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Gaming on Facebook: Does Time = Money?

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First you try, then you play, then you buy a few things to speed you along. But there is a range of gaming options on Facebook. The ones you stick with depend on the time you have, your own personal schedule and how much you want to annoy your friends. Which Facebook games are a good investment of your time? When does the pay nagging begin? And are the purchases worth the price?

Though it might sound heretical to the ears of the hardcore gaming community, Facebook is now the number one platform for video games. No, Farmville and Scrabulous and Zuma Blitz aren't directly competing with the big budget entertainment you will find on your Xbox 360 or Playstation 3, but Facebook has proven to be an excellent portal for delivering casual entertainment to millions of people who would never consider themselves “gamers.”

The allure of Facebook games is that they are generally free to play. If you have a Facebook account, you can play any game that has been published for it. The lure of free game time almost always sounds good, but like free-to-play business models in other game genres, the ultimate goal is to encourage players to spend real money, and more of it, for quicker access to high level items, specialty goods, or just more of the same at a faster rate. Companies like Zynga, Playdom, and Lolapps have studied how users respond to different cues and stimuli in order to persuade them to part with dollars in exchange for small bonuses here and there.

The monetization of Facebook games has become so standardized that game designs themselves often seem like copies of each other. Farmville is famously a copy of an earlier rival game: Farmtown. Cityville is very similar to Millionaire City. Ravenwood Fair's mechanics have more than a casual resemblance to Frontierville. Mafia Wars and Sorority Life differ only in their theme.

If you're unfamiliar and thinking about making the jump, Facebook games fall into three broad categories: arcade/word games, progress games, and appointment games. Each of these groups takes a different approach to earning your money and leveraging your friends list to increase both your enjoyment and the developers' revenue base.

Figure 1 Zynga's newest hit game is a slight variation on the appointment theme.

Arcade/word games are the ones least likely to rely on player purchases to make money. In fact, most of the light arcade and word games on Facebook subsist entirely on advertising. They either promote direct purchases of the developer's games so you can play them off of Facebook or receive a cut of the advertising that Facebook sells on their popular games.

The most polished and popular arcade games, though, do try to compel you to spend money. Popcap Games, the most successful casual game developer in the world, will let you buy power ups or special abilities to help you play longer and earn higher scores.

The sales pitch here is as old as video gaming itself. Just like arcades from the 1980s would tempt you with a high score list to encourage you to pump in the quarters, the arcade games on Facebook ask you if you want to beat your friends' scores with a little bit of help. Since you can play most of these games at any moment and earn the bonuses over a short period of time without spending any money, there is little incentive to spend a ton of cash on special gems for Bejeweled Blitz or more energy for Lost Cities. Unlike the classic arcade games of the past, your desire to knock your friend off the top of the high score list can be sated for no cost at all.

Figure 2 PopCap Games excels at making addictive arcade games for Facebook.

Certainly, a few people do buy the extras and that is key to understanding every Facebook game model. When your player base is in the tens of millions, you only need a tiny percentage of players to regularly buy extras in order for it to be immensely profitable. Arcade games almost certainly have a lower development cost than other popular games on Facebook, so the fact that they have a lower rate of payment among their players is not necessarily a handicap for keeping the game profitable.

The big money is in the other two forms. Appointment games are the new hotness, led by the stunning success of Zynga's Farmville and similar designs. Though Zynga did not originate this game style, nor did it make its first million on appointment gaming, it is the company that has become most associated with Facebook games in general and this model in particular.

Appointment games are games that ask the player to return to the game regularly so they can check on tasks. In Farmville, Cityville, and Frontierville this task is harvesting crops. Different crops grow at different speeds and yield different payouts when they are harvested. If you miss the harvesting window, though, your crops will wither and die. You lose whatever in-game money you spent on planting crops and whatever the opportunity cost was for taking up field space with food you ended up not using.

Lolapps Ravenwood Fair is similar, if less appointment centered. In this cute animal filled world, you build an amusement park. Amusements and other in-game structures have a limited number of uses and once this number is reached, the item goes dark and your “fun score” plummets. A less fun fair means fewer visitors, which means you earn money and experience more slowly.

Figure 3 Build a fair in this appointment game.

Appointment games run in real time. The hour that it takes your corn to grow, for example, is a real hour. This sort of game design was pioneered in a number of browser games that let you build empires or cities over weeks of time, and many Facebook games have similar themes; the Civilization-like City of Wonder, for example. This type of game design is meant to give you the feeling that you are building something lasting without having to feel like you are constantly engaged in that building process.

Many appointment games make money by playing on the urge to see a city or farm or empire built up more quickly. Sometimes a necessary structure cannot be completed without using rare goods – special items that you may stumble across randomly, but that are easier to get if you can persuade more of your friends to play the game with you so they can “send you” what you need at no cost. Or you can just bite the bullet and buy the special items outright.

It is this social awkwardness of nagging your friends that keeps appointment games so profitable. Most of your friends will not be playing the same games you, or simply don't want to be bothered by your constant requests for extra energy or paint or seeds. To move forward faster and make those hours spent on the game more efficient, buying your way ahead is a natural urge once you are invested in your farm or city.

The third type of game, progress games, were the dominant game design for a couple of years, but the appointment game model is slowly drowning them out. In what is almost a parody of a proper role playing game, players spend action points to complete tasks. The reward for taking the action is usually little more than seeing a progress bar inch rightward. You gain experience and items along the way, but this design, popularized by Zynga's Mafia Wars (one of the first really big Facebook games), offered little in the way of real game play.

This does not mean that it was not a successful way to make money. Players could buy more energy so that they could complete more tasks. You can buy items to complete themed collections and earn extra bonuses for your character/empire/enterprise. Though these games have fallen out of favor because more sophisticated and visually stimulating models have arrived on the scene, they still soldier on and earn money because the simple design means that the payoffs for spending real cash are more immediately obvious.

Figure 4 This progress bar games targets a young female audience.

Game scholar Ian Bogost's Cow Clicker game is a satire on how little many of these games change as you move up through the levels of accomplishment. In fact, even if your game is telling you that you have unlocked something special and interesting, the truth is that few of these games have the accidental fun and insight of other games with similar themes. This very repetition, however, is the key to their mass appeal. Facebook games promise to never get complicated and very few involve competition with other players so there is never a sense of defeat. Progress may be slow, but you are never held back.

For Facebook game designers, there is a temptation to place a strict gate on advancement. In Ravenwood Fair, for example, some buildings require gathering fruitcake or muskets, which can be very hard to find in the course of normal gameplay; the hope is that you will invite your Facebook friends to help you out and thereby raise the player base and potential sales. If the gate is too strict, however, players may feel like there is no way to make progress at all without paying for it, leading to an exodus of gamers to something more rewarding. The balance between encouraging players to feel like they are accomplishing something and poking them to spend a little money to move faster is a difficult one.

Figure 5 In Cityville, you can ask friends for energy - or buy it.

The revenue model of Facebook games is changing because Facebook has introduced its own site wide “currency,” called Facebook Credits, that you can spend on many games that they host. This gives Facebook gamers a one-stop location to buy a pack of money they can use almost anywhere. This adds a new level of convenience for Facebook gamers since they no longer have to enter their credit card information for every game in which they want to buy something. This convenience also acts as a multiplier since people are more likely to spend the “Facebook money” that they see in their account since that is already a sunk cost. Though not every game will accept Facebook Credits, it is a safe and flexible way to track who has your credit card information that lets you play and advance in a wide range of games on the site.

The question of where the best gaming bang for your buck can be had often comes down to your personal tastes. Since most of the non-arcade games limit the number of actions (“energy”) you have per day, most people spend money to increase this number. Energy packs are often cheap and can keep you playing longer; people hooked on the interaction and the feeling that they are earning their progress are likely to find this a satisfactory option.

But for the most part, people play these games to advance and though you can almost certainly advance very far in a lot of Facebook games without paying a cent, eventually the time involved pushes players to dip into their piggy bank so they can see the next cool mechanic or feature or structure.

I recommended that you play a game for free for a few weeks before you decide whether it is worth spending even a little bit of money to advance or score higher. It's important to understand how a game dishes out rewards and how much you can accomplish before the nagging to buy another item begins to gnaw at you. The small payments involved may seem like a good deal when you are making the purchase, but always be sure you know what you are buying, with a sense of how likely it is you are going to progress without making the purchase.

Facebook games are, for the most part, not difficult to figure out, so it should not take long to get a sense of where the game has programmed the resource shortage. What you really have to worry about is letting all these little money transactions add up. That may sound like a scenario easily avoided, but in reality this can be an enormous trap that social game developers know exactly how to exploit for their own gain. It's possible to spend thousands of dollars on these games in as little as a month, as a 12-year old British boy managed to do using his mother's credit. He was not alone.

Keep in mind Facebook is a rapidly evolving games platform. Designers and developers are still learning how to best leverage the interconnectedness of Facebook and the human desire to both play games alone and engage with friends in a meaningful way. For now, watch your pennies and the dollars will take care of themselves. Find a theme that you like in a game that relaxes you and try not to spam your friends with requests. It is an exciting new world for game developers and gamers alike.

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