(First, a few notes: 1) I have a conflict of interest with respect to the game I’m discussing here. I haven’t worked on it and I don’t have any particular inside information about anything I’m speculating about here, else I’d have to be rather more careful about what I write, but obviously I want it to succeed. 2) Normally, games don’t have a canonical URL to refer to, so I link to a page I create for them in my database. Facebook games (and Flash games, for that matter) do have a URL, but, after some reflection, I am going to maintain the same practice, in order to maintain my automatic game-to-blog back references and to avoid treating them in a non-parallel and potentially second-class manner. I will add the link to the game on the database page, though, so if you want to play them, two clicks will get you to the right place. 3) Facebook games change a lot more quickly than disc-based games, so anything that I say here could be inaccurate by the time you read this. In fact, with the magic of A/B testing, the game that I see could be a significantly different game from the game that you see, even if we’re playing at the same time!)

We launched a couple of games last week: Wild Ones is a social networking take on Worms, while Tiki Farm is our latest entry into the farm genre. And they’re both a lot of fun, go play them! (And send me lots of goo gun ammo…) I want to talk about Tiki Farm in particular for a while, because it’s managed to work its way into my brain in ways that I didn’t expect. (Aside from its theme song, which I find myself whistling at random moments…)

In typical competing farm games, the main constraint (assuming your goal is to level up and accumulate in-game cash) is the player’s time: you can plow or plant all you want, so as long as you’re willing to put in the time to return to your farm to harvest the crops, you can make quite a bit of in-game money. Actually, that’s not quite true: FarmVille puts a limit on the size of your farm unless which you can only expand by having many friends playing the game or by paying its publisher real money (not in-game money); that’s a pretty clever idea from a virality / profit point of view, but it’s still a fairly coarse-grained cap. (Though, I should add, one which emphasizes that the main constraint is the player’s time: do you really want to spend the time to regularly plow and harvest 60 plots? And of course withering crops are another way in which the player’s time is emphasized as a constraint.)

In contrast, the primary constraint in Tiki Farm is the number of plots available: you start off with only ten or so plots available, and you only get access to two more plots each level. Which left me a bit nonplussed at first—that’s kind of a lame artificial constraint, no?—but as I made it through the initial levels, my opinion of that feature changed. For one thing, I found that not having to worry about picking the size (in terms of plots) of my farm relaxed me: a whole set of conscious and subconscious worries went away. (It’s similar, perhaps to the way I relaxed and started enjoying Deus Ex a lot more once I hit the ammo caps.)

But, for another thing, having such a clear constraint focused my game play in a way that it’s not always focused in other similar games. As the Theory of Constraints teaches us, having a constraint isn’t a bad thing: assuming that your constraint is a sensible one, you can use it to focus your actions, by subordinating the rest of your system to that constraint. What that means in Tiki Farm is that you want to use your other resources in such a way that your primary constraint is being used at its maximum capacity. In other words: you always want to be growing something in those plots.

Which is easy enough to accomplish: the in-game currency (shells) is plentiful enough that you shouldn’t be in serious danger of not being able to buy seeds. In particular, you can sell any crop for more than you paid for it, so as long as you make the habit of replanting as soon as you harvest, you’ll be fine. At which point the question becomes: how frequently do you want to return to the game? Once you’ve made that choice, it’s pretty obvious which crop to choose (yams during my initial burst of power-leveling in the game), and you can get a nice little economy going, periodically earning enough excess profit to let you buy other items to decorate your island.

Or so I thought, until the first time when I wanted to do a purchase that would last me overnight. I’d been planting yams (a 15 minute crop); I wanted to shift to a longer timespan crop, and the obvious candidate was taro root (an 8-hour crop). The problem is that yams sell for 23 shells each, while taro root costs 45 shells; I’d get enough higher profit for taro root to be a better choice overnight, but I couldn’t afford to fill my plots with taro root based on the sales I’d just made! (It didn’t help that I’d recently sunk some of my profits into a very stylish cocktail chair.)

So, basically, working strictly on a throughput basis wasn’t good enough: a changing time investment mix led to a changing crop mix led to a changing fixed cost investment mix. In lean terms: I’d been concentrating on muda (waste, in the form of excess inventory of shells), but all of a sudden I needed to worry about mura (unevenness) instead! To be concrete, it’s a lot easier to plan a straightforward Tiki Farm economy if I’m going to play once a day at the same time (just pick a good 1-day crop and stick to it) than if I’m going to play multiple times during the day and (of course) not play at all while I’m sleeping.

An interesting lean lesson there; I still want to spend some time analyzing the economy to figure out the tradeoffs between inventory, throughput, and time. But without such a clear constraint, I’m not sure these issues would have arisen in a fashion that grabbed me so much.

Though, of course, the constraint isn’t as clear as I’m painting it. For one thing, you use plots to grow crops that you plant from seed; you can also buy trees, however, which bear fruit indefinitely after you plant them. So, in effect, a tree is a plot that you can purchase and that’s particularly inflexible; if you want to grow your economy as quickly as possible, you should siphon off your profits towards trees.

And that’s only if you’re playing solo. If you’re playing with friends, you can give each other gifts; a basic question there is, are trees better gifts or seeds? If somebody gives you a seed, it’s pure profit when it grows, so if you have enough friends giving you seeds, the amount of shells you can make increases vastly. But trees give you shells in perpetuity, so they’re probably still a win in the long-term; then again, you have a fixed island size as a hard constraint, so it’s conceivable that the time scales in question are long enough that trees aren’t as big a win as I think they are. (I certainly won’t turn up my nose at either sort of gift from my friends!)

And, while plot size is a major constraint, it’s not fixed: the number of plots does increase as you level up. This suggests another potential win for seeds: they give you opportunities to get experience points more quickly, earning you more plots. I should actually take the time to understand experience point opportunities better: in particular, do all seeds give you the same XP, or does it vary with the seeds? And, again, the social nature of the game increases the complexity here: for a while, a significant component of my leveling up was spending time clearing bugs off of my friends’ farms.

Speaking of which just what are the implications of helping others’ farms? As far as I can tell, opportunities to help others’ farms in FarmVille are largely artificial (I never see raccoons on my own farm); is that true for Tiki Farm, too, or does clearing bugs off of a friends’ farm have a real effect? If it does, it’s a double-edged one: on the one hand, I’m helping their crops grow faster; but, on the other hand, I’m depriving them of the opportunity to earn XP from clearing their own bugs. I kind of hope that clearing bugs is a real effect; if so, we have a much gentler version of the crop-stealing mechanics that are apparently present in Chinese farming games.

Fun stuff; I hope the game does well, there’s more there than meets the eye. Incidentally, if you’re not already my friend on Facebook, please send me a friends request; just identify yourself as a blog reader if you’re not sure that I know who you are. Or, alternatively, don’t send me a friends request: the only items I post on Facebook are stuff forwarded from my Twitter feed plus Facebook-game-related stuff. So if you want to see the Facebook game items or if you don’t use Twitter, then Facebook is the place to go; otherwise, you’re better off just sticking with following me on Twitter. (If you want my microblogging at all!)

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