Gaming

FarmVille at 15: how a cutesy Facebook game shaped the modern internet


Facebook users of a certain age may remember a particularly forlorn farm animal popping up in their feeds during the platform’s heyday. The lonely cow would wander into FarmVille players’ pastures with its face twisted into a frown and its eyes shimmering with tears. “She feels very sad and needs a new home,” an accompanying caption read, asking you to adopt the cow or message your friends for help. Ignore the cow’s plea and it would presumably be left friendless and foodless. Message your friends about it, and you’d be accelerating the spread of one of the biggest online crazes of the 2010s.

Released 15 years ago, FarmVille was nothing short of a phenomenon. More than 18,000 players gave it a go on its first day, rising to 1 million by its fourth. At its peak in 2010, more than 80 million users logged in monthly to plant crops, tend animals and harvest goods for coins to spend on decorations. Celebrities professed their obsession, McDonald’s created a farm for a promotion, and long before artists released music on Fortnite, Lady Gaga debuted songs from her sophomore album through the cartoon farm sim. Not bad for a game that was stitched together in five weeks.

By 2009, developer Zynga had already established itself as a forerunner of social media games when four friends from the University of Illinois presented their plans for a farming sim. It was a hastily put together reimagining of a failed browser game they had made to ape The Sims, but Zynga was sufficiently impressed that it bought the tech, hired the foursome and paired them with a few in-house developers. Zynga pushed FarmVille out of the door fast.

The FarmVille world … Photograph: PhotoEdit/Alamy

“Facebook was exploding in popularity and engagement in a way that was novel at the time,” says former Zynga director of product Jon Tien. FarmTown – an earlier farm sim from a different studio that had a similar cartoonish look and design – had already hit 1 million daily active users on the platform. And while Facebook had half-heartedly courted game studios before, it told Zynga it would soon be granting third-party developers access to user data, friends’ lists, and news feeds.

“They opened up their platform for app developers like Zynga in such a way that we could create a mostly symbiotic relationship,” says Tien. “Facebook gave Zynga access to a large engaged audience, while Zynga gave users of Facebook more to do on the platform.”

Features such as the lonely cow, which let players nudge their friends with requests to grow their farm, became central to the experience, flooding Facebook with posts and notifications advertising FarmVille to the masses. Such viral mechanics turned the game “into a topic of conversation akin to a meme,” says former Zynga vice president and general manager Roy Sehgal. “This watercooler effect made you want to join in because you saw your friends playing.”

And once you were in, it was difficult to get out. For every crop you planted, you’d need to return at a set time hours later to harvest it. If you left it unattended for too long, it would wither and die. “The idea is the player is creating an appointment for themselves,” says FarmVille co-creator and lead developer Amitt Mahajan. “That ends up being the reason people come back every day.”

As a result, Tien says, the game became a commitment that players felt they had to make good on. “We all make ever-growing lists of things we need to do and struggle to complete them in the time we’d like,” he says. “Checking things off your list is viscerally satisfying, and playing FarmVille was a way for people to lean into that.”

New features and content were added several times a week to keep players engaged, but the real magic happened behind the scenes with Zynga’s in-house data analytics tool ZTrack. Capable of monitoring the most granular player actions – from what features they used, to how long they spent using them, and right down to where they clicked on the screen – it was intended to build a total, ever-evolving, data-driven picture of player interests.

“We had hundreds if not thousands of dashboards and experiments running at any given time,” says Tien. “We could see any core metric on five-minute slices. We could see if new feature releases were impactful effectively immediately after release.”

Metric-based design is standard today across social media platforms, apps, online retailers and digital services. The belief in big data to predict consumer behaviour has underpinned everything from Google’s ad empire to Cambridge Analytica’s political consulting. But in 2009, no one was doing it like FarmVille.

“Zynga’s approach to analytics for their games inspired the entire digital analytics industry,” says Jeffrey Wang, co-founder and chief architect at Amplitude, an analytics platform. “Amplitude’s earliest customers were ex-Zynga product managers who started their own companies and were looking for tools comparable to ZTrack. At the time, there was nothing even close.”

ZTrack became FarmVille’s backbone. Features would be tested, analysed, and optimised repeatedly, with the results determining what would be rolled out, their monetisation options, and how they’d be integrated to maximise player retention.

“The dirty little secret of Zynga is, of the five corporate values, none is more important than metrics,” Zynga co-founder Andrew Trader said in a speech at the University of Pennsylvania. Former Zynga vice president of growth, analytics and platform technologies Ken Rudin went one further when he was quoted in 2010: “[Zynga is] an analytics company masquerading as a games company.”

As with most Facebook apps of the time, users could only play FarmVille by granting Zynga permission to collect their personal Facebook data. But details of exactly what data would be shared was relegated to the fine print of a click-through screen that most users would habitually ignore. “We didn’t really know as a public, and certainly government policymakers didn’t really know, the extent of [online data harvesting],” says Florence Chee, associate professor of the School of Communication at Loyola University Chicago. But, she says, we’ve since “seen the possible harms that result from unfettered data extraction.” Zynga was found in 2010 to be sharing the personal data of its players with advertisers and online data brokers.

The success bought by Farmville’s data-led design didn’t last for long. Players peeled off from the game in the years that followed, Zynga turned its attention to a less popular sequel, and Facebook eventually revoked the developer access on which the game had relied for its early virality. When Adobe stopped supporting Flash, the software on which FarmVille was built, in 2020, the game was unceremoniously taken offline.

But more Zynga successes would follow: Words with Friends, mobile racing game CSR Racing, Draw Something, and a suite of slot-machine games, all using player data to maximise engagement. Zynga is still making data-driven, aggressively monetised games for phones, under the umbrella of Take-Two Interactive, which bought the company for $12.7bn (£9.4bn) in 2022.

For Chee, FarmVille was a Silicon Valley entrepreneur’s dream – and firmly a product of its time. “If you fast forward to today, we don’t have nearly the same social phenomenon going on with Facebook as we did in 2009,” she says. “That was a very particular time for a game like FarmVille to come out, where recommender systems and algorithms were just in the right place.”



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