Moreover, the complexity and depth on offer to players of these games far exceeds that which more traditional developers - or more traditional gamers - might expect. Speaking personally, I don't claim to be any great shakes as a gamer, but I've been playing for almost 25 years, and my own brief dalliance with Farmville last summer found me not only rather hooked on the game, but also forced to turn to Google to explain the details of many of the surprisingly complex systems which the game opened up as I progressed.

It may have a cute exterior - but like all successful games of its ilk, within the chest of Farmville lies a convoluted and finely balanced set of organs which rival the cold combination of mathematics, game theory and psychology underlying almost any successful modern game, from World of Warcraft or Dungeons and Dragons through to Call of Duty or Mario Galaxy.

It could not be any other way, because far from being an easily appeased audience, unfamiliar with the conventions of gaming and thus willing to swallow just about any old thing which Zynga chooses to throw at them, the social/casual gaming audience is actually extremely picky and hard to satisfy. In fact, they're much harder to keep happy than traditional gaming audiences, because they're not wed to the pastime in the same way.

If a social game doesn't capture their attention immediately, they'll dump it and find something better to do. If it ever allows their attention to wander - if it fails to strike a perfect balance of effort to reward, bores them with too much repetition or confuses them with an interface that doesn't seem to do exactly what they'd expect it to do - the same result will be forthcoming. A customer is lost, and they'll probably never come back.

Unlike the gamers currently making a huge fuss about problems with the PS3 version of Call of Duty Black Ops, social game players don't sign petitions or make vocal complaints - they just take their time, money and custom elsewhere, and that's a vastly more terrifying prospect for any company than an angry petition from customers who can mostly be relied upon to buy the next game in the series regardless.

Far from being cynically exploited fools who don't know any better, as more vocal traditional gamers (and some within the industry) seem to believe, casual gamers are savvy, tough consumers. They may not read specialist websites or spend vast amounts of time debating minor changes in Farmville's balance on obscure forums, but they know what they enjoy, and when they stop enjoying something, they abandon it without hesitation.

So while Farmville for Dummies may raise a wry smile, it's worth recalling that the audience for the game itself is by no means made up of dummies. If anything, the sophistication of that audience has forced social game companies to learn lessons about quality control and ongoing testing which the traditional games industry has always struggled with - and meanwhile, all of the lessons traditional game designers have learned in over three decades of building compelling, engrossing experiences are being boiled down to their core elements and most effective rules by the new wave of social game designers.

Today's social games aren't to the tastes of core gamers - and there's nothing wrong with that. If anything, it's the blossoming of variety within the games business that proves its advancing maturity, and the lesson of all of this is certainly not that every gamer should be giving Farmville a chance. Either milking virtual cows grabs you or it doesn't, and there's no shame in falling on either side of that fence.

However, gamers and industry people alike shouldn't throw the baby out with the bathwater. One of the most exciting looming developments in videogames is the potential for the lessons of social gaming to feed back into traditional games, taking the ideas and strategies which have brought gaming to a wider audience and using them to improve games for the loyal core audience. Next time anyone feels like sneering at Farmville or its players, stop to wonder if perhaps, in some small but important ways, they're already touching a future which the rest of us have yet to grasp.

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About the author

Rob Fahey

Rob Fahey

Contributing Editor

Rob Fahey is a former editor of who spent several years living in Japan and probably still has a mint condition Dreamcast Samba de Amigo set.

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