I started playing FarmVille – purely for research purposes, of course – a few weeks ago, and I harvested some stuff and planted some stuff and rescued some lost, lonely cows, and then I got addicted. But then I got bored. Zynga keeps making new features, and they do a pretty good job of keeping players playing – which I am, still – but it’s become a tedious addiction, like smoking in the cold, or having to wash my hands every time someone says “MUNI“. It’s not a sustainable addiction and I’ll probably quit soon. (Also, smoking. I’ll be quitting that too. Soon.)
So how do you make a game (or anything else) not just addictive, but sustainably addictive? There are games people are still playing after years – decades even; World of Warcraft, Diablo, Dungeons and Dragons. They all have something in common: user-generated content. Yep, that custom +12 flame sword or whatever you spent 26 hours on is actually a hot marketing buzzword. In the game industry, it’s sometimes called “player-generated content,” because they’re fancy like that. LittleBigPlanet, one of the most highly-acclaimed games probably ever, is based almost entirely on this concept. Mad Libs, arguably the original mass-market UGC-based game, has been around since 1953. The pillars of our modern Internet – Wikipedia, YouTube, and social media – depend on it entirely. No one’s getting bored of those.
When you invest time or money into something, it gains value. When you invest your idea into something, it becomes priceless. Everyone has time and money, but only you can create this content in exactly this way. This investment creates a sense of ownership toward the greater whole that you’re contributing to, because you literally created a part of it. The more the framework depends on your contribution, the more ownership you feel. Mad Libs might be at one end of this spectrum, Wikipedia at the opposite end, and your average democratic republic somewhere in the middle.
There’s two points I’m leading up to here. One is that frameworks and tools are more sustainable than static content or product, and creating the right environment for life may be a far better investment than trying to create that life from scratch, when it comes to content for games, websites, or probably any other medium.
The other point is that FarmVille should have a laboratory feature where I can create my own genetically modified super crops and sell the seeds to my friends. Get on it, Zynga.