This won't be your usual 'which company is better?' debate. I'm not interested in who has the greatest turnover, or number of players, though I still mildly growl at EA every time I log in to Pet Society. It's a brief look at why I prefer Playfish over Zynga.
First - and let's just get this out of the way, shall we? - I find Playfish games a lot cuter. Their graphics are bright, colourful, and engaging. Their pets are endearing. Their provision of customisation as far as design and colour go are unmatched in any other Facebook game I've played. They're pretty games, and, for the most part, well-animated. On to the next point.
Their gameplay. Playfish doesn't punish me for not being able to sign in. They use positive feedback, not negative; instead of signing in to FarmVille to find my crops withered, and having to make a mental note to check it more frequently next time, I simply don't get the chance to win greater amounts of in-game cash or extra ingredients if I happen to miss a day or two. Of course, their games weren't always like this - Restaurant City allowed your restaurant rating to drop if you didn't sign in to remove the door while your workers were sleeping, for example - but they have built on a lot of the criticism they've received. And, hey, they've given me some improvements I didn't even know I wanted, so kudos to them.
They also semi-rebuilt SimTower, which was my next big-idea-I'd-never-get-around-to-doing, so they get a smile with gritted teeth that quickly dissipates, because at least I have a very basic SimTower to play again anywhere, on the move, and without the aid of DosBox.
But, for an example of why I prefer Playfish over Zynga, we'll take a look at FarmVille and Country Story.
FarmVille is ubiquitous - most people have played it at some point, at least amongst my friends, but many have left their farms to rot. Fair enough. Now, what you can do in FarmVille is have plots of land that you plough and plant seeds in. In real time, these seeds will grow, and, in however long, you harvest them. Rinse, cycle, repeat. You can also have trees and animals, which have no expiry period, so you can leave the fruit on them/forego milking/petting/gathering their eggs for as long as you want, but woe betide you if you miss harvesting your crops! They wither and die and generally look like a mess. It's a bit of a social embarrassment, if you're into that kind of thing.
Country Story, with its myriad recent improvements, is slightly more simple. You have available plots, which increase with your level. You can have trees, once you can afford them, and I have it on good authority that new players are now given two animals to begin with. You plant your crops, and gather them whenever you feel like it. After they're done growing, they just sit around, looking merry and generally being green. The fruit on the trees may eventually fall on to the ground, but the tree only dies when it reaches the end of its lifecycle, and you'll know when that happens. The animals are pretty cute, but, again, if you don't feed them, no big deal. Actually, if you don't feed them, they don't produce, but that's the only downside, and you probably won't notice, because you're not they're to see them.
So what's the difference, really? They're both farm games, they both require the input of time that could be much better spent on other things. The difference comes in the little touches, the things that make me feel like my farm in Country Story is much more alive that the one in FarmVille.
For example, in FarmVille you harvest your animals. Originally some of the gathers were a bit strange, such as collecting yarn from kittens (pardon?), but they've since changed that to 'brush kitten', which makes me wonder why I can only do it once a day. They have these little glowing pink triangles above their heads, and when you harvest them, these triangles disappear until next time.
In Country Story, you can see the produce sitting next to the animal - bunnies have cotton balls (again, don't ask me) and chickens and ducks have eggs. But the even more relevant thing is that they think about them. If you happen to be in the game, and not notice your animal has produced something for you to collect (and no, no one's made a fertilizer-manufacturer sim yet), a little thought bubble appears above their heads, thinking about the picture of their produce. Simple, but effective.
The other thing the animals in Country Story do is react. When you brush them, they close their eyes in delight, hop around, and make a little noise. Cute. When you feed them, they take a moment to munch on their feed, and, again, make a little noise. Even when you watr your planets, they go from drooping brown-green to vibrant, upright, in-your-face verdancy. I like feedback. It makes me feel like I'm having an effect.
But my favourite part? Each animal in Country Story has a mouseover status bubble. It tells you how long until their next egg/cotton ball, how much food they have (from poor to great) and, this is important, a little love heart with their current level of happiness next to it. Leave your animal for too long without attention, and it will be 'sad'. Brush it and feed it, and it will be 'happy'. I know I'm a sap, but seeing a little bunny or chicken flopping around in glee just because I took two seconds out of my day to click it with an imaginary brush makes me feel a little warm inside. It's nice to know someone misses me.
And that's the difference. My pet in Pet Society is always happy to see me, even if she doesn't seem to notice the mewling petlings starving at her feet. The people in Hotel City all wave at me when I save and log out. Playfish excels at making their customers feel welcome. And, in games riddled with micro-transactions, they make it easy to forget that you are a customer, addressing you, instead, as a player. Most of their for-cash items are only pretty enhancements (except in the case of Pet Society), so it's easy to forgive them when they ask us to complete a quest that requires Playfish Cash. After all, we can just sweep it under the rug and ignore it, but thanks for trying, guys.
I don't know much about their respective business practices, and I don't care to, but from the outside it seems like Playfish listens and improves their products, and fills their worlds with beautiful things. In a Flash-based game, you wouldn't think that would matter so much, but if I'm going to spend 10 minutes a day tending a make-believe farm, it may as well be pretty. The fact that it makes me feel warm and fuzzy is the icing on the cake.