When a Cold-Hearted Corporation Takes Away Your Beloved (Virtual) Pet

Electronic Arts pulled the plug on the game Pet Society, but user activists haven't given up hope of being reunited with their digital cats and dogs.

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Pet Society was a Facebook game played by hundreds of thousands of people. Users raised pets and interacted with other virtual pet owners. Launched in 2008, Electronic Arts shut it down in June, explaining that it was being retired, so EA could "reallocate development resources to other titles."

This happens all the time in the world of online gaming. But this was different. This was taking away people's (virtual) dogs and cats. Former players have actually protested online.

"My wife has played Pet Society for almost five years," writes one supporter who signed Save Pet Society's petition on Change.org. "Shutting down Pet Society is like someone coming into our house and shooting one of our real cats. But wasn't that the point of Pet Society, to get you emotionally invested?"

According to AppData, when the game shut down, one million users played the game at least once a month and 500,000 played the game at least once a day. Among them was Selena Inouye, a retired "40-something" who lives in Los Angeles with her husband, three cats and two dogs. She's been playing Pet Society since 2009.

When she heard the news, Inouye sought out the Please Save Pet Society Facebook group, now almost 32,000 members strong, and quickly became an active member. She tweets, blogs and helps organize a boycott of EA products in an attempt to save her virtual pet. "Those of us who were still playing the game were like wait a minute, we don't think it's old, and we don't think it's ready for retirement, and what in the world is going on here?"

"I don't know if this is going to sound hokey," she said about her attachment to the game, "but your pet was always laughing, smiling, having a good time. The atmosphere was always very positive and uplifting, focused on being happy, and you know, In life...life is definitely not like that all the time."

Save Pet Society's Twitter profile picture is a caricature of sadness. A green, cartoon cat with big, round eyes sheds bulbous tears. Its eyebrows are raised in a pleading facial expression and its cute little paws hold up a sign inscribed with what is either a request or a call to action: "#savepetsociety."

Inouye's Pet Society pet was a pink cat. She named her Miss Hiss, after a real stray kitten she found in her backyard and later adopted. Inouye thinks the comparison between the loss of a virtual pet to the loss of a real pet is "really fair."

"I know that some people must think, wow, you people need to get a life, you're crazy, but one of EA's business partners is Disney, and people are crazy about Disney animated characters," Inouye said. "People were crazy about Pet Society too. EA has completely underestimated that, and yeah, a lot of people felt like EA was killing their pets. They gave us two months, to cope with the loss, I guess."

When I asked Inouye if she spent any money on Pet Society she laughed, a little embarrassed. "I spent...way too much money. I probably spent... probably $200."

In the social games industry Inouye is what's called a "whale," a term borrowed from the casino industry to describe big spenders.

There are a lot of other similarities to be drawn between social games and the gambling industry. Both business models often extract money from players in tiny increments and rely on audio-visual feedback to send people into the Machine Zone. In fact, a great number of social games are modeled directly after card games and slot machines.

"I'm not so offended," Inouye said after I told her about the whale designation, "but then again it makes me wonder too, if people are spending that much money on a 'free-to-play' game, how come EA couldn't keep it running?"

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Pet Society was originally developed and operated by small startup Playfish. In November 2009, EA acquired Playfish for $300 million as part of its aggressive push into the then burgeoning social gaming space.

John Earner was Product Manager at Playfish at the time. He said that the game's success caught the team by surprise. "It just kept growing and growing. I remember in the early days when it made a $1000 a day we got excited. And then it made $5000, and $10,000. It went from 200,000 players to a million, which was amazing, and then it hit six million and it was the biggest game on Facebook. It was the most exciting career ride I've ever been on."

At its peak Pet Society had 50 million monthly players, 5 million daily players and made as much as $100,000 a day by selling in-game items--clothing for the pets or decorations for their houses. These were very good numbers at the time, especially for a small team of 18 people. But in the following three years Playfish exploded. Its U.K. studio alone, its central hub and the location that operated Pet Society, grew to 160 people, with almost as many marketing people as developers, and other, smaller satellite studios elsewhere in the world.

Meanwhile, competitors like Zynga started making 10 times as much with FarmVille and growth migrated from Facebook games to mobile games. From EA's perspective things stopped making as much sense.

Feeling the pressure, Playfish made a last ditch effort to save Pet Society and itself. The game was still making money and essentially funding the U.K. studio, but Playfish took as many people as it could and put them on the most promising title, The Sims Social, a Facebook version of one of EA's biggest brands.

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Emanuel Maiberg is a creative writer, journalist, and editor based in San Francisco. His work can be found at emanuelmaiberg.com.

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