top 10

I spent a couple hours today pretending I had infinite time and money to attend free to play-relevant conferences the world over. The result is this list of the top 10 conferences for those who want a crash course on F2P development and a slew of contacts in the sector.

Over the last year, there’s been a deluge of new virtual worlds conferences, but not all are created equal. So in addition to sorting on quality, I decided to sort for those that were at least partially geared toward English speakers.

Some of the following conferences occurred in the past, but have been included in the hopes that they become annual affairs.

1) Virtual Goods Summit
June 22, 2007 – Palo Alto, California

The Virtual Goods Summit is a one day conference focused on the emerging market opportunity for virtual goods and economies. Once restricted to the world of online gaming, virtual goods and currencies are beginning to influence the development of social networks, community sites, and many other new and exciting markets.

The Virtual Goods Summit was a one day affair at the Annenberg Auditorium featuring a series of one hour panel discussions and presentations. Notable speakers included the CEO’s of Gaia Online, Three Rings, Kongregate, GoPets and K2 as well as the Director of Business Development at Nexon. The topics discussed included virtual goods as the next big business model, industry success stories and the forces driving user adoption.

Check out’s summary of the Virtual Goods Summit.

2) Virtual Worlds Forum
October 23 – 27, 2007 – London, England

Our pan-European virtual worlds confex connected brands, major corporations, digital and virtual worlds agencies, media and entertainment players and games companies, technology suppliers, analysts and commentators, lawyers, regulators and venture capitalists and all those harnessing the power of virtual worlds to engage with clients, suppliers or customers.

The Virtual Worlds Forum lasted two days and was by no means focused just on games. The keynotes and panel discussions we’re about many things including brand recognition, corporate opportunity and revenue possibilities. Panelists included Paul Hemp- Senior Editor, Harvard Business Review; Ginsu Yoon- SVP International, Linden Lab and Thomas Bidaux- Director of Product Development, NCSoft Europe.

Check out Wonderland’s summary of the Virtual Worlds Forum.

3) Virtual Worlds Conference
April 3-4 2008 – New York; Autumn 2008 – West Coast

Virtual Worlds Conference and Expo helps businesses harness the power of virtual worlds to engage with their customers, partners and employees. The event follows our sold out Virtual Worlds Spring New York conference.

Speakers from this year’s conference included Paul Yanover, VP and Managing Director at Disney and Anthony Zuicker- creator of CSI. The event featured hundreds of speakers overall and some major corporate support. This year six streams will be available with an emphasis on the financial and operational aspects of virtual worlds. Where as some of the conferences on this list are art or design orientated the Virtual World Conference seems to be strait business.

4) Game Developers Conference
February 18 – 22 2008 – San Fransisco, California

If you are going to attend one industry event in 2008, this is the one. The core objective of this year’s conference is to promote Learning, Networking, and Inspiration. The GDC team has been working hard to create the most exciting and compelling conference yet. Most notably, we have adjusted the timing for the call for papers forward to ensure that we’re presenting you with the most up-to-date topics facing game developers today. You won’t be disappointed.

The GDC isn’t exclusively interesting to free to play followers but in the wake of E3’s fall from grace this is the game industry’s flagship event.

Also at GDC is the Worlds in Motion Summit debuting this year, an event focused on virtual worlds. was asked to speak at the Worlds in Motion Summit and as a result, Adrian Crook will be presenting a primer on the F2P revenue model at the event. Also giving talks are Raph Koster, Nabeel Hyatt, Eric Bethke, Min Kim, Chris Romero and others – making this a great conference for the F2P sector.

5) Indie MMO Game Developers Conference
March 29 – 30, 2008 – Minniapolis, Minnesota

IMGDC is a venue for Independent designers and developers to come together to share ideas and learn in all areas related to MMOGs. IMGDC 2.0 has positioned itself to be an even larger venue with three fantastic tracks covering design, development and business aspects of Indie MMOGs. The present is a time of MMOG giants, but the future lies in the hands of the passionate Indie developers. Do you have the passion?

2008 will be the second year for the IMGDC featuring presentations from Richard Bartle author of Designing Virtual Worlds, Raph Koster and Gordon Walton who was previously VP/Exec Producer at Sony Online Entertainment, Maxis, Origin Systems and Kesmai Corporation.

Check out Gamasutra’s summary of the Indie MMO Conference.

6) South by South West Interactive
March 7-11 2008 – Austin, Texas

The SXSW Interactive Festival features five days of exciting panel content and amazing parties. Attracting digital creatives as well as visionary technology entrepreneurs, the event celebrates the best minds and the brightest personalities of emerging technology. Whether you are a hard-core geek, a dedicated content creator, a new media entrepreneur, or just someone who likes being around an extremely creative community, SXSW Interactive is for you!

Though SXSW doesn’t provide a ton of events catering specifically to the free to play crowd, it is a phenomenal collection of creative people working in emergent digital entertainment fields. Couple this with the fact that the event is part of North America’s largest music festival and party and attendance seems like more than a good idea.

Check out Throwspace’s summary of SXSW.

7) Austin Game Developers Conference
September 5-7 2007 – Austin, Texas

The Austin Game Developers Conference attracts over 1,100 attendees and provides educational, networking, and business opportunities for game development professionals driving the $11 billion videogame industry. It is the a global forum where programmers, artists, producers, game designers, audio professionals and others involved in the development of interactive games gather to exchange ideas, network, and shape the future of the industry.

Austin GDC has become synonymous with MMO design due primarily to the city’s deep MMO development scene. The conference features talks and panels focused on free to play, “Web 2.o,” MMO development and micro-transactional revenue models.

8 ) Online Game Developers Conference
May 13 -15 2008 – Seattle, Washington

Building on the great success of the 2007 conference, OGDC 2008 will expand the plenary sessions from two to three days, and feature a wide range of keynotes, sessions, and panels, giving attendees new views of the online game universe—everything from an overview of the latest business, product, and legal developments to in-depth looks at scalability, player psychology, and in-game economic systems.

This event features Erik Bethke, founder and CEO of GoPets; Alan Crosby director of global community relations at Sony Online and Steve Goldstein of Flagships Studios. 2007’s OGDC was a good start – hopefully 2008 is a big step forward.

Check out MMORPG’s summary of the OGDC.

9) Gartner Symposium ITxpo 2008
April 6-10 2008 – Las Vegas

Each year, Symposium/ITxpo: Emerging Trends is founded on a framework of six megatrends that Gartner sees as critical to how business and technology will evolve in the near and long term.

A mere sampling of the trends and technologies we’ll focus on includes:

  • User Generated Content
  • Social Networking
  • Community Source
  • The Metaverse
  • Relationship Assets
  • Hyperconnected Enterprise
  • Collective Intelligence

Gartner attracts a different crowd from the game-centric conferences listed here. Typically, Gartner attendees come from the IT or VC worlds. The value of Gartner attendance lies not in the curriculum, but in your fellow attendees.

10) DigiWorld Summit
November 14-15 2007 – Montpellier, France

The 6th Video Game seminar as part of IDATE’s DigiWorld Summit 2007, is organised with financial support from the City of Montpellier. A host of opportunities have opened up over the past two years: the development of serious games, Massively Multiplayer Games and persistent universes, online capabilities incorporated as standard features in home consoles, the emergence and growth of mobile gaming, the development of online poker that’s been as swift as it has been surprising… All constituting innovative technologies and ways to play which, in this era of growing convergence, involve or induce an overhaul of business models.

I’m sure I missed some relevant conferences, so if you can think of any leave a comment for our other readers.

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Virtual Goods Summit 2007 – Conference Videos

As has already been reported on several sites, the videos from June’s inaugural Virtual Goods Summit at Stanford are now online. Thanks to the organizers for making the videos freely available – I wish more conferences did this.

I took a heap of notes at the Summit, so why not share them now as well, both in “Top 10” and raw format.

My Top 10 Notes from the Virtual Goods Summit:

1. James Hong of
On HotorNot, users can purchase a $10 rose to send to other users. The rose dies 2 weeks later. HotorNot figured there were three value propositions inherent to a real life rose: the flower itself, the gesture of giving it, and the trophy effect of having received it. HotorNot figured that for virtual roses, 2 out of 3 of those values weren’t bad – and they were right. The $10 rose is HotorNot’s highest priced item, but it is still their best seller. James Hong said re: price elasticity, “It’s not impossible that if we raised the price of the rose, we’d sell even more.”

2. Paul Thind of Habbo Hotel
Habbo puts spending caps on every payment method to control economy & keep parents happy – so users can spend money only on 2-3 set days of the week.

3. Craig Sherman of Gaia Online
Gaia has three full time people on staff whose job it is to open envelopes filled with dollar bills and coins because people are desperate to get money into their accounts but can’t find a suitable payment method.

4. Min Kim of Nexon
Average user lifetime in a Nexon game is 2-4 years; Audition, Nexon’s newest game, is 50% female; Maple Story and Kart Rider are 20-30% female.

5. Tim Stevens of Doppelganger
The typical console game would not benefit from virtual item sales because of its lack of a continuing connection with its audience. I.e. the game launches, everyone buys and plays it, then most if not all of them leave very quickly for the next game. The community doesn’t grow and care about their presence in the game long-term.

6. Daniel James of Three Rings
The average Puzzle Pirates user spends 2.5 hours per day in the game. Some drop in and leave, but others spend up to 9 hours a day in-game.

7. Raph Koster of Areae
Regarding preventing and tracing fraud: “You need to serialize everything – so you can trace the path of a virtual coin right back through to its minting.”

8. Kyra Reppen of Neopets
Neopets builds their item packages and costs around a template metric of $10-15 per complete outfit.

9. Kevin Efrusy of Accel Partners – Facebook’s VC
The Facebook gifting service was just an experiment. A third party will use the newly-launched Facebook Application Platform to deliver a far more successful gifting solution. He said if he were an independent developer, he’d be working on that right now as he believes it is a huge opportunity.

10. Eric Bethke of GoPets
GoPets users are 80% female, one third of whom are in North America. Users are spread throughout the 20s, 30s, 40s, 50s age groups. Interestingly, GoPets highest ARPU is from the low 30s age group.

All of my raw, totally unedited notes from the Virtual Goods Summit, after the jump.

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The following 10 revenue models allow some or all of their associated game or virtual world to be played for free. The ordering is quite unscientific and I’m sure I’ve missed something obvious or messed up a detail. I leave it to the internet to correct me.

1. Virtual Item Sales
A well familiar revenue model first established in Korea and now the dominant model in Asia. Nexon – makers of KartRider, MapleStory, Audition and more – are widely seen as the leaders in this area, doing $230M of gross revenue in 2005 (the most recent year for which they’ve released figures), with 85% of that revenue coming from virtual item sales.

Virtual item sales is the practice of allowing users to purchase functional, decorative, or functional & decorative in-game items for use in and out of gameplay. A virtual item system usually uses two currencies – an attention currency (users earn virtual money via in-game activities) and a real money-based currency (users buy virtual money using real money). Typically, 5-15% of users opt for the latter currency and the influx of real world money is what provides the virtual item sales revenue stream.

What’s so compelling about virtual item sales is the unlimited ARPU (average revenue per user). According to Daniel James, CEO of Three Rings, some hardcore Puzzle Pirates users have poured more than $10,000 apiece into the game via virtual item purchases. To reach that contribution level via a World of Warcraft-style $15/month subscription would take a user 55 years.

While extremely shaky sources peg the overall size of the virtual item sales market at $1.5-2B this year, without an NPD-esque measurement organization there’s no way to verify that number.

2. Subscription Tiers
Runescape, the Java MMO from Jagex, is one of the leaders in the tiered subscription space. A tiered subscription model allows users to play the core game for free, but those that desire access to elite weapons or other game content, must pay a small ($5/month) subscription fee. Over 1 million of Runescape‘s 6+ million users have opted into the tiered subscription program, grossing $60M annually for Jagex.

Dungeon Runners, an NCsoft free to play MMO, offers a similar $5/month subscription package that affords players access to the elite items, a bank and the ability to stack potions. It also gives subscribers server queue priority.

3. Advertising
Several different forms of game-related advertising revenue streams have popped up in recent years. Firms such as Massive, IGA and Double Fusion do big business in in-game advertising for clients such as EA, Activision, THQ and Microsoft. Game ad agencies typically serve up static ads (ads that ship with a product and never change) or dynamic (ads that are updated in real time via the net) within game products that are contextually appropriate for advertising (i.e. sports, racing, or contemporary shooters).

The size of this conventional in-game advertising market is currently pegged at $100-200M, according to well-placed industry sources. However, the number and quality of games with dynamic advertising enabled is escalating dramatically. So much so that Yankee Group predicts the in-game ad market will reach $732M by 2010.

But other, more emergent forms of in-game advertising have been at the forefront of enabling free to play. Examples include:

4. Real Estate or “Land Use Fees
Second Life is the biggest legitimate player utilizing this revenue model whereby virtual land is sold leased to individuals. Monthly lease fees range from $5 to $195, depending on the size of land in question. Users may also purchase their own island for a one time fee of $1,675 in addition to a monthly fee of $295.

Approximately 70% of Second Life’s revenue comes from land sales and maintenance fees. Of course the virtual land ownership revenue model doesn’t come without headache, as the Bragg vs Linden suit has proven.

Entropia Universe uses land auctions as a revenue stream, but a recent headline-making $100,000 land sale has been called into question as the successful bidder is an employee of Entropia‘s developer, MindArk.

5. Merchandise
In what’s become a phenomenon of Furby proportions, Webkinz plush toys and their associated Webkinz World have taken the pre-teen set by storm. Users purchase a $15 Webkinz plush toy at retail and enter a secret code to activate the associated virtual character in Webkinz World. Beyond the retail plush toy purchase, there are no additional fees for playing in Webkinz World.

Two million Webkinz toys have been sold since April 2005, with more than 1 million of those users registering their pet online. That’s more than US$20M in retail sales in just 24 months. Products such as Bratz/Be-Bratz are quickly jumping on this bandwagon.

Another successful merchandise-based revenue model is collectible card games, or CCGs. Neopets launched a CCG in 2003 and just this week MapleStory became the latest free to play game to go this route, announcing a partnership with Wizards of the Coast. Consumers purchase real-world MapleStory collectible cards that come with codes redeemable for exclusive in-game content in the MapleStory MMORPG.

6. Auctions & Player Trades
In June 2005, Sony set up Station Exchange on select Everquest II servers. Station Exchange facilitates player to player trade of in-game items – including the provision of an escrow service – in return for a 10% closing fee as well as listing fees ranging from $1 (items and coins) to $10 (characters).

While Station Exchange recorded only $274K in net revenue in its first year of limited release, it was enough for Sony Online President John Smedley to declare it the future of RMT. Read the SOE Station Exchange whitepaper for more.

Entropia Universe – a world in which virtual items actually decay with use and require real money to repair or replace – utilizes first party auctions as their primary revenue stream. This means that instead of merely facilitating player to player auctions and taking a cut (a la Station Exchange’s eBay model), Entropia auctions items directly to their players.

Entropia items sell for ludicrous sums, with rare weapons auctions closing at $26,000, land auctions for (allegedly) $100,000. The May 2007 auction of five in-game banking licenses brought in $404,000, total. Ironically, Entropia takes no fees for player-to-player auctions.

In the wake of this success, watch for third party virtual item auction houses such as Dan Kelly’s to offer developers and publishers a cut to ensure the (exclusive?) cooperation of their products.

7. Expansion Packs

The best known example of expansion packs as a primary revenue model is the Arenanet product, Guild Wars. Likened by Richard Garriott to a series of fantasy novels, Guild Wars relies not on monthly subscription fees for its revenue, but on the sale of successive expansion packs for $29.99.

The game’s creators argue that the thin-pipe origins of their technology allow their game to be run far more economically than competing titles, enabling this no-subscription free model.

Over 3 million people have purchased the previous three Guild Wars products (Guild Wars, Guild Wars: Factions and Guild Wars: Nightfall) with those numbers set to surge again with the release of Guild Wars: Eye of the North on August 31, 2007.

8. Event or Tournament Fees
Netamin’s free to play, ad-supported Ulimate Baseball Online uses event fees as an additional revenue stream. UBO‘s Pay to Play tournaments cost $5 per player to enter and offer cash prizes up to $4,500.

Shot Online, a free to play/virtual item sales golf MMO, also charges users to enter tournaments.

Third parties such as Valve’s and Groove Game’s are getting into the pay to play tournament scene as well. These sites charge charging entry fees for game tournaments for games such as Half-Life 2 and Counter-Strike.

9. TrialPay
At the recent Virtual Goods Summit and again at the Seattle Casual Games Conference, I bumped into representatives from TrialPay. TrialPay is a third party facility that allows customers to pay for products (i.e. games) by trying or buying from advertisers.

What this means is that when you go to pay for a casual game or purchase virtual currency, you can instead select from a demographically targeted list of special offers. Trying or buying one of these offers – from merchants such as Avis, Geico, Vonage, etc – allows you to get your game purchase for free, as the offer merchant has paid the game provider for acquiring a new customer on their behalf.

TrialPay claims that this allows game developers to earn more per user, as some offers pay game developers upwards of $50 per user (as opposed to the $20 a casual game might normally charge).

Someone from TrialPay can jump in and give me a more relevant example of their system’s use in the game space, but all I could find was a casual games company called Dreamquest Games.

10. Donations
Clocking in at last on the list is of alternate revenue streams is player donations. Raph Koster recently blogged about meeting up with the Kingdom of Loathing guys at ComicCon in San Diego. Raph reported that while KoL‘s revenue is “definitely indie,” their primary revenue stream of player donations is a sustainable one.

According to Wired, the donation revenue has allowed creator Zack Johnson to quit his day job and hire six employees to help improve and maintain the product.

That’s what Maid Marian founder Gene Endrody would call a “lifestyle business,” but I suspect most of us wouldn’t scoff at it or any of the above revenue models.

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I don’t know if Maid Marian‘s Sherwood Dungeon RPG is indeed the most successful Shockwave free to play MMO, but it’s done pretty well for Gene Endrody and his wife – the only two employees of the developer, Maid Marian.

More interesting though is that the lone source of revenue for all of Maid Marian’s games is Google Adwords PPC (Pay Per Click) ads.

Recently, I had the chance to sit down with Gene and discuss Maid Marian, Sherwood and his company’s other projects. He was kind enough to offer up some very interesting info for those of us who aspire to create a free to play game as a “lifestyle business,” as Gene calls it.

Here are the Top 10 things I learned over coffee with Gene at Caffe Artigiano.

1. Revenue
Sherwood Dungeon sees 1M unique users each month, generating 10M ad impressions via Google Adwords. Gene claims a 4-5% CTR (click through rate), where traditional banner ads see a paltry .3% CTR.

Out of respect for Gene’s privacy I won’t reveal everything, but based on what he told me I estimate Maid Marian is grossing approximately $700-$800K/year, with 50% of that number being reinvested into the business.

Pretty solid income for a husband-wife team with a homegrown, free to play product supported solely by ads.

2. Technology
Maid Marian utilizes Shockwave for all their games. And Gene says that while Shockwave has just 55% penetration among the general populace (and Shockwave installations are declining), his market – teens – sees about 80-85% Shockwave penetration.

So the higher Shockwave penetration among Gene’s target demographic makes it an excellent technology platform.

Note: As a point of comparison, Flash has 98% penetration and is coming on strong as a robust game development platform. Interestingly, Gamasutra and Next-Gen.Biz both ran articles this week on Flash game development.

3. Servers
Sherwood Dungeon needs just 6 servers: 2 web servers, 3 game servers and 1 test server. Crude load balancing is accomplished via a round-robin DNS splitting scheme that directs incoming users evenly among the servers.

Maid Marian’s servers are provided by Peer 1 – a hosting company with a Vancouver data center – at a cost of $200 each per month and provide 2000gb of monthly bandwidth. But Gene is quick to point out that equivalent servers can be had for as low as $80/month these days.

Because all the user data in Sherwood Dungeon is stored client-side, there are no database security concerns or associated db speed drag. Data encryption and some client-side checks attempt to curb cheating or too rapid character progression, but of course player cheating is possible with this scheme.

4. Demographics
Because Gene’s game is web-based, he uses Google Analytics for most of the coarse metrics on his user base (country of origin, platform, unique users, etc). Some interesting stats:

  • 15% of Sherwood’s traffic is from US (largest single territory)
  • 5% of Sherwood’s traffic is from Canada
  • is the 500th most visited site in Jamaica

Hungary and Poland also have disproportionately large representation in Sherwood Dungeon. The game outperforms in areas such as Eastern Europe that aren’t well served by traditional game distribution methods.

5. Usability
In the interest of making Sherwood Dungeon more accessible, Gene has chosen not to expose player levels to each other. This means Player A can’t see what level Player B is at. Gene believes that this encourages more experienced players to help out new players, supporting the casual nature of the game.

Additionally, player levels are not even considered in PvP (Player versus Player) mode. So even if an experienced player chose to pick on a new player, ganking is much more difficult.

Players can also change their character type or look at any time. Players are not locked into a character after making their initial selection.

6. Content
Most of Sherwood Dungeon is procedurally generated, which saves a ton on level data. Among the items procedurally generated:

  • Dungeons
  • Islands
  • Height maps
  • Trees
  • Ramps

Gene uses seeds to ensure the same result every time with his procedurally generated worlds.

7. Genres
Maid Marian features three types of games, theorizing that users who are temporarily tired of one type can jump to another for a while. These game types are:

8. Distribution
Rather than block third party sites from linking directly to his games like many casual game providers do (at least the ones that rely on revenue from ads on their sites), Gene chose to embrace them. As a result, web game aggregators such as Addicting Games have become great secondary sources of new players.

Maid Marian’s highest referrer is Arcade Town, accounting for 5% of Gene’s total traffic. But Gene ensures his Google Adwords are preserved even if the third party iframes his game. Using his logs, he’s able to identify sites that violate his affiliate policy by stripping out his ads.

However, the sites are free to bracket his game with their own ads, forming an ad-hoc revenue sharing program.

9. Client Size
I’m a big believer in tiny client sizes and Sherwood Dungeon is a clear winner here. Clocking in at just 2mb (compared to 4mb for the already tiny Runescape and Habbo), Sherwood’s puny downloadable client makes it the fastest loading free to play MMO I’ve ever experienced.

Couple that with deferred sign up (as I mentioned in my previous article), and you have a deadly fast way to get players into your game.

10. AI
In Sherwood Dungeon, the AI monsters utilize distribute processing to reduce server load. This means that the brain for the monster you and your friends are fighting resides on your PC, not the server.

When you log off mid-fight, the control of the monster’s brain is seamlessly handed off to another user’s PC. A monster might “lose his mind” momentarily if his AI can’t successfully land on another user’s PC, but it’s often tough to tell the difference between a monster that’s flailing with purpose and one that’s not.

A big thanks to Gene for his time. I had for more interesting points, but had to cut them down for this article.

Also thanks to Raph Koster, for directing a small subset of his traffic my way twice in the last couple weeks.

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Whether you’re making a casual MMO like Maple Story or a virtual world like Habbo Hotel, here are 10 ways to remove game-killing barriers to entry and create the largest possible addressable market.

1. Free to Play
The Free to Play business model is here to stay – and growing every day. In an entertainment world filled with endless choices, asking someone to pony up $50 before they can play a game is rapidly becoming a non-starter. The focus now is on getting players through the front door, keeping them happy, then monetizing 5-15% of them. Non-paying customers become “content” for the paying minority, so don’t think you can ignore them.

2. Integrated graphics support

“If our games required a video card, we’d lose 80% of our audience”
– Min Kim, Director of Game Operations, Nexon North America

“Graphics are not important – the mind models the situation”
– Daniel James, CEO, Three Rings

Enthusiasts who purchase the latest, greatest video card make up just 4% of the market. Integrated graphics (i.e. no dedicated video card and therefore lower graphics performance) accounts for over 60% of all new computer sales. It would be foolish to develop a Free to Play product requires a video card when success in the F2P sector is partially reliant on addressing a large market and monetizing just a small fraction of your player base.

3. Multiple, regionalized payment systems
Finding the right payment method is a key success factor for Free to Play products. When a user finds a payment method they’re comfortable with, they are fiercely loyal to it. But there are nearly as many payment methods as their are markets. Erik Bethke of GoPets says his company utilizes 90 different payment systems worldwide in order to address the local preferences of each region and make it as easy as possible for users to pay.

Many factors influence payment method selection. Credit card penetration in China is low, so billing customers via their land-line telephone provider has become a widely used payment system that provides excellent security in exchange for high surcharges. In Europe, SMS payments are hugely successful and carriers take anywhere from 10-30% surcharges versus the 40-50% fees of North American carriers. PayPal, checks, points cards and more are also used.

We have three people on staff whose full-time job is to open envelopes with single dollar bills and quarters in them. The users can’t figure out how to get the cash to us. One user sent in a $5 bill in a $14.95 FedEx package so it would get to us on time.
– Craig Sherman, CEO, Gaia Online

4. Little or no download
Get users into a game as fast as possible. If your game requires the user to download client software, make it as small as possible and give the user something to do while they wait for the game to download and install (i.e. setting up their character).

But better yet, make your game in Java, Flash, Shockwave or Silverlight so it’s playable within a browser. A game delivered via Java applet (i.e. Puzzle Pirates, Bang! Howdy, Runescape) can be downloaded and installed in under a minute. A signed Java applet will even avoid tripping a user’s installed spyware detectors.

Only ~30% of players actually tolerate downloads at all, the other 70% preferring to play online. I believe this percentage of download-intolerant players is increasing.
– Daniel James, CEO, Three Rings

5. Deferred sign up
How many times have you been faced with filling out a mandatory sign up form before you can starting playing a new game? The barrier of filling out one more form and becoming a member of yet another online site/network/game/etc that might eventually spam you – before you even try the product – is a huge barrier to entry.

Why not let a new player name and create their character, enter and start experiencing the product, then ask for sign up information along the way? A game that gets this right is Maid Marian‘s Shockwave MMO Sherwood Dungeon, which allows you to start playing immediately after you enter your desired character’s name. Despite its simplistic graphics and lack of server-side character saves, Sherwood has attracted over 1M users to its Free to Play ad-supported game.

6. Easy to understand world/lore
Pets, penguins, pirates, party goers – these are some of the most successful Free to Play virtual worlds and games. If you want to keep your game’s potential market big, utilize commonly understood worlds, characters and rules as often as possible. There are exceptions of course, but generally the more jargon and fiction you graft onto your property, the greater the barrier to entry for new players.

7. Quick to play core
Build your game or virtual world around a quick-to-play core mechanic that loops into a larger meta-game. A game that can be played in small 5 minute chunks that feed into a higher purpose.

The casual MMO Puzzle Pirates was designed with short play sessions and a solid meta-game in mind. However, the average Puzzle Pirates user spends 2.5 hours per day in the game – 30 days a month. And while some players do drop in and leave, others spend up to 9 hours a day in-game. Ultimately, the game’s short compulsion loops keep players online longer than traditional, longer compulsion loops that take 30-60 minutes to complete.

8. Warp, don’t walk
Spending precious minutes walking to destinations is, for many, a significant barrier to entry and a big waste of time. Many games and virtual worlds allow “warping” between areas to avoid long marches or simply a point-and-click interface with the world.

9. Spending limits
It seems counterintuitive, but enforcing spending caps on some or all of your player base (depending on your product’s demographics) may actually increase your user base. Habbo Hotel puts spending caps on all payment methods to control the influx of cash into their economy but also to allay parents’ fears. Users can spend money only on 2-3 predefined days of the week.

Limiting how much a player can spend spend in a short period of time benefits the game by reducing parental concern and decreasing incidents of buyer’s remorse in new players.

10. Secondary markets
The presence of a secondary market can drive the primary market. Wizards of the Coast had this observation, as told by Daniel James at this year’s Virtual Goods Summit:

Wizards of the Coast had some interesting things to say, that secondary markets, for example of Magic Online, have been incredibly valuable in driving the primary market. People will buy way more cards in the primary market because they know they can flip them. Mostly they don’t, though, they just hold onto them. Which is a great tip for people thinking about this.

So embrace secondary markets as more users will choose to participate in your primary market if they believe they can sell their goods to others when they’re done the game.



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