Jenova Chen is the designer of genre-bending, artfully crafted games Cloud, FlOw and Flower. He's the co-founder of ThatGameCompany and the recipient of a master's degree from the University of Southern California's Interactive Media Division. He's also a cheater.
At least when it comes to Capcom's iTune Farmville knock-off game Smurfs' Village. But unlike me, he cheats with purpose. He cheats to learn, to advance his understanding of game design and, perhaps, also to have a really kick-ass Smurf village.
"I have a friend who bought a lot of this stuff in the game and I feel great that I am higher than him," Chen told me, when I caught up with him outside a Sony event earlier this week.
Chen said that he noticed a friend of his was playing the game a lot, spending cash to buff their tiny Smurf village, so he went into the game to check it out.
In Smurfs' Village, players can customize a tiny town of crops, Mushroom homes, flowers and decorations. To get the money needed to do the decorating players need to plant crops, crops that can't be harvested until a set amount of time has passed. To get the most experience a player can plant pumpkins, but then they need to wait at least 18 hours in the real world to harvest them. Wait too long and the pumpkins rot.
While the game is free to play, gamers can purchase Smurfberries which can then be used to speed up the harvesting time.
"This game is completely based on tiny speed-up pills," Chen said.
After messing around with the game for a bit he realized that you can plant a field, then go into the clock settings of your iPhone, iPod or iPad and adjust the time and drop back in to instantly harvest your crops.
"Once I figured out this cheat, I was inspired by how I played this game," he said.
With the time element removed, something slow and tedious became a fascinating little title for Chen. Over the course of four or five hours of gameplay he unlocked almost everything in the game and built up an impressive level 21 Smurf Village.
"Once I figured this out it became a very simple game," he said. "It's a very fun game when you cheat. It's a very short game that has a lot of feedback and I like to see all of that."
Chen said he's been looking into these types of games to try and figure out why they are so popular and if they have any lessons to teach to traditional game designers.
"Now I realize these farm games are essentially traditional games, except they add all of these time breaks to give the illusion that you don't need to spend a lot of time with them," he said. "But in reality it's like a four to five hour game.
"And it creates the illusion that it's free, but they charge you based on speeding up time."
It's that last element that is both what turns some people off from these games and helps these sorts of titles sink there claws into other gamers.
Chen said he would have happily paid to get the game free of built-in forced time sinks.