Is American Express willing to bet the farm on its digital payments platform, Serve? Probably not, but the company did roll out a FarmVille Prepaid Debit Card today that not only speaks to the growing role of prepaid cards in the post-Durbin Amendment environment, but will also serve as an important cog in building Serve into a bona fide rival to PayPal.
The card is the product of a joint partnership between American Express and Zynga, a company that offers a number of popular online social games – including Words With Friends, Draw Something, and FarmVille – that together draw more than 290 million active users on a monthly basis.
FarmVille, which alone has roughly 22.9 million unique monthly users, allows players to create and tend to the digital farms of their dreams by growing plants, breeding animals, building structures, and more. The social aspects of the game have also grown since it was first introduced in 2009. Players can now interact online through in-game gifting, cooperative projects, and the trade of goods at digital farmer’s markets.
The FarmVille Prepaid Card builds upon this functionality, as users can earn virtual game credits for different actions during the sign-up process and beyond. To get the card, you have to go to the FarmVille marketplace, find something called the Serve Money Tree in the “best sellers” section, and plant it. When you “harvest” the tree, you not only get up to 7 dollars in Farm Cash, but you’ll also be prompted to sign up for or link a Serve account – an action that will score you an additional 63 Farm Cash as well as the FarmVille Prepaid Card. Adding money to your account for the first time is worth 20 Farm Cash, activating your card gets you 13, and the first 5 purchases of $25 or more that you make with the card through July 31 are each worth 50. Moving forward, the rewards program will expand to provide FarmVille rewards on all purchases you make with the card, rewards applicable to other Zynga games, and eventually, real-life discounts earned based on gameplay.
The card will therefore serve as a source of both publicity and users for Serve, which was launched in March 2011 by American Express and enables consumers to safely transfer money to one another and shop online, much like eBay’s PayPal. The move also helps American Express avoid losing momentum to Visa and MasterCard, who both announced new digital wallet offerings just last week.
Furthermore, it gives Zynga a chance to right the ship in the midst of declining popularity and reeling stock prices. While FarmVille was the No. 1 game on Facebook, in terms of average daily users, from August 2009 to December 2010, its social cache has fallen of late. Similarly, Zynga’s stock price rose as high as $15.91 following the company’s December IPO but have since tumbled to a low of $6.36 on Monday following investor concerns about Facebook’s value.
The real question, though, is what can the FarmVille Prepaid Card can do for you?
Other than enabling you to earn rewards for a computer game, the answer, unfortunately, is “not much,” as it lacks some key features you’d expect from a prepaid card. Prepaid cards are typically used as checking account alternatives for the underbanked and people looking to escape rising checking account costs, but this card lacks online bill pay, direct deposit, the ability to withdraw money from ATMs at no cost, and necessitates having a checking account in order to load money for free. It’s therefore a redundant product that completely defies the purpose of using a prepaid card in the first place.
Ultimately, while it’s clear that Amex and Zynga hope to ride the rising popularity of prepaid cards to prosperity, the increased competition in the market serves to hinder their card’s relevance. Not only does the card have to compete with the star power of celebrities like Lil’ Wayne and Suze Orman, but it also has to deal with the superior terms offered by the likes of the GreenDot Prepaid Card, which can be free to use if you load at least $1,000 per month, and the Chase Liquid Card, which charges a $4.95 monthly fee but offers free ATM withdrawals as well as the ability to load funds via cash or check for free.
It’s a jungle out there, though, and only time will tell how well farmers can compete.