Well, virtual farming is still going strong, as yet another social developer enters the foray. To be more accurate, this is its third entrance, as the company in question is once again Meteor Games. In the past, its designs have taken players to farming under the sea and to farming on deserted Robinson Crusoe islands. Those games have racked up respectable numbers of users.
Now Meteor is getting back to basics with its newest virtual farming Facebook application, Ranch Town.
Okay, so it’s a “ranch,” not a “farm,” but it’s close enough. The core of the game is still the same. Players plow land from an isometric point of view, plant crops, watch them grow, and profit (though it is worth mentioning, that this game doesn’t require upkeep as plants, animals, and trees never die). Sounds repetitive, no? Well, that’s where Ranch Town begins to differentiate itself — by including other important agricultural elements.
You see, your virtual ranching-self is a bit a jack of all trades. In addition to crops, you have not only the typical trees, but production animals and heavy machinery as well. The former, as in games like FarmVille, consists of cows and chickens. These guys produce milk and eggs that can be sold for profit, and at a surprisingly quick rate at that (only a minute of two). However, in order for them to produce anything, they have to be fed.
This is where the game starts to implement a light bit of strategy. In other farming games, it is typical for “serious” players to look up spreadsheets on what crops are the most profitable to make, and litter their fields with the monoculture crop, leaving most of the other crops untouched, and other requirements crammed into a corner somewhere. Frankly, it’s a bit of a dominant strategy (dubbed so, since many people use it by default), and takes away – to some degree – part of the game’s purpose. Nonetheless, Meteor Games mitigates such play by forcing the player to feed their ranch animals with specific types of crops.
You need to grow alfalfa to feed the cow, for example. These are the first sets of crops the player can grow, and can maturity in about four hours. Automatically, players now have to plant at least two types of plants (possibly three, but we have yet to unlock the chicken for purchase), and figure out what is the most profitable balance of feed plants versus sale plants.
One of the other new elements is heavy machinery. Obviously, most real farmers and ranchers sometimes do more than just have crops, trees, and a few cows. Many have some nifty equipment to make other food products such as juice, peanut butter, sugar, and so on. Initially, players can only buy three machines: A smelter, a soil processor, and a smoke house. Periodically around the player’s virtual space, they will find fresh river soil, salmon, and copper ore that they can harvest. Now, they can directly sell these for about five gold, or they can put them into the machines (just by a click, same as feeding the cow).
Over a period of time, the machine will produce copper bars, gold flakes, and smoked salmon respectively. These will obviously sell for more than their raw counter parts, so it becomes prudent to own the machines. Nevertheless, this is where the game steps up a little more.
Like the cow and chicken force the player to plant at least two types of crops, having the bigger machines (such as the peanut butter maker) will require other plants and machines as well. You need to plant peanuts if you want to make peanut butter, for example. If you want to make juice, then you’d better have grapes or other juicable crops. If you want to make bread, you better grow some wheat.
This more complex farming and ranching system is fairly rare for a social game. It’s reminiscent of a technology tree one might find in a traditional real-time strategy game. Granted, in such an example you absolutely have to have something before you can select the higher tech, but in the case of Ranch Town, building a big machine without the needed predecessors would prove pointless anyway. Unfortunately, this “tech tree” is still basic, so it is only a matter of time until someone figures out just exactly needs to be built to make the best profit. The spreadsheets that users have for this game will just need to factor in more variables than has been necessary for many other farming games.
As the game appears to be centered around the production of goods, the complaint regarding a lack of decorative elements seems a bit moot. There are creative decorations on the way, but likely, most players are going to line their entire space with crops, trees, and machines. That said, the space is a bit cramped and there is no way to expand it. Moreover, between these elements, there is really no progression for the player; nothing to really earn. Users plant crops and use machines to earn money and level up, where they then get bigger machines to earn more money and more levels. It becomes an endless cycle that doesn’t feel like it has any tangible plateaus or goals for the player to try and reach. They just become more efficient at what they were doing before. Perhaps there’s a larger lesson here?
Overall, Ranch Town is a pretty solid game for the virtual farming ilk, and with a strong core, it has a lot of potential for growth. Some generally important elements are currently minimized, like decorating
The complexity in the game is a design choice that Zynga and many other developers have been cautious to pursue. The risk is that many users won’t enjoy the additional challenge of building multi-faceted farming and ranching operations. Still, the more hardcore FarmVille players out there may be especially interested in this game. Meteor Games may sacrifice breadth of appeal here, but they may also be able to pull in a large number of serious players, many of whom are interested in paying for virtual goods.