At the height of the FarmVille craze, back in 2010, there were two kinds of Facebook users: those who were addicted to FarmVille, and those whose friends were addicted to FarmVille.
Zynga’s creation wasn’t the first one to let you tend to a virtual farm. A Super Nintendo title called Harvest Moon had created the genre in 1996, and it had already reached Facebook in the form of Farm Town before FarmVille debuted in June 2009. But FarmVille exploded like no social game before it. Thirty-two million people a day planted and plowed fields, tended to livestock and beseeched their Facebook friends for assistance.
The original FarmVille may not be a pop-culture phenomenon anymore, but it remains among the most popular games on the planet. AppData says that it was the eighth most popular Facebook game in August, with 3.4 million daily active users. Those farmers spend enough money on virtual animals, seeds and other goods to let FarmVille keep its spot as Zynga’s top game in terms of revenue. Still, in social-gaming years, it’s an antique, with blocky graphics, crude animation and fairly rudimentary gameplay.
So Zynga is unveiling a sequel: FarmVille 2. It’s the same basic idea with 2012 production values, bringing Facebook-based farming up to the standards of recent Zynga Ville titles such as CastleVille, ChefVille and CityVille, and in some ways surpassing them.
FarmVille 2 is opening up for play today. Like other new Zynga titles, it’ll be in preview mode for at least a couple of weeks while the company tweaks gameplay and swats bugs. Then Zynga will start cross-promoting it in other games, hoping that millions of current FarmVille farmers, former FarmVille farmers and others flood in. (It already quietly tested the game in the Philippines, under a different name, where it was easier to get some real-world feedback without too many people noticing.)
It took 11 people — six developers, two artists and three designers — five weeks to create the original FarmVille, which debuted in June 2009. Zynga doesn’t talk about head counts or timetables for its current games, but it’s safe to assume that it’s invested far, far more person-hours in FarmVille 2. I recently visited Zynga headquarters in San Francisco and saw artists still at work on additional content for the game, which, like all social games, will evolve over time.
FarmVille 2 is the first Ville game to require Adobe’s FlashPlayer 11 and use Stage 3D, a Flash technology that permits smooth, real-time 3D animation with plenty of detail. By the standards of Facebook games, it’s a feast for the eyes. The human characters look less like Lego people and more like cartoon characters. The farmyard animals move with some of the characteristics of their real-world counterparts. Even the crops have personality: Your amber waves of grain sway gently in the breeze.
What FarmVille 2 is aiming for isn’t realism. The game retains the aesthetic of other Ville games: It’s cute, cheery and colorful, and it isn’t clear (at least to me) whether the farmers who represent you and your friends are adults, children or some sort of hybrid. One artist told me that when the game was first under development, some of the animals were more lifelike — but in the end, they got more cartoony and comical.
Gameplay-wise, FarmVille 2 amps up the bucolic atmosphere in some respects. It downplays the use of magical Super Mario-style coins as a game mechanism and adds touches such as your friends arriving in beat-up pickup trucks and sitting on bales of hay while they wait to help you. The 20 minutes or so of gameplay I got during my visit to Zynga were soothing in a way I don’t associate with Facebook games, especially when I played in full-screen mode.
The rules were easy to pick up,too: Zynga clearly invested a lot of effort in the tutorial mode you start out in, which has a farmer friend named Marie explaining things for you.
The feel is still more Fantasyland than Grapes of Wrath. You can assign your pals tasks on the farm by yanking them up by the wrist, lifting them bodily into the air, and plopping them down where they’re needed — don’t worry, they seem to enjoy it. And you harvest your crops by running through your fields in fast-forward mode, flailing at plants with your bare hands. A new feature lets you hold down your mouse button to harvest your land more efficiently.
As with all Zynga games, FarmVille 2 is free to play. The company hopes to suck you into the world, then sell you virtual goods such as seeds and animals for real money. It needs a lot of people to play a lot of FarmVille 2, and it has every incentive to encourage them to pay up once they’re there. The peaceful, low-key feel of the game will be intruded upon by the harsh reality of e-commerce. (I find that all games based on the sales of virtual goods have a certain Vegas flavor to them, and sometimes it’s unbearable.)
And fancier graphics and more features don’t automatically make a game more compelling; that’s why people still care more about Ms. Pac-Man and Tetris than they do about the vast majority of games released in recent years, and why the original FarmVille is still more popular than newer, more lavish games from Zynga and its rivals. No matter how lush FarmVille 2 looks, it’s not a given that Zynga can remotely recreate the success of the first one.
Even so, I found the time I spent with FarmVille 2 surprisingly engaging. Back in the day, I managed to avoid playing FarmVille at all. But I’m going to give this one a try. So heads up, Facebook pals: If you get a message from me in which I ask you to help tend to my crops, it’s real — and I hope you’ll be patient with me.