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Virtual farm games absorb real money, real lives

Games like FarmVille have developed vast followings, but how much time and effort are some top players putting into them? And is it healthy? We talk to some of the companies involved and the players who are playing them.

We Farm by Ngmoco
Ngmoco's "We Farm" virtual farm game for the iPad.
Screenshot by Josh Lowensohn/CNET

Last century's cash crops included tobacco, cotton, and sugar cane. Now we have magic cauliflower and super berries, too--and even though they can't be sold at market, some people still toil from dawn to dusk cultivating them.

People spend not just real time but also real money growing these crops in virtual farming games that combine the allure of both games and social networking in what is usually a cute and deceptively simple package. They can be addictive: many users come back at least once a day to micromanage their farms and deal with other users' requests.

On average, the users of these types of games are spending anywhere from a few minutes a game to the greater part of an hour. Indeed, one individual who CNET spoke with said that it's all she does between waking up and going to bed--and that's every every day of the week.

The companies behind these titles are raking in millions of dollars from people who toil on land that doesn't even exist, and that number continues to grow. A research report from eMarketer in June said social games generated more than $725 million last year in the U.S. alone and projected three times that revenue in 2011.

One of the most popular social-gaming titles is FarmVille, a game designed by San Francisco-based Zynga that users can play in Facebook and on iPhones. More than 63 million active users each month spend an average of 15 minutes a day in the game, Zynga told CNET News. Typical activities for these users involve planting and harvesting crops, reorganizing, and helping to tend friends' neighboring farms.

The game can be played for free, but players can get an edge by paying. Farm cash and farm coins can be purchased for anywhere from $1 to $50 in real money via credit card, PayPal, and Facebook's Credits currency platform. With the virtual money, people can accelerate play or purchase goods that otherwise would take longer to acquire. It's only for the most involved, though.

"The large majority of our players never pay anything to play our games," Zynga told CNET, and that those who do account for only a "small percentage."

One of those players in the small percentage we'll call Katie S. She told CNET her daily FarmVille routine consists of waking up around 10 a.m. and proceeding to play the game until well past midnight, though her sessions can often go longer.

"I've been known to stay up all night until at least 5 or 6 a.m. if a new feature is out, and I'm excited about it," she said.

Since beginning to play the game last August, she's reached an unusually high level 111 in the game--40 levels beyond where the game offers incentives in the form of newly unlocked features. And she's spent about $2,000 on in-game currency expenses--roughly $100 a month.

"I justify this as being my only source of entertainment, and I'm forgoing movies and dinners out, so it's OK," she told us.

Before playing FarmVille, Katie said, she spent 18 months playing Zynga's Mafia Wars game before quitting cold turkey. "I realized I hated it. It wasn't cute. It wasn't even fun--just addicted clicking," she said. Katie also said that she plays a handful of other online games including PopCap's Bejeweled Blitz, which can also be played on Facebook and as of April had an average play time of 43 minutes a day by its users.

Not the only farm in town
FarmVille's dominance of the social-farming games world hasn't gone unchallenged. We Rule, an iPhone and iPad-only game developed by San Francisco-based Ngmoco long after Zynga's FarmVille took hold, now has more than 3 million registered users. They've spent 2.2 billion minutes harvesting crops, erecting buildings, and sending jobs to fellow players. The current average time spent playing the game is 45 minutes per user, per day--well over FarmVille's 15 minutes.

More staggering than these numbers is the size and economic force these virtual worlds now command. "If you assume the world of We Rule has a sense of real-world scale to it, people have laid enough roads to wrap around the Earth three times," Ngmoco's vice president of marketing Clive Downie said in an interview.

The We Rule "Mojo Store"
Players of Ngmoco's We Rule game can purchase virtual game speed-ups with "Mojo." The company told CNET that one user spent more than $12,000 on Mojo purchases. Screenshot by Josh Lowensohn/CNET

We Rule users have invested several million real-world dollars in virtual currency called Mojo, Downie said, and the combined wealth and spending of We Rule users continues to grow. Estimating the worth of one piece of Mojo at around 20 cents, "the active Mojo in the system right now is worth well over $6.8 million," he said.

Downie was eager to point out that the company gives Mojo away for free as players ascend to higher levels and attain various promotions, just as Zynga does with its FarmVille players. Mojo is also sold in-game; its price per unit can vary based on how much of it a player is purchasing at a time. This lands anywhere from 99 cents for just five units, all the way up to $49.99 for a "vintage" bottle that contains 800 Mojo. In We Rule's sister game called "We Farm," which was build using the same engine and employs similar game techniques, its Mojo equivalent "Gro" can be purchased in bulk at up to $99.99 as an in-app purchase.

So what's the most someone has spent on Mojo?

Try more than $12,000. "We're very grateful to those people, obviously. We don't sit and laugh about that and say, 'Ha ha, aren't we lucky?' That's serious business. We're providing a serious piece of entertainment for people, and that's why we're passionate each and every single day," Downie said.

Spending that much money on any game raises a question of longevity--how long will these titles exist, especially when they rely so heavily on a server farm that might share its CPU cycles and capacity with future titles. Downie offers reassurances: "We are dedicated to this game as not just a forerunner in the freemium space, but also as a foundational franchise for Ngmoco,"he said. "I hope we're never done."

Hobby versus addiction
While the amount of money spent within these "freemium" games can be surprising, what scares some about them is the time people are putting into it and the real-life activities they can end up replacing.

"The best example of this is on WowDetox.com," author and addiction and recovery consultant Ryan G. Van Cleave told CNET. "The first entry on there is someone who missed his son's fifth birthday because he was on a guild raid. He spent all day playing WoW [World of Warcraft] and admits that he was more excited to play it than he was for his kid's birthday."

WowDetox is a place for recovering World of Warcraft addicts to share their stories with the same kind of openness and support you'd find at a drug counseling group. To date, there are now more than 45,000 such stories left by users. And while WoW differs from these social-farming games, in Van Cleave's opinion, they're not all that different. "In my mind, these games pose a bigger problem, because of that sense of community and belonging that they bring. Those are the games that are the most addictive," he said.

Van Cleave, who recently wrote "Unplugged: My journey into the dark world of video game addiction," says that part of the allure of any game--but especially social games--is that people live unexciting lives.

"The technology is so impressive too,. We're darn near virtual reality, which you can see with 3D movies in the theaters, and today's games are keeping up with that," he said. "The experience with games is similar--we have this dopamine flowing through our bodies, and we're seeking future instances of that rush. But you never get it like you do those first couple of times."

If that sounds like something you'd hear from a drug addict, it's because some of the symptoms and habits people develop with game addictions are shared. "The early warning signs of game addiction are behavioral," Van Cleave said. "If a person is kept from gaming, they become irritable. And just like an old lady who gets behind the wheel of a car and drives like an animal, you get these good kids or adults who play video games and exhibit destructive behavior."

Katie's FarmVille masterpiece
A screenshot of part of Katie's FarmVille masterpiece."I like to collect one of each animal, and I'm trying to master all of the crops and have 47 of 70-something done so far," she told CNET. Screenshot provided by Katie S.

Van Cleave explained that one of the biggest warning signs is when someone lies about how much they game. "With so many levels of deception and lying, you're in way deep," he said. That's harder with social gaming, where user activity is largely public; games like FarmVille show players' actions inside the Facebook news stream. Users can play the title with some level of secrecy, though they have the potential to reap much larger rewards by sharing those experiences with other users.

"I suppose you can play without your friends' help, but it would be seriously slower play, and without much of the cool features that you just absolutely need help from others to complete," Katie had said over our e-mail exchange. "Some people are just so concerned about keeping their Facebook [profile] private, and with just friends, but just get so frustrated because they can't level up or get anything done, and end up adding tons of strangers."

Katie said one of the main reasons she keeps coming back is for the friends she's made. Before FarmVille they'd all been strangers, but now they rely on her for help maintaining their own farms. "They can be entertaining at times, too," she said. Another factor is how much she's already invested--both in time and money--and that she simply likes to "be the best" at games.

Katie explained that her family has been supportive of her playtime. For instance, her husband brings dinner to her while she's still on the computer when he gets home from work. She's also got extra time on her hands while searching for a teaching job, which she fills not just with FarmVille play, but administrating a handful of fan and how-to sites, including an entire Farmville page on the how-to site Wonderhowto.com and one for Zynga's sister game FrontierVille. She also began her own FrontierVille site that she plans to help roll into a published eBook.

These exploits arguably fall into line with something Van Cleave had said about how people can be heavy gamers and still find balance. "I know plenty of people with other activities and interests, their health, family, friends, and work, and who game 10 to 25 hours a week. And on top of that, they're good parents, they have a good job. That sounds pretty healthy to me," he said.

But that doesn't mean it works for everyone. "It's really going to be the person and the dangers. The hard thing going forward is to get society to the point where people get the courage to come out and say they have a problem and not get laughed at," said Van Cleave.

Katie says she might one day give up her FarmVille kick, but not just yet.

"I've had a few friends say 'bye' to the game so they could get back to 'real life.' I'm wondering when I'll get there," she said. "But with the blogs now, too, I'm in it for quite a while longer."