Wednesday, December 5, 2012

The Fundamental Defect in Facebook Games

Back in the day, they were called 'casual gamers'.  Facebook was merely a gleam in the eye of Mark Zuckerberg then and the only games played on the computer were 'PC Games' that had to be downloaded.  AOL was famous for its lists of free games and there were other free games available for those who enjoyed a bit of gaming.  Unless an individual actively sought out a game, however, there was little to draw a non-gamer into the net.

With the explosion of the popularity of Facebook, 'casual gaming' was revolutionised.  The entire basis of Facebook as a 'social Network' worked in favour of gaming companies who wished to advertise their wares in a fashion that was tantamount to 'word of mouth'.

Facebook did not make the games.  It simply provided a platform for them.  In the beginning, there were a few farming simulation games such as Farm Town and FarmVille and battle games such as Castle Age.  The games themselves were free, but one needed to find 'friends', 'neighbours' or 'allies' if one wished to succeed.  One could play the game in a very basic fashion without having 'friends' who played but it was extremely difficult to succeed.

Success was based upon the 'help' of Facebook Friends.  These friends either had to send materials or aid to the players they knew by clicking on Wall Posts or by responding to requests that were built into the game.

It was a brilliant marketing ploy.  Any Facebook user who became involved in a Facebook game would urge Friends and Family to register for the game in order to provide essential aid.

The games themselves were fairly simple in the beginning.  Farming games basically consisted of planting, growing and harvesting Crops or harvesting products from Animals and Trees.  As the concept of Facebook gaming provded popular, more options were added to existing games and new games.  Crafting items using raw ingredients from Crops and Trees as well as Dairy Products were incorporated into Farming Simulation games.  Quests were added to these games as well.

I have been an ardent fan of complex farming simulation games such as Harvest Moon, Rune Factory and the Sims for years.  One therefore might have surmised that the more complex sophisticated games on Facebook would have appealed to me.

Unfortunately, I have found a very fundamental defect in all of the Quest-oriented Facebook Farming Simulation games.  They do NOT encourage creativity or any use of initiative.  In fact, if a player seeks to anticipate uses for items or to grow Crops and buy Animals and supplies before any Quest directs him/her to do so, the result can be very negative.

The complex games operate on the basic assumption that the player will take NO step without being directed to do so in a Quest.  It is a Pavlovian strategy in a sense.  Quests direct players to plant X number of a specific Crop, to obtain X number of specific materials and perform a specific task or tasks, awarding the player with a Reward in the form of coins, XP and often Limited Edition items when the entire sequence has been completed. 

If a Player does not wait for the Quest but uses raw ingredients to make Items on his/her own initiative, there often will not be sufficient time to replenish stocks when the Quest is announced.  Other Crops may be growing on his/her Farm and will have to be harvested before the Crops that are needed to satisfy the Quest can be planted.

Freyashawk, who has written over 250 Strategy Guides for games, most of them for Farming Simulation Games, is one of the WORST players where Facebook games are concerned because she is too accustomed to the process of independent thought.

I therefore prefer the games that do not dictate every single step that a Player must take.  Two of the older Farming Simulation games remain favourites because one can play them successfully even if one ignores the Quests.   The games I like best  that allow a Player to operate fairly well outside of the Quest structure are FarmVille and Fantasy Kingdoms.  Although both games incorporated Quests, those Quests can be ignored or followed sporadically.

The first game that made me realise how much I despised dictated actions was Frontierville.  Many Harvest Moon players raved about the game, declaring that it included 'courtship'.  I do not care for unwashed men with beards and the styles of the Frontier in any case, but the endless instructions annoyed me beyond belief.

CastleVille was released later.  That game has a medicval setting which is most appealing but it revolves as much on an endless procession of Quests as Frontierville.  I therefore found that I did not enjoy it much at all.

I try new games sometimes and usually find myself with the same sense of frustration when endless Quests and instructions seek to force me into strictly regimented gameplay.   However delightful the graphics may be or however creative some of the Quests may be, the fact that a player actually is penalised if he/she takes the initiative is depressing to me.

Two games that reminded me initially of Harvest Moon in their charming graphics were FarmVille 2 and Family Farm.  I only discovered the latter game today.  I asked a family member to start to play the game at the same time, but instructed her to perform actions strictly according to the quests.  Meanwhile, I began to play the game as I would any Harvest Moon game, planting and harvesting at will, crusing the Marketplace for new options and purchasing them.

I discovered that my progress was much slower than hers.  The Quests were delayed because I had performed different actions.  Money was in short supply because I did not have the 'Rewards' she had for obeying the game.

In short, if you wish to succeed in Facebook games, it is best to do ONLY what the game dictates that you do.  I suppose the makers of these games believe that 'casual gamer' means 'gamer without the capacity to think for himself/herself'.  If you do not mind the utter lack of creativity inherent in the Quest system, you can relax and enjoy the adventure.  If, however, you are accustomed to independence of thought and action, you will have the same problems I have had.

My one solution is to play the games that are not aggressive with Quests and to perceive online Facebook farming as a sort of Zen activity.  I create virtual farms as havens of peace and beauty.  I do not want to be forced to farm at any specific pace or to compete with other farmers.

There is another reason why I like FarmVille and Fantasy Kingdoms and am less enamoured of FarmVille 2, for example.  Although games found on Facebook tend to be 'free', there always are two forms of currency.  One is 'premium cash' and the other is currency that can be earned through the player's actions.  Inevitably, many items that one can purchase, including expansions, require the premium cash.  In FarmVille and Fantasy Kingdoms, a player will earn one unit of premium cash for every level increase.  This is fair in my view.  In FarmVille 2, on the other hand, one NEVER earns any premium cash.  One only earns coins.  If you wish to purchase Limited Edition items, you need to purchase premium cash by investing real money in the game.

Many of the newer games follow this strategy.  I think it is counterproductive actually.  I am more likely to invest real money in a game that is generous with premium cash and Limited Edition items.  I do not mind 'paying my way' but I do dislike what I consider to be undue pressure on a player to spend money in order to succeed.  

I doubt that I am in the majority, however.   For any player who likes to be told how to proceed and enjoys cute graphics, I would recommend FarmVille 2 or Family Farm.  FarmVille 2, like the original FarmVille is a game where your Crops will wither if you do not harvest them withint a specific time frame.  In Family Farm, your Crops will not wither.

Both Family Farm and FarmVille 2 have some really creative little 'events' to celebrate the Christmas season.  FarmVille 2 has had special events and quests for every holiday so far and they make up for some of the defects in the game (such as the inability to earn premium cash and the way expensive animals cease to give product when they are transformed into 'Prize' Animals.)  On Hallowe'en, day turned to night and spooky sounds accompanied harvesting and other activities related to the festival. 
Thanksgiving was particularly charming.  One built a Feast Table and then proceeded to give five Feasts.  One invited Neighbours to each of these Feasts and the Neighbours actually would arrive, seat themselves at the table and eat, then leave special gifts when they departed.  I never saw anything quite like this on any other FB game and it delighted the heart.

For Christmas, one 'builds' a Tree in FarmVille 2.  In Family Farm, one plants a seedling.  Neighbours then must visit to water it a specific number of times.  Finally, one trims the Tree by asking Neighbours for specific ornaments and decorations.

Of all the Farming simulation games, Family Farm has the most careful balance and planning.  In other games, whether the original FarmVille or FarmVille 2, Quests and requirements appear almost random.  One may be required to harvest X number of specified Crops without any use being given to them in later Quests.  In Family Farm, however, every Quest is a little tutorial that leads to a new Maker or Animal.  One is introduced to the Beehive by growing and harvesting Clover which then is fed to the Cow to allow her to produce Milk.  The Milk then is placed in a Cheese Maker.  What is really interesting about Family Farm is the diverse usage of each Maker.  One can make four or five different Cheeses in the Cheese Maker.  One can make three types of Wine in the Wine Maker and a plethora of sweeties in the Cookie Maker.  Everything can be used in some fashion.  Flowers like Carnations and Lavender are attractive to special Bees... and so on. 

The only aspect of Family Farm that really bothers me is the way one harvests 'Beef' from certain Cows.  At least they do not die or go off to the Butcher as in some of the other carnivorous Farming Simulation games, but it disturbs me a little to 'harvest' a slice of Beef from a living Animal!  Even so, it could be much worse...

FarmVille and FarmVille 2 at least have maintained a strict vegetarian outlook.  Animals are almost the Masters in the original FarmVille.  The player is called upon to facilitate THEIR social lives and romances.   I rather like that turnabout logic.  It reminds me a little of 'Animal Crossing'.

There are too many games now on Facebook even to list.  A Facebook User can try any game and then block it if he/she does not wish to have any information about it posted to his/her Wall or be bothered with requests from Neighbours.   If you wish to play games but have many Facebook friends and family who look upon gaming with disgust or contempt, you can choose how to share any Wall posts or other information about the game.  Create a gaming 'group' for your game posts if necessary.

For me, much of the pleasure in Facebook games is purely visual.  No game is the equal of Fantasy Kingdoms in constituting actual interactive art.  It remains a little gem on Facebook.  FarmVille, however, does have some very creative developers, even though it tends to overload the player with too many new options and items.  To some extent, it is a matter of personal preference.  

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