Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Customer Acquisition versus Retention in MMOs

Repeat business.
That's the real secret sauce for any great company.

This blog post isn't about the merits of new customer acquisition versus customer retention.  Fostering customer loyalty is cheaper and more easily done than acquiring new customers.  It's more profitable for businesses and a more rewarding experience for customers.  Done right, it's one of those rare win-win situations.

And yet...

Google this topic and you'll find plenty of citations and examples of companies who prioritize acquisition over strengthening relationships with the most valuable and loyal customers.

Free the Peons!
TAGN recently posted a video from Extra Credits about why F2P is currently broken.  They don't specifically talk about MMOs, but they do speak to the model overall and what they believe is the fundamental problem.

Which, to paraphrase, is that retention is largely focused on the "whales" willing to spend big bucks rather than the peons (er.. people) whom those whales need to compete against.  As they accurately point out, without the peons (er.. people) also playing, the "whales" get lonely, no longer feel special, and leave to play other games.

And so... these F2P devs end up with massive new customer acquisition costs to replace peons (er.. people), so that the "whales" continue to have someone to play against/with.  Peons, who in turn, leave shortly thereafter because the game isn't that fun unless you happen to be a "whale".

Extra Credits even goes so far as to say that the solution to this problem is to focus on the peons (er.. people) who spend far less than the whales by providing them a more rewarding experience.

Developing for the guy who doesn't play your game...
Perhaps the thing I hate most in a developer is when they make major concessions in their game design to placate people who don't play the game.

Now don't mistake that for thinking that I don't believe games can or should evolve.  But they should evolve because of the developer's vision and not because some guy who never played your game or quit it long ago says it sucks.

When you cave to that guy, you tell all your existing customers that they don't matter as much as the guy who left.  Don't make the mistake of placing customer acquisition over customer loyalty.

You can't grow while your bleeding to death.
The typical MMO peaks near launch and then starts a steady decline.  I couldn't prove this in a court of law, but it always seem to me that the first thing the dev tries to do is address the issues the players leaving the game are citing.

I can see addressing those concerns shortly after launch but at some point, sooner rather than later, you need to shift your focus and understand why people are staying and then do more of that.

Now if the things people who stayed are complaining about are the same things the people who left complained about -- then it's pretty obvious what needs to be fixed.  But if the two things are not the same, and they often aren't, then as the proverb advises: you need to hold on to the bird in your hand and not the bird that's in the bush.

Because before you are going to see growth again, you need to retain the people who are still paying customers.   You simply can't grow if you are still hemorrhaging players.

This is what I believe is the true secret to EvE's growth over the years.  They have a fostered a very loyal community and while retention among new players is similar to the industry norm, the retention of the long-term players continues to be very high.

Friday, September 12, 2014

Quick Hit: Subscription model vs Cash Shop

Proponents of cash shops,  F2P, P2W, and microtransactions often cite the idea that they like these models because they value real money over time invested in the game.

The rationale is that real money and time are both currencies.  When we are younger, we have time but no money.  As we get older, we have money but no time.

So for those with money and no time, spending money through cash shops is seen as a very viable and practical way to gain a level footing with those who are spending time.

But here's the rub and why this rationale is wrong.

In the scenario of a subscription model where we spend "time" to gain our in-game advantages, the incentive for the dev is to keep you playing and resubbed.  While this has it's obvious flaws, the dev also has an incentive to make any grind as fun and interesting as possible.

Whereas, in the second scenario where he wants you to spend money to gain an advantage, he wants it to be as painful as possible without causing you to quit.  Games are carefully designed to "hook you" and then make you frustrated enough to want to spend money to AVOID whatever blocker they have placed in your path.

So what kind of exploitation do you prefer?  The kind where the dev bribes you with Pavlovian treats to keep you subbed or the kind where they withhold the treats unless you pay $5 to get your fix?

I'll take the bribe.


Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Crowdsourcing your Raid Content

I am not optimistic that big budget MMOs are going to break the trend of losing 80% of their launch players within 1-3 months of launch.  This isn't intended as a blog post about why this happens or why I believe they won't break the trend.  The net is that if (for whatever reason) you agree with that premise, the likelihood of a great brand new "Raiding" MMO being released is pretty slim.

The rationale here is that "Raiding" content is time consuming and expensive to create and if your end-game is built around Raiding, you need to continually be developing net new content.  If you lose 80% of your players (particularly the paying ones) in the first 1-3 months of launch, then it's not practical or affordable to develop content at a pace that will keep your Raiders entertained and playing your game.

The concept of Crowdsourcing is pretty simple.  A company has a particularly difficult problem to solve and rather than pay an employee to create a solution, they turn the problem over to the public to solve it.

The how of it can take different forms.  In one sense, every Wiki is an example of Crowdsourcing and members contribute for the sake of community and shared knowledge.  Or alternately, a company can offer a prize for solving some particular challenge. Netflix offered up a $1,000,000 prize to come up with a better algorithm to predict what movies you would like based on previous ratings.

Blizzard has been Crowdsourcing the development of third-party addons for World of Warcraft since the game was introduced.  Even before that, Blizzard crowdsourced mods and maps for Warcraft 3 via it's World Editor.

The upside of Crowdsourcing is only partly about costs -- it's also about ideas.  Netflix had their own algorithm but by offering a prize, they found a better algorithm.

We can talk about Blizzard's "magic sauce" all day but this is one area that they always got right - the ability for the community to create things that change their own destiny.  Many of the features we see in today's WoW UI started first through WoW Addons (including the ability to move a part of the UI).  And without War3's World Editor, we never would have seen Defense of the Ancients (and therefore LoL).

The downside that is often cited about community created content is that it's generally of a lesser quality than what the developer themselves produce.  Sometimes that's true, or in the case of DoTA and many of the most popular addons, it's not true at all.

In any event, there are as many models to Crowdsourcing as you can creatively approach the problem of collaboratively interacting with others.   For example, a group of community leaders/developers could up vote content.   Or perhaps it's not complete level design but only partial -- making the artwork, models and layout of buildings but not attributing stats, abilities, AI or rewards. 

It seems to me that perhaps the next major innovative leap in "Raiding" shouldn't be about gameplay and entirely about how communities can get involved with the creation of such Raids.   Because at least as I see it, without some form of Crowdsourcing, I just don't see a new MMO developer entering the ranks of the MMOs that list "Raiding" as it's end-game for more than a few months.

As an aside, Crowdsourcing shouldn't be confused with Crowdfunding (such as Kickstarter).  There isn't any reason why you couldn't do both but they are different things.  One is about contributing an investment and the other is about contributing work product.

So let me pose this question for you... if an Indie developer had a "vision" that you agreed with strongly for how a Raid game "should" work, would you contribute hours and work product towards the development of that game if you had the means/ability?   I would.  

Friday, July 11, 2014

Car Wars - I wanna see your IP in an MMO

There is a completely unrelated discussion about pen & paper RPGs going on over at Tolbold's blog for
the last few days and the recent turn of discussing "tactical" vs "role-playing" games got me thinking about one of my very favorite IPs.

Car Wars was a tactical pen & paper simulation game in which vehicles were equipped with machine guns, oil slicks, caltrops, missles and other equipment suited for vehicle combat warfare.

If this sounds like Mad Max, then yeah, that's exactly what Car Wars is because Mad Max was a key inspiration for the the tactical pen & paper game.

In 1985, it inspired one of the all-time great early RPGs called Autoduel.  You may even have caught TAGN mentioning this gem back in March as one of the "Five Games [TAGN Wants] to See Revamped".

TAGN explains why Autoduel can't make a comeback, but clearly the IP is solid.  WB Games has a Mad Max video game to be released on multiple platforms that you can already pre-order (18 months from it's release date as of this writing).

But a multi-platform console game simply misses the mark. Oh, I'll buy it.  Interstate '76, also inspired by Car Wars, is one of my favorite "LAN-party" era games.  Cars with guns has always been fun.  It was fun when I played I76 and it was fun when I played the early Twisted Metal games.

No, it misses the mark because this IP is absolutely PERFECT for a sandbox PvP game.

First, it's a cruel and heartless post-apocalyptic world.   Every man needs to protect his own interests and form bonds with others.  To get what you need, you have to scavenge and others want what you have and are willing to kill you to take it.  To protect yourself, you need to find friends and build yourself an arsenal and maybe, just maybe, you can build something together.

EDIT:  If you are curious why I'm not suggesting that the I76 IP is used, well, that IP is owned by Activision Blizzard and not exactly my first choice for a sandbox PvP game.  :)

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Dear Wildstar...

I don't know if you are really trying to market your game to hardcore players that enjoy difficult group content or not but if you are.. then I'm your target market and I have some advice for you...

Killer bunnies from outer-space?

The word "Hardcore" doesn't really come to mind when I see this little guy on your home page.