With the company behind the Facebook game Farmville reported to be considering flotation on the stock market, we look at the weird parallel world of web gaming.
Virtual mud on virtual boots: FarmVille game takes root on Facebook
Home, home on the range, I am never likely to be. A mortal fear of wasps and the inability to outrun a bull put paid to my romantic notions of rural subsistence living long ago. Which also probably explains why I raise little more than an eyebrow when Facebook informs me that my friend (let's call him Farmer Giles) has lost a prize cow or is building a pond via the social networking game FarmVille.
However, much like the hapless bovine, it seems I am alone in the cyber-wilderness, for this game has become Facebook's most popular application, with an estimated 62 million active users worldwide. Indeed, the creative force behind the game, Zynga, is reported to be planning to convert its virtual livestock to real stock this summer with a market flotation. Recent estimates have placed the company's value as high as US$10 billion (Dh36.7bn).
So what's got everybody hooked? First, the concept is easy to grasp: the player creates an avatar and receives a plot of land and a start-up fund of "farm coins". Players then earn "XP" or experience points for performing certain duties such as tending their virtual flocks and planting crops.
At certain XP benchmarks, the player's level rises in a fantasy-league which earns him or her "farm cash". There's also (although it's not obligatory) real cash involved, and Zynga reported around $850m turnover last year through the sale of virtual goods. After all, what self-respecting dairy farmer would be without a huge herd of cows and a row of gleaming outhouses?
But the overarching appeal of FarmVille is that the game is not actually a game at all. Zynga has created a social network within a social network. Strangers can become "virtual neighbours" while enjoying a greater degree of anonymity than accepting someone's "friendship" on the main Facebook site.
"I started off with a handful of farmers - friends known to me," says Magnus Nystedt, group editor of GameWorld Middle East. "After three months I had about 300 from all over the world.
"You can play the game alone but if you choose to meet your neighbours you can take part in 'quests'. Plus, helping them out and chasing away crows from their land makes you feel good! The gamer feels socially responsible and wins farm cash too, which keeps them logging on," he says.
The other characteristic of FarmVille that set it apart from traditional computer games is that it's not wildly competitive and plods along at a very sedate pace. The game is awash with colourful cartoon characters and there are certainly no monsters to shoot, not least because Farmer Giles doesn't own a rifle.
"It's not intimidating at all - nobody really wins so everyone wins," says Nystedt. "Sure, you can be strategic and buy your way up the farming ranking system but there's no loser."
The game is not without its critics, who say it forces players to exploit their friends and that the level of commitment required is far too high: Farmer Giles's dog is liable to run away if not fed regularly; worse still, his crop will wither if not harvested in time. But frankly, this still sounds pretty tame compared with the World of Warcraft or the entirely immersive experience of Second Life, the original lifestyle game, which was launched in 2003 independent of any other web entity and on a much broader conceptual canvas, and now has around 20 million users.
Facebook's other social network games, such as Puppy Nation and Atomic Strike, are following in the wake of FarmVille, but so far have failed to attract the same following.
However, the long-term success of the genre is guaranteed, says Nystedt, because online games are not only cheaper for developers to produce but also free for the players.
"This is the future. The popularity of console games is still growing in some places, but in mature markets such as Western Europe and the US, the trend is declining." he says. "Besides which, you can play social network games anytime, anywhere. From your iPhone to your work PC, the games are just a click away."
For all their popularity, social-network games do not yet share the street-cred of their console counterparts. What both have in common, however, is the ability to attract games addicts.
One such farmer even pitched up at the US television show Dr Phil, where the straight-talking psychologist told the obsessed mother to stop neglecting her children, "get out of FarmVille and start a garden for real!".
Love them or loathe them, we're witnessing the advent of a social network gaming boom and more developers will surely follow in the furrows that Zynga has ploughed. In fact, you can bet the farm on it.