I am a reluctant Facebook user in the first place. When I started to see notices about cows in Bermuda shorts wandering onto my friends' farms, I simply could not fathom why it would be fun to have a second job as an owner of an imaginary family farm. Perhaps I've known too many real, live bovine. Perhaps I've played too many MMOGs where farming is a highly evolved form of torture. At any rate, I was baffled. I'm a game designer by trade, but I could not imagine what was so fun about FarmVille.
But as much as I tried to ignore it, game developers I know and respect were soon being hired to build Facebook games. Everyone wanted to build the next FarmVille. It was huge, I was told. It was revolutionary. It was social. I was suspicious and stubborn. Nothing could make me suffer through FarmVille.
Then one day I saw an ad in Facebook's side rail that said I could adopt an adorable octopus for my aquarium in a game called Happy Aquarium. Now, not only is that an adorable title for a game, but the art managed to depict a truly charming octopus. That's not something you can say about many invertebrates. I was intrigued. I did a quick look over my shoulder to make sure no one was looking, and I clicked on the link.
Within minutes, I was hooked (bad pun intended) on this twee little aquarium simulation. The baby fishies were so cute I just wanted to pinch their fat wittle cheeks. And when you "sell" them, they don't go to a store or another aquarium. Oh, no. You set them free into the ocean. For money. Somehow. I don't care. I am completely addicted to this Facebook game, I confess.
When I came up for air (see, these puns just get better and better) the game designer in me had to figure out what happened - how could I so enjoy this repellent genre? Was it clever mechanics? No. Great writing? No. Darling art? Maybe a little bit.
See, I have another embarrassing confession to make. I'm one of those people who pays actual money for aquarium-themed screensavers. Even my smartphone currently sports an animated aquarium wallpaper where I can feed the fish with a double-tap. In real life, I've killed plenty of water-breathers and I even had plans and supplies (but no time, sadly) to turn an old CRT monitor into a fish tank. I'm a bit of a fin fan.
So this "social game" (I still have no friends in Happy Aquarium) captured my interest because it locked in on something I already enjoyed. Happy Aquarium understood and maintained the heart of what makes aquarium simulations entertaining for those of us afflicted by the curse of enjoying them: The fish were pretty, changed gradually as they grew up, didn't die from overfeeding, and would lay their own eggs when conditions were right. All the cool stuff from real life, without the penalties for mistakes. I'm not de-populating coral reefs with my hobby; I'm reinvigorating the depleted clownfish numbers. I think the technical term for this is "easy fun." (Seriously. It's a technical term. Look it up.)