Friday 26th March
How did it get to be Friday morning? The FarmVille article's due in on Monday and I haven't started writing it. I've been too busy playing FarmVille.
What have I got to show for it? Some virtual plants. Some digital cows. A pile of money I can't spend on anything which actually exists. A collection of cease and desist notices from non-FarmVille playing Facebook friends who would rather never speak to me again than read one more thing about my artichokes.
How did this happen? What have I become? Has the pub we're going to tonight got wi-fi?
That's it. This stops now. Time to write the article.
I'll just harvest these raspberries first.
It all began back in January, just before the iPad was announced. Blogger Jason Calacanis set the internet on fire by apparently leaking details of the new machine's specs.
Of all the unlikely-sounding claims Calacanis made - solar panel, HDTV tuner, PVR feature and so on - one in particular suggested this just had to be a wind-up. "FarmVille for Apple Tablet is a huge game changer," he wrote on Twitter. "I know for a FACT Mark Pincus is on stage tomorrow with Jobs."
Ridiculous! As if cool, sophisticated, hipster-friendly Apple would launch its new must-have gadget with the help of Mark Pincus, head of brash, uncool, housewife-friendly Zynga. Why go and do a thing like that?
For 85 million reasons. According to Zynga general manager Bill Mooney, that's how many people play FarmVille every month. More people than there are using Twitter. More people than there are in Germany.
Which got us thinking. Can 85 million people be wrong? What if there's something to this whole FarmVille thing? In the interests of research, it was determined I should give the game a go and report back.
To help with writing the article I decided to keep a diary. This was in the days when I still had time to do things like keep diaries, before I knew what FarmVille would do to my life. What started out as a memory-jogging tool turned into a bleak and chilling record of one woman's spiralling descent into FarmVille addiction. I've included excerpts here in the hope they will act as a warning, and in the hope that padding the article out with them will mean I can get back to my eggplants sooner.
Friday 26th February
Here we go! There are five steps to getting started in FarmVille. And 12 steps to getting out, from what I've heard. Just the other day, a grown man was telling me how he had to interrupt an important business meeting in order to harvest his blueberries. But that won't happen to me - I am a detached and objective professional, and never have to attend any important business meetings.
The five steps involve installing the game, bookmarking the page, agreeing to accept "exclusive offers" and allowing updates to be published automatically. I'm a bit nervous about the last one. I don't want to infuriate all my friends by bombarding their Facebook homepages with rubbish about cows. Still, in the interest of thorough research, I ticked the box. I'm sure they'll understand.
After that I ploughed a few squares of land and planted some strawberries. It's all familiar stuff. The view is isometric and the playing area is divided into a grid. There's a Market where you can buy seeds, animals, vehicles and so on. You get XP and "Farm coins" for harvesting crops, and you get to buy more stuff as you level up.
Much like Harvest Moon, Ranch Rush and every other farming game ever made, then. What's all the fuss about?
Saturday 27th February
Logged in today to be greeted by a barrage of messages. "We are actively working to resolve Out of Sync and Gift issues," read one. What's a Gift? Why do they have issues? "For now, Unwither has been turned on for all farmers," read another. "We've just released additions to the Lunar New Year package as well as the ALL NEW California-themed Limited Edition items!". What?
Message after message, and I barely understood any of them. Is there some sort of tutorial I missed? I planted some more strawberries and logged out, feeling frightened and confused.
There are no further entries for several weeks. I was avoiding FarmVille, ostensibly due to a heavy workload, but really because I was worried there must be something wrong with me if FarmVille left me frightened and confused. With the article deadline looming, however, it was time to press on.
Friday 19th March
Now I understand about the blueberries. Turns out that if you don't harvest your crops soon after they "mature", they "wither". Instead of finding a field of bright red strawberries when I logged in today, I was greeted with a load of old sticks and leaves. Crops take between four hours and a few days to mature, depending on the plant. Must bear this in mind in future.
Today's flood of messages included, "Your friends fertilised your crops!" This was unnerving. Who are these friends? Why did they fertilise my crops? In real life, do they creep into my garden while I am asleep, sh** in my rose bushes and piss on my lawn?
I have been awarded a new ribbon. These are like Xbox Live Achievements - you get them for planting a certain number of crops, earning a particular amount of money and so on. They come with free bonus XP and Farm coins.
I earned today's ribbon for being "a model of efficiency". I feel like I'm working in a Stalinist gulag.
Still, who cares? It's Friday night. I've finished work and now I can forget all about FarmVille for the rest of the weekend!
V. v. nice evening, lotsof wine. Told Jon + Dale how rubbish Farmvlle is and how I don't undrestand why 85 million ppl like it. They agreed.
Off to bed. Will just harvest this wheat and plant some cows frist.
First signs of addiction there. That was when I started checking my appointments schedule when planting my FarmVille crops, making sure I'd be near my PC when the soybeans came good and not out and about. That was when I still went out and about.
But then things got really serious.
Sunday 20th March
So far I haven't been too impressed by FarmVille. It just seems like a Facebook version of a lot of games I've played before. But today I realised I've been missing the point - the key word there is "Facebook".
Sounds stupid I know, but until now I didn't bother checking how many of my Facebook friends might be playing the game. Turns out there are around a dozen. Now I understand that interacting with them and their farms is key to the success of your own. For example, fertilising someone's crops earns you extra XP. Feeding their chickens might get you an egg containing your very own birdie.
Then there are all those annoying messages which FarmVille players spam their friends with. Before I started playing, they drove me bonkers. I couldn't understand why Tanja was offering me a bunch of tulips, or why Luis needed me to know he'd found some fuel.
Now I realise that when you publish these messages, other FarmVille players can click on them to receive a reward. If I accept Tanja's tulips, I can win a ribbon for having flowers on my farm. If I click on Luis' update, I can share some of his fuel and use it to power my tractor.
Here's the catch, the clue that Zynga must be run by an evil genius. You can choose whether to publish your updates, but you can't choose whether only FarmVille players will see them (at least, I can't find such an option, and I've looked hard).
You're left with a dilemma: do you annoy non-FarmVille players by spamming them with news about your butternut squash, or annoy FarmVille players by refusing to share the wealth? It make's Sophie's Choice look like a coin-flipper.
At first I tried to strike a balance. I published only the updates offering the best rewards. I tried to resist checking the site every eight minutes to see if anyone had any more fuel to share. But that didn't last long.
Monday 22nd March
I tried to plant more seeds than I could afford this morning. "Hey there!" said the game. "Looks like you need some more Farm Coins! Want to get some now?"
I clicked the "Yes, Please!" button. (There wasn't a "Yes, YES, GIVE THEM TO ME" button.)
I was then presented with a menu of currency for sale. So this is where the micro-transactions come in. Prices start at £3.29 for 7500 coins. Think of all the aloe vera and pink cows you could buy with that!
But there's no way I'm spending hard-earned money on fake money to buy virtual plants. That's ridiculous.
Tom says I can't expense Farm Coins. V. disappointed.
Tuesday 23rd March
Having made the decision not to get involved with micro-transactions, which would feel like cheating, I have realised I need to maximise revenue opportunities elsewhere. So far this has involved fertilising the crops of every FarmVille player on my Friends list, and asking virtually all of them to be my Neighbour.
Having Neighbours is like having a Friends list within FarmVille. You need a certain number of them to get access to certain items. Even after I'd sent Neighbour requests to all the FarmVille players, I still didn't have enough to qualify for a Dairy Farm.
I asked my friend Kim, who doesn't currently play, to join the game. She was reluctant but agreed after I explained it'll only take a few minutes to sign up, and she doesn't have to keep playing the game once she's accepted my Neighbour invitation.
Wednesday 24th March
Email from Kim: "I hate FarmVille. It has taken over my every waking moment. WHY?"
I have become a drug pusher.
Thursday 25th March
A great day. Realised you can play FarmVille via Zynga.com and cut out the Facebook middle-man, so you only see FarmVille-related Friend updates. This means you can focus entirely on who has fuel and mystery eggs to share, rather than being distracted by tedious news about what mood people are in, whether they've successfully given birth etc. A great day.
Friday 26th March
Spent morning clicking on the News Feed and visiting other people's farms. Why can you only fertilise each person's crops once per day? What am I supposed to do for the next 12 hours?
Watched the film adaptation of Fast Food Nation with Pete. He was visibly repulsed by the abattoir scene. I didn't tell him all I could think about was how many Neighbours you might need to get an abattoir in FarmVille.
Saturday 27th March
Another email from Kim: "I hate FarmVille. I want so much to have a big, successful farm. WHY?"
Sunday 28th March
Visited Miriam's farm today. She'd let her crops wither. The shame. She must have stopped playing. The game said I could cast a "free Unwither" so all her crops would come back to life, so I did. I posted an update to let her know.
Monday 29th March
Miriam has started playing FarmVille again. Feel a bit bad that I got her back into it with my Unwithering. Took solace in getting extra XP for scaring crows off her crops and rescuing the ugly duckling she found.
Tuesday 30th March
Need one more Neighbour. Sent Johnny request, backed up with an email explaining it's "for work" and I just need him to accept the request as a favour. "That's fine," he replied. I doubt he'll get addicted.
Email from Johnny: "Oh FFS I'm signed up and involved and sh** now. WHAT HAVE YOU DONE?"
So we come to the present day. I'm level 19 now, with just 705 XP required to reach level 20. I've got 45,138 Farm Coins in the bank and a field full of Chilli. I've got 13 chickens, brown, white and pink cows, a goat, three sheep, two ducks, a swan and a penguin. No, I don't understand what the penguin's doing there either.
But I do have a greater understanding of what FarmVille's about. With games like Harvest Moon, no one cares how your farm's doing except you. You might tell everyone in the pub you've got all the gold medals in Farm Frenzy, but they won't care. I know from experience that most people in the pub won't care how many yellow ribbons you've got in FarmVille either, but one or two might, and then you can talk to them about it until everyone else threatens to switch tables.
The social networking aspect takes the reward mechanic which makes farming games so satisfying and throws in the ability to show off. You get the same feeling of power and control as with a real-time strategy game, but everyone can see how you wield that power, and instead of launching air strikes you get to breed pink cows.
"Basically I love it AND I hate it," wrote Kim, in one of her more lucid emails. "It gives you that pleasure of changing something around and making something pretty and prosperous, when you might not have that sort of control over your day-to-day life."
Then there are the clever tricks Zynga has built into the game. The brilliantly designed mechanics which don't just keep you playing, but get you to get other people to keep playing. I've got Kim, Miriam and Johnny to either start playing FarmVille or go back to playing on a regular basis. If each of those people got three people to play, and each of those people got three people to play, and each of those people... Well, you'd be at 85 million in no time.
On top of all that, FarmVille exploits the desire to be seen as generous. Giving stuff to your friends feels good, even if it is only fictional petroleum or virtual fertiliser. There's pressure to keep playing so you can keep sharing the wealth, even though doing so means infuriating non-FarmVille players with the endless updates. (By the way: if you're one of the infuriated, you can change your Facebook settings to block FarmVille messages, for the record.)
I'll probably keep playing FarmVille, at least for a bit. Not on the iPad - Calacanis was indeed having a laugh, it turned out. But that doesn't mean Apple and dozens, perhaps hundreds of other companies aren't sitting up and taking notice of what Zynga's achieved.
There was evidence of this at the Game Developers Conference in March. Stand in the bar where all the developers hang out and you'd hear the words "FarmVille" and "Facebook" mentioned over and over again. The general consensus seemed to be that FarmVille was a flash in the pan, that Zynga was just out to make a quick buck, that it couldn't be generating much profit anyway. No one would admit to playing FarmVille, that's for sure.
On the first day, Zynga's Amitt Mahajan delivered a speech titled "Rapidly Developing FarmVille: How We Created and Scaled a No. 1 Facebook Game in Five Weeks". Before getting stuck into his technical talk, Mahajan mentioned that with no advertising, FarmVille had 18,000 users a day 24 hours after launch and one million users a day after four days.
The room was packed. People stood against the wall and sat on the floor. Outside stewards turned dozens more of them away, blaming health and safety regulations. It seemed that despite all that anti-FarmVille sentiment, everyone wanted to know the secret to Zynga's success.
Here's the thing: whether they're right or wrong, you can't ignore 85 million people.