Escape from FarmVille

Farmer or hired hand? Entrepreneur or slave?
Not sure.

Every morning I tend my crops. My purple squash are blooming luxuriantly. My tall stalks of golden wheat sway gently. My peanuts are just sprouting, and my pumpkins are plump and ready for picking. As I click-click-click to harvest them quickly before they rot, coins magically fly up from my fields and add to the balances of my virtual bank accounts. A friend sends me a gift of a chicken; I send a plum tree in return. Another neighbor fertilizes my crops; I help milk his cows. I’ll log in again this afternoon to harvest my carrots, again tonight for my cotton, and again tomorrow morning to feed my cattle, all while coins and gifts roll in. I lean back in my cushy chair. Life is good.

Lately I’ve been logging on to plant, fertilize and feed every hour. I wake up early, stretch my lunch hour, sneak out of meetings and conference calls and turn in late to tend to my farm. My crops and livestock daily win ribbons and medals. In between, I squeeze in a few hours of work, eat, and sleep.

Welcome to FarmVille.
I’ve been steadily advancing uplevel since I started playing Facebook’s most popular multi-player game a month ago. I invite my friends to be my neighbors and send them gifts in order to receive gifts from them in return, thus helping everyone. It’s best to have neighbors who are uplevel from you; they can send you more and better gifts. Most of my friends now have barns. The FarmVille Market sells barns of all colors and finishes, even a psychedelic one. I want the classic Red Barn. But it is 40,000 coins and I only have 30,000. A farm isn’t a farm without a barn, is it? I need that barn.

For just $10 I can buy 15,800 coins – more than enough to get my barn. OK, I’ll do it. It’s just $10, after all. This will be my secret; it’s not cool to spend real money in FarmVille. A few real-world, US dollars buy so much virtual money. And I’ll have almost 6,000 coins left over, enough to buy much more.

That was last week. Now all of my friends have barns and more: chicken coops, horse stables, and grain siloes. I look lame in comparison. Even as much as I play, I don’t have enough friends – oh yeah, or time – to get everything I need. So this week, I shopped again: bought a tractor, harvester, warehouse, and my new farmhouse. The tractor helps me harvest my crops more efficiently, so that is a sensible investment, isn’t it? It will help pay for the upkeep on the buildings and re-fueling of the vehicles.Everything together was a bit more than $100 US. Shhh… no one needs to know I paid money for them.
Now I log in every 15 minutes, receiving and giving and receiving and giving, accumulating friends and gifts and neighbors and coins at an ever-accelerating pace. FarmVille Secrets Revealed is my Bible. I have my eye on the colossal, gabled, iconic farm house: the estate. It is only 600,000 FarmVille coins, about $350 US. An estate shows you have made it. Everyone wants to be your neighbor and friend…helping me move still further uplevel, get even more friends, more gifts…. It’s a good investment…

Whom am I kidding? Help!

Zynga, the God of customer engagement and virality, has taken control over me. It is Zynga who rewards me for friends and clicks with ribbons, gifts and advancements to higher levels; and punishes my negligence with withered crops.

Zynga, FarmVille’s publisher, has distilled positive reinforcement and hijacked my sense of community obligation to control my behavior for its purposes. The game has attracted as many as 85 million monthly players and $100 million in annual revenues from virtual goods like estates and tractors and Red Barns.

In B.F. Skinner’s famous 1930’s psychology experiment, the rat in the “Skinner Box” furiously pumped a lever for food pellets. The rat had to pump only once for the first pellet, but twice for the second, four times for the third, eight times for the fourth, and so on. Skinner wanted to see how long the rodent would keep pumping. Similarly, I furiously click for virtual coins and gifts, and the higher my level, the longer I have to click to advance one level.

Call me “Rat.”

What can real-world businesses learn from FarmVille? Plenty. See the sidebar below.But I don’t care about that. I just want to escape from FarmVille. To be free at last. Desperate to find any way out, I pleaded on my knees for help. Farmiholics Anonymous found and rescued me with their 12-step program. Some highlights:

  1. Admit that you have a problem.
  2. Make FarmVille inaccessible. Ask your most trusted friend who harvested your crops for you while you were on vacation in Las Vegas to change your password without telling you to what.
  3. Use the time you would otherwise spend playing FarmVille doing something you genuinely enjoy, such as taking a nap, going to a bar, or watching a reality show or sit-com.
  4. Tell your online neighbors: “My farm takes precious time away from my work and family so I am selling it. Who will give me one million coins for it?”
  5. Join a support group at which you’ll introduce yourself by saying, “Hi, I’m John and I’m a Farmiholic.” Your evangelical “sponsor” will exhort you to “Take those white picket fences and storage sheds and smash them – yes, I said,smash them – against your keyboards!”
  6. Pray. If you believe in God, then you know that prayer will help. If not, try to suspend
  7. your disbelief at least briefly to allow the power of your subconscious mind to kick in. If your subconscious mind believes a God is helping you, you’ll enjoy the benefits of a God even if there isn’t one.
  8. Help others escape from FarmVille.

I hear that Farm World has much better features and graphics than FarmVille – and you can create way cooler buildings.

What Real-world Businesses can Learn from FarmVille

  1. Design the customer experience deliberately, not haphazardly. FarmVille extracts and builds a game around pure positive reinforcement and virality, delivering a rush like smoking high-grade pot or eating rich dark chocolate. You get rewarded every time you let Facebook publish news about your farm, invite friends to join FarmVille, or give another player a gift. You can even be lulled into playing longer by FarmVille’s folksy, repetitive theme song. Businesses can be similarly deliberate in designing their customer experiences but without being manipulative. First, mapyour customers’ experiences, touchpoint by touchpoint: customers come to your web site or retail store; register online or talk to a salesperson or account exec; try out or watch a demo of your product or service; and so on. Next, determine which touchpoints are peak experiences, positive or negative. Then ask, how can the negative experiences – e.g., waiting to be served; filling out forms; or experiencing uncertainty, confusion or frustration in using your product or service – be minimized or eliminated? And how can positive experiences – e.g., enticing aromas or relaxing music in your retail store; discovering cool features in your product or service; getting a “yes” response quickly – be further enhanced?
  2. Continually reward your customers. Every time you simply log into FarmVille you get a gift or prize. Similarly, look for cost-effective ways to delight your customers on every interaction, for example: responses and communications that are friendlier, faster, clearer, and more exact than expected (this may require additional training of customer-facing staff); a special discount or gift as a thanks to customer for loyalty or having to wait; or unexpectedly detailed knowledge of the customer’s history with your business (this may require adding and deliberately populating fields in your customer data base).
  3. Foster community among your customers. FarmVille continuously incentivizes you to invite and play with your friends; provides you with free gifts for them; reminds them that have received gifts from you, so they will reciprocate; and thus creates a web of social obligation among players. Similarly, how can you get your customers engaged with each other through your community pages, Twitter, or other social networking? For example, might you provide your users free gifts with which to thank other users who shared the most useful hints and tips about your products or services?
  4. Turn your customer into a designer. FarmVille lets you design and lay out your farm – crops, animals, buildings, vehicles, layouts, and colors – even the gender and appearance of your avatar farmer – any way you wish. Customers are invested in designs that reflect their choices and trade-offs. In such markets as apparel, home furnishings, automotive, cosmetics, and user-oriented software, customers inherently make design choices; but how can, say, even office equipment or consumer packaged goods incorporate customer design? One approach is through online tools. Xerox lets managers lay out and design office networks; Nike lets customers design and order custom running shoes.
  5. Make customers look good. My small farm (Figure 1 below) looks pathetic: plots or land are laid out unevenly and lay fallow, crops have withered, and no buildings. Contrast that with my friend Charlie’s farm (Figures 2, 3, and 4). He has many acres, mansions, barns, greenhouse, silos, and more. FarmVille makes him look good. Similarly, businesses can make their customers look good to their own customers, friends, partners, vendors, and shareholders. My former company, CustomerSat, provided awards to our clients who had achieved the highest customer satisfaction scores. Our clients published press releases and ordered trophies of their awards for their conference rooms, boardrooms and lobbies, both enhancing their loyalty to us and indirectly promoting our brand. Leaderboards, a fixture of every online game, typically list the top 10 players with the highest scores. How could a leaderboard be created of your customers?
  6. Make it hard to quit. Like cigarettes, chocolate, cocaine and FarmVille, make your product addictive. But in a good way. Apple, Harley Davidson, and Nike do this through positive barriers to exit: products and service that customers don’t want to give up. Negative barriers to exit, like extended contracts and cancellation fees, hold the customer hostage. They may work in the short term, but only positive ones generate positive word-of-mouth and repeat purchases, which drive business success long-term.

Figure 1 (My Farm)


Figure 2 (Charlie’s Farm)


Figure 3 (More of Charlie’s Farm)


Figure 4 (You got it…Still more of Charlie’s Farm)

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