Farmville and Glitch: Exogenous and Endogenous Game Mechanics

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I'm warning you, behind the cut is a bit of an epic post.  I've been playing a game called Glitch lately, and I'm really enjoying it ... despite the fact that so many of its core game mechanics felt invasive, insidious, and irritating when I played them in FarmVille and CityVille.  I was ready for Glitch to be terrible but with high production values.  I named my character after an Italian slang phrase for "that's disgusting/that sucks", gender-bent my character as far as I could, and waded in.  What I found was a fairly charming game that takes all the mechanics that Zynga uses to manipulate its players and their friends and turns the mechanics inward, back into the game rather than out into the real world, and in so doing redeems the mechanics themselves. In simpler terms, from a game designer's perspective, Glitch is doing the good (or even Good) version of the new mechanics that we learned from FarmVille.

Zynga's games are notoriously focused on two things - virality and monetization - pushing the player to spend money to finish getting that thing that they started.  Zynga games will do anything toward those ends, and in fact will do nothing that does *not* serve either of them.  In the process, they introduced us to a few mechanics that hadn't been used much before.  Glitch uses many of those same ideas, but keeps them within the game -- the activities are performed by the character, rather than the player, and that makes a world of difference.

One of the most notorious features of FarmVille is the Energy Meter.  As you play the game, you have a set number of actions that you can take before running out of energy, and you must wait real time to get more energy ... or pay real money, or beg your friends to send you free energy.  It is a hard "gate" to participating in the game, and the solutions reach out of the game - money from you as a person or requests from you as a person to your real-life friends.  As in a coin-op arcade, you must pay to keep playing the game, that's not objectionable; the odious particular comes in how the game prompts you to turn your friends' attention into quarters for you.  And that energy will run out pretty quickly, so you really are dependent on your friends.

Glitch also uses energy, but not only does it take a pretty long time to run out, there are many in-game items that refill it.  As with Zynga's games, waiting for real time (narrativized around in-game time as 'game days') gets you a refill.  However with the slower burn and the periodic refill, the effect is that if you spend a portion of your actions working toward getting food or working toward energy production, you can stay in energy indefinitely.  Also, though your friends can give you energy (as food items) in Glitch, a) there is no way to beg them for it, especially if they are outside the game, and b) if they give it to you, it comes out of their supply (in FV it is free).  

Let me repeat that for the sake of the next point: if your friend isn't playing Glitch right then, there is no way to beg them through the game. There is also no way at present to purchase energy directly with real money.  By tying the energy to objects which exist exclusively in-world, are producible in-world, and cannot be created by external activity, food and energy not only contributes to the integrity of the game world rather than kicking you out of it, it becomes part of your activity within the game.  You can specialize in different ways of producing energy-bearing items.  It becomes a *game* mechanic rather than a social/interpersonal mechanic.  

Then there's recruitment-for-progress.  Zynga's games place another hard gate on progress within the game around recruiting friends.  In FarmVille, you need a minimum of friends within the game to pass certain levels, to get certain items that are only obtainable from other people, and to make your farm larger.  You cannot get very far without recruiting for the game, no matter how kindly your in-game friends are to you.  Those 'neighbors' can be drawn from people that you don't know, but you must have them.  In Glitch, though, you are never baldly required to have connections.  There are optional missions that require you to interact with other players, but you don't have to connect to them in a way that requires approval, it's all in-game interaction.  You are rewarded for them with badges, but even those rewards pass most of Hecker's tests by being descriptive rather than prescriptive (not announced ahead of time), by being absolute rather than relative, by staying within the world, and by being optional/small.  Personally, I connected soon to friends who were already in the game (and those were the only options given to me, I couldn't reach out to new).  I only connected to people I didn't know once I'd done some altruistic actions in-game, whereupon passersby spontaneously added me.  Again, recruitment remains within the game, and you're not pushed to reach out.  This might just be during the game's beta period, but I like it and hope it continues.

Glitch even pulls messaging other people into the game.  Where FarmVille asks you once every 1-3 minutes whether you'd like to let your friends know about something (and lets you give them free items as you do), you have to work to send notes to other players in Glitch.  After the first tutorial message, you need to find an object to even send a message to a friend, and then you need to spend an in-game currency as postage ... and you still have to wait time for them to receive the missive.  This is the very opposite of Facebook spam; it's enough of a hurdle that it prompts you to go outside the game to another communication system.  As you choose what protocol to use to chat, your communication falls under the normal social mores for that communication.  It's not the game deciding what you do with your friend, reducing your contact to mercenary demands; you decide in every way how to communicate.  The effect of this is again to sharply delineate between activities that you undertake as a player and those your character undertakes within the world, and to thereby let the rules for each context operate cleanly.

Both FarmVille and Glitch have what has come to be called an 'appointment mechanic', but the ways in which they function could hardly be less similar.  FarmVille's entire game is wrapped around a variety of appointments, which it asks you to set for yourself, presumably so that you can meet the commitments.  Crops take time to grow, and the game uses that to get you to come back later rather than abandoning the game.  Furthermore, if you don't meet your commitment by taking too long to return, you'll find your crops dead, your investment in them wasted. In this way, the game colonizes your time as well as your money.

The appointment mechanic in Glitch is in its skill system, and so much less punitive it is barely an appointment.  Skills take time to learn, real-world time.  When the time has elapsed, your character has the skill, and you need to go in and set a new skill to learn.  But you don't have to set a new skill, and if it takes you three days to come back, well, that is potential skill-building time lost but no more. Generally, you will spend some of the wait-time fulfilling quests related to the skill you just learned.  The commitment is an optimization strategy, not a requirement for play, and that is underscored by making even the skills be fairly optional.  Skills just tighten up your play experience or extend it into new areas, they are not a requirement for existing in the world. You'll be reminded by email when you've finished a skill, but that's it.

Both games have land and an avatar that is yours and which you customize.  In both, you can even establish a farm that gives you resources on a schedule, and you can visit others' farms.  In FarmVille, there is a heavy emphasis on vanity or cosmetic customization.  Many if not most of the items in the game are not functional, they are cosmetic.  Many of the items even work against your progress in the game by taking land that could be "productive".  I think there are larger points that could be made about blurring the line between purchases for utility and purchases for vanity, but it is enough to note that the game revolves around customization and that extensive customization comes at the cost of functionality, driving players who are engaged enough to care further into real-world money to satisfy their desire to play.

Glitch, on the other hand, separates customization from functionality entirely.  Your farm in the game can barely be customized in a personal or vanity-focused way.  Choices you make on your plot of land and what appears there are strictly on what you want to have producing for you, what you want to maintain, and it is hard for others to even see it.  It's hard to see a real name in the game.  And then on the other side of the cost divide, customization of the sort that you can show off is about 80% dependent on real-world money.  Outfits for your avatar are divided into subscriber-only and free.  What this means is that there is another sharp divide.  Everything in the game is functional, and cannot be bought for real-world money; real money contributes almost exclusively to your avatar's non-functional appearance.

It is worth a moment's attention on Glitch's payment options, which are unusually clear in their focus.  All gameplay, everything within the game, is free.  You can play forever for free, and nothing functional is sealed away from you.  Payment gives you a bunch of stuff that applies fairly exclusively to you as a player rather than you as a character within the world.  A subscription gets you access to those vanity avatar items, a monthly allowance that can only be spent on them, a monthly allowance of teleports that save you-as-player real-world time walking through the world, and votes in player community referenda.  These are all things that help you as a player, and don't make sense in-world to you-as-character.

Finally, everything within Glitch is contextualized. There is a narrative, set in a world, the world has a geography, and everything has an explanation, whimsical though the explanations may be.  Tutorials are provided by a pet rock that guides you and gives you quests.  Rewards don't come from the game, they're given by that pet rock.  Advancement is judged by "giants" that also have personality, a motive, and which give your character a reason to be doing what you're doing.  When dialogs come up in discussion with the pet rock, the buttons for going to the next message have dialog "from your character", which gives your character a world-consistent voice and more clearly distinguishes you (and whatever you personally would have said) from the character.  Finally, the world is whimsical.  You get grain by squeezing chickens (who backtalk you as they seem to resent being squeezed).  You may water, pet, and harvest ... bubble trees.  There is correspondence to our world --you can expect to get meat from a pig, and you do-- but the manner in which the action happens is distinct to the world of Glitch and even supports the world's story.

FarmVille instead operates within our world and at every point links activity in the game to you as a player.  Characters don't have usernames, they have your personal (Facebook) name.  You visit farms that your friends run without any regard to geography (since the game couldn't model that well without providing a barrier to participation).  Wherever there is an activity to be learned, the game tries to simplify or model a real world equivalent - you shear sheep, harvest your crops with vehicles, which run on gas, etc.  I think that it's overreaching to claim that FarmVille <em>colonizes</em>your personal life, but it certainly works within the world that you live in and blurs the distinction between you as a player and your character within the game at every opportunity.  The result is certainly profitable, as it encourages you to tie your performance in the game to your identity as much as you are willing to.  Look at how much better your farm is than your friend's! Wouldn't you like to have a farm as impressive, as creative as that other friend's, even if it means chipping in a bit of money to speed the process along?

I want to note that I have no idea how this will work out for Glitch.  Zynga is brilliant at what it does, and has surprised the industry multiple times by making ridiculous amounts of money with these techniques.  They have colonized new markets and pulled in people who would not have identified as gamers before, even if they might have played a game now and then, or everyday.  Certainly, the way that each mechanic stays within the game rather than reaching out into the player's life means that players have more freedom to choose not to play the game.  They can get turned off by the story or the world.  They could find the actions within the game too weird or silly.  They could decide that they don't want to pursue the goals that the designers set in the reward and advancement system, and they can't replace those goals with personal investment as easily as they can in FarmVille where they are the character.  Glitch asks players to role play to invest, and many adults aren't comfortable role playing.  Finally, the "value proposition" in Glitch's business model during this beta period is very much for the people who care about the game, and doesn't aggressively seek conversion or monetization of casual players.  Glitch could end up as a very talented starving artist, doing beautiful things that only a few people find a way to pay for.

Overall, I found three things interesting about the differences between the use of similar mechanics between FarmVille, CityVille, etc. and Glitch.  Many of the same mechanics, by staying within the magic circle of the game (defined by the game, the site, and correspondence to you as a player), feed back into the game and remain gameplay.  They don't cross out into a player's real life, and thereby avoid turning the player's life into part of the game's publishing strategy.  I think that is much of why so many game designers feel like FarmVille is so terrible - there are all these neat new things going on in the game, but they are used solely to turn the player into part of the game, rather than to make a space for the player to ... play in.  It is shallow game design (though brilliant marketing design) and aggressive commercialization.  FarmVille plays the player, while Glitch gives the player a place to play.  I hope Glitch succeeds.

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This page contains a single entry by Scott Price published on November 14, 2011 9:29 AM.

Play Log: Minecraft 1.8: Playing with friends was the previous entry in this blog.

Games of Skill, Games of Chance ... Games of Labor is the next entry in this blog.

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