Did you know there have been almost 5,000 unique animals that have graced the fields of the Facebook phenomenon known as FarmVille? In fact, there have been more than 300 different types of sheep alone.

These are the things you learn when you have a chat with the animators at Zynga, the game company responsible for bringing us FarmVille, as well as Words With Friends and other equally addictive games. In honor of the company’s launch of FarmVille 2: Country Escape – the mobile app with which you'll be able to plow, plant and harvest on the go – we got the dirt.

When the original FarmVille launched in 2009, the animators were somewhat limited by technology, but by the launch of FarmVille 2 three years later, the team was able to render a 3-D world with dynamic animation. Inspired by both realistic animals and jaggy Saturday morning cartoons, the animators arrived at a "stylized realism" where the animals are created in a more realistic representation, and then stylized, explained Ryan Hood-Guaraldi, lead animator for Zynga/FarmVille.

Every component of the animals, and the game in general, is meticulously designed, all the way down to the rhythm in which the animals breathe and the trees sway, said Hood-Guaraldi. The trees move to and fro at a rate of 60 beats per minutes, the animals’ breaths occur at about the same rate. Designers even use a metronome when animating to ensure the cadence, which happens to mimic the human heartbeat. All this contributes to the soothing feeling of the game — sure, it’s a computer game that you're probably playing in your office, but the makers' aim is to provide a moment of escape. And with 93 percent of players saying they play FarmVille to take a break, the designers must be doing something right.

Hood-Guaraldi said his mantra is to make the game, “the best 15 minutes of your day ... a place to come to relax, to take care of your farm and enjoy your animals.”

Animal inspiration

And speaking of those animals; where do they come from? The creative team behind FarmVille includes a resident heirloom chicken expert. The group visits zoos and farms to research real animals when they can, but they also find inspiration in familiar faces. Not only do they model some animals and avatars on each other, but the animators look to Hollywood for inspiration. The cute, coy bunny? She takes her cues from Natalie Portman. The comical chicken shares many a move with Don Knotts, and the sultry doe with big eyes? It’s no coincidence if Susan Sarandon comes to mind. Creating a “personality model” for each animal serves several purposes: it makes the animals subtly familiar for the player, but it also allows several animators to work on the same animal and create a consistent persona.

In a similar vein, the approximately 180 crops and nearly 70 types of trees are also modeled on real plants, and even some of the systems are based on real models. When the team went to visit a dairy farm in California's Marin County, they learned that the farm’s energy is supplied by methane gas produced by the animals. And thus, a generator to harness power from animal-produced methane was delivered to the world of FarmVille. So now when one of the farm animals goes to pasture (it’s a vegan farm, no animals go to slaughter here, yay!) he or she can laze away their days ... while also producing gas to power the ongoing agricultural ecosystem.

All in all, the new app will have many of the same features as the Facebook version, but the whole thing has been designed with a mobile device in mind.

“The animation team on FarmVille 2: Country Escape made a number of design choices to optimize the animals in the mobile game," said Barry Drew, senior art director for the mobile animation. "One key difference is that the people and animals you see in the game have more exaggerated animations in the mobile version. The pigs are bouncier on the mobile version than they are on the Web – not to the point where they are unrealistic or cartoony,” Drew added, “but just enough so that they feel charming and real on your phone or tablet.”

In addition, many of the more static elements have been brought to life.

“The mobile decorations are more interactive and each item reacts when you tap on it – for example, the scarecrows have birds around them, the flowers fly away, and the trees lose leaves and 'swish' when you tap them," said Drew. “This living ambient environment makes the whole game feel more lifelike and relaxing.”

So if you don’t happen to have a farm out back and you’re feeling the need to tend to some chickens or hang out with a rabbit that evokes Queen Amidala, you can now do so on the go. The game is available for download on the App Store for iPhone and iPad and Google Play and will be coming to Kindle tablets in the coming months.

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Why that FarmVille rabbit looks like Natalie Portman
On the occasion of the new mobile launch, we talked to the FarmVille animators about how the country critters come to (virtual) life.