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

17Sep/090

How to Make the Free-to-Play Model Work for You – GDC Austin 2009

Craig Sherman, CEO of Gaia
David Georgeson, Producer ZOMG

  • Gaia been around for 5 years
  • 10M uniques/month
  • #1 time spent in social media - avg 51 mins/visit
  • Gaia feels like a mix of a socnet and an MMO like WoW
  • Dig into user experience or talk to ppl using it and they describe it differently - feels like 21st century version of the mall or downtown or summer camp
  • Place you go to hang out with friends and do a dozen different activities

At this point, Craig is talking and flipping through slides SO fast that I'm not sure he wants anyone to really take this stuff in (later confirmed as he says slides won't be avail online - it's a management slide deck). So I stopped taking notes for this segment.

ZOMG producer comes up

Be Both Accessible and Engaging

  • Need to be accessible and engaging
  • Gaia started out engaging, but lost accessibility for a while - fixed it with better UI and user analysis
  • But we do "engaged" with authority - largely due to our 20 ring circus, retention is very high
  • Another positive example: Facebook - You lose hours without realizing, there's always one more thing to do, lots of flavours for lots of different user types

Three Key Lesssons

  • Make it fun
  • Get users to buy
  • Make it easy to buy

MAKING IT FUN

Identify your Audience, then own it

  • You can't satisfy everyone, so design features to satisfy a niche
  • Understand your niche - identify key features by talking to fans; get the core right before taking on more tasks
  • Good things happen when you nail the niche - great reputation, word of mouth increases, once you have more users you can get diverse
  • Gaia example: started as anime lovers forum catering to artists, forums to talk about it all, bragged to others and it grew
  • Gaia focus has expanded over 5 years, adding features slowly - went to housing (ppl who do housing aren't necessarily the ppl who do the dress up doll stuff - diversifying), rally cars
  • Also provide custom mini-games, attract the most casual of gamers, they have social aspects within them allowing chat, etc
  • Eventually expanded to a full-fledged MMO, ZOMG (video doesn't play - Craig working on bringing it up)

Keep your Audience Involved

  • Internal marketing for both present and future features
  • Players want to be excited, so make it happen
  • Schedule of events to keep players looking forward, so they never want to quit
  • If players ever get bored, there are a million other net destinations to go look at - never let them get bored

Talk to your Users

  • Your ideas may not be what players want
  • Find out
  • Implement after you figure out how it makes business sense - either soft or hard returns
  • Don't come up with a money making scheme then foist it on your players

Bite Sized Content

  • Frequent rewards
  • Smaller time commitments
  • Early accomplishments
  • WoW reward schedule is way too long for web world
  • Random events system in ZOMG has world constantly changing around you so it's never the same - lots of different experiences so every time you go in there is something new and different

Keep New Features Coming

  • Keep evolving, refining, adding
  • Stay flexible
  • Never stop
  • ZOMG rolls out stuff every two weeks or less
  • Always make sure players are fully aware of what's coming up

Build a 20 Ring Circus

  • No single idea appeals to everyone
  • Satisfy more of your core audience by creating new ways to interface with your site - dress up vs marketplace vs games vs hangouts etc
  • MMOs multiple kinds of gameplay within the game

Create a variety of experiences
Cater to many different player types with features such as:

  • Forums, guilds
  • Collectibles
  • Gathering, crafting
  • Social community
  • Social gaming
  • Combat, PVE, PVP
  • Mini-games

Gaia invited fans to meet employees after a company softball game in San Jose. Fans travelled from Florida, Washington state, etc to meet them. Very passionate.

ZOMG is Engaging Users

  • Extremely high retention over 10 months since open beta launch
  • Avg play time 2.5 hours
  • ZOMG players 4x more likely to purchase than main site players
  • Incredibly easy to try, free, no download, four click entry
  • Achieves its goal as fly paper for the main site

Get them to stick, then you win

  • The more entertained, the longer they stay
  • Longer they stay, more likely they are to buy something
  • More likely they are to make a friend
  • Once they've made a friend and bought something, very unlikely they will go away
  • Cultivate, nurture and entertain your users

Get Users to Want to Buy

  • Accept it! Most users won't buy from you - but those that won't buy are still critical to your business, they will keep the community alive and exciting for those that will buy
  • Build things that entertain everyone - then enable ways for buyers to participate or get ahead via purchases

What do they buy?

  • Anything that promotes self expression
  • Anything that promotes sense of belonging to the community or friends
  • Anything that lets users get to an end goal faster or easier
  • Anything that looks like it can be turned for profit

How Does Community Affect Revenue?

  • Community provides the venue where users can brag by displaying their earned/purchased items and abilities - forums, profiles, guilds, marketplace, games, UGC, town area, post artwork, get ratings - hot or not, etc
  • If they can't brag, they don't want it and the items and features are worthless

Are items entertaining? You bet they are?

  • Gaia makes all their money off sponsorship or microtrans items
  • Item types are a form of entertainment - decorative, functional, and/or collectible - but they don't satisfy 100% of your audience
  • Have to keep coming up with new stuff
  • Items that evolve - i.e. the egg that hatches into a Phoenix are very cool... people speculate on how it will evolve, gains value over time

Non-Item Revenue Examples

  • Shout outs (Maple Story)
  • Time shortcuts (powerup in ZOMG, points in Zynga games)
  • Name changes/server changes (Everquest, WoW and traditional MMOs)
  • Premium features (features or areas avail only to members - Club Penguin, Runescape, etc)

Make Buying Easy

  • Utilize every payment option
  • Mobile payments
  • Game cards
  • Credit cards
  • Cash
  • If you can use ALL the available payment systems, use them all. They don't cannibalize each other
  • Habbo Hotel has over 170 payment methods

Recap

  • Make it fun for everyone, but focus on your niche first
  • Get users to want to buy, make it exciting, let them know what's coming up, features oriented toward core
  • Make buying easy - if you can make it 1-click, make it 1-click
  • Customers win, you win, everyone wins

Q&A

Any mobile plans?
Craig: great evidence you can be successful in this area. GREE and DNA (Mobile Game Town) in Asia are both doing hundreds of millions of dollars worth of revenue

Average age of Gaian?
Craig: Median age is 18 years old, 60/40 girls; doesn't work for a 10 year old - sweet spot is 19-20 girls.

Sponsorships - can you talk about it?
Craig: Sponsorships work well for us. We had no ads 3 years ago, now we've done a ton of deals with big brands. Skittles is on our site - they funded the creation of a variety of virtual spaces that had some game mechanics in them or custom mini-games or cooperative experiences in site where if you did these experiences you would earn Skittles and the community's goal was to collect as many skittles as possile and build a rainbow. When it was done, there was a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow that rained gold (Currency) down on all users. We partner with a brand to build something that adds value to the user experience. They fund it, but we build it. As a result, turns out you get better response rates for advertisers.

Have you found a sweet spot for price?
We are still experimenting with that. We don't have a lot of items over $7.5. Many other companies say there is no price insensitivity between pennies and $7.5. The real issue is the penny gap - charging anything more than $0. Anytime we raise a price, revenue goes up. The sales of the item do not go down.

How do you value sponsorships?
We have to tie it to CPMs as there is no other way an agency can value a deal. Otherwise they can't show metrics the way they are used to. We get over 2B page views a month, so it's easy to offer impressions.

How do you QA new content without breaking old stuff?
It gets harder and harder. Make thorough checklists and resist tendency to just get it out because "you know it's good" - gets to be a certain size of an MMO where you try to compartmentalize your code so things are less likely to break, but ultimately good QA processes will make or break you.

Along the QA lines, how much do you use automated QA or is it all manual?
It's all manual in our case. We have some process checks (scripts compile, etc) but in general most of our stuff is manual and we rely on checklists. All our QA is in-house. We only did a hardware compatibility test externally.

How big is the development side of the organization?
105 people in whole company. 40+ of whom are developers. Include QA and backend operations, then maybe 50 dev. ZOMG team is impressive... 15 people (5 artists, 10 devs) on ZOMG MMO (draws laughter from crowd).

Is Membership Suitable for Gaia?
Craig: I think you have to choose Runescape or Maple Story model. Pogo has pulled off both though... you can buy sub that gives you a collection of virtual goods. I think you have to decide up front what you want to be. One gives you more users, but less revenue per user. Sub models give you more predictable revenue stream, but microtrans have potential to blow that out of the water due to uncapped ceiling on ARPU.

Do you have a mix of time-based vs consumables vs permanent items?
Most of our stuff is permanent. Then there is time-based stuff (fish only live for 90 days in an acquarium) and then we have consumables. Just did deal with Vivix - you can modify your voice, but it only lasts for a few weeks.

Is 60/40 split for Gaia the same within ZOMG?
Yes it is. 90% of our users have never played an MMO before. Game has a lot of combat - worried that we would only attract guys. But that hasn't been the case at all. 60/40 girls, just like main site.

Demographic among national boundaries?
North America is 85% of the player base.

What were your advertising efforts to get your name out when you launched?
No money was spent. Even still, we spend almost no money on marketing. Almost all word of mouth. Tools within Facebook and their invite loop systems are probably the easiest and cheapest way to acquire users. That said, we haven't used that yet - most of our growth is word of mouth at school. We have started to test online ads and we've got it so we pay less for the ad than we get from that user lifetime.

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