Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Lighthouse Cove, Where the Rich get Richer and the Poor Stay Poor

The new Lighthouse Cove option in FarmVille has a great deal to offer but unfortunately, it is very much slanted towards players who can afford to spend Premium Cash on the game.

Unlike the English Countryside (which appears to have disappeared as an option for new players), the Lighthouse Cove can be accesssed by players at low levels, where the English Countryside was unlocked previously only when players reached Level 20.

The Lighthouse Cove, advertised as a 'Fall Getaway', is a charming cove featuring New England landscapes and trees clad in autumn foliage. It is very limited initially in terms of farming, allowing players to plow a maximum of 35 plots.

It is here that the new Cove demonstrates its capitalist nature. The sole option to expand is through a payment in Premium Cash, aka FarmVille Cash. For 30 FV Cash, a player can expand the Cove to allow the tilling of a maximum of 45 squares. In other words, 30 FV Cash buys a player only an additional 10 squares of tillable soil.

On the other hand, the Quests that are initiated when the player arrives in Lighthouse Cove follow the traditional FarmVille pattern, in rewards of vital farming items including all three regular farming vehicles. If a player is patient and goes through the entire Quest sequence, he/she will receive a Tractor, a Seeder and Harvester by the end as well as a Restaurant where new Recipes can be made.

Lighthouse Cove is unique in offering players 'Bonus Quests' when he/she completes the regular Quests early. The Bonus Quests allow a week for completion and then are supplanted by a new series of Quests.

Another interesting aspect of Lighthouse Cove is that the Crops available there can be used in new Recipes both on the Home Farm and in the English Countryside. It therefore gives a player a wide variety of new Recipes to complete and master.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

An Open Letter to Zynga

For a number of years, I have written strategy guides for games, specialising in Harvest Moon and Rune Factory, series that were produced for consoles and handheld systems. At the prompting of some of my fans, I became involved with Farmville and have been playing it now for over a year. More recently, again at the prompting of friends and fans of my game guides, I began to play CityVille. Although these games share some of the characteristics that endeared Harvest Moon and Rune Factory to me, there are some essential differences that are both positive and negative.

Positive aspects of games that use Facebook as a platform include the fact that the games are free to all players and the ability to change and enlarge the scope of any game as well as the ability to introduce new items and options. The positive aspects of this are obvious. The negative aspects only become apparent over the course of time.

Although Facebook games generally advertise themselves as 'free', a player has the opportunity to purchase items that require a currency that for the most part must be bought using real money. Often these items either are Limited Editions that are time-restricted. In other words, a player will have a limited amount of time to purchase them before the items disappear from the Marketplace. There is nothing wrong with the general principle of offering players special items of this sort. What is unethical, in my view, is the way Zynga has increased the number of Limited Editions, linking them to new options that bombard the player with invitations to purchase. Special 'sales' both of FarmVille Cash/CityVille Cash and Limited Edition items likewise bombard the player almost every time he/she logs into the game.

It can be argued that a player has an opportunity to demonstrate his/her support of a 'free' game by investing a little real money in it. After all, a console or handheld game can cost between $25.00 to $50.00. The difference, of course, is that, once purchased, a handheld or console game is complete and all new options and items are included, even if they must be 'unlocked' by the player's progress and advances in the game.

When I began to play FarmVille, it resembled traditional console and handheld games insofar as many of the options required a certain degree of progress in the game rather than being options and items that had to be purchased using real cash within a limited time period. Unfortunately, this has changed in the course of the past year. There is a certain appearance of desperation and greed in the manner in which both FarmVille and CityVille operate now and it may lead ultimately to the downfall of Zynga as a successful competitor in the world of Facebook.

Many players, including myself, perceived Facebook games such as FarmVille as a haven and sanctuary of peace, a place where one could escape the pressures and problems of the real world. Unfortunately, when the game itself places pressure on the player to use real money to purchase items and options before they disappear, the game becomes far less attractive, even when the player could afford to invest the money in the game. When the player cannot afford to invest limitless sums of real money, the game becomes frustrating and the endless stream of offers become rather unpleasant.

Let me use the example of a player who has been using my Harvest Moon and Rune Factory guides for years and who is an avid fan of those series. After a year on Facebook, she recently began to play CityVille. Within a matter of weeks, I received an email from her to the effect that she no longer would be playing the game as it 'cost too much money'. Note that the game itself remains free and in fact, in the original vision of the game, Quests are the method by which most items are unlocked. It is only because of the constant, unending stream of special offers and sales that this player was induced to spend more real money than she ever envisioned or intended.

Zynga may argue that no one 'puts a gun to your head' to force players to invest real money in FarmVille or CityVille. On the other hand, players are extremely susceptible to pressure to purchase 'premium' items when those items are time-restricted. This may benefit Zynga significantly at the start, but ultimately many players will do what my friend did.

About a fortnight after the first email, during which period my friend continued to play CityVille, after avowing her intention to end her participation, I received the following email:

'Just thought I should let you know I have had to Block CityVille from my computer. I was addicted and it was costing me too much money for this economy. I'm going through withdrawal now.
I did love playing!!!'

This player is not the only one who either has blocked the game or simply refuses to log into the game after spending far more money than any Harvest Moon or Rune Factory game would cost. Investment in Facebook games is a very slippery slope with almost imperceptible descent at times. For example, FarmVille recently has begun to offer a 'free gift' of a Limited Edition item when one purchases ANY amount of FarmVille Cash, including the purchase of a dollar's worth of FV Cash. These items now consist primarily of rare Zoo Animals for the new Zoo option. I have no doubt that many players who previously resisted the temptation to purchase FV Cash have been drawn into the investment by these seemingly benign and small purchase options.

The problem here is that the offers continue to proliferate and, combined with the frequent sales that offer FV Cash at a discount, can lead to rather excessive spending on the part of players who never intended to allocate a significant part of their 'entertainment budget' on Facebook games.

One can justify a certain amount of spending by comparing it with the vices of others. When one does not smoke or drink and, if disabled, is unable to go out to dinner or to the cinema frequently, one could argue that an investment even of $20.00 in a Facebook game is not excessive. It may not be excessive, but can one afford it? The answer in many cases, is negative. Furthermore, I believe that Zynga has a moral duty not to engage its loyal fans in this sort of constant marketing pressure.

Players of Facebook games often fill the gaps in tneir real lives with the small pleasures found in landscaping their virtual lands or making progress in the game. These games, however, should be a blessing and not a curse. Few players have unlimited real resources to place at the disposal of Zynga. Ultimately they, like the player who solved her problem by blocking CityVille, will reject the games completely in favour of console or handheld games that hold equal pleasure and enjoyment without the constant pressure to SPEND, SPEND, SPEND.

The world is experiencing an economic recession of sorts and, while virtual purchases can act as a fulfilling substitute for real purchases, this is not true when the virtual items require significant investment of real money that is needed to LIVE in the real world.

I continue to play FarmVille and CityVille regularly. While I love the themes and Limited Editions, as well as welcoming sales of FV Cash and CityVille Cash, realistically I am not in a position to make any significant investments in these games. I do believe that I have exhibited my support of these games in the past.

Why do the themes have to be SO limited in terms of time? Why can't Zynga offer a new theme every two months rather than every week or fortnight? Why are Limited Editions in CityVille available only for 5 days? That sort of time limit is unconscionable, in my view.

I urge any players who agree with this 'open letter' to add their comments and urge Zynga to give serious consideration to these issues. Thank you.

Freyashawk de Conde