Levelling up is the name of the game

Levelling up is the name of the game

Saturday, 10 October 2009

Media Type
The Straits Times - Pg A34

How big is your farm? That's a question I was asked the other day in reference to a game on Facebook.

Sheepishly, I replied: "Which one?"

There has been a rash of farming games on Facebook: Farmville, Farm Town and Country Story are among the more popular ones. I've played them all.

These "applications", which social networking site users add to their profile accounts, have grown hugely in popularity.

Farmville alone had 55.7 million monthly users as of yesterday. All of these players buy seeds, plough plots of land, plant the seeds and reap the crops when they are ready – all done with a few clicks of the mouse.

And it is not only the young who engage in this, though a National Institute of Education study has discovered that Singapore students spend 27 hours a week on massively multiplayer online role-playing games.

Adults well into their 30s are also participating.

When people began signing up for the social networking site a few years ago, things weren't quite so advanced.

Applications were mere boxes that were added to your profile page. People sent things to one another – from birthday cakes to flowers and happy pills – via different applications.

These first-generation applications did not offer an opportunity for application developers to monetise the trend. Then the game developers got smart: They made people start sending stuff through games.

The second-generation social games are now banking on players spending real cash to buy online money, with which to buy in-game products.

Some games such as Pet Society and Restaurant City, both developed by Playfish, get users to set up customisable characters that interact with one's Facebook friends who are also playing the cartoon-like game.

A pet in Pet Society visits other pets' homes, motivating players to decorate their homes by spending gold coins in shops. Players in Restaurant City offer different dishes, swop ingredients and earn coins as game-generated characters visit and show off their eateries.

Zynga operates Mafia Wars which lets players gang up, buy weapons and fight one another. Playdom's Sorority Life gets them to dress up, climb the social ladder and flame other people.

These games are not targeted at hard-core gamers. They aim to earn revenue from the way social networkers live on the Internet.

So why do people play these games?

It's all about "levelling up". In all these games, you start at Level One and gain experience before moving on to the next step. Higher levels let you do more advanced things.

I asked a friend who had stuck with Playfish's Country Story, growing and harvesting crops to achieve its current maximum level 54, why he had done so.

He said: "I wanted to grow the ginseng!" Ginseng is available only at Level 54, you see.

Higher levels also allow you to dress up, buy the latest rock star outfit for your pet or kit out your farm with decorative items like picnic tables.

And just as your social networking profile provides a sketch of you, the way you customise your character says a lot about who you are. For example, local blogger Wendy Cheng's farm on Farmville features pink gates and pink cherry trees planted in a big heart shape – choices consistent with her pink-loving girly character as manifested on her blog Xiaxue.com.

Something else that might drive you to attain higher levels is that you can show off your standing. The games usually feature a bar indicating your position relative to your friends'. Levelling up therefore affords you bragging rights.

All this has made the social gaming trend big money for developers. They tempt players to level up; you can buy game money to purchase items that help you level up faster. I know people who have spent more than US$50 (S$70) a month on this pursuit.

But before I got that far, I deleted my farm. It was painful as I'd built up a sizeable holding of artichokes, watermelons and glossy brown horses. It is now even more painful to see my friends posting photos online of their massive farms boasting exotic produce like pepper flowers. But the game took up too much time and I didn't want to leave my crops to wither and die during the lengthy periods I was away from my farm.

But the thing is, Farmville might actually have saved my information, meaning I could resurrect my farm just by hitting a button.

Now, how big was my farm again?

Source: The Straits Times - Pg A34, sph