Saturday 3 December 2011

Automatic Gardens

If a game makes me spend hours playing and there’s nobody to make money from it, am I being exploited? Such are the deep and ponderous questions found in the Zen Garden of Plants vs. Zombies. It was my strange fate to become obsessed with this seemingly pointless but actually mysterious time-sink minigame – and to wonder why a game would offer automation as its ultimate reward.

Things start simply. Halfway through the main Adventure mode of PvZ, you’re introduced to the Garden and given a potted plant to grow there. Plop it down and it’ll start popping out coins every thirty seconds. Click on the coin, enjoy the satisfying tinkle of acquisition, wait another thirty seconds, and repeat – for hours, if that’s your idea of fun. It’s like a skinner box, except nobody’s watching and the scientists have hit the pub.

Initially the Garden is next to useless, and its rewards are slim. But it’s clear that if you grow your garden and invest in new plants you can reap great piles of cash. Growing your first plant to completion gets you a $1,000 diamond, reinforcing the message that there’s big money available. This is crucial if you want to afford the upgrades at Crazy Dave’s car boot sale (PvZ’s in-game upgrade shop), which are so prohibitively expensive they’re practically unattainable through normal play and require heavy Gardening.

Yet each individual coin is so worthless that, without Dave’s garden upgrades – bags of fertiliser and watering cans - you’d spend hours intermittently clicking just to save up for one more plant. A treadmill ensues as you buy more so you can earn more, and use your earnings to buy new upgrades. You’ll keep setting yourself back from the magic $20,000 required to buy an extra plant slot – the one main-game upgrade that every player wants – to increase your moneymaking power. For a garden of spiritual tranquillity this sure smells like samsara.

Of course you can ignore the whole thing. But like a scientologist peddling a free personality test, the game makes every effort to get you on board. Carrot: Adventure play rewards you with free gifts that you must pay into the Garden to properly exploit, like water plants that don’t grow unless you buy them a whole new pond ($30,000). Stick: watering the multiple flowers required for serious farming is as awkward and niggly as possible unless you pay another $10,000 for a cluster-gardening golden watering can. 

Here, ordinary game design has been inverted; instead of fixing a bad interface for the player’s benefit, the developers make you work and pay for a better one. They know that one day on your journey to big bucks you’ll log into the game, notice the teardrop icon hovering on the main menu, log into the Garden and stare at the wall of plants all screaming to be watered click by arduous click. On that day you will either quit forever or you will say to yourself: fuck this, I’m buying a ten thousand dollar watering can.

At its craziest the Garden offers a pet snail which crawls around fetching coins. And suddenly you’re playing so you can earn enough to purchase automation – that is, your own irrelevance. In fact, this is where the Garden comes into its own, because finally you can just leave the game running in the background while you clip your toenails or play something else. You merely alt-tab occasionally to keep your single overworked employee hooked on the (several thousand dollar) chocolate that lets him zoom around the greenhouse to gather your cash.

This is fitting, because automation in PvZ is a reward for the player and indeed her final goal. In Adventure mode the player seeks automation because she is trying to build a defensive line that will govern itself without her intervention. The game’s greatest source of satisfaction comes from the slow, sad spectacle of a garlic bulb’s face falling as it watches zombie after zombie spurn it for other plants and starts to realise that it isn’t quite as attractive or tasty as its mother always told it. But the second greatest source of satisfaction comes from those moments when you can sit back and grin as your plants cut down hordes of zombies without your intervention. Its fun and difficulty spring in turn from how it prevents, frustrates and undermines that goal. This is the paradoxical, vaguely Lacanian dynamic of playing PvZ: the player is always accelerating towards a state of automation whereby their mastery of the game is so perfect they don’t really have to play anymore. Of course, if she started in that state, it would be a fairly boring game; the fulfilment of desire is the annihilation of the player (or something like that).

In the Zen Garden this sweet, sweet oblivion works to create two levels of ‘farming’ activity. On the one hand the player is encouraged to farm the game by returning at the right time and getting maximum bang for their buck. At the same time, as Jonathan Blow argues, the game is farming the player by restricting certain key commodities and mandating play to get at them.

We’re used to such design in the social games Ian Bogost satirises as ‘cow clickers’. Dragon Age: Legends, for example, made progress near-impossible without regular real-world spending. Sure enough, the Zen Garden shares with Farmville a strategy of coercion by efficiency. Not only does it require upgrades but also constant attention: while Adventure mode trains you to click on every coin you see before it vanishes, the Zen Garden can only be fully exploited if you play every day (and the game makes sure you know it). Popcap have taken their name to heart: they offer the crisp pop and hiss of a soft drink that is marketed as refreshing and makes you thirstier with every sip.

But at least in other games someone is reaping a direct harvest from your clicks: both Farmville and Legends offer per-item microtransactions for meat currency, while the former integrates advertising and product placement. I’ve already bought Plants vs. Zombies and have spent nothing more on it – getting me addicted is just rubbing it in. In this Zen Garden I can’t see how anybody gains a penny from mechanics otherwise perfectly designed for exploiting the player. It’s like if you made the perfect automated garden and then died of dysentery inside your house. The farm would keep on going with no purpose.

Why? Why make me buy a ten thousand dollar watering can? Isn't the main game addictive enough without this bizarre parasite market? Perhaps PopCap were trying the idea out to see if they could make real money; they recently commissioned a report on the social games market. But to my knowledge they have yet to move beyond the ‘buy once and play forever’ business model. In fact, while EA's purchase of the company for a preposterous amount of money was widely reported earlier this year, few outlets noted that they also rejected an even more generous offer from Farmville makers Zynga. So perhaps Steam’s log of my tremendous playtime and equivalent statistics from their mobile customers help them court investors. That might have been part of their pitch to EA, though even then it was unclear quite what made them worth it. 

I am genuinely curious about PopCap's behaviour, and if you have a theory, let me know. But in the absence of any other explanation for it I must provisionally conclude that this goes deeper than money. Games have been monopolising our time since Civilisation and probably before that too. Currency grinds are old news and ‘addictive’ design, whereby every task completed creates a task unfinished, turns up across the single-player spectrum from RPGs to Assassin’s Creed II to Minecraft. Indeed, addiction and obsession have been held up as the goal of developers for decades. So maybe this is about the same desire that drives me to bother with the Zen Garden in the first place: the desire to have, fulfil, complete, to establish control, to win totally and utterly.

Maybe the Zen Garden is the final result of every 20 Wolf Tongues Quest in an MMO, every mile of tiresome backtracking in every action adventure game, and every stupid Crysis minefield that forces you into a pre-designed encounter so that you can’t skip past it – of every game that takes days and days to complete despite being aimed at adults with jobs and girlfriends and dogs to mortgage, and of every stupidly addictive PopCap title – the ultimate expression of developers’ mad, acquisitive hunger to wholly and utterly dominate your time.

Maybe PopCap’s employees all died a long time ago. Maybe an incident involving a deadly neurotoxin left their offices empty and sealed. Maybe, like financial algorithms blindly knitting the world economy, their design tools and their computer assistants just went on manufacturing away, automating out of control, executing their last orders: make people play. And maybe EA, who assumed until the purchase that they were dealing with real humans, has spent the last six months dropping subject after test subject into the PopCap complex to try and navigate to the heart of it and stop the insane machine for good. And if they never came back, maybe it was just because they got absorbed in tending the garden.

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