Monday, July 12, 2010

Untapped Potential: Part 1

Farming Owns

Our Contenders:

  • SimFarm

  • Harvest Moon

  • Animal Crossing

  • FarmVille

  • FarmTown

What do all of these have in common? If you’ve said farming, you’d be incorrect. Pioneered new territory on their console? Only two I’m afraid. What they all have in common is their ability to tap into something much more rural and much more relaxing, yet still keep the edge needed to make gaming interesting.

These games are able to give players a cavalcade of different objectives and game play bits that seem to enthrall hundreds of thousands even today. On the forefront of recent news is FarmVille and FarmTown who are currently heading up their ‘console’ – Facebook!

But Yesteryear brought us two games that tend to be on the backburner – SimFarm, an interesting and challenging game on the PC, and the fabled, loved, and critically acclaimed Harvest Moon. So, let us start at the beginning.

In the beginning, there was DOS.

Farming has never had so many panels!

SimFarm as with most of the sim craze in the early 90s did not make much of a splash. The game offered a "reality" of seasonal change, the issues of drought, growing crops and tending livestock. The game was not complicated, but compared to its predecessor SimCity, it was certainly not a ground breaking innovator. Overall, it was an attempt at something new and like most attempts it was not recognized.

SNES! …Excuse you.

Harvest Moon

Harvest Moon was a game created by a rather interesting fellow by the name of Yasuhiro Wada. Generally unknown, Yasuhiro Wada made his way onto the gaming scene in 1996 with the cult classic, Harvest Moon for the SNES. The game, now widely known world-round, has endured countless iterations and even more spin-offs.

While it does not hold the monetary success of some games, its legacy has been one of 14 years, with each year bringing something interesting to the table. Perhaps it is because so much of my childhood was spent waiting for their next push that I feel so inclined this way, but the sheer volume of releases has to be an indicator that there’s a market out there.

Animal Cashcowing: Love, hate, and grind

I hate Mr. Nook

Moving up from here, the next release of something along these similar lines of untapped potential is, of course, Animal Crossing. Selling nearly 3 million copies world-wide, this Game Cube Game was played by most of its owners at least at some point. With its success, came its follow ups: City Folk and Wild World. Just so you can wrap your head around how popular this series really is, World Wide (the DS copy) has sold 11.26 MILLION COPIES world round since its introduction.

While the game contains no overarching story other than a few tid bits, the player is expected to fill in their own, while affecting the town with what they do, the speed in which they pay off debts, and how they treat the town as a whole. The town itself is a character interacted with tools, plants, and even the occasional dumpster dive.

Still, it has been a stepping stone for success, as without these series of games, we could not have...

The Facebook Phenomenon: Is it really so mysterious?


Whether you love it or hate it, Farmville and their creator Zynga have changed what it means to use facebook. Once a platform for social gathering, it has now been transformed into a secondary console, one of which has been touching deeply on the pulse of the Expanded Audience idea – and they’ve been raking in the cash.

Just to show you how POWERFUL Zynga is, they basically bogarted Facebook early this year. Just for the quick and easy: Zynga didn’t want to pay 30% to Facebook – they threatened to make their own site, thus drawing users away from Facebook. Zynga, financially backed by the same company that backed facebook early in its life, Facebook folded and accepted the new terms. Read for yourself. It was actually really crazy.

So what is it that makes Farmville so appealing? Well, let me make a quick list for you:

  • Accessibility: With over 400 million active users in one place, it’s hard not to imagine that a game on facebook could be successful. Match that at the 70% they claim actively user the software (games) that’s a whopping 280 million people. The platform is free and simple to use, integrated into a website with minimal needs of download. Anyone anywhere can play Farmville.

  • Freedom: While lacking in some areas(I’ll get to this later), FarmVille rests on a now steadily growing popular model known as "Free to Play" – meaning there are no monthly fees or upfront costs…simply playing for free yields a harder difficulty curve. There are usually "Item Malls" built into these games, which is a fundamental part of the Micro-transaction model. I.E. It allows you to choose when, where, and how much of your money you spend…if you spend at all!

  • Addiction: The game itself is noted as a sim game; understandably this is its best category to fit, however…it is appealing to most (as its predecessors) not because of the happy smiling avatar or cute farm animals. No, it is the difficulty curve, the time sink, the grind, the achievement. A good portion of what you find in main stream MMOs you can find in Farmville. And people find that fun.

  • Not Casual: As the above noted “Addiction” references…this game is a game. An almost solid game. I’ve seen a man play this game for what was 8 hours straight. When I ask people what they think a “Casual” game is, they are generally always called “Easy” and “Something that you do for a few minutes and put down” – i.e. not for the intelligent. This game isn’t casual. It’s the pinnacle of the core…and it’s drawing in the expanded audience!

These are just a few things that make the game an interesting candidate for Untapped Potential.

Of course, I would also like to add one more item to the list, but this is in reference to FarmVille’s competition: FarmTown.

  • Multiplayer: The game is one such that you may have people visit and tend to your far…you are also able to go to market and barter. This game adds an entirely new layer onto the genre that had not yet been touched.

This is where we will begin. This is Untapped Potential.

Generating Potential for Online Games: Knowing the weakness and strengths

What we have seen since Dos and the SNES is an evolution. From SimFarm we moved to a more character-centric representation of the player (a silent hero, like Link, or Mario). From Harvest Moon we moved to Facebook and Farmville, where accessibility to the genre could be greater amassed, and allowed for no upfront charge…allowing players to choose when and if they pay.

The disruptions to those games were twofold: Animal Crossing and Farm Town. Specifically, Animal Crossing has actually attempted to branch out into new territory with the Wii and DS version being online capable. FarmTown, as noted previously, allows for a semi-indepth multiplayer function.

Where am I going with this? Nintendo is pushing for online capability (within reason) and 'reskin' or 'rehash' games are attempting to push the envelope by adding more layers to the genre.

Animal Crossing limits itself with the Friend Codes. While an interesting concept, they do not allow for a larger online experience -- although that is obviously intended by Nintendo. Most successful sites and programs simply have a signup process. There are plenty of ways to enhance privacy, and I think that if a game were perhaps allowed to do this, there might be something interesting to it.

FarmTown limits itself with lacking features. While the multiplayer aspect is great, there’s a lot more to explore in that space than they allow. It also lacks the extreme popularity and face value of Zynga whom has dominated the gaming market for Facebook.

Massively Multiplayer Online Gardening: The Platform


So where do we go from here? Massively multiplayer games have been a growing genre since the introduction of MUDs. Now, in 2010, we are almost dominated by a slew of tripe, mediocrity, and a small percentage of amazingly crafted (and addicting) games – how odd that it is almost exactly like every other entertainment industry!

As of yet, no Harvest Moon game has been officially slated for MMO release, nor has Animal Crossing really come to bare what it would mean. Facebook’s own Farmville comes the closest. Still, what we need is something that combines all of these games into one.

With the rise of Free to Play and the recognition of MMOs not just being for adults it would make sense to most that a game the revolves around rural lifestyle with a simple to use, difficult to master gameplay style may in fact make an interesting title. We cannot state that features simply make the game, however. Farmville’s success was mostly its accessibility…so what then?


Before everyone goes too off handle, let me explain. For a game to be successful on PC it is either a mediocre success (makes its money back and a bit more) or it is a raving success (truckloads of cash). All of these rely on different factors. From personal experience, don’t contend where you can’t win: Subscription based games on PC WILL need to be made by world class producers and developers with money to burn and a proven ROI (Return on Investment).

So, the option that would make the most sense for a niche game such as this is twofold: Free to Play PC (where your audience isn’t necessarily ‘expanded audience’ unless you’re marketing on facebook) and the Wii, which has already established itself with two expanded audience games, Harvest Moon and Animal Crossing.

Mind you, the likelihood of Wii ever having an MMO on it is about as believable as Duke Nukem Forever coming out. So when I say Wii, it is merely to provoke the thought of possibilities.

Massively Multiplayer Online Gardening: The Concept

MMOs on the surface offer a few things for people: socialize, kill, achieve, explore, create

On the more technical side, it must also offer: Grind, reasonable difficulty curves, updating, and incentive.

The concept of creating a game that revolves initially around rural life is one that has not yet been pressed as hard as it could be. What originally grew MMOs into what they are now was the social aspect, and especially roleplay, which has for the most part been factored out of most games. Rural life, or the mentality of small townships, is akin to that need to socialize. Why would people play MMOs over, say, any other single player game? The People.

My concept is simple: The community aspect and ability to influence the town (both NPC and real player) of Animal Crossing, the style and world weary knowledge of addicting harvest moon games, the Expanded Audience gameplay and techniques and achievement systems of FarmVille, and online multiplayer capabilities.

And it’s been done before:

Star Wars Galaxies

A Tale in the Desert

Star Wars Galaxies, and the video I linked to, had a system once that was literally the epitome of Expanded Audience meets MUDs. Everything in that video starting from 2:20 was player made and situated. A town, fully alive, with taxes, town hall meetings, the works.

A Tale in the Desert is something akin to this as well. A small rural community that exists purely off of the enjoyment of simple yet difficult life within the realm of an MMO.

Massively Multiplayer Online Gardening: The Game

I honestly believe something like this can exist. With Harvest Moon's expiraments in Adventure/Farming games such as the DS title Rune Factory which is now going into its thrid title it is not far fetched to believe that even adventurers could be cut into the fold of this farming game.

If the game had some sort of start as an adventure game, where eventually people could branch out into the intricate and different classes needed it could appeal -- Most MMO players are used to running about, sword in hand, slaying monsters. This allows the player to become acclimated and, eventually, branch out into the other classes the game has to offer.

These interconnected classes (Farmer, carpenters, doctors, inventors, cooks, general store owners, etc) would be needed to create a propsperous community that players themselves could band together and make. Slowly players would be able to have say over what their town would look like, festivals they would celebrate, and so forth. The content would be ready-made by developers...but players would be able to CHOOSE from that their own experiences.

To reiterate my most important point, if such a game is to be successful it MUST market to the Expanded Audience. Simple to learn, difficult to master. A game like this will happen again, and the person to do it right will be better off for it. I also think that this is a topic worth discussing. Is it feasible? Will it happen?


  1. I've wanted an MMO on the Wii pretty much ever since I got one. I was thinking of maybe a Fire Emblem MMO, or even a Zelda MMO, where you could play as different races that had different abilities (like, Gorons could craft really well and Zoras could swim indefinitely).

    But anyway, I think you've made some really good points here. Social gaming has really caught on, and it can't be too long before someone comes up with a similar idea to yours and decides to cash in.

    I know I'd play it.

  2. In all honesty I see it as an inevitability. Although, Tactics does disagree with me to a degree. I'll let him take the soap box for that particular issue because I think it deserves some merit.

    What I believe, however, and at the center of this article, is that these games that we know and love (Harvest Moon and Animal Crossing) have the mobility to take what Star Wars Galaxies did with immersion and job/classes and turn it into a much more effective Second Life.

    It amazes me that even today so many struggle with the idea of making an MMO. Achievement + Time Investment will ALWAYS win out to a larger audience, however in this time of quantifying our MMOs, we've lost a lot of important additions; immersion for roleplay, player housing, guilds, and with the advent of player townships why NONE of those things are standard in gaming I'll never know.

    I seriously consider most of what we get now as almost a loss. PvP and PvE are being explored...but what about the EXPERIENCE? The only thing coming close is maybe The Old Republic taking a crack at story...but story doesn't make a game.

    We shall see.

  3. Immersion is definitely a big deal. Among MMOs, the games that are just "go to A and kill B to get C" end up boring me pretty quickly. I burn out on the narrow experience of just killing stuff. Games that involved more personalization and productive things to do other than killing (like, say, crafting) keep me interested longer.

    So I guess it is surprising that more developers haven't picked up on that. I would blame the philosophy that seems to dominate most third-party developers (especially for the Wii, unfortunately) of making a mediocre-at-best game, touting its franchise/motion controls/whatever replacement for quality they devise, marketing it, and letting the sales roll in before everyone realizes how boring the game is. Too many developers seem to be satisfied with "good enough" games (in any genre, really) instead of excellent ones.

    Which is why I'm hoping for Nintendo to make that Zelda MMO.

  4. Ultimately, I feel as though for the past 6 or so years, people have wanted lightening to strike twice. World of Warcraft will only happen ONCE. Something else will break through in a COMPLETELY different way, but never the same.

    I think the biggest problem is that being 'different' tends to be expensive and risky. Or is it? I guarantee that the Wii was technically a risk, but due to the know-how of a certain well-known Marketing person (Reggie!) it turned out to be the best bet.

    I don't think that, when making WoW, anyone there was banking on absolute success. I contend that what they did was look at what WASN'T being done, or included together. Match that with die-hard fans for a series and a company with a strong backing of hardworking technical people and have World of Warcraft.

    What I'm calling for is something we have yet to see in a mainstream MMO since before Star Wars was shit on by the combine efforts of Sony and Lucas Arts. I'm talking about immersion and player-made experience. Now, while I don't believe it should be on the PLAYERS to make up the entire experience (say like an RPG maker) there should be rule sets, tools, etc. Basically, and easily the best example, I'm talking about Player Cities. This idea is so simple, and I'm sure difficult to execute. But when you have YOUR players in YOUR world CREATING what it means to LIVE in that world? You get a very core audience that will stay through even some of the rockiest long as you don't destroy what they create.

    Consider an MMO an art class. The developer, as a teacher, sets up the room -- where they paint, with what, how, what they're painting and what they're allowed to paint. The students come. Some drop out of the class, but most are eager to express themselves. Everyone gets to have their own experience. Then the teacher says to her students; "Alright, I will now allow you to get into groups -- if you choose of course. Create together!"

    And suddenly people coalesce, people begin making decisions, putting their heads together, adding and subtracting, fighting and agreeing. A microcosm in the classroom. That is what MMOs COULD do, and for the most part do not create. Instead, most often times, we as players must make that for ourselves in a world (or classroom) that does not see fit to give us any tools to enjoy doing so. I might as well be outside imagining.

    Also, I don't think Nintendo will make an MMO, although Graal was popular when I was your age:

    When Tactics reads my stuff I'm sure he won't be able to help himself ;)

  5. All I know is, if this happens, it better not use friend codes...

  6. Great post Atlas. I wish you would have elaborated on your second-to-last paragraph, as I think the concept you introduced sounds interesting but could definitely use some fleshing-out. Perhaps another time?