Ian mentioned on his blog, the current facebook craze of FarmVille. Well, being one of those people that likes to dabble, I have tried it out.
To be fair, I am quite positive towards browser games (and their iPhone app cousins). I play in The Wrestling Game, an online browser wrestling sim and have done for 18 months now and its a lot of fun. Its actually quite time consuming in theory, but the joys of tabbed browsing have meant that it runs in the background when I am on the PC and I press a button occassionally to have a bout. I also have EpicPetWars and EpicSoldierWars on my iPhone. I find these slightly more palatable versions of the classic networking games like Mafia Wars.
If you have never played them before, the games are quite simple. You have some life. You have some energy. You have some currency. You earn experience and currency by doing tasks which cost you energy. Energy regenerates. You can earn exp/currency by fighting other players. Health regenerates. You can buy equipment etc. You can level up. And then, when you get to a certain level, items begin to have an upkeep cost and you must buy 'investments' which give you a cashflow to meet those costs. You get better equipment, you beat bosses to allow you to do better tasks to level faster etc.
Hang on - did I say 'quite simple'? In theory they are. I was trying to work out the maths behind the cashflow curve in EPW last night and see whether there was an optimal strategy of being naked and only buying weapons when you needed to fight a boss. It seems so. Where EPW departs from things like Mafia Wars and other such games is that in MW, your posse (ie. your friends in the game) fight with you, adding to your might. In EPW they don't. It makes a helluva difference and certainly makes the game a lot more playable for me.
Regardless, they are increasingly difficult time wasters for playing on the Metro as far as I am concerned.
From what I can see of FarmVille, it is slightly different. There doesn't seem to be a competitive component apart from being better than your friends. You plough and plant stuff. It grows. If you are online for a time after it blossoms, you harvest it otherwise it wilts on the vine. You can visit your friends farm and help them and that gives you more resources. OK. This is fine, but the point is ...?
Well I can see three points. The first is the level grinding. Micro-achievements within progression and proper achievements that you can aim for. We all know what song and dance. There is also an almost artistic side to it. As you build your farm, and visit other peoples, you can see the people who are organised and those that are higgly-piggly! Indeed, one of the guys who I have visited is a real life farmer and his looks like a text book from a middle school environmental sciences lesson on crop rotation! There is a cute factor too, with the wee little chickens and rabbits.
It seems harmless enough. I will continue my experiment, so you don't have to!