And They Tell Two Friends…

Posted: October 18, 2007 by Kendricke in Everquest 2, General Game Concepts

About two years ago, a colleague and friend at the company I worked at talked me into buying a TiVo.  It wasn’t a hard sale, since I’d already been looking into picking one up and because (as Dan helpfully pointed out) there was a sale at BestBuy that week on the latest TiVo units.

So, I plunked down my credit card and found myself part of the “Tivolution” as my monthly newsletters point out.  Not too long after picking up the TiVo, he talked our friend Tom into buying a box.  This year, I’m thinking of buying my brother one for the holidays. 

So what does all this talk about TiVo have to do with online gaming?  Two words:  reward points. 

When I activated my TiVo service, I used a referral number that Dan provided to me.  In return, he received a ton of reward points.  When I referred Tom, he received more points.  If I refer my brother, I receive points. 

Now, I can use those points to buy a variety of TiVo branded merchandise at the lower levels, on up to far more expensive rewards, such as video iPods, digital cameras, new TiVo HD units, Bose headsets and more. 

So again, how does all this relate to online gaming?  Studios are often trying to find ways to increase the playerbase of their games.  Watching the World of Warcraft behemoth trample over all previous conceptions about how large these playerbases could be, most studios are probably tripping over themselves to come up with ways to emulate even a fraction of that success.  I’m sure there are some pretty smart people talking to some other pretty smart people trying to come up with ways to reinvent the wheel in a way similar to Blizzard.

I’m sure this is why we keep finding “buddy keys” in the expansions we pick up for Everquest II.  I’m certain this is why we keep seeing “free trials” and “redesigned low level content”.  I’m positive this is why SOE’s decided to go a new direction with their box art for Rise of Kunark.  These are all the results of pretty smart people thinking of what seems to be pretty smart ideas. 

And yet, another pretty smart guy I can think of said it best over 400 years ago:

It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker, that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own self-interest. We address ourselves, not to their humanity but to their self-love, and never talk to them of our own neccessities but of their advantages.

-Adam Smith

Most estimates indicate that there are at least 150,000 butchers, brewers, bakers, and other professionals currently playing Everquest II – every one of them a potential walking billboard for the game.  So what does SOE provide them with?  Buddy keys.

Look, instead of appealing to players’ “benevolence” to help with recruiting their friends, SOE needs to start appealing to their “self-interest”. 

I work for a consulting firm in the real world.  If I recruit a qualified friend or former colleague to work for my firm, I make a buck an hour – every hour – that my friend or former colleague works for my firm.  That’s right.  If I recruit my friend Dan (the guy who talked me into TiVo, remember?) into leaving his current employer to come work for my firm  instead, Dan gets a new consulting gig and I get an extra $40-50 every week Dan works, or roughly an extra $2200 a year. 

At least one of my colleagues has 15 referred consultants currently working for us.  That’s right, she’s making an extra $600-700 each week over and above her normal consulting rates.  Another firm in town offers twice as much per referred consultant (yeah, it’s a rough life, I know).  So, as you can see, it’s very much in our own vested “self-interest” to recruit intelligent folks we know to work for our firm. 

One of my guildmates is a long haul trucker.  He was explaining to me the other day how the trainers in his company make their “real money”.  Trainers at his company don’t actually run routes or loads themselves.  They spend 90% of their year running alongside trainees – new truckers who are on a fixed weekly salary.  For the six weeks these trainees are running loads, their trainers actually make their mileage – which is how a majority of trucking fleets offer up a majority of pay.  Long haulers tend to make a lot of their salary based on how many miles they manage to run. 

After the training is over, the trainer still makes a penny on every mile his or her trainees run – forever.  If that trainer has been with the company a year or more, then he or she probably is pulling in pennies from a good half dozen or more former trainees who are averaging around 120,000 miles each year.  That’s an extra $1,200 dollars per former trainee.  It’s very much in the trainers’ “self-interest” to set those trainees up to succeed – because the better they do, the better the trainers do. 

Even now, my guild right now has over 60 unique accounts – many of which are upgraded All Access Pass accounts.  Assuming an average monthly income of $20 per account, we’re pulling in roughly $1,200 each month for SOE, or $14,400 each year – just in subscription fees.  Add in expansion purchases, Legends of Norrath cards, and the dozen of us that attended this year’s FanFaire, and I’d say we’re probably exactly the type of dedicated customers that studios like SOE want to hold onto.

From a recruiting standpoint, I’ve probably personally recruited (i.e. – face to face) at least 50 or so players for Everquest II alone (that I can recall by name) that have either started playing because of our conversations, or who came back to my guild after long cancellations because of an email I’ve sent out updating former members on changes to the game.  Just last night, we had a former member start playing again after cancelling back in June of 2006 to play World of Warcraft.  I’d spent the last 3 weeks talking him into coming back by talking up recent changes and the upcoming Rise of Kunark. 

I’m a recruiter by nature.  I’m not the only player that is.  Chances are probably pretty good that most of you reading this sentence right now either play the MMO you’re in right now because of a conversation you had with a friend or colleague, or you’ve actually recruited someone to play in your MMO. 

Does anyone really believe that World of Warcraft pulled in 10 million subscribers based purely on marketing and polish?  Those were just the draws of the product.  At some point, someone talked to their friends or family members and told them how fun the game was.  All these talks about “emerging markets” and “non-traditional gamers” and “mainstream acceptance” are really buzzwords indicating that someone you know talked to your Grandmother and now she’s a level 70 Shadow Priest in your raid guild.

Older games figured this out.  In Lineage I and Asheron’s Call, guild leaders would pick up a percentage of the experience of every member they recruited to their guild.  If you never logged in, you could gain experience so long as your guildmates were grinding. 

And yet, the best ideas we’re seeing today are based around “buddy keys”.  Buddy keys are great for the buddy, but really, what’s in it for us – you know, the guys handing out the buddy keys in the first place?  Don’t talk to our benevolance and hope we’ll bring in new income for you because it’s something you’re hoping for.  Speak to our “self-interest” and show us the advantages to recruiting for you.

Have each buddy key tied to an account.  I receive the keys as part of the activation sequence on the new expansion I just bought.  I turn this key over to a friend, and now I receive reward points for the referral (as an added bonus, this can help to tie gold farmer accounts together, by the way).  Every time I buy an expansion, more points.  Pick up some cards in Legends of Norrath,  more points.  I fly out to FanFaire, I get more points.

Let me use the points to buy SOE branded merch, or perhaps get some expansions, or maybe a box of Legends of Norrath cards.  Better yet, let’s work out some cross marketed tie-ins with other Sony products and let me start picking up CD’s, DVD’s, cameras, camcorders, HDTV’s, sound systems, new VAIO PC’s or laptops, monitors – you name it. 

Want to think a bit outside the box?  Instead of a tie-in to a magazine pre-order, let me spend reward points to buy my way into a beta test (or just bring your top recruiters into beta tests without expenditures).  After I’ve flagged enough points in the system, start sending me free promotional merchandise that I can turn around and hand out to friends (or just keep just because). 

The bottom line?  Treat top recruiters like the gems they really are for your company.  A reward system can help identify those recruiters and social hubs.  It can also help to build loyalty with these “super players” who don’t just pay a monthly fee, but are likely responsible for a great many other players who may not have subscribed otherwise. 

Because in reality, by serving the self-interests of those particular players, you’re actually serving your own.

  1. tipa says:

    The ultimate marriage of MLM and MMO…

    Actually, SOE does have their “Community Influencer” level, which comes with a lot of privileges — flights to San Diego, advance looks at upcoming games, your opinion asked, meet & greets with executives, lots of swag and publicity. You’ve been (and probably continue to be) a CI. Isn’t that partially why you evangelize EQ2?

    It’s a strange notion that SOE would pay for viral marketing, even when it directly benefits them. Sony, as a company, has had a lot of problems trying to jump start grassroots publicity, for instance, their PSP graffiti.

    WoW made waves because Blizzard made a game people wanted, as 989/Verant did when they made the original EverQuest. SOE has an iffy record making games people want as opposed to making games just because they need a new game for an upcoming quarter.

    If SOE had a better handle on the games people actually want to play, as opposed to the kinds of games it is easier for them to make but perhaps don’t fill a real desire (and though I love EQ2 and play it all the time, it’s pretty clear WoW fills that particular niche for more people, better).

    Innovation will keep the players that innovative marketing may bring in. I haven’t seen a lot of “gotta have it” innovation from SOE. Look at their latest victories. MxO was bought. Vanguard was bought (why?). PotBS is not their game. EQ1 is apparently in the weird position of copying an expansion from EQ2 while EQ2 copies one of theirs. I have no idea what’s up with Planetside, but that probably would have done better on a console. They bought the company that makes the trading card games. SWG is apparently in the weird position of having its licensor grant its license to a competitor playing in the same space. Is that even DONE?

    Maybe when SOE relaunches itself and brings their gamey games (The Agency, Free Kiddie Game, DC Universe Online) out in the next year or two, we’ll be at a point where we can tell our friends to log on, we’ll have fun, and they will. And then the word will spread.

    Grindy MMOs don’t appeal to many people. They appeal to me, but it would be hard to explain what the fun parts of EQ2 are to anyone who isn’t already into that sort of game (in which case, they probably play WoW).

  2. Loralor says:

    WoW was bond to be a huge success, or an immense failure.

    The reputation of Blizzard with amazing games ala Diablo and Starcraft, combined with the huge popularity of Warcraft 1-2-3 is tailor-made to create a success (as long as the game itself isn’t too buggy). Add a very good marketing flair from people that know their stuff, and you have a 2 million subscriber game. I can bet that if they make World of Starcraft Online, it’s gonna rock the MMO world another time.

    EQ2 only had EQ1’s reputation to ride on, mostly. Even then, EQ1 and 2 are not exactly made for the same kind of player. EQ1 has taken (I heard) a more raiding/hardcore direction, while EQ2 is supposed to be made for more causual players, or players that cannot play for hours in a row.

    As for marketing, we all know that WoW’s place in game shops as opposed to EQ2’s place is totally out of proportion. Same can be said on Internet banners.

    So what can be done to get more and more players to join up EQ2? Giving cookies to referers is actually a very good call. A bit more visibility in game shops around the globe is another.

    Internet publicity? Well, yes and no. Alot of veteran Internet-users don’t even look at banners anymore, and regard them only as possible spyware/adware/malware sources. But you still need to catch all thoses Internet surfers too, so yes, having some is good.

    TV spots? The cost-to-subscription ratio will probably be very low compared to just referer cookies as Kendricke mentionned. MMOs and computer games in general often cannot use conventionnal publicity methods because their usual playerbase is not conventionnal. Console gamers are again a different breed. There is sometime overlaps between the two, but I doubt it’s the norm.

    All in all, in MMOs, you best (and cost-effective) publicity is still your playerbase. Not every player is a good game-vendor. But with a pyramid-style referral system, (with rewards!), you can easily spot who are your best agents, and the system will reward them proportionnally. It’s a system that may seem costly from the outside on the long run, but it is a system that works because it is based on the performance of your referrals. Ala “Trainer gets 1 cent per mile per trainee”, referrer could gets 2 “cookie point” per dollar spent per referral, and 1 “cookie point” per dollar spent by your referral’s refferals. Points are exchangable against Sony products and merchandise, including redeeming them in free months of subscription if wished. List of product can be very exhaustive, as mentionned, going up to digital cameras and wide screen TVs for truly successful referrers.

    I would be liking that idea if I was in any MMO’s marketing department. Food for tought?

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