Wednesday, December 8, 2010

'Pot Farm' on Facebook May Be Grossing an Estimated $150K/Month

By David Downs
Wed, Dec 8, 2010 at 6:24 PM

Legalization Nation has a secret. In the wilds of the national forest, we're growing pot. Lots of it. We got Afghan Dream. We got Time Warp. We got rows and rows of White Widow. We started with just a hippie tent and some seeds, but if this keeps up, we're going to need a plane, and maybe a jacuzzi next to the A-frame house. We're talking, of course, about Pot Farm — a free game playable on Facebook that's less than a year old and is about to pass 1.5 million monthly users. And judging by industry estimates, it appears that Pot Farm grosses its secretive and likely small team of young developers an estimated $148,000 a month.

That's because an average of 2 percent of free social gamers spend real money to level up faster and enhance their in-game abilities, according to Mark Rose of virtual goods marketplace PlaySpan. So if just 2 percent of Pot Farm players purchase the minimum amount of Pot Bucks per month (50 Pot Bucks for $5), then someone's getting rich off very little work. It leads to the question: Why grow when you can code?

The definitive story of 2010 in video games was the takeover of the industry's center of gravity by so-called “casual games.” Unlike the $100 million, two-year, 300-employee blockbuster shooter for an Xbox 360 that costs $60 retail, casual games can be hammered out for relative pennies, in short order, by one or two people. Millions of bored housewives play them for free in a web browser, and inside the walled gardens of Facebook and iPhone, casual games have exploded.

Zynga, the company that makes the 54-million user-strong Farmville, reportedly grosses more than $1 million a day selling people virtual goods like Farmville tractors and cows. They're now worth more than Electronic Arts, the iconic, global gamemaker centered in the Bay Area. While blockbuster games have stagnated in annualized, franchise hell, casual games can afford to fail cheap and fast, and when they hit, as they did in Farmville, everyone wants to replicate it. Cue Pot Farm.

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Farmville is said to be a knockoff of a smaller casual game. So it's fitting that Pot Farm is a rip-off of Farmville, just re-skinned for the counter-culture, which is now a another way of saying “mainstream culture.” Start a fake Facebook account so no one'll know of your questionable habit, accept the app, and begin. The loading screen features a bearded hippie giving the thumbs up and a groovy girl in Lennon glasses playing the guitar. “Totally Beta or whatever” reads a disclaimer.

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Players start with a field and some seed money, and they level up by buying, planting, growing, and selling different strains of pot. Ranger Dick takes a user's plants if the farm's “protection” rating drops below zero. Pot Farm is essentially a game of math, with players computing each plant's space, growth time, cost, profit, experience points, and protection in order to maximize leveling up. Rabid fans create complicated online matrices to compute the most optimal growth strategies, but that takes the fun out of figuring it out on your own.

And Pot Farm is fun. The game enjoys a startling user score of 4.8 out of 5 possible points, based on 107,006 reviews. Hard-core gamers sneer at all the moms snatching a bit of Farmville at home in the middle of the day. “That's not gaming,” is a common refrain. Pot Farm proves that a game's ability to transport the player is not contingent on graphics or budget. The game has grown from nothing to a 1.5-million-strong userbase on very little press or marketing.

In the spring, Social Times reporter Neil Vidyarthi scored the only known interview with Pot Farm's developers, and even then, the gamemakers did not give their names or locations. They used a PR character named “Uncle Floyd.”

“We were watching this explosion of like, social media or whatever and Dave was like, 'It's a revolution, man, this is like the Sixties!' There's all these games and it's really groovy because it seems like anyone can make them. So we thought if anyone can make them why not a couple of old hippies?” Floyd told Social Times.

Pot Farm's developers — who appear to be a lot younger — did not return repeated requests for interviews from Legalization Nation. Maybe because, much like actual growers, Pot Farm on Facebook operates in a legal gray area.

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Facebook developer policy clearly states that no application can “promote, or provide content referencing, facilitating, containing or using, ... Illegal activity.” Besides calling into question the existence of Mafia Wars, the policy explains why months after its launch, Facebook restricted access to Pot Farm to players who say they are 21 or older. Growing pot remains illegal under federal law. According to the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice, in California in 2009, 17,008 people were arrested for felony sale/manufacture of marijuana, which can carry a sentence of four years in prison. However, medical marijuana remains quasi-legal in fifteen states including California, where Facebook operates out of. In fact, the highest structure to unlock in Pot Farm is a medical marijuana clinic.

No red tape for Pot Farm dispensaries
  • No red tape for Pot Farm dispensaries

Facebook co-founder Dustin Moskovitz, along with a bunch of other Silicon Valley players, donated to California legalization initiative Proposition 19 this year. At the same time, Facebook proper is loathe to provoke prohibitionists. The company pulled "Just Say Now" ads over a pot leaf depiction. They also refused advertising from guru of ganja Ed Rosenthal.

According to message boards, Facebook has also made Pot Farm pull a hookah pipe item from the game. And the game doesn't actually depict anyone ever smoking the plant.

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“We have heard a few complaints,” Uncle Floyd told Vidyarthi. Six people formed a group demanding Pot Farm be totally removed. But Facebook is clearly making money off of the successful, breakout title, and the only thing that can ruin the truce would be a massive torrent of complaints, which the game is unlikely to get. And hopefully it won't.

Like its inspiration, Farmville, Pot Farm supplies a weird form of psychic relief, a bit of mental breathing space for maybe five or ten minutes each day. It's the equivalent of a lotto ticket, and a lot safer than a cigarette break.

Voltaire wrote in Candide “Let us cultivate our garden.” The idea being that people need a little patch to call their own, a place where they can tend something controllable in what is an otherwise uncontrollable, harsh world. Out on the dope farm, we can only hope things stay groovy.

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