FreeToPlay.biz The Business and Design of Free-To-Play Games

5Jul/074

Top 10 Ways to Remove Barriers to Entry in MMOs and Virtual Worlds

Whether you're making a casual MMO like Maple Story or a virtual world like Habbo Hotel, here are 10 ways to remove game-killing barriers to entry and create the largest possible addressable market.

1. Free to Play
The Free to Play business model is here to stay - and growing every day. In an entertainment world filled with endless choices, asking someone to pony up $50 before they can play a game is rapidly becoming a non-starter. The focus now is on getting players through the front door, keeping them happy, then monetizing 5-15% of them. Non-paying customers become "content" for the paying minority, so don't think you can ignore them.

2. Integrated graphics support

“If our games required a video card, we’d lose 80% of our audience”
- Min Kim, Director of Game Operations, Nexon North America

"Graphics are not important - the mind models the situation"
- Daniel James, CEO, Three Rings

Enthusiasts who purchase the latest, greatest video card make up just 4% of the market. Integrated graphics (i.e. no dedicated video card and therefore lower graphics performance) accounts for over 60% of all new computer sales. It would be foolish to develop a Free to Play product requires a video card when success in the F2P sector is partially reliant on addressing a large market and monetizing just a small fraction of your player base.

3. Multiple, regionalized payment systems
Finding the right payment method is a key success factor for Free to Play products. When a user finds a payment method they're comfortable with, they are fiercely loyal to it. But there are nearly as many payment methods as their are markets. Erik Bethke of GoPets says his company utilizes 90 different payment systems worldwide in order to address the local preferences of each region and make it as easy as possible for users to pay.

Many factors influence payment method selection. Credit card penetration in China is low, so billing customers via their land-line telephone provider has become a widely used payment system that provides excellent security in exchange for high surcharges. In Europe, SMS payments are hugely successful and carriers take anywhere from 10-30% surcharges versus the 40-50% fees of North American carriers. PayPal, checks, points cards and more are also used.

We have three people on staff whose full-time job is to open envelopes with single dollar bills and quarters in them. The users can’t figure out how to get the cash to us. One user sent in a $5 bill in a $14.95 FedEx package so it would get to us on time.
- Craig Sherman, CEO, Gaia Online

4. Little or no download
Get users into a game as fast as possible. If your game requires the user to download client software, make it as small as possible and give the user something to do while they wait for the game to download and install (i.e. setting up their character).

But better yet, make your game in Java, Flash, Shockwave or Silverlight so it's playable within a browser. A game delivered via Java applet (i.e. Puzzle Pirates, Bang! Howdy, Runescape) can be downloaded and installed in under a minute. A signed Java applet will even avoid tripping a user's installed spyware detectors.

Only ~30% of players actually tolerate downloads at all, the other 70% preferring to play online. I believe this percentage of download-intolerant players is increasing.
- Daniel James, CEO, Three Rings

5. Deferred sign up
How many times have you been faced with filling out a mandatory sign up form before you can starting playing a new game? The barrier of filling out one more form and becoming a member of yet another online site/network/game/etc that might eventually spam you - before you even try the product - is a huge barrier to entry.

Why not let a new player name and create their character, enter and start experiencing the product, then ask for sign up information along the way? A game that gets this right is Maid Marian's Shockwave MMO Sherwood Dungeon, which allows you to start playing immediately after you enter your desired character's name. Despite its simplistic graphics and lack of server-side character saves, Sherwood has attracted over 1M users to its Free to Play ad-supported game.

6. Easy to understand world/lore
Pets, penguins, pirates, party goers - these are some of the most successful Free to Play virtual worlds and games. If you want to keep your game's potential market big, utilize commonly understood worlds, characters and rules as often as possible. There are exceptions of course, but generally the more jargon and fiction you graft onto your property, the greater the barrier to entry for new players.

7. Quick to play core
Build your game or virtual world around a quick-to-play core mechanic that loops into a larger meta-game. A game that can be played in small 5 minute chunks that feed into a higher purpose.

The casual MMO Puzzle Pirates was designed with short play sessions and a solid meta-game in mind. However, the average Puzzle Pirates user spends 2.5 hours per day in the game - 30 days a month. And while some players do drop in and leave, others spend up to 9 hours a day in-game. Ultimately, the game's short compulsion loops keep players online longer than traditional, longer compulsion loops that take 30-60 minutes to complete.

8. Warp, don’t walk
Spending precious minutes walking to destinations is, for many, a significant barrier to entry and a big waste of time. Many games and virtual worlds allow "warping" between areas to avoid long marches or simply a point-and-click interface with the world.

9. Spending limits
It seems counterintuitive, but enforcing spending caps on some or all of your player base (depending on your product's demographics) may actually increase your user base. Habbo Hotel puts spending caps on all payment methods to control the influx of cash into their economy but also to allay parents' fears. Users can spend money only on 2-3 predefined days of the week.

Limiting how much a player can spend spend in a short period of time benefits the game by reducing parental concern and decreasing incidents of buyer's remorse in new players.

10. Secondary markets
The presence of a secondary market can drive the primary market. Wizards of the Coast had this observation, as told by Daniel James at this year's Virtual Goods Summit:

Wizards of the Coast had some interesting things to say, that secondary markets, for example of Magic Online, have been incredibly valuable in driving the primary market. People will buy way more cards in the primary market because they know they can flip them. Mostly they don’t, though, they just hold onto them. Which is a great tip for people thinking about this.

So embrace secondary markets as more users will choose to participate in your primary market if they believe they can sell their goods to others when they're done the game.

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