Happy Island: Marketing and Strategy in Facebook Games

Its been just over 48 hours since I started playing a game on Facebook called Happy Island. No, I haven’t played for 48 hour straight, I’ve spent maybe an hour total on it. The basis of the game is that you’re given an island to build into whatever you want. Tourists magically want to come to your island and you have to build hotels, attractions, beautify and culture the island to make them spend money and stay longer. As you spend money and build things, you’re given ‘Experience Points’ which raise you to the next level. If you have friends who play the game too you can visit their island and see how many levels they’ve got.

This game is like most I’ve seen since Cafe World last year where it plays on the human instinct to want to be able to see accomplishments at a fast pace. Within 10 mins of playing, you’ll already be at level 3 and be hooked. These games also work on you wanting to be the same or better as your faceless Facebook friends who always seem to be a level above you.

So what makes this game different? I’ve noticed while playing that the makers are getting really good at exposing you to as much of the available expansions and addons as possible. This game also incorporates Facebook credits which are said to be the next payment option offered online to customers, which is kind of scary.

First, Happy Island and similar games (Cafe World, Farmville, Zoo-something) are based on time. It takes time to make money, time to build things, time before you can accomplish the next task. This is why people keep playing, because they can play for 5 mins, then come back the next day and have made more money or completed their buildings automatically. They require very little in terms of time commitments unlike other platform games, where you can play for hours straight. You can’t do that for these games. Trust me. Staring at an island waiting for more people to come and pay money for things is very mind-numbing. But its the lack of time needed to actual progress ratio that makes these games addictive.

Second, Happy island uses an internal ‘game’ called QUESTS which asks you to help people of the island by buying specific items in the island’s shop and placing them on the island. Eg: Help keep swimmers safe by placing 2 lifeguard huts on the island (only $2500 each!). This seems simple, but it makes you scroll through all available purchases to find the specific items, plus makes you spend money on them. Winning a Quest gives you more money (less than the same amount you spent), experience points (yay!) and a new quest (I see a pattern here). What makes this even more cunning and interesting in terms of addiction is that each day when you open the shop’s list of items they are in a different order, as well as having ‘daily specials’ and ‘featured items’ that take the front page. The combination of featured and mixed up items makes it so that you are constantly seeing new or missed items that you definitely want to buy. No more do they list the items by price or by the level at which they are unlocked. This is key for keeping the 3 second attention span of internet users focused on the game. I know myself that I’ve changed my idea of how I want my island to look a few times now due to finding new items or groups of items (I’m on a steampunk kick now!).

Another feature of the game is to force you to want to interact with and get more of your Facebook friends to be neighbours. The normal way is to give you more features/rooms/land as you get more friends in the game. What the brilliant people of Happy Island came up with is to plunk down a very large swinging birdcage-looking thing in the front of your island with a large exclaimation mark over it. When you click on it, it says you need 5 friends to help you unlock it and find what mystery lies within. Oh and this ‘special mystery prize’ is only available for 155 HOURS. So unless I convince 5 friends to join, start an island, and pick a feakin lock, I have to watch this thing swinging on my island for the next 155 hours. That’s almost 7 days. How annoying. And yet I’m almost tempted to personally message 5 friends to join and help me because this is too annoying. Brilliant.

So we’ve now moved into the land of Facebook currency. These are Facebook’s own way of buying digital goods across multiple games and apps. You get credits from spending money at specific stores online, from buying them at certain real stores, like 711 or Target, or from paying for the credits directly through your Visa/MC/Mobile Phone/Etc. Using ‘real’ money to buy digital goods has been a billion dollar industry for a couple years now, but Facebook credits, a cross-platform currency is coming up as the way to spend money on Facebook. Happy Island, like many other games, leaves its best addons and features to be purchased only by Facebook credits and not the ‘island coins’ that you can buy other things with. And boy do they make the items to be bought with FB credits really really cool! I want!

I really enjoy seeing how games are getting more into the minds of the players. Its not the simple solitare games anymore. These games go to great lengths to make the player want to come back, make them desire digital goods that they want to pay for with real money, and make them want to be the envy of their Facebook friends. I really look forward to how these games evolve more as more people are playing them and spending their real cash online. It’ll be interesting to watch and be involved in. But for now I really have to get back to my island. I think its time to buy another waterslide!!

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