A quick visit to Farmville 2

This week Zynga rolled out Farmville 2. I read a few interviews with people attached to the game saying there was more “game” in Farmville 2 than there is in other Ville games, so I decided to give it a try. I’m always willing to give a company another chance.

You see, I kind of like farming games and time management games. Things like Harvest Moon, Animal Crossing or GodFinger. I find it can be fun, for a while, to ‘check in’ on my micro-worlds to see what’s going on and tend to things (though eventually they almost all start feeling like a chore).

So is Farmville 2 more of a game than Farmville 1 is? I’d say yes; I felt like I was making (some) relevant decisions in this title since there are a few interconnected systems.

First is planting. You can plant crops or trees. Trees are more expensive but only have to be purchased once while you need to buy fresh seed for every round of crops you grow. Seeds cost varying amounts, the resulting produce sells for varying amounts and produces varying amounts of feed (see below). So choosing what to grow is a matter of knowing what you want to do with the resulting harvest and how long you want it to take.

In addition to plants, your farm has animals. Animals produce some kind of food-stuff. Chickens produce eggs, goats produce milk (that’s as far as I got). In order to get them to produce you have to feed them. You get feed by processing crops. It seems that any crop can be turned into feed, but for instance Wheat, which takes 4 hours to grow, produces 2 units of feed while a strawberry, which takes 24 hours to grow, produces 10. But strawberries also cost more to plant.

After a few levels you’ll unlock your farmhouse and with it, a kitchen. In the kitchen you can turn crops into more refined products which sell for more. So wheat can be turned into flour. Combine flour with an egg to make dough. Combine dough with apples to make an Apple Cobbler which sells for a goodly amount.

So should you use your wheat for feed? Sell it outright? Use it for flour? These aren’t earth-shaking decisions but they are decisions and they make Farmville 2 feel like a bit more than mindless mouse-clicking.

Farmville 2 is gated by water. Growing crops (including refreshing trees after they bear fruit) requires water. You can store up 20 water initially and more is added to your account over time. Once you get the kitchen unlocked, you get 15 kitchen actions which again, replenish over time. Crops mature according to real world time, as does the cycle of animals producing whatever they produce (for animals it’s time + feed, actually).

If you add friends to your farm neighborhood, once a day they’ll show up at your farm and you can use them to finish some task. This is a great way to get long-duration crops quickly since your friend insta-harvests whatever you point them at.

I was actually having fun playing Farmville 2 until I learned about milk bottles.

You see, when you get a new animal it’s a baby. Before it starts producing you need to grow it to maturity by feeding it milk bottles. Now I told you a goat gives milk, but that bottle of milk the goat gives isn’t considered a milk bottle.

It turns out milk bottles can be obtained in two ways: by spamming your Facebook friends for gifts, or by purchasing them with real money. If you want to play Farmville 2 without bugging friends, you’ll have to pay cash for milk bottles. In other words, pay to win.

I learned this only after I’d scraped and saved a few thousand gold to buy a baby goat. Suddenly I had this kid and no way to grow it up without opening my wallet (I have exactly 1 friend playing the game and I’ve already spammed her to the point where I sent her a message apologizing for it). And that’s when I quit playing Farmville 2.

It’s a shame because as I said, I was having fun and y’know, I’d considered spending real money to get some fancy decorations or something for my farm. I don’t mind spending money on a game I’m enjoying…in fact I think it feels good to support a game you enjoy. But buying milk bottles just flipped my ‘pay to win’ switch; it felt like cheating and it also felt like Zynga was holding a gun to my head. Pay up or don’t make any further progress.

Farmville 2 is a big improvement over Farmville. It plays faster (there’re a lot of convenience features added) and looks pretty good for a Facebook game. Every time you level up everything on a timer finishes at once, causing a huge explosion of awesome on your screen, which is really fun. I still would’ve gotten tired of it eventually I’m sure, but… well I’ll never know.

Thing is, if Zynga offered a stand-alone version of Farmville for $5 or $10 that didn’t require spamming friends or paying to win, I’d be all over it. It’s a fun game to putter around with.

Zynga’s been hemorrhaging customers from its Ville games. You’d think maybe with Farmville 2 they would’ve removed some of the really annoying aspects of their business model in order to try to draw in new blood, but I guess not.

Oh well, on to the next game!

D&D: Heroes of Neverwinter

A few weeks back I got into the beta of a new Facebook game, D&D: Heroes of Neverwinter. Since then I’ve been playing it off and on and I have to tell you, I’m feeling very conflicted about it. See the thing is, I dislike Facebook quite a bit, and even more so after the events of the last week or two. But I’m finding D&D: Heroes of Neverwinter to be a decent turn-based strategy game. Please Atari, make an iPad version, or a Google+ version, or a Kongregate version…let me play it somewhere other than Facebook!

Anyway, D&D:HON has you recruiting a party of 4 adventurers, including yourself of course, and heading off on grid-based, turn-based adventures. If your friends are playing, you can recruit their characters into your party for free; otherwise you can hire the heroes of strangers for increasing amounts of gold as you need higher and higher level characters. Going on an adventure costs you Energy, which replenishes over time. This is the $$ hook; you can pay to have your energy replenished if you’re having a grand old time playing. (You purchase Astral Diamonds which can then be used to do things besides replenishing energy. Stuff like resurrecting yourself…oh so very tempting when you die near the end of an adventure.)

The adventures themselves take place in a series of rooms and generally you have to kill the bad guys in the room to advance. Something there’ll be traps (bring a rogue to disarm) and sometimes there’ll be treasure chests. As you grow your character they learn various skills, and most of these skills can be used once per room (though a few can only be used once per adventure). Each turn a character can move, attack/use a skill, and use items. Some skills are also ‘free’ and can be used in addition to an attack. The basic gameplay is fun and hampered only by the fact that the game is built in Flash, meaning the interface is a bit cumbersome. I sure wish Flash would support right mouse buttons.

Between adventures you can wander around town by clicking from building to building. There are shops, a recruitment hall, and your own house where you can see your achievements and get a free daily gift. You also get a handful of gold every day just for logging in…more each day up to 5 consecutive days, then it rolls over back to 5 gold for day 1.

You can have multiple characters and each one has his or her own energy pool, which is a nice touch. There’s no way to trade items between characters (or with other players). You can, of course, gift your friends with stuff in typical Facebook fashion.

At level 10 you’re able to create your own adventures and share them with other players. If you want to level quickly there are plenty of adventures designed by other players to give you an “I WIN” button and help you advance. Using just the game-supplied adventures will keep your leveling speed pretty low, as fits the whole D&D license (IMO at least). In fact it can be a challenge to keep a positive cash flow if you’re hiring adventures to head out with you.

Anyway, it’s a Facebook game, but that means it’s free to try. I don’t really play Facebook games these days, but I’ve been making an exception for Heroes of Neverwinter; that must say something about the title. It’s probably an easier game if you have lots of friends playing, but playing ‘solo’ is definitely viable, at least for as far as I’ve gotten. Check it out!

Facebook’s messaging dog & pony show

I originally wrote this for my blog over at ITWorld, but then decided it was a bit too ranty for a pro blog, and anyway it isn’t really my ‘beat’ over there. So I decided to post it here (in its raw, first draft form). Very very off-topic but hey, a good rant is always entertaining to someone (even if that someone is just the one doing the ranting):

Yesterday Facebook held yet another event (they’re getting to be like weekly occurrences, these Facebook events) to unveil their new not-an-email system, the Social Inbox. Well, part of it was the Social Inbox. I was one of the 30,000 or so people to watch the announcement online and I never figured out what the overall name of the system was. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg called it a “modern messaging system” but that was about it. Ryan Faas covered the event but I was so bemused by the dog and pony show put on my Zuckerberg and Facebook Director of Engineering Andrew Bosworth that I had to chime in.

Warning: old guy “you kids get off my lawn” rant incoming.

First, the whole system is apparently based on what high school kids do. We were told that high school kids don’t send emails because there’s too much “friction” involved with all the tedious details like a subject line and a salutation. Really? Adding a subject line is that hard? In this Facebook-powered new world order how are we going to scan the dozens and dozens of emails that we as professionals get, once subject lines are abolished by these high schoolers? How many important emails does the typical high school kid get, anyway? Of course they don’t need full emails: they’re just chatting with each other about high school kid stuff. Why are we modeling general-purpose systems on such a specific demographic?

Another anecdote, this one shared by Bosworth, talked about a box of letters that his 90 year old grandmother keeps in her closet. These are letters that his grandfather sent his grandmother when they were courting long, long ago. Bosworth lamented the fact that he doesn’t have a box of letters. Facebook to the rescue again! By archiving all your conversations, whatever format they’re in, Bosworth suggests we’ll all have our digital box of letters when we get old.

Now what’s wrong with this picture? I’ll tell you what. If you can’t exert the energy to add a subject line or a salutation to your email, chances are whatever you’re writing probably isn’t worth holding onto for the next 70 years. The reason Bosworth’s grandmother’s letters were so dear to her is that his grandfather put some thought and care into what he was going to write. All those social micro-updates about where you’re going to have lunch aren’t going to be that interesting to you when you’re 90. Trust me, you don’t need to keep every word you write. I’m not claiming there aren’t a lot of passionate and thoughtful emails flying back and forth through the ether; clearly there are. But if something is really worth saving, it’s worth saving on your own terms, not in some service that may or may not exist when you’re old and gray.

One last thing. During the Q&A session someone pointed out that their Facebook friends weren’t really their true friends. Their real friends were their email friends. (This came up while discussing the feature where a Facebook friend’s message gets high visibility in the Social Inbox.) The response was, essentially, that this person was doing it wrong and that all your Facebook friends should be true, legitimate friends and not just people you’ve encountered online. I know that my list of Facebook “friends” includes plenty of people that are, at best, acquaintances. I don’t want these people’s messages about Karaoke Night at the bowling alley back in the town I grew up in to be a ‘high priority’ message. So I guess I’m doing it wrong, too. (To be fair, you can ‘train’ the Social Inbox but having to do so seems to go against Zuckerberg’s assertion that people don’t want to fiddle with this stuff. Specifically he mentioned that no one wants to make lists.) Considering how many activities on Facebook (mostly games) pressure you to have lots of “friends” I found this attitude particularly disingenuous.

I’m really not condemning Facebook’s modern messaging system: I’ll give it a try and maybe it’ll change the way I do business, but I somehow doubt it. I don’t really want a unified inbox where all my business correspondence gets mixed in with emails from my dentist about my next checkup and IM conversations with my girlfriend about what we’re going to have for dinner. There’s something to be said for keeping different types of content segregated. Heck, I have several different email accounts for just that reason.

And that’s without even considering Facebook’s spotty record when it comes to privacy.

Maybe I’ve finally officially reached curmudgeon status, but I just don’t think most of us are ready to turn over all our communications to Facebook. At least I hope we’re not. I’d hate to see one company wind up with that much power.

What do you think? Are you ready to sign up for the Social Inbox?

Construction vs Destruction

Warning: Much pondering and thinking out loud ahead.

So for the past week or so I’ve been playing Frontierville on Facebook, and for part of that time Tipa of West Karana has been my neighbor. She reviewed the game today and I urge you to read what she had to say.

I don’t disagree with her at all, and yet I think I like the game more than she does, and I was going to post a comment explaining why when I realized I couldn’t exactly say why. So I’ve been pondering that, and then Scopique talked about crafting and process and minigames and that kind of got stirred into my thought process.

I’ve always loved crafting in MMOs. I remember when Ultima Online was the reigning king, some upstart (I think it was EQ but don’t quote me that) ran an ad campaign where they kind of jeered at UO saying, “Would you rather craft a chair or kill an orc.” And I was all like “RAWR! KILL THE ORC! KILL THE ORC!”

At least, that’s what I thought I wanted. But crafting in EQ was really frustrating and not a huge part of the game (at least back then) and I missed UO’s crafting system. I still miss it to an extent. There’re only a handful of MMOs with really rich crafting systems. UO, SWG, Vanguard… maybe I’ve missed some.

But the idea of harvesting materials and using them to make something is really appealing to me. Back when I lived in a rural area I had an interest in woodworking and gardening and constructing things, but that all sort of dropped away when I became an urban/suburban apartment dweller. Crafting scratches that construction itch, in some small way.

There are many, many games about Destruction (at the very simplest level…killing opponents) but not as many about Construction. Or at least I’m not familiar with as many. City-building games (and 4X games scratch both itches… you build up your empire and tear down the enemy’s). Most Construction in games is either in a kind of software toy (ie The Sims) or it means actually building assets for the game (Little Big Planet, or any game with a level editor).

Tipa says of Frontierville: “As a GAME game, well, there�s really no point to the game.” and she’s right. Zynga’s #1 goal is that you never “finish” the game and stop paying for items, right?

But what I get from Frontierville is that same UO construction itch scratched. I take some odd satisfaction out of clearing the land (and in so doing harvesting wood for buildings) and then bringing order to my little plot. Technically I guess this is Destruction: I’m destroying trees and such. Maybe I should be using “increasing/decreasing entropy” rather than construction/destruction.

It’s true my options are limited, but they’re not fixed. I can start to build whatever building I feel the urge to build (though as you gain levels you gain more options) but then I have to rely on “Neighbors” for supplies.

Neighbors, though… they’re kind of important to me. Remember back when I talked about We Rule on the iPad? I didn’t have much good to say about it, but guess what? I still play it.

But Construction gaming is always more fun when you can show it off. No one really sees my We Rule kingdom anymore, but in Frontierville I have evidence of who has come to visit. Granted they don’t come to see what I’ve done…they come to get bonuses and materials…for gameplay reasons. But I know when I go visiting I make note of what my friends are up to. This one is all about function, that one is chaotic, and this third one has spent a lot of real $$ on special items…what a surprise. I feel like I get tiny glimpses into the personalities and minds of the players.

Going back to UO, once you built your house and furnished it, what was the next logical step? Throwing a party, of course. Have people come over to see what you’ve made.

Someone on my forums referred to a type of gamer they called a Decorator and I thought that was a very good term. It was in a discussion about “What is a real game” and he (I know him only as Bognor) said:

There is a class of gamer called a “collector” and another called a “decorator”. Farmville and its ilk appeals to these classes because they have opportunities to acquire “rares” and to build esthetically pleasing farm layouts. There exist choices in this context, and competition within these classes. To those of use who are not collectors or decorators, there is not much appeal in Farmville.

That made a ton of sense to me. That collector part of me, I’ve always known about, but the decorator is a new self-discovery. My We Rule kingdom is now laid out like a “real” kingdom would be, with the road to the castle literally paved in gold and surrounded by statuary and sparkly trees. Why? There’s no gameplay reason for it, but it was pleasing to me to do… although it took me weeks and weeks of playing before I started doing it.

I’m not an artist, although I’ve always wished I had some artistic talent. In some way these not-games like We Rule, Frontierville, or MMOs with rich crafting systems let me pretend to be an artist for a little while.

Does my Frontierville plot look unique? Honestly no…there isn’t that much variability between plots. But it is still mine, laid out as I wanted to lay it out. I’m pretty anal about pulling weeds that sprout up in cleared areas…I guess in some tiny sense I take some pride in my space. And I suspect when I get to the point where all the forest has been cleared and all the land tamed, I’ll probably lose interest (if not before).

My next project might be actually working on my character’s inn room in EQ2. I see the crazy things people build and while I’m impressed by them, I also find the range of options a bit daunting. Again, with these simple not-games, the limited choices are almost a blessing. There’s nothing intimidating about arranging your barn and cabin and apple trees in Frontierville, y’know?

I don’t know if I have a point here. Like I said at the top of the post, this is more stream-of-consciousness thinking about *why* I’m enjoying a game that is hardly a game (and which draws such ire from a large population of ‘core gamers’).

FrontierVille and other Facebook games

I’ve been having problems with my arm lately (friends will remember I went through this last fall…it’s a recurring RSI/pinched nerve/something thing that hits my left shoulder every so often) which means traditional gaming was more or less off the table this weekend. A bit of Deathspanking but that was about it.

So I’m mindlessly clicking around the internet (my mouse arm is fine) and I find myself on Facebook and decide to try Frontierville again. And this time I got hooked. I’ve been playing it off and on all weekend; I feel like I ought to be ashamed of that fact but the truth is, I was having fun.

The best way I can find to describe Frontierville is that it’s like Harvest Moon turned into a social game. You still have the real time energy accumulation of social gaming so you can only play in fits and starts, but otherwise it’s very Harvest Moon-like. Clearing land, planting crops, raising animals, and meeting goals to progress the storyline (such that it is…to a great extent the storyline happens in your own head). For instance right now I’m working on the requirements to get my bride-to-be to move out West with me. It isn’t as in-depth as Harvest Moon; you’re not choosing a townsperson to woo or anything. But it’s still pretty fun.

On the other hand, figuring out how to play as much as possible adds a kind of meta-game layer to the real game. I’d accumulated tons of gift offers (turns out I have a lot of Facebook friends who’re playing) and that carried me through most of the weekend. Eating meals gets you energy and lots of people had sent me meals. You can also get an energy boost by visiting friends’ homesteads.

You do have to do some trading with friends, or spend money, in order to play. I’ve been doing the former. And there are goals built around visiting your friends’ lands, so playing solo would strip out a good chunk of activities.

I used to hate how these games spammed my Facebook wall, but since I don’t use Facebook (except now, for playing games), and since Facebook now stacks the spam (so you see one event with a “see 40 other Frontierville notifications” link below it), and allows you to block notifications from a given app, I decided not to worry about it anymore. If people who don’t game on Facebook unfriended me, I probably wouldn’t even notice.

Swept up in the moment, I tried a bunch of other games but only two sorta stuck: My Empire (which reminds me a tiny bit of the old Ceasar games, if Ceasar had no military component and was just city building) and My Tribes, which is a Facebook-ized version of the Virtual Villagers casual game. Neither of these really grabbed me powerfully yet but we’ll see.

I must be mellowing in my old age or something. Playing Facebook games. What’s next? Sunday afternoons at the Bingo parlor? I even *almost* spent money on Frontierville, too! There’s an item you can buy that increases the amount of Energy you can store up. It would’ve cost me $5.00 to buy enough “Horseshoes” to buy it. I came damned close…

Anyone else have a good Facebook game to recommend? Something that feels like a real game? I prefer some kind of map/gameboard… stuff like Mafia Wars or Castle Age that are more or less text-based don’t really grab me. And I don’t want anything that I have to log into every 2 hours. Any suggestions?

Why I don’t like Like

Warning: This is very much a preliminary post, based on my current understanding of Facebook’s new “LIKE” buttons. But since the feature is live now, I feel like I need to warn people about the ‘potential’ issues sooner rather than later.

So without further ado.

We used to see Share on Facebook buttons on various sites. These were pretty straightforward. You’d click them and it’d stick a link on your Facebook “Wall” so your friends could see that you liked that link and potentially follow it.

Now we have the Facebook Like button. On the surface, it does the same thing. But behind the scenes it’s doing more. It sends not only the link to your wall, but certain meta data that the content producer has tagged the page with. You can, of course, view the source of the page and see what this meta data is, but many people won’t think to do that.

Let me give an example of why this could be problematic. Say you love Guild Wars, but you always play it alone or with one particular friend. You don’t think of it as an MMO, and you don’t like MMOs. In fact you hate WOW and EQ2 and LOTRO and all the other MMOs. They just aren’t your thing.

But Guild Wars you love, so you’re on a page about Guild Wars and you click the LIKE button.

But the site owner considers Guild Wars an MMO, and there’s meta data tagging this page as ‘MMO’ so when you click that LIKE button, you’re telling Facebook that you like Guild Wars and that you like MMOs. That data goes into your account.

The next week you go over to Steam to see what good deals there are. Steam queries Facebook and sees that, according to the data stored with your account, you like MMOs. So it shows you all the great sales on MMOs, and doesn’t show you the sales on single player RPGs, which is exactly what you’re in the mood to buy.

Facebook has misrepresented you. Or rather, you’ve misrepresented yourself because you don’t agree with the meta data on a site you clicked a LIKE button on.

Clearly this example is pretty trivial. But there are other situations where it could matter more. Worse, meta data could be set up to be deliberately misleading. There’s the potential for some pretty ugly shenanigans going on behind the scenes. Think of a political candidate’s page that’s been tampered with so that it has meta data saying you like the opposing party.

If this Like business takes off and lots of sites start polling your Facebook data, this could become a problem.

So I urge you, until we learn more about this system, to avoid using any “Like” buttons you encounter. Maybe Facebook has checks in place to prevent bad things from happening, but maybe not. And it still isn’t clear to me who can, and can’t, query the data associated with your account.

BTW, I put a LIKE button on Dragonchasers last night to see how it worked. I just want to be clear that I put no meta-data behind it, and I thank the folks who helped me test it.

And one last time, this is my understanding of the system as of right now. I could have some or all of this wrong. But just in case I’m right, I wanted to get people thinking about these issues.

I wrote more generally about Facebook’s new features at ITWorld this morning. You might find that post interesting as well.

City of Eternals hits closed beta

Back when Ohai formed, mostly I thought “Cute name” and then pretty much forgot about the company. They’ve been keeping a low profile until now, when City of Eternals stepped out of the shadows (and you will, I pray, pardon the pun).

This is a web-based, Facebook-connected MMO featuring vampires and zombies and other things that go bump in the night. Oddly, the coverage I’ve been seeing comes from places like TechCrunch and VentureBeat, not the gaming sites (at least, not the ones I read). Facebook games are suddenly big business (just ask EA) and these techie/vc blogs are paying attention to the money.

I’m not in the beta so I’m not being coy when I tell you I don’t know much about the game, but here’s some video from TechCrunch. Hard to really tell much about any depth that may or may not be present, based on the rather simple combat shown, but hopefully their pool of testers will broaden considerably in the near future. You can sign up to be considered for beta here, but you may need to log into your Facebook account on the way to that link.