Facebook game, Farmville. Yes, people were still playing it.

When Facebook opened its platform for developers, back in 2009, Farmville leveraged the social platform and soon managed to amass more than 32 million daily players and about 90 million total.

The game is over now, but its legacy of monetization and addictive mechanics on video games is real. Like it or not, the video game industry has inherited a new business model from Zynga, the company behind Farmville.

Let's talk about Farmville's heritage to the video game industry in this episode of Company Forensics.


Social games for busy adults

Farmville was a casual farming simulation game for those who don't know, released on Facebook in 2009. Players would take care of their digital parcel, seed, harvest, have animals, and most importantly, customize and style their farms to express themselves.

The game was free to play, and users could make in-game purchases and buy custom items for their farm or do things like skip waiting times. Farmville soon became a millionaire business, changing how video games would make money after it. 

You would love or hate the game. Time magazine did include it in its list of the 50 Worst Inventions, back in 2010. They argued that it was not even a game but “more a series of mindless chores on a digital farm, requiring the endless clicking of a mouse to plant and harvest crops.”

On the other side, Mark Pincus, the founder, and CEO of the company, has said this about the game:

"The real innovation of FarmVille was in making games accessible to busy adults, giving them a place to invest and express themselves and be seen by people in their lives as creative."

I'm not sure how much creativity you can express by decorating a virtual farm cartoonish template. Still, the truth is that people got hooked and invested time and real money on it. 

The game tasks were cyclic and mostly repetitive, as Time magazine noticed, so you had to be continually checking, or else everything would wither and die. 

But it was a game for busy adults. So, no worries, if your crops died, you could pay to restore them without having to start all over. You could even pay for things like farm insurance and who knows what else, as the game released new content quite often. 

People would take pride in their farms as they invested in customizing and taking care of them. And farms would be all over Facebook. Maybe that's why some consider the game to be the precursor of 'social games,' despite online and multiplayer games already existed. 

But the social factor in Farmville wasn't so much about interacting or playing together. It was more about pestering your Facebook contacts to get them involved in the game and earn your farm resources. Or ultimately, flex your shinny digital ranch.

In a way, players were like recruiters for the game, and it worked pretty well at first. Tens of millions joined and became addicted to the game's mechanics. 

Soon, Facebook users got flooded with requests from players asking them to join or help them with their farms. You can imagine how this annoyed the heck out of users who weren't into the game.

Ultimately, Facebook had to put an end to the pesky notifications from Farmville. According to gaming reporters, the game eventually lost tens of millions of players, but the story was far from ending. 

Facebook had also noticed the hundreds of millions of dollars Zynga was making, mainly with Farmville and other games like Mafia Wars or the classic Texas hold'em. 

Mind you, for both games, Farmville and Mafia Wars, Zynga was sued for copyright infringement. Allegedly, previously published games named Townville and Mob Wars, respectively, were quite identical to Zynga's games. 

The company settled one lawsuit with an undisclosed amount of money. They won the other one, as the original game was not fully copyright protected. Too bad for the guy who initially developed the game, but Zynga was in a race to the top of social games and backed by millionaire investments. No minor copyright lawsuit was going to stop it.

Milking video games

Facebook couldn't ignore the millions that Zynga was making, and it wanted a piece of the action. After heated negotiations, the companies agreed and determined that Zynga started paying Facebook the industry standard 30% tax overall transactions. 

But as this happened, the game was losing popularity on the platform. By that time, app stores were new, and smartphones were starting to take over the world. 

Naturally, Zynga started turning to mobile platforms, the home of most casual players, and where micro-transactions are the norm. In part, thanks to them. 


Most Zynga games are mobile now. There are even a few Farmville sequels and countless clones on the App Store and Play Store. Their monetization legacy has spread across the gaming industry. The so-called 'freemium' games and a plague microtransactions are evident. 

Other traditional gaming companies like Electronic Arts or Blizzard, just to mention a couple, have taken note of the blueprint Zynga had created, and they have infested their games with micro-transactions and paywalls, causing rage among loyal players. 

It is also an ongoing legal debate on the exposure that minors have to these mechanics and their effect on developing an addiction. You may have heard one or many stories about angry parents being surprised by digital purchases on their credit cards.

Microtransactions and DLCs in console or PC games make the initial standalone game feel incomplete by default. They force people to shell out money just to play the full game they would've purchased regularly.

Gone are the days where you paid just once for a video game. Maybe some extra downloadable content here and there. Today, big studios and publishers make money from in-game purchases, putting paywalls on features and content as you play. 

Or even just selling cosmetic items that do not affect the game, other than aesthetic. That's actually how some of the most successful games like Fortnite are free to play and make millions. 

And buying cosmetic items in a game it's okay, I guess. If you want the cows on your farm to be pink or your Fortnite character to have an exclusive parachute, you are free to pay for it or not. You can still enjoy the game for free without these customizations.

But other purchases allow players to get an edge and do things like skip waiting times to achieve goals, level up, or get superior equipment for the game. 


Pay-to-win and gamble mechanics


To some extent, Zynga successfully introduced the infamous idea of pay-to-win on video games. Game mechanics like the 'energy points' that you can find in countless games today, mostly mobile, come from the Farmville model.

The logic of these 'energy points' is that your actions in the game cost points, so you consume them as you play and eventually spend them all. When you're out of points, you need to wait a particular time before you can perform those actions again. 

The more you get into the game, the more time the energy points take to replenish. Naturally, this gives you more anxiety to keep progressing and ultimately getting you to pay to keep playing. 

Farmville's mystery items were probably the incursion of randomized rewards, which have evolved into the infamous loot boxes present in all kinds of games now. 

With these loot boxes, players pay for a roll of dices and hope to get the item they want from the box, very much like a slot machine. But of course, just like in slot machines, most of the time, players get an item they didn't want or even a repeated one.

Farmville's game design consisted of these looped cycles of reward and punishment that ultimately hit right on the player's serotonin receptors and got them hooked. We'll not get into the psychology of addiction, but the game had it and created a blueprint to monetize it.

Mark Pincus himself had told how he was obsessed with an online game named Rise of Nations by the time his third startup had failed. Before creating Zynga, he spent hours playing this game. He remembers how online players were ruthless and would crush him only after a few minutes of playing. 

Of course, that is frustrating, and it got Pincus thinking he would even pay to beat them. And I guess that was the lightbulb moment that eventually evolved into this new business model in video games. 

Talk about frustrating… Has it ever happened to you that you subscribe for a recurring payment and totally forget about it? If the answer is yes, we have the solution for you: Recurring! Recurring keeps track of your company and personal expenses. It will save you money by staying on top of your essentials while you keep those virtual carrots healthy and beautiful. Sign up for early access with the link in the description. 

So what do you think about these types of games? Do you like paying for a game as you progress and for getting custom items? Or do you miss the old days of just paying for it and enjoying it in full for one price? Catch you on the next one.