“Co-op” and Social Games: Squashed

This is not a post about how social games are changing the meaning of games nor about how simple and capitalist they are. Rather, it is a post about how one new feature added to an already existent and stable game can dramatically affect if not completely change the way its players…play.

Last week, Zynga introduced a new feature into Farmville, that little darling of Facebook investors everywhere. This new feature is called “Co-op Farming”.

Oh, how fun! I get to farm things with my friends!

Or that’s what everyone thought.

In reality, yes, you do farm things with your friends. You have a “work order” that says someone (someone who is randomly disconnected from any narrative or persistent world) needs 1600 pattypan squash pronto. You and whoever you can spam into joining you plant those 1600 pattypan squash just as fast as you can for a bonus in coins and XP. If you harvest them fast enough, you get *ding* *ding* *ding* a GOLD MEDAL!!!!! (A medal = a very small bonus in coins and XP, neither of which are hard to come by.)

Now, that sounds fine right? And not too game-changing. You plant crops, you harvest them, you get coins and you get XP.

Sure, it’s exactly the same game except that players used to farm things based on other criteria. The game hasn’t changed – the play has. A week ago, a player’s decisions were based on personal priority. Either they like planting flowers because they can decorate with them, or perhaps they like planting vegetables so they can earn mastery signs. Maybe they want to plant 2-hour crops or maybe they want to plant 2-day crops because they won’t be back to a computer for awhile.

Decision-making in the game has been completely changed by this new “Co-op” feature. Now, all planting decisions are dictated by the arbitrary needs of your work order (there are only four different work orders in the game). Instead of making designs in fields with different crops and colors, all one can see now is row upon row of pattypan squash.

Why does this feature, which is strikingly familiar to a very basic quest, change so much about how players play? Why does this change what is fun? It is as if a dictated goal automatically trumps anything else that used to be enjoyable. Ooo, red tulips. NOOOOO. YOU MUST PLANT PATTYPAN SQUASH. Instead of farms in revolution crying out for tulips, we have fields and fields and fields of squash.

They’re not revolting because they are still free. They could plant all the red tulips they want if they wanted to. But they don’t.

The squash has conquered. Tulip season is over.