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Monetizing Community in Free-to-Play Core Games

Some game developers -- especially those of free-to-play, core games -- claim that they "monetize revenge." We take the opposite approach and attempt to "monetize camaraderie and community." Here's how.

What makes games so fun is that they take us on a joyride through every sensation in the emotional spectrum known to man, from grief and frustration to gratification and downright ecstasy. For free-to-play games, that moment when a player decides to pay is usually preceded by a strong pull on one emotional heartstring or another, which means that if developers can learn to intensify the emotional attachment players have to their games, they should monetize their games more effectively.

Core games tend to do this particularly well. Because they feature more elaborate setups and more intricate storylines than other games, they often draw the player into the overall experience more deeply and make them more invested in its outcome. Even the artwork of most core games is intended to appeal to players on a very emotional level. Core social games take this concept even further to the extreme, as the group dynamic often causes emotions to become even more heightened.

Some core game developers claim to monetize their games by leveraging their players’ desire to exact revenge. And given that Player-versus-Player battles are often such an important part of these games, it makes perfect sense—of course you’d want to get even with somebody who just destroyed something you’d spent countless hours making. You might even be willing to fork over a buck or two to make that revenge especially damaging—and satisfying.

And yet, we’ve discovered a better way to monetize the emotional investment players make in core social games. At 5th Planet Games, even though we have our share of revenge-based purchases, we have found that players are significantly more willing to pay a few dollars to help out a friend than they are to pay the same amount to “kill” a complete stranger. Instead of monetizing “revenge,” we monetize “community,” and we owe our success almost entirely to the way we bring gamers together rather than tearing them apart.

This community-first mentality began for us long before we even started building games, when as a group of gamers playing games like EverQuest and World of Warcraft, the best part of our experience was being part of a guild. They inspired a certain sense of camaraderie and togetherness that, once we started designing our own games, we knew we wanted to replicate for other gamers.

Take our core social role playing game Dawn of the Dragons, for instance. Guilds are a core feature within the game and represent the highest level of engagement for its players. There are thousands of guilds in the game, ranging anywhere from 5 to 100 players. At any given time, more than 30% of our MAUs and 85% of our DAUs belong to a guild, and these gamers tend to play longer and more often than players who are not in one—they deliver 3 times the number of sessions per day, with session lengths that are 4 times longer. This deep level of engagement correlates directly to higher monetization numbers as well: players who belong to a guild are 8.5 times more likely to monetize than players who do not, with an ARPU that is 53 times higher. Not 53% higher—53 times!

How do we develop the game in a way that makes people want to join guilds? We make sure that there’s strong incentive within the framework of the game to do so. As an example, one way for a player to make their character more powerful is to contribute to the damage inflicted during raids against common enemies. Players can summon other players for these raids, and the more raids a player supports, the greater their power will become. However, a player can only summon a few of these raids over a three day span, so to be efficient they’ll need to share their raids with others and join other raids in return. Guilds help facilitate this type of cooperation and coordination, so players who want to become more powerful are incentivized to join guilds or alliances.

Another important community-building feature inherent in all of our games are their forums. We treat our forums as way more than just a place for us to post news updates or for our gamers to recruit people into their guilds. Sure, there are the standard tutorials and tech support threads, but on our forums you’ll also find people coming together to offer each other advice on the game, debating the best strategies for success, encouraging one another, or even soliciting feedback on short stories that were written based on characters within the game. We even use our forums as a channel for user testing, player feedback and product development.

There have been more than 1 million posts on our forums to date, and every post gets read and taken action on, if warranted. Each forum has a dedicated moderator and community manager, and in fact roughly 20% of our payroll is associated with this type of community interaction—a percentage that some developers might find unconscionable but we believe is a critical investment that we can’t afford not to make.

Does it translate to monetization? Absolutely. We have found that people who are active on our forums are way more likely to monetize than those who aren’t. More than half of the players who have posted 20+ messages to the forums have monetized within the game. And in some cases, they are likely to monetize in a big way—41 of our top 50 whales have posted at least 5 times on our forums.

Community building is inherent in our gameplay as well, with features such as World Raids, Armies, Colosseum, and other events that facilitate player interaction. But nothing exemplifies our commitment to community quite like the Player Councils that we hold about once a month in our Northern California offices. For each Council we fly in about a half a dozen players representing every cross-section of our community—from the most dedicated and passionate to the most casual—and solicit their input on how they’d like to see the game evolve.

Through these Player Councils, gamers become much more than just “users” but active participants in helping shape the future of our games. We believe it shows that we genuinely care what our players think and are willing to listen to their feedback, but much more than that, we use it as an opportunity to make material improvements to our games. After one past Council for Clash of the Dragons, for instance, the player feedback led us to change the drafting format for cards to the best two out of three instead of just a single choice, and as a result we were able to nearly double the percentage of revenue that drafts brought into the game.

Community building isn’t just some phrase that we pay homage too. It is truly the core of our philosophy. We believe that at their roots, games are best when they are social, and that gamers would rather lift each other up than tear each other down. This talk about “monetizing revenge” might work for some developers, but for us, we’re much better off by “monetizing camaraderie.”

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