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Six secrets of Farmville’s success – and 33 million people agree

By on September 4, 2009

Farmville may be the fastest growing Facebook game ever. It was only released in July and in August, over 33 million people played it. What’s the secret of its success?

Sponsored link: Learn inside secrets for Farmville success at FarmvilleMillionaire.com

Maybe it’s just because it’s summer, but we seem to have got farming on our brains. Look at the top 25 games on Facebook in August.

Top 25 Games on Facebook - August 2009

That’s four farming games in the top 25, with Farmville at #1 and Farmtown at #3. Farmville is only two months old, but it had 33 million unique players in August.

Yes, you read that right. 33 million players.

According to ComScore (via TechCrunch), Facebook had 340 million unique visitors in June (although Facebook only acknowledges 250 millon), which means that around 10% of all Facebook users played Farmville last month.

That’s a phenomenal success. I argued in July that Zynga may have overtaken Yahoo! Games to be the largest games “site” on the Internet. With this latest performance, I think that there can be no doubt that Zynga has claimed that crown.

The six secrets of Farmville’s success

Farmville came out at around the same time as Playfish’s Country Story which, while doing well, has only achieved 4 million users, 16% of the size of Farmville’s playerbase. Farmville has got six key elements absolutely nailed, and it’s reaping the rewards of its clever, viral design. So what are they?

1. The joy (and shame) of gifting

Gifting was one of Facebook’s earliest memes. When Facebook first emerged, it was about “poking” your friends and giving them virtual beers or dogs.

Zynga has cleverly picked up on this. When you visit your farm, the first screen you see is not a picture of your farm, but a list of gifts that you can give your friends. In many games, this screen would say “invite your friends to play this game”, a thinly-veiled attempt to get you to spam your mates. Zynga turns this on your head by asking you to send them a gift.

Gifting is particularly clever because it evokes an ancient anthropological need that is common to almost all cultures: the need for reciprocity. If someone gives you a gift, you have to reciprocate. It might be writing a thank you card, or getting your round of beers in, or taking a bottle of wine to a dinner party. Across all cultures, there has to be an “exchange” of gifts.

So if someone sends me enough Farmville gifts (and the default message asks me to send a gift back, to press the point), I’ll feel honour-bound to give them one back.

Much better than spam.

2. Farmville gifts have value

The objective of Farmville is to build a thriving farm. You spend money to dig plots, plant crops, buy animals and plant orchards.

Trees and animals are expensive. They look pretty but it’s hard to justify the investment compared with growing strawberries. But look! Your friends are sending you all these expensive trees and valuable animals. Aren’t your friends thoughtful?

Unlike the original virtual beer or birthday cakes, gifts from my friends in Farmville enhance my enjoyment of the game. In fact, the more gifts I receive, the better my farm looks and the more fun I have. So it is in my interest to:

  • Invite as many of my friends into the game as possible, so they give me presents
  • Give them all presents as often as I can so that they give me a present back

That’s viral marketing at its most brilliant.

3. Farmville gifts cost me nothing

Here’s where Zynga departs from the real world: sending a gift costs me zilch. I can only send them sporadically (I think it’s once a day), but it costs me nothing more than the time it takes to select an avocado tree and the friends I want to send it to. My cash reserves stay the same, but I have just asked a dozen people to send me something worth real value. Aren’t Farmville gifts wonderful?

4. Farmville doesn’t really bother with levels

There are levels in Farmville: you can’t buy certain crops or a combine harvester until you reach a certain level. But the real limitation is cash. And you can get more cash by playing more often. (In contrast, Playfish’s Country Story, which I generally prefer, has pretty strict limitations by what level you are, and you don’t level up very fast). So the size of my farm is dependent more on how many friends I have who are sending me gifts and how often I play. This makes it very easy for me to keep coming back to Farmville.

5. Choosing what crops to plant matters

Strawberries grow very fast in Farmville-land. Only four hours in fact (whereas wheat takes three days). But there is a quid pro quo. Strawberries wither and rot quickly too. If I don’t get back in time to harvest them quickly, then all my work goes to waste. So as well as choosing crops based on their in-game value, I choose them based on when I next expect to play. I vary them, so that I have fast-growing and slow-growing crops, because that way there is something to do every time I visit my farm.

In other words, I control my own gameplay experience which makes me feel a sense of ownership of my farm, and means that I want to return to check on it often.

6. If you don’t return frequently, your crops wither and die

With Country Story, you have to visit frequently to water your crops. If you don’t, they “pause” their growth, and won’t start again until you water them.

Farmville is harsh. Fail to harvest their crops and they rot. Gone. Money down the drain.

So you have to visit regularly, just to make sure that the game doesn’t punish you.

The moral of the story

There are two things that matter to making your social game a success: getting users to return frequently (stickiness) and getting users to invite their friends (virality).

Farmville has achieved this, and has 33 million users to prove it.

Sponsored link: Looking for Farmville secrets? Find them at FarmvilleMillionaire.com

About Nicholas Lovell

Nicholas is the founder of Gamesbrief, a blog dedicated to the business of games. It aims to be informative, authoritative and above all helpful to developers grappling with business strategy. He is the author of a growing list of books about making money in the games industry and other digital media, including How to Publish a Game and Design Rules for Free-to-Play Games, and Penguin-published title The Curve: thecurveonline.com