In early 2009, when Facebook was still trying to swallow as much of the internet as possible, online gaming was not yet the behemoth they wanted to be.
Then, in June, came Farmville. If you were not among the tens of millions of people who cultivated a cartoon earth on Facebook every day, and gathered an endless stream of cute collectibles, you still got big hugs and hugs from your friends and asked for help. The game either drew Facebook users into an obsession or constantly reminded them that they were missing one.
The Flash-based game created by Zynga, designed to be played on Facebook, ends on Thursday ̵
At its peak, the game had 32 million active users daily and nearly 85 million players everywhere. It helped transform Facebook from a place you went to check in for updates – mostly in text form – from friends and family to a time-consuming destination.
“We thought of it as this new dimension of the social, not just a way to get games to people,” said Mark Pincus, Zynga’s CEO at the time and now chairman. “I thought: ‘People just hang out on these social networks like Facebook, and I want to give them something to do together.’ ‘
This was achieved in part by pulling players into loops that were difficult to pull off. If you did not check in every day, your crops would wither and die; some players would sound the alarm so they would not forget it. If you needed help, you could spend real money or send requests to your Facebook friends – a source of annoyance to non-players who were besieged with alerts and updates in their news feeds.
Ian Bogost, a game designer and professor at Georgia Tech, said that the behavior FarmVille normalized had made it a pace for the Internet economy in the 2010s.
He did not mean it as praise.
The game encouraged people to bring in friends as resources for both themselves and the service they used, Bogost said. It garnered attention and encouraged interaction loops in a way that is now being emulated by everything from Instagram to QAnon, he said.
“The internet itself is this bazaar of obsessive worlds where the goal is to bring you back to it to do what it offers, to get attention and show ads against it or otherwise gain value from that activity,” he said.
While other games had tried many of the same tactics – Mafia Wars was Zynga’s best hit at the time – FarmVille was the first to become a common phenomenon. Mr. Pincus said that he often used to have dinner with Mark Zuckerberg, one of the founders of Facebook, and that in early 2009 he had been told that the platform would soon allow games to be posted on a user’s news feed. He said Zuckerberg told him that Zynga would flood the zone with new games, and that Facebook would sort out those who reasoned.
Although agriculture was far from a hot gaming genre at the time, Mr. Pincus saw it as a relaxing activity that would appeal to a wide audience, especially among adults and women who had never spent hundreds of dollars on a console like the Xbox 360. PlayStation 3 or Nintendo Wii. It would be a preview of the mobile gaming market that is about to explode, with casual gamers shifting away from the desktop when smartphones took hold.
The gaming industry has always been cool for Farmville, despite its success. A Zynga leader was arrogant when he accepted an award at the Game Developers Conference in 2010, and Mr. Pincus said he had had trouble recruiting developers, who thought peers would not respect them for working on the game.
In 2010, Farmville magazine called it one of “The 50 Worst Inventions,” acknowledging how irresistible it was, but calling it “hardly a game.”
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For many, the game will be remembered more for its presence in people’s news feeds than for the game itself. Facebook was well aware of the complaints.
After hearing from non-players that the game was spammy, Facebook limited the amount of games that could be posted to news feeds and send alerts. Facebook now aims to send fewer alerts only when they are more likely to have an impact, said Vivek Sharma, Facebook vice president and head of gaming.
He credited FarmVille for much of the emergence of social gaming and said that the “saga” over excessive warning had taught Facebook some important lessons.
“I think people started figuring out some deeper behavioral things that needed to be adjusted for the applications to be self-supporting and healthy,” he said. “And I think part of that is this idea that people actually have a limit, and that the limit changes over time.”
Although people were annoyed by the alerts, there is little doubt that they worked. Scott Koenigsberg, product director at Zynga, noted that the requests were sent by players who chose to send them.
“Everyone saw a ‘lonely cow’ warning at one time or another, but they were all shared by the friends who played the game,” he said.
Mia Consalvo, professor of game studies and design at Concordia University in Canada, was among those who saw FarmVille constantly in front of her.
“When you log on to Facebook, it’s like, ‘Oh, 12 of my friends need help,'” she said.
She asked how social the game actually was, arguing that it did not create deep or lasting interactions.
“The game itself does not promote a conversation between you and your friends, or encourage you to spend time together in the game area,” she said. “It’s really just a mechanic clicking a button.”
But those who went back every day said that it had kept them in touch with friends and acquaintances and given them something to talk about.
Maurie Sherman, 42, a radio producer in Toronto, said he and a receptionist had played together and that he had gone to her desk daily to talk about it. “She wanted to tell me about the pink cow she got,” he said.
He enjoyed it as an escape, a virtual stress ball and a calming activity that would let his mind wander. He said he had spent more than $ 1,000 – that’s real money – over the years to improve his farm or to save time.
And he was completely guilty of sending the alerts, he said – but they always succeeded in getting him the help he wanted.
“There are people who want to calm you down or make you unfriendly just because they were tired of hearing that you needed help with your cows,” he said.
Jaime Tracy, 59, of Lancaster, Pa., Said she had been “one of the annoying people” who often asked for help from friends and relatives had asked her to turn it off.
But she loved the game, which she saw as a form of meditation, and played for more than five years. With her children growing out of the house, “I had nothing else to do,” she said.
“You can just turn your mind off and plant some carrots,” she said.