How a Cute Facebook Game Shaped the Modern Internet

<span>“Viscerally satisfying” … a FarmVille player in 2008.</span><span>Photo: David J Green/Lifestyle/Alamy</span>” src=”–/YXBwaWQ9aGlnaGxhbmRlcjt3PTk2MDtoPTU3Ng–/″ data-src=”–/YXBwaWQ9aGlnaGxhbmRlcjt3PTk2MDtoPTU3Ng–/″/></div>
<p><figcaption class=“Viscerally satisfying” … a FarmVille player in 2008.Photo: David J Green/Lifestyle/Alamy

Facebook users of a certain age may recall a particularly abandoned farm animal that popped up in their feeds during the platform’s heyday. The lonely cow would wander into FarmVille players’ pastures, frowning and eyes glistening with tears. “She’s feeling really sad and needs a new home,” read an accompanying caption, asking you to adopt the cow or ask your friends for help. Ignore the cow’s plea, and she’d presumably be left friendless and without food. Message your friends about it, and you’d be accelerating the spread of one of the biggest online crazes of the 2010s.

FarmVille, launched 15 years ago, was an instant phenomenon. More than 18,000 players tried it on its first day, rising to 1 million by its fourth day. At its peak in 2010, more than 80 million users logged on each month to plant crops, tend to animals, and harvest goods for coins to spend on decorations. Celebrities expressed their obsession, McDonald’s created a farm for a promotion, and long before any artists were releasing music on Fortnite, Lady Gaga debuted songs from her second album on the cartoon farm sim. Not bad for a game that took five weeks to put together.

In 2009, developer Zynga had already established itself as a forerunner in social media games when four friends from the University of Illinois pitched their plans for a farming sim. It was a hastily thrown together reimagining of a failed browser game they’d made to mimic The Sims, but Zynga was so impressed that it bought the technology, hired the foursome, and paired them with a few internal developers. Zynga quickly pushed FarmVille out the door.

“Facebook exploded in popularity and engagement in a way that was new at the time,” says former Zynga product director Jon Tien. FarmTown, an earlier farming sim from another studio with a similarly cartoony look and design, already had 1 million daily active users on the platform. And while Facebook had previously approached game studios half-heartedly, it told Zynga that it would soon give outside developers access to user data, friends lists and news feeds.

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

Features like the lone cow, which allowed players to push their friends with requests to grow their farm, became central to the experience, flooding Facebook with messages and notifications promoting FarmVille to the masses. Such viral mechanics turned the game into “a conversation piece that was almost like a meme,” says former Zynga vice president and general manager Roy Sehgal. “That watercooler effect made you want to join in because you saw your friends playing.”

And once you were in, it was hard to get out. For every crop you planted, you had to come back hours later at a set time to harvest it. If you left it unattended for too long, it would wither and die. “The idea is that the player makes a deal for themselves,” says FarmVille co-creator and lead developer Amitt Mahajan. “That’s ultimately what keeps people coming back every day.”

As a result, Tien says, the game became a commitment that players felt they had to fulfill. “We all make ever-growing lists of things to do and struggle to complete them in the time we want,” he says. “There’s something incredibly satisfying about crossing things off your list, and playing FarmVille was a way for people to tap into that.”

New features and content were added multiple times a week to keep players engaged, but the real magic happened behind the scenes with Zynga’s internal data analytics tool, ZTrack. Capable of monitoring the most granular player actions—from what features they used, to how long they used them, all the way down to where on the screen they clicked—the goal was to create a holistic, ever-evolving, data-driven picture of player interests.

“We had hundreds, if not thousands, of dashboards and experiments running at any given time,” Tien says. “We could see every core metric at five-minute slices. We could see if new features were having an impact right after they were released.”

Metric-based design is now standard across social media platforms, apps, online retailers and digital services. Reliance on big data to predict consumer behavior has powered everything from Google’s advertising empire to Cambridge Analytica’s political consulting. But in 2009, no one was doing it like FarmVille.

Zynga’s dirty little secret is that of its five company values, none is more important than metrics

Zynga Co-Founder Andrew Trader

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

ZTrack became the backbone of FarmVille. Features were repeatedly tested, analyzed, and optimized, with the results determining what would be rolled out, their monetization options, and how they would be integrated to maximize player retention.

“The dirty little secret of Zynga is that of the five company values, there is none 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 took it a step further when he was quoted in 2010: “[Zynga is] an analytics company posing as a gaming company.”

Related: How FarmVille and Facebook Helped Cultivate a New Audience for Gaming | John Naughton

As with most Facebook apps of the time, users could only play FarmVille by giving Zynga permission to collect their personal Facebook data. But details about exactly what data would be shared were relegated to the fine print of a clickable screen that most users would usually ignore. “We didn’t really know as an audience, and certainly government policymakers didn’t really know, the extent of [online data harvesting],” says Florence Chee, an associate professor in the School of Communication at Loyola University Chicago. But since then, she says, “we’ve seen the potential harm that comes from unchecked data extraction.” Zynga was caught in 2010 sharing its players’ personal data with advertisers and online data brokers.

The success that FarmVille’s data-driven design brought didn’t last long. Players dropped away from the game in the years that followed, Zynga turned its attention to a less popular sequel, and Facebook eventually revoked the developer access the game had relied on for its early virality. When Adobe ended support for Flash, the software FarmVille was built on, in 2020, the game was unceremoniously taken offline.

But Zynga would go on to have more successes: Words with Friends, mobile racing game CSR Racing, Draw Something and a suite of slots games, all of which leveraged player data to maximize engagement. Zynga still makes data-driven, aggressively monetized games for phones, under the umbrella of Take-Two Interactive, which it bought for $12.7bn (£9.4bn) in 2022.

For Chee, FarmVille was a Silicon Valley entrepreneur’s dream—and a product of its time. “Fast forward to today, and we don’t have the same social phenomenon with Facebook that we had in 2009,” she says. “That was a really special time for a game like FarmVille to come out, where recommendation engines and algorithms were in exactly the right place.”

Leave a Comment