8 Ways FarmVille Designs for Engagement

Earlier this week John Doerr, an investor in Google, Amazon, and Intuit, said Zynga is the fastest growing venture he’s ever been a part of.  Zynga’s flagship game, FarmVille, has 3 times the reach of Twitter. FarmVille has 71 million active users while Twitter has around 22 million active users (Twitter has 110 million registered users, of which an estimated 20% are likely active).  Perhaps more impressively, Zynga is estimated to generate $50 million in revenue from the most engaged members who buy virtual goods and keep up a toolbar.

Every web experience designer can learn from the tactics deployed in FarmVille to engage members over the long term. Here are 8 tactics you should include:

1. Reward users for returning in a short time period. Every website visitor is going to leave at some point. But why will they return in 24 hours? FarmVille is centered around planting and harvesting crops. The shortest time a new user can harvest a crop in is 4 hours. So on the first experience, FarmVille says: “Go away and come back in 4 hours”. How bold! In order to make progress in FarmVille, you need to go and come back. The site also has functionality that you can only use once per day (e.g., giving gifts to friends), further encouraging you to go and come back.

Come back to Harvest!

2. Reward users for helping friends every day. When you give a gift to a friend on FarmVille, it actually benefits you. Fertilizing a friends’ crops does not cost you cash. Instead, it raises your experience level. So, you can feel good about both helping someone else and gaining points at the same time. Dropbox.com does something similar with their program for inviting friends that gives both the inviter and recipient extra space. But on FarmVille, you can earn coins and give gifts every day you visit a friends’ farm.

Help friends with a click, and earn points

3. Allow users to create without typing. FarmVille is incredibly easy to play–you just point and click. Click to till soil. Click to plant seeds. Click to harvest. It can be played by 5 year olds, drunk college kids, or tired parents. You never need to think about what to say, how to spell, or what key does what. Perhaps most importantly, it can be played by the user whether they have 5 minutes free (i.e., to harvest crops) or 30 minutes free (i.e, to redecorate their farm).

4. Show progress…everywhere…on everything. It seems like everywhere I look in FarmVille there are progress bars implying future levels of achievement can be obtained. If it’s an activity you can do on FarmVille, it’s measured somehow with coins, cash, points, levels, ribbons, and more. This make’s users aware of the value of their past actions.  It also suggests what the next step can be.

Top Progress Bar

Ribbon Progress

5. Make users feel lonely without friends–because if they get friends on, they’ll stay longer. After spending a few minutes clicking around FarmVille, you quickly see the game is designed for you to have friends. The main screen has at least 10 reminders of where your friends should be. These serve as a call to action to add friends. And you’re more likely to stay engaged if you have friends involved. FriendFeed claimed that, for their service, a new user is much more likely to stay active if they have 5 friends.

6. Enable self expression. FarmVille immediately lets you customize your avatar and start to customize your farm. You can represent yourself with just a few clicks of the mouse. And by making a representation of yourself, it’s likely you’ll care about it. Do you want to be the person who has withered crops or a small farm?

Customize your avatar...with a click

7. Offer increasing levels of complexity for mastery. After playing FarmVille for a bit, they started to unlock new things that cluttered my display. For example, after a week of play did I get a “gas meter” for a “Tractor”. I expect that if I keep playing they’ll be more and more things to unlock that can be mastered. [Editors note:  I've now heard that "horse trading" is something veterans can do]

8. Have surprises & limited time events. Sometimes when you plow a plot of land, you find coins. Sometimes when you log in, there will be a special promotion for a limited time stuff to buy.  These surprises make it fun and encourage repeat visits.  Even Google changes up it’s logo every now and then just to keep things fresh. I’m so curious about what FarmVille will think of next that I’m sure I’ll regularly stop by in the coming year.

Limited Edition Items

In summary, FarmVille is designed to retain users over the long run.  There is a lot that designers of websites can learn from the tactics deployed.  To hear about follow up posts on how FarmVille acquires users and monetizes, follow me on Twitter.


What do you think?  What else does FarmVille do well?  Will they still have more active users than Twitter in 2 years?

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  • http://thehyperlynx.com Scully

    Yes, but this method could also be applied to building better slot machines. The game itself requires very little skill or creative engagement on the part of the player. Farmville is evil game design; it takes advantage of human cognitive hooks and limitations for the purpose of profit.

    Video games should expand upon what we are capable of. Reward structures and timed events are fine to a degree, but Zynga goes too far. This kind of manipulation needs to be addressed, especially as games become more and more thoroughly integrated with out society.

  • http://jeremiahlee.com/blog/2009/09/16/lessons-from-farmville/ Jeremiah

    Great list. I blogged a few more awhile ago: http://jeremiahlee.com/blog/2009/09/16/lessons-from-farmville/

  • Alex Leeds

    Applies to management (of some people) as well: Set measurable goals with milestones. Reward progress. Enable self-expression, etc.

  • Jason

    Yeah couldn’t agree with above comment more. Glad John doerr is thinking big here… What a waste of his and everyone elses time.

  • Julio Verani

    Well, talking about the interface and usability, the game is trully awesome. I play it and i made some real friends inside it. They’re ideas are nice, specially the limited/special events.

    Talking about the profit scully said above, well, i play it for an year now and never spent real money on it. As many other games out there, you have to make your own fun inside. People use money on these games? Sure! But i see it like they have lots of money and dont care to spend it on a game, or they need to buy their fun.

    The fact is, if they earn money thru the game, they should spend it by hiring programmers for their staff that can solve the EVERYDAY problems and improve their server capabilities to avoid many problems that the players can experience almost everyday.

    I grade the game itself as an A , but the staff can get a B- or less…

  • Joe Camel

    Amazing product. Good article explaining how they do it. You can’t argue with success!! I’ve been to zynga HQ recently – they have a LOT of people working hard to improve not only this but their other products. That was my first introduction to them as a company, and they sold me in the first (and only) hour!

  • Debbie of Debbie’s weeds

    Thanks for clearing my weeds, neighbor! =)

  • Jeff Gatlin

    Option 5: Make users feel lonely… a rather sour way to look at it. I certainly wouldn’t play a game that made me feel lonely all the time. Better would be ‘Show users they can benefit by inviting friends’. The rest is spot on.

  • plant42

    The main problem with these games is that games involve some measure of skill, and risk/reward. In Farmville there’s no way to lose anything (progress, money, XP etc), have any numbers go down, or really suffer any negative feedback. There’s no skill building, I’m never getting better at anything. There is no risk whatsoever. Even in a game of chess I can lose pieces due to poor planning.

    Without risk, the endless stream of rewards, money, leveling up, bigger farms and overall pats on the back feels pretty meaningless/empty.

  • Pingback: 8 Ways FarmVille Designs for Engagement « Yet another Usability Blog

  • http://www.inboundstop.com/ John

    I have not played farmville before, but I understand the basics. I think #2 is especially important. It adds a viral component to the game which is very important.

    I might have to give the game a try, though I hear it is addicting.

  • Chas

    The real question is how to recreate the best parts of the process in one’s business without 200 programmers.

  • http://markfocas.pip.verisignlabs.com/ Mark Focas

    This is an interesting post, I like how cleanly you laid out your experience with farmville. The point 3 – allow uses to create without typing, I found it a little sad that such a popular game requires such a little amount of thought, however I do like the general sentiment. Things need to be easy to do otherwise you lose a good part of your audience.