Sisyphus, a king In Greek mythology, was punished for cheating death. In the underworld he had to roll a large boulder up a hill. Every time he almost reached the top the boulder would roll down again. Sisyphus was cursed to repeat the same task every day. That’s what it felt like when I spend a few days trying out the gamifications inside the popular Chinese e-commerce app Pinduoduo…
In the first and second part in this series, I’ve described gamifications with hong bao, virtual red envelopes that hand out ‘lucky money’, coins, beans, cat food and a wheel of fortune in the Pinduoduo (PDD) app. My experience so far has been that it is really, really difficult to win any free product of cash in these games, while PDD does keep you coming back and incentivizes users for pestering your friends or scrolling through endless feeds of free product.
And then another game caught my eye: Duo Duo Orchard. Not being very familiar with farm simulators like Farmville (really, I’m too old for that shit) I quickly got drawn in. While I had promised myself not to get tricked by PDD anymore I soon found myself growing mango trees and raising cows…
Duo Duo Orchard
Clicking on the tree in the main menu of Pinduoduo took me to Duo Duo Orchard, a Tamagotchi/Farmville-like game originally launched in 2019, in which you can grow a fruit tree. When you start with a new tree you first choose a type of fruit. I picked mangos. PDD promised to send me a box of this specific fruit when the tree is fully grown. But as with coins, hong bao, beans and cat food, I would have to work hard to get it. The on-screen comments and pictures by people that already received their fruit made it seem easy though…
After choosing my tree I watered the tree’s seed by clicking on a watering can. I did this twice. And then things started getting complicated. First the app showed me more messages from people who already received their mangos. It clearly wanted to convince me to continue playing this game.
Next up I saw a wheel of fortune with a ‘prize for new players’. Spinning the wheel gave me 88 grams of water. 88 is of course a lucky number in China, so how could I resist and not continue? The app told me that tomorrow I would get more water for my tree. By this time, my wife told me I should start keeping an agenda of all the things I need to do in Pinduoduo every day.
Back with my tree I saw a few new buttons had appeared on the screen and that I could water my tree 7 more times today.
After watering four more times I was told I could come back tomorrow at 5:33 to get 226 grams of water. I think my wife might have been right about that agenda. Also, my water supply had doubled for some reason.
Eventually I had one remaining turn of watering, but no more water left. Fortunately, the app had a button with suggestions for getting more water. And there were quite a few options:
- Come back every day for free water (10-20 grams)
- Buy train tickets on Pinduoduo (100 grams)
- Look at products for 1 minute (20 grams, twice a day)
- A ‘three-day plan’ in which I can get 100 grams on the first and 50 grams on the 2nd and 3rd day.
- Group-buying items (120 grams, twice a day)
- Ordering products (128 grams for the first order, 240 grams for the second order and 348 grams for the third order)
- Every day during mealtime I could get a ‘happiness bag’ (30-50 grams)
I decided to go for the easy choice and get my daily free water. After watering my twig one more time it turned into a real tree, and I got some free water. I noticed I now had to water it 30 more times to get it to start blossoming, another milestone in getting to my free box of mangos.
A new purple button at the bottom of the screen brought me to a menu showing me I could participate in a ‘Daily lucky draw’. I decided to click.
In the lucky draw I could win fertilizer, water and coupons. I won a 3 RMB discount coupon which I could use on a purchase I needed make within 18 hours, 27 minutes, 30 seconds and … 8 deciseconds! Even though I had almost a full day, the fast countdown of the deciseconds made me feel like there was no time to waste. The app helped me by sending me straight to the products page. But I had mangos on my mind, so I made my way back to my tree.
The other option in the menu of the purple button showed me a can of fortune telling sticks you often find in temples in China. Shaking the can could win me some free water again. The app told me that if I bought something within 2 hours, I would get 60% more water than normal.
In the meantime, I was back at 50 grams of water, and I had 29 turns to water my tree. I got to work, but a pop-up told me I needed fertilizer to grow my tree. I would also get a lucky hong bao if I would water the plant 12 times more.
A new button dropped to the top of my screen and another pop-up opened, telling me I could get 100 grams of water for 4 days if I return every day. As soon as I claimed today’s water and closed the pop-up, another one opened telling me I now have a water collector available. I can collect water in the bowl under a tap.
On the screen I could see how the water collector was very gradually filling up to 60 grams every day before it would stop. This meant I had to return to the game frequently and use that water so it could fill up again. I could claim the water as soon as there was at least 1 gram, a pop-up told me when I already tried to use some of the collected water.
Another new button at the bottom of the screen showed me I could somehow unlock other types of trees once my current one is fully grown. It was now only at 16%.
I tried the wheel of fortune again and won 300 grams of water. Another spin raised my reward for buying something to 1.000 grams of water if I would do so within 18 hours, 23 minutes and 50 seconds.
Back with my tree I got a secret little gift. Opening my present, I found (once again) that I could get free water or fertilizer when I’d buy something.
A banner at the top of the screen showed me that 464.218 people had already received free mangos. In the meantime, my water collector had filled up to more than 17 grams. I decide to transfer this to my watering can.
I hadn’t been paying too much attention to the right side of the screen, which had now filled up with 5 different buttons. One of these buttons, a hong bao, offered me a 3 RMB discount when buying products for at least 50 RMB.
I was reminded by a pop-up that I had one spin on the wheel of fortune left.
I used up all my remaining turns of watering the tree and it started to blossom. I had spent 12 minutes in this game, which now told me I need to water the tree 60 more times (!) before it would grow fruit.
Another new button was added at the bottom of the screen. More importantly I noticed that there was another fresh patch of ground behind my mango tree. I decided to click on it. Imagine my horror when I needed to pick a potato, sweet potato, tomato or pumpkin.
After clicking on the potato, I had started to grow a second plant! The whole process I had gone through with the mango tree started again. I decided I wasn’t interested now, I’ve already got my hands full with one tree (and a cat). I called it a day before things really got out of hand.
The following day I returned to my blossoming tree and noticed several changes on the screen. Most importantly, there was a new green circle next to the tree. This figure represented nutrients I had available (80 to start with). Whenever I watered the tree both the number in my water bottle and this nutrients number went down. Seemingly I had to spend nutrients together with the water.
To get extra nutrients I had to perform actions that gave me fertilizer. I would get some free fertilizer by checking in twice a day. When I clicked on the button it told me I could come back for more after at least 30 minutes had passed. The other way to get fertilizer was to buy products.
The daily watering plan, which previously asked me to come back for 4 days, now asked me to return 6 days for free water.
When I watered the tree, I suddenly was given a bigger and better watering can.
A floating jar in the sky took me to special ‘VIP’ deals.
While I continued watering my tree, I sometimes was given a free nutrient or water point. The game told me that if I watered 30 more times my ranking in the game’s leader board would improve. The yellow icon in the top left corner turned out to be a link to the leader board. If I reached the number one spot, I would receive 100 grams of free water.
The treasure chest took me to ‘exclusive gifts for orchard newcomers’. These included free water drops and hong bao. It also seemed that I could get a pet dog when I used the treasure chest 10 times. I assume this is comparable to the cat that I was supposed to be feeding in the Sign-in Beans game, so I decided not to add another animal.
I got my tree to show actual mangos by watering it 60 more times. But when this happened the progress bar that showed me how many times to water until the next growth phase of the tree turned into a percentage. Every time I watered 10 grams the percentage went down 0,45%! Seemingly I needed to water the tree 222 times and thus needed 2.220 grams of water. I wouldn’t be surprised if that 0,45% per watering decreases over time, just like the cash I got in my hong bao in the Shake Money game decreased progressively.
Every time I thought I had a game under control new blinking buttons appeared on the screen inviting me to click and spend even more time with the tree. New options also kept being added to the various menus I could open and every day I returned to the tree there seemed to be more or different buttons on the screen. I longed back for the time I had a clear screen with just a tree in the middle.
I looked up other people’s experiences with the game. One user of Zhihu (a Chinese Quora-like site) spent two weeks getting the fruit. To get the fruit you need to let the tree grow through several phases, each with their own number of waterings: germination (watering 5 times), flowering (20 times), fruiting (60 times), and maturity. As I had calculated this last phase takes at least 200 waterings (seemingly you can get 0.5% deduction per watering if you have enough nutrients), but according to the blogger it could take over 400 times when you had insufficient nutrients and your efficiency could drop to 0.05%.
To replenish nutrients, you need to get packages of fertilizer, something I never bothered to try. To get fertilizer you either need to buy products or be very lucky in the lucky draws or when opening treasure chests several times. You can seemingly also team up with friends. We had already seen how the Shake Money game incentives players to get their friends involved and using the app.
The blogger’s conclusion was that it isn’t a scam, but it’s simply not worth the time and money you need to spend on getting the free fruit. It’s also virtually impossible to win the fruit without buying products. Furthermore, there were people complaining about the quality of some of the fruit they received after spending hours watering their trees.
The game had 11 million DAU’s by June of 2019 and 60 million by December of 2019. Just consider how some of these people have planted tens of different trees in Pinduoduo. ‘Some people watch TV series the whole evening, others just spend time on Pinduoduo’, one article remarked.
Pinduoduo is not the only one with a virtual orchard: Meituan (Xiaomei Orchard), JD and Alibaba (Baba Farm) have their own versions.
Duo Duo Ranch
The second day I got back to Duo Duo Orchard I noticed a button with a cow in it next to my tree. I made the mistake of clicking on it. Before I knew it, I was in a separate game, Duo Duo Ranch, and I was raising a cow. The prize when the cow would be fully grown? You guessed it: free dairy products!
The way the game works is very comparable to growing the fruit tree.
You need to feed the cow and get food by doing small tasks:
- Looking at products you can get for free (800 grams, 4 times a week)
- Entering the Duo Duo Ranch from your account page (100 gram per day)
- Check-in for free food (6 times a day)
- Come during mealtimes (980-500 grams, 3 times a day)
Before long there were new patches appearing on the ground around the cow and I was told one cow is not enough and I needed to adopt some more. If I would feed my cows a certain number of times, I could add another cow to my stock.
Like the water collector in the orchard, this game had a food production machine. Before long I had a family of 5 cows and a machine I frequently needed to clean to keep it running efficiently.
Every time I fed the cows, they gave a bit of milk.
Sometimes cows disappeared, at which moment I could replace them with bigger and stronger cows that produce more milk. One day, when I checked-in I found a pig eating the cow food! I had to chase him away.
This was the time I decided it was better for my sanity to quit the Duo Duo Orchard and Duo Duo Ranch. As I said, I never played Farmville, but I sincerely hope that it is more rewarding for the people that spend time playing it. In PDD these games are just another way to get you to return to the app, even multiple times a day, buy products and recruit friends.
In the last article in this series, we’ll show you one more game: Duo Duo Crush. You probably know what to expect…
Read the other articles in this series on PDD.