You don’t have to play computer games to have heard of World of Warcraft. Considered the once and future king of the Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Game (MMORPG) industry, it’s raked in billions for developer Blizzard Entertainment since its landmark launch almost a decade ago.
WoW’s meteoric rise blazed the trail for subscription-based MMORPGs – and competition came in the form of a glut of similar titles that, within years, had gamers everywhere fatigued and disenchanted with the industry. Bad publicity began to spread. Revenue began to dry up. And Blizzard’s venerable defending champion soon found itself the strongest nation on a dying planet.
Then came an extraterrestrial savior: the free-to-play (F2P) model.
Suddenly more and more developers were realizing the benefits of offering free indefinite, albeit limited, trials of their popular, subscription-gated products. And what seemed like a huge risk and a gamble paid off (for the most part). New subscriber rates jumped. Revenue doubled and tripled. F2P had done for declining MMO titles what “75% Off! One Night Only!” does for dry goods.
Though the underlying dynamics are sufficient to warrant a pretty exhaustive study, there’re a few things marketers can take away from this phenomenon at a glance.
Though the F2P revolution’s key motivation was and will always be profit, it does use the principle of earning attention and letting customers come to you by producing interesting content.
People are much more inclined to give a game a shot when it’s freely available with no strings attached and the option to pony up at any time (this is analogous to the free content that you put out). If they don’t like it enough to buy, they simply leave. If they do, they stay, and many of those spread the word and bring friends – and many of these do end up buying.
Inevitably, any F2P title will boast a large population of non-paying customers who simply wish to enjoy what they can with the indefinite free access. The smart developer sees this not as lost profits, but as free marketing. An active crowd draws in more players – don’t forget that online games are collaborative and social experiences.
By attracting an audience of contributors who regularly engage with your brand and each other, you’re leveraging existing interest to further promote and grow its presence. To put a spin on it, it’s not so much about encouraging people to buy, as it is about creating an environment that encourages them to buy.
In a similar vein, one reason behind the success of indie title Path of Exile was its developers’ widely publicized mission to create a truly F2P game, free of unfair advantages obtained for real-money payments. The buzz this unorthodox stance generated across gaming circles drove interest and support faster than any conventional marketing could. This case only underscores the tremendous importance of getting the hook of your unique proposition out there.
In the heyday of the pay-to-play online game, one of the biggest things keeping players away from this or that title was price of admission. Folks cottoned on quickly to the fact that paying a fixed sum every month for 720 hours of product access wasn’t worth it when they might get to play only a handful of hours a week. It’s essentially renting, as opposed to owning.
In answer, some developers switched their revenue models from monthly rates to ‘microtransactions’ that offered varying, optional enhancements to the game experience, and allowed players to purchase content a la carte. And so the cash shop was born.
The concept has haters and lovers aplenty, but from a marketing perspective it’s easy to sympathize with the latter. When people receive content, whether it costs them anything or not, they tend to want to have choice.
Remember personas and targeted messaging? They’re more relevant now than ever. In an era of dwindling attention spans, consumer opt-ins, and content saturation, an editorial schedule that, while the content’s about the same thing, tells different stories to different readers and is findable through different channels is key to standing out.
More and more customers are realizing that simply tuning in to content sources doesn’t always deliver the material they want or need to see. They’re sifting, filtering out whatever looks like it doesn’t make their cut. To show them what subscribing to you is worth, you need to be able to make your content worth choosing.
What we have to earn, we value more. Fundamental psychology. That’s why people who pay for games tend to stick with them longer, many willing to overlook perceived faults and flaws to get the most out of their investment (a kind of choice-supportive bias).
Not so when they get games free of charge. Having spent nothing, there’s nothing keeping them from just hopping to another if they don’t like the one they’re on. And so developers have to take a subtly different approach to designing F2P titles. To retain players, it’s critically important to grab hold of them right from the outset – right from the login screen – and keep them engaged throughout.
Marketing content adopts the same mindset. Inbound or outbound, it doesn’t cost readers anything to consume – just time. (Another point on choices.) Removing barriers to entry also has the unfortunate side effect of devaluing content in people’s eyes; combine this with the surfeit of material out there, and quality becomes not only a priority but an essential.
Hard-hitting copy, timeliness, relevance to the audience – aside from these, the aim is to respect every visitor that consumes your content. You may not be charging for it, but that only means you usually get one chance to impress. Bear in mind: in MMOs, free equals low expectations. In marketing, this is not the case. So get your game on.
Marketers and game developers may be more alike than we think. Are you also an MMO gamer? See any other parallels between the industries? Tell us below.