Confessions of a CityVille addict

March 14, 2011, 7:17 PM UTC

Why Zynga’s casual gaming is minting money and hooking so many people — including yours truly.

The author's expanding community in CityVille.

I’m taking a break.

Right about now, I take a few minutes to harvest crops, put up several small businesses, collect rent, and hire Facebook friends to work at community halls. That’s because last month, I joined the legions on CityVille, the city-building simulation game from Zynga that annoys Facebook users with News Feed updates like, “JP needs donuts to feed hungry cops!” or “JP needs bird seed to feed pigeons!!”

Confessing as much by way of is even more embarrassing than the time I came out as a feverish, freaky-deaky photo-shopping Facebook addict. While many readers at the time identified with the notion of wanting to be liked, telling someone you’re a CityVille fan seems as dubious a distinction as announcing yourself a Britney Spears fan.

“If you ask me to join, I’ll block you,” my best friend mused. She said this with a smile, but I got the sense she wasn’t joking. Reactions from some colleagues were similar, from blank stares to silent judgment, followed by something like, “Oh, good for you.” (Translation: “freak.”)

I don’t blame them. As a hardcore traditional console gamer, I used to avoid casual gaming. Oh, sure, I wrote about it, and even respected it to an extent — any kind of gaming that brings in new players is a good thing — but I never really got it until my first chance encounter with CityVille a few weeks ago.

A CityVille architectural design, by Yick Kai Chan.

That’s when I wrote a story about Yick Kai-Chan, the game’s resident architect who spent over 12 years designing buildings in the real world but now designs all the virtual buildings in CityVille. To better understand Chan’s achievements, it only made sense to give his work a spin — of course, the problem is I never stopped.

Altogether, I spend at least an hour a day on my virtual city. When it first started, I went through fugue-like gaming sessions, seemingly struck by this inflated, screwed up sense of manifest destiny — it was my god-given right to build the largest self-sustaining virtual community possible one corn crop at a time!

And not long after, dissatisfied with the relatively slow progress enabled by the game’s free mode, I broke another self-imposed cardinal rule and bought $5 worth of virtual goods to speed things up. Granted, it wasn’t much, but that’s like a lapsed drug addict saying he only had one gram of narcotics as opposed to five.

Sad, sad, sad.

It’s all sorts of embarrassing because I swore to myself this day would never come. Growing up a hardcore traditional gamer, I’ve owned almost every gaming console released stateside since the first Game Boy in 1989. I’ve logged thousands of hours doing what we gamers call “grinding,” engaging in redundant gameplay mechanics like boss battles or driving on the same courses over and over to up our stats, unlock features, and make ourselves more competitive.

As a gaming purist, I wanted high performance hardware spitting out zillions of anti-aliased polygons (the building blocks of 3-D graphics) for impressive eye candy and vibrating controllers with 15 buttons all hooked up to a big flat screen. Yet, here I am a CityVille player while my once-beloved game consoles — a Wii, Playstation 3, and Xbox 360 — rest under my flat screen gathering dust.

Without my knowing it, my priorities had changed. I don’t have the same free time and patience. When I was a teen, I could devote chunks of time to playing the latest console release, and thanks to block scheduling in college, I had equally long stretches during the day to dedicate to games like Grand Theft Auto.

That’s not the case anymore, which is not to say I don’t have free time, I just don’t have as much as I used to. And I think that’s why casual gaming has taken off, both with people who don’t call themselves “gamers” and hardened gaming vets. The genre doesn’t offer gorgeous graphics or complex gameplay. (Far from it, actually. Nintendo’s Game Boy Color circa 1998 could probably handle CityVille in some form without a problem.)

That’s not really the point. Playing Grand Theft Auto might be fun for a thumb-callused gamer with ample free time, but for newbies or even just gamers with tight schedules like me, something like CityVille in all its simplicity lets users wade in at their leisure, no manual or tutorial required, for a few minutes, then walk away feeling like they made some serious headway. It’s so much more accessible – oh, and it’s free.

Is it graphically ambitious? Nah. Does it have innovative gameplay? What about being wholly original and innovative? Nope and nope. But they are incredibly simple and fun.

The approach is obviously working. CityVille broke all sorts of records to become the biggest online game ever with 92 million active monthly users, nearly half of the 200 million casual gamers around the world. And Zynga isn’t hurting. The company reportedly makes over $1 million in sales a day and pulled in $600 million last year.

So when I tell people what I’m playing these days and I get judgmental looks, that’s OK. Clearly, I’m not alone.