MMO Blender: A real-time Farmville MMO minus the Zynga

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MMO Blender: A real-time Farmville MMO minus the Zynga
FarmVille screenshot
Let's talk about FarmVille for a minute. Yes, I mean the Zynga-produced FarmVille, the one that helped social gaming become what it is today. There are a lot of things that have been said about the game, like "it's not even a game" or "it preys on gamer's addictive natures" and all sorts of sufficiently evil-sounding things. Say what you want about the evil monster that is Zynga and make all the jokes that you can about FarmVille and other social titles, but I want to tackle it from a different view. Let's look at it as the sandbox game that it is and use that example to invent a brand-new MMO, although I'm sure ours would not meet with even a fraction of the success that FarmVille has.

FarmVille is arguably the most popular sandbox title in the world. We've defined "sandbox" a million times on this site, but it's easy to see just how open and flexible FarmVille is. Is it limited to the confines of its unique set of tools and designs? Of course, but so is every sandbox.

FarmVille has successfully introduced the wonders of sandbox gaming to people who might never give a similarly described game a chance.

Wurm Online screenshot
In case you have never played them, here's the summary: Zynga titles often allow players to own their own space, tending it several times a day by clicking or spending energy. That energy depletes over time, and a player can either wait to recharge the energy or can pay to recharge it. This is where a lot of the controversy comes in: The rate at which energy counts down and begs to be recharged and the way clicking repeats itself has always stuck in "real" gamers' craws. Many gamers can't stand the fact that "free" play is available only for several minutes several times a day. Of course, these games were designed specifically to be played in spurts several times a day (they're casual games, after all), but there is some merit to the frustration.

The games also allow players to spam Facebook friends for help or to brag about recent achievements, in most cases because participants haven't taken the time to tweak Facebook's settings or click "no" when asked to share. There's the debate over whether or not FarmVille gameplay consists of anything more than a click or two, but it's not as though every other MMO or single-player game is much more than just a few clicks. We should really avoid counting the clicks and judging a game based on that. If we did, there would be many fantastic games that would fall under FarmVille's umbrella.

"As a game, FarmVille is brilliant. I love the fact that I am able to enjoy it in only a few minutes, and a few clicks, per day."

As a game (feel free to argue about what I should call it in the comments section) FarmVille is brilliant. I love the fact that I am able to enjoy it in only a few minutes, and a few clicks, per day. I'm not sure where the design came from, and I'm not sure that Zynga deserves all of the credit, but simple, fun design that is not only accessible but is also a wonderful tool for player creativity? That's good stuff. But in my game I want to avoid the exact energy mechanic that comes from games like CityVille while sticking with the simplicity that made Zynga so popular. In my game, players will own a chunk of land and will tend to it with simple clicks of a button. Want to weed the garden? Click on the weeds. Want to water each plant? Click on the plants. As the players use up action points -- or energy or whatever we want to call it -- they grow "tired" and will need to rest in order to raise it. No, I will not sell energy resets or refills for real cash.

Instead the farms that players own and work on with other players will be dependent on real-life mechanics and will work in a real-life time frame, albeit sped up a bit. There is a sweet spot between taking too much time to do something and speeding players through a few minutes of play, so testing will be extensive. If I plant a vine that in real life might take several weeks to flower, in my game it will take several days at least, depending on the in-game weather. I'll spruce things up by setting the game on an alien planet, a made-up world with its own unique weather patterns and cycles. Wurm Online is a great example of what I am going for.

Glitch screenshot
Players will depend on each other for knowledge and the sharing of goods. New players come into the world as young creatures, and over time they will age and die. After death, they'll pass on their knowledge to a new character but suffer from the loss of old-age knowledge buffs and experience bonuses. The older a player gets, the faster he can plant or the easier he can read weather patterns. I want to use simple systems to represent real-life effects but will avoid some everyday hindrances. My players will not need to stop to eat lunch. This game is meant to be played for a few minutes a day.

That's the brilliant thing about FarmVille-style energy mechanics: They represent doing something that you might do in real life. If you owned a farm, you would check on it several times a day. If you work, you lose energy. Simple mechanic, simple outcome. In my game, a player will enjoy the fruits of her labor -- literally -- when she travels with bundles of goods to a market to trade with others. The only combat in my world will be the players versus the environment, literally... systems like weather and erosion, all represented by systems that are easy to understand.

This same simple approach to design can make players feel immersed if the planet is not quite Earth-like and activities are set to a cycle that is not quite like the one we are used to on this planet. Really, though, the design is nothing new or overly original, just like FarmVille. The reason it works is because it touches on the same ethic that drives many of us, causing us to do repetitive things like daily quests, weekly raiding, and yes, checking on our FarmVille crops. Gamers enjoy repetition -- some seem to need it.

"Like FarmVille, my game will hopefully tap into player creativity. For many FarmVille players, that little cartoon farm represents an identity, the same as music or movie choices explain who we are."

Like FarmVille, my game will hopefully tap into player creativity. For many FarmVille players, that little cartoon farm represents an identity, the same as music or movie choices explain who we are. My game would allow players to carve fruit into shapes, grow strange hybrid glowing crops, and gather and breed strange alien animals. The wonderful thing is that the initial offering of crops and animals would not need to be so massive, simply because the players will find new ways to arrange them, creating new designs. Players could also combine or trade bits of knowledge, like recipes for new fruit dishes or genetic codes for a strange new cosmic cow. If player A wants to teach player B something new, he can do so by clicking on the player and selecting "teach." Players would receive a bonus by trading knowledge in social areas, recreating that old "sitting in front of the bank" feeling from MMOs past. Players taught each other languages in games like EverQuest before, so it can be done.

FarmVille and other games teach us that players are willing to check in to a simple farm or project several times a day and might spend a lot of money to help them along the way if the game provides enough reason to do so. My game, like FarmVille, doesn't need to be overly complicated and can offer players a wide range of choices. The difference will be that my game takes farming to more realistic heights, sets it in some alien place, makes energy an occasional stopping point but offers other activities for players to participate in when energy runs out, and keeps players connected and socializing like we are supposed to be in an MMO. How will the game make its money? The usual, smart way: by selling customization and slight buffs to gameplay, like pills that help players slow down aging and that tune up experience gain.

I wish players would remember to separate FarmVille and other Zynga games from Zynga itself. Whatever you think of the developer, no one can deny that its set of games has changed gaming forever and encouraged many people to play who would never have done so before. And as I have hopefully shown, Zynga has introduced us to some very simple and fun mechanics that can be utilized in many different ways. The developer did not invent energy or stamina in any way, but it popularized them as mechanics. Now, with this new game, I hope to use it for a better title.

Have you ever wanted to make the perfect MMO, an idealistic compilation of all your favorite game mechanics? MMO Blender aims to do just that. Join the Massively staff every Friday as we put our ideas to the test and create either the ultimate MMO... or a disastrous frankengame!
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