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The First Farm Games on Facebook
In the beginning (back in early 2009), Facebook had farm games like Barn Buddy and Happy Farm. In these games, you grow crops in plots of dirt that the game provides for you. You water, weed, and spray for bugs. When they're grown, you harvest and sell them. You can also water, weed, and spray bugs on your friends' farms - and if their crops are grown and not yet harvested, you can steal some.
To a lot of would-be farmers, the concept of crop stealing seemed unnecessarily antagonistic. Most of the time you're trying to help things grow - your own or your friends'. Any kind of player-vs-player (PvP) approach just seemed out of place, and the games that made crop stealing a crucial part of gameplay - where you couldn't advance unless you stole from your friends - were just not very appealing.
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The Rise of Farm Town
Then came Farm Town. Made by Slashkey, it lets you create your own farm layout, any way you'd like. There is no watering, weeding, or spraying for bugs; you plow, plant, wait a while, then harvest. The basic gameplay mechanic is fairly simple and straightforward. You plant a crop with a specified timer. The crop is ready to harvest at the end of the timer. The crop spoils in the field at double the end of the timer. So for example, if your purple grapes are a 4-hour crop, they are ready to harvest four hours after you plant them, and they spoil at eight hours. Each crop has a different timer, from two hours to four days, and there are a great many crops.
More importantly, your crops cannot be stolen. Instead, friends can help harvest - and when they do, both you and they are rewarded. You can also hire total strangers not on your Facebook friends list and still get the same rewards. (Nowadays other players can help plow and do other things unrelated to the original basic game as well, but back then it was just harvesting.)
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This way of farming inspired highly cooperative gameplay, where people trade working on each other's farms for mutual benefit. Along with the fully-featured avatar chat, which allows player avatars to gather in common areas like the market or inn, suddenly interacting with friends - or strangers across the world - went to a whole new level for games on Facebook. It's almost like the kind of immersion of an MMORPG. A lot of great conversations can happen when people drop in on each other's farms at the same time or run into each other's friends. No other Facebook game has matched this level of interaction yet, though Kingdoms of Camelot comes close (it has a text chat feature).
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Farm Games on Facebook: The Origins of Farmville
Naturally, as Farm Town's popularity grew into the millions of monthly active players, game-maker Zynga took notice. Zynga is well-known for stealing every successful game concept introduced on Facebook, making a game of their own from it, then relentlessly marketing it until everyone thinks it was their idea. For example, their most successful game at the time, Mafia Wars, was originally stolen from Metamoki's Mob Wars. Sometimes their version comes out better. Other times, not.
Farmville when it first came out was almost an exact copy of Farm Town, except without the avatar chat that makes the friend harvesting exchange possible. The graphics were borrowed over from Yoville, another of their games, and basic gameplay was exactly the same: plow, plant, wait, harvest, sell. Not many Farm Town players liked it - the graphics weren't as appealing, and it didn't inspire the same kind of highly interactive cooperative atmosphere due to the lack of chat.
However, because Zynga had a lot of players of their other games, it wasn't hard for them to find people to play Farmville who had never played Farm Town, simply by advertising it in all of their other games. A lot of people came over from Mafia Wars. Then there are all the wall posts. Every single action of the game triggers a popup offering to post about it on the player's Facebook wall. Every level-up, every trophy, every first farm animal or any other first. A great many items are also only available through wall posts. The sheer number of wall posts made it impossible for other Facebook users to not know about the game. Non-gamers often end up assuming that the Zynga games are the only games on Facebook.
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Other Games, Farming and Otherwise
Meanwhile, the basic crop-timer mechanic that Farm Town introduced is now everywhere. It's gone into nearly all new farm games on Facebook since Farmville's meteoric success, such as Tiki Farm, Farm Country, Lil Farm Life, Country Life, and Frontierville. (Playfish's Country Story is a notable exception.)
It works so well, in fact, that it's also gone into games having nothing to do with farming. Zynga's Cafe World, introduced after the success of Restaurant City by Playfish, is a restaurant simulation game - it does exactly the same thing except with food cooked on stoves. Social City by Playdom is a city simulation game which does the same thing with factory products. Zoo World by RockYou! does the same thing with treats to zoo animals.
As new games continue to debut on Facebook, it will be interesting to watch where and how Farm Town's timer mechanic is used next.