Kyra Wilson, an artist living in rural Vermont, had just joined Facebook in summer 2009 when she began seeing posts from friends about their activities in some farming game: harvesting crops; asking for materials to build stuff; leaving virtual gifts.
Curious, she joined “FarmVille” to see what all the fuss was about. Three years later, she hasn’t stopped playing.
“There was just something compelling about the fact that you could feel — this is going to sound strange — productive,” said Wilson, 37, who spends about five or 10 minutes each day playing. “You start out with one or two plots and then you figure out the game. Besides, you can’t work all the time. You need some sort of fun outlet. This is something good I can plug into and relax.”
Call it a hobby. Call it a video game. Or, as some critics do, call it an addictive time waster. Whatever you call it, it’s clear that as “FarmVille” celebrates its third anniversary this month it has had an impact that nobody could have foreseen when it launched June 19, 2009.
By becoming social gaming’s first monster hit, “FarmVille” legitimized an industry by finding a way to attract millions of people who had never played games. It sent shock waves through the ranks of traditional video game makers, and it launched a little-known startup, Zynga, on a path to becoming a billion-dollar public company. Most surprising of all, though, may be the enduring popularity of “FarmVille”, which remains one of the top Facebook games despite most social games’ tendency to rise and fall quickly. In the face of this success, I wonder: Is it time to give “FarmVille” its due? Among current video games, its impact might only be matched by the success of “Angry Birds” on smartphones.
Though there might be some hyperbole here, Zynga Chief Operating Officer John Schappert argues — and I agree — this innocent little game deserves a place among the iconic video games of all time, ones like “Pong” and “Pac-Man.”
Is he right?
On the day “FarmVille” launched, Cadir Lee, Zynga’s chief technology officer, thought he was prepared. Zynga, just one of several social gaming startups, had about 150 employees, including a small team who had built “FarmVille” over just a few weeks.
Companies like Zynga focused on building games to play on Facebook, and the most successful at the time had attracted between 4 million and 5 million daily average players. Lee figured “FarmVille” had a good shot at that.
But when the game launched, the number of players began ticking up at a rate he couldn’t believe. Zynga employees had a tradition of wearing red shirts when a game passed a “million milestone,” and many found themselves donning red day after day.
Lee recruited other Zynga employees to help keep it running while pulling all-nighters to configure new servers and write software to handle the traffic. After six weeks, the game had hit 10 million daily average players.
“It was like your world shifted,” Lee said. “Like when you discovered the world is not flat. It was that kind of feeling for the company.”
“FarmVille” continued to grow, to 25 million daily average players after six months. In the process, it became a pop-culture phenomenon. Facebook news feeds soon became jam-packed with posts about players’ progress and requests for help building their farms. Traditional gamers derided it as a mindless, “no fun” game.