The Rise and Fall of China’s First Hit Social Game (The One Zynga Ripped Off as FarmVille)

Happy Farm, by Five Minutes studio

Look at all those IE toolbars in this photo from 2009!

Remember FarmVille, the social game that put Zynga on the map? That was pretty much ripped off from a Chinese game named Happy Farm, made by the startup studio Five Minutes. At the height of Happy Farm’s popularity in 2009 (after being released in the summer of ’08), the game had 23 million daily active users in China across three social gaming platforms; the game became a huge fad, talked about by students and young professionals, cited in divorces, and pontificated over by state-run TV as it worried that the addictive game would be distracting kids from their homework.

Coming before mobile gaming really took off in China (remember that 3G only launched in the country in 2009, when smartphones were still a relative novelty), Happy Farm and a few other build-it-with-your-buddies games were the main form of online entertainment, fuelling the growth of social networks such as Renren (NYSE:RENN), Kaixin, and Tencent’s (HKG:0700) QZone [1]. The farming game also made its way to Facebook. But casual games have the lifespan of a goldfish, and Happy Farm is now off the radar of most of China’s casual gamers. Most of them have moved onto mobile titles, having been swamped by the choices on new gaming platforms like the one on Sina Weibo. Happy Farm 2 came out in early 2010 with much better graphics, but the hype – and the hits – were not so great.

Happy Farm, made by Five Minutes studio

The original Happy Farm. Click to enlarge.

Gone to seed

Today there are rumors, as reported by QQ Tech, that Five Minutes, the studio that made the iconic game [2] is closing this week. The news site claims that the startup went into liquidation in August of this year, with some of its assets sold to the Chinese gaming developer and platform Kingnet. But CyberAgent Ventures, a backer of Five Minutes, denies that there’s trouble with the studio and says that it’ll release new products after a period of adjustment.

However, it is known that Five Minutes laid off 90 percent of its staff in June of this year, though the three-man founder team remains intact.

Happy Farm will still keep pumping out vegetables, though. Licensed versions of it are still running on Renren, and its Tencent-bought spin-off QQ Farm is still ploughing the same furrow (see here). Indeed, with that kind of income, it’s not clear how Five Minutes seems to have unravelled as a studio. But now gamers have moved onto zombie bashing, bird flinging, and building entire cities – and we’ll soon take our fingers and finances to the next gaming bandwagon that rolls into town.

[Lead photo: ChinaSmack]

  1. Tencent’s QZone has been around for longer, and doing social games on its QQ IM platform before its newer rivals like Renren. Qzone had more than 200 million users at the start of 2009, making it the largest social site in China at the time.  ↩
  2. The idea of a farming/harvesting game actually goes back to 1996 with the launch of Harvest Moon, made in Japan, for Super Nintendo.  ↩
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