[Robert Levitan, Pando Networks' CEO, explains that browser-based toolbars are actually good for gamers.]
How can a publisher stay top-of-mind to players after a game is already in their hands? As the industry’s concept of games has shifted from “commodity” to “service,” a publisher’s work no longer stops at the point of sale. In free-to-play games, in fact, since there is no up-front sale, game delivery is only the first step. In a content-driven business, there is an ongoing challenge for every game publisher to stay connected to their players, and engender some brand loyalty and recognition.
As such, any free-to-play publisher should be looking to interact with their players in areas around and outside of the games themselves. Common and effective tactics involve supplying players with vital game and community tools. For example, if a gamer is playing a title from Publisher X, and in doing so, forges friends on Publisher X’s forums, gets accustomed to using Publisher X’s voice chat client, and establishes a balance of Publisher X’s microcurrency, then it’s a good bet that same player will be willing to sample new titles from Publisher X for a long time to come.
Some publishers have the fortunate ability to present all of these features, up front, as core elements of their games or delivery platforms. Sometimes, these features can be integrated with game clients, such as a dedicated voice-chat system in games like EverQuest or Eve Online. Other times, such extra features are part of a gaming platform, such as Steam, Raptr or GamersGate, which provide various tools and social perks such as achievements and profiles. The conveniences of these all-in-one play solutions make the programs themselves a ubiquitous presence on a gamer’s PC.
Not every publisher has the time or resources to build their own dedicated gaming platform, however, and even those who do may wish to think twice before making such an enormous commitment. EA, one of the largest game publishers in the world, recently launched “Origin,” a comprehensive game store, downloader, and social platform for the PC, with a list of features comparable to other similar services on the market. One would think that a publisher of their size and reputation could, and should, roll out new methods to stay connected to their customers. Yet, even for EA, the road hasn’t been entirely smooth. Some gamers have been reluctant to adopt the new game service, preferring to stay settled into the platforms and tools they already have.
If a world-leading publishing giant has a difficult time penetrating this crowded space, what chance do other publishers have? In the face of this much uncertainty and difficulty, the answer may be to scale back your ambitions slightly. Simplify your approach – instead of betting an enormous amount of time and money on an entirely new platform, look for ways to utilize and enhance the tools that gamers are already using, rather than asking them to shift their habits.
Consider, for example, a browser-based toolbar: It can offer convenience and value to players and do more for you as a publisher than you may think. For players, a customized browser toolbar can be useful with easy access to game essentials such as support, community forums, microcurrency store pages, and launchers for games in your catalogue. Publishers can also deliver the latest game information to players with news feeds and live announcements. These features can save time for players by providing direct links to useful web pages. All of that, plus a search bar – not too shabby for a couple of dozen pixels of space at the top of the browser window.
Working in tandem with the browser, a toolbar should represent a comfortable commitment from players whichrequires no additional “accounts” beyond those already used by your games. From a branding perspective, the benefit of a toolbar is obvious: every time a player launches their browser (an activity generally performed several times a day), there’s your name right at the top. You can build a toolbar internally or, if you don’t have the resources to do so, you should consider outsourcing the project to someone else, just as you might do for an offers page or a game downloader. The key factor, regardless of who builds it, is that the toolbar adds genuine convenience and value for the player, not just for you.
Take a look at other publishers that are already deploying toolbars or custom add-ons, and don’t wait too long before establishing your own presence. As the practice becomes more common, gamers may respond to the offer of a toolbar with, “No thanks, I’d rather stick to the one I’m using.” With any luck, that one will already be yours.