Converting players into payers in five steps

Remember the first time you played Farmville, why did you do it? Were you looking for more ways to spend money online? Or was it because you were bored? Maybe a friend recommended the game? Or the advert just sounded fun? Unless you’ve got more money than Mark Zuckerburg, I’d bet it was one of the later reasons. Your players are no different: no-one plays Farmville because they just can’t wait to buy more virtual goods, and yet some do get their wallets out. This post is about how to convert some of your players into payers.

Remember, your game is not just a game, it’s a marketing and sales process. When a new player joins your game, he’s not just a player, he’s a sales opportunity. Your job is to design an experience that, over time, converts those opportunities into sales.

We start by thinking about the end of the sales funnel. Why will anyone get excited enough about your game to get their credit card out, because I’m pretty sure virtual goods don’t fall into the bottom two levels of Maslows hierarchy. Then figure out the steps between a new, yet to be convinced player, and one who has become excited enough to open their wallet.

I’m going to show you an example journey. It’s only five steps, and applies to any game where players are motivated by competition. I don’t mean an aggressive, athlete, rap star, alpha male kind of competition – these alpha males are not prototypical casual gamers – rather the same kind of competition that gave birth to the phase “keeping up with the Joneses”. These are the players who start to feel that their friends farm is beginning to look better than their own, but they don’t have time to catch up, and they’d hate to be left behind.1

Step 1) Acclimatisation: learn the rules, begin to enjoy the game. We’re designing for the player who is about to leave and their mouse hovering over the browser back button. We’ve got to get them interested quickly, and we’ve got to make sure the player feels like they’re going to be good at the game so that they know its going to be worth spending their time. To achieve this, we design for what we call a false sense of achievement. Everyone wants to feel like a winner, after the first 10 minutes playing Frontierville, Zynga leave you feeling like the best Frontierville ever! The players reward is a function of the time they spend playing, not their skill level.

Step 2) Socialisation: invite friends and make new friends. If our players are going to spend money because they want to “keep up with the Joneses”, then we need to make sure they’ve got someone to keep up with! Yet, if its a bad game there’s nothing that you can do to convince players to tell their friends, but just because its a good game doesn’t mean they’ll tell their friends either. You have to design viral in from the very start – you can’t bolt wings onto car and expect it to fly, and likewise, you can’t bolt viral growth onto a game and expect it to grow.

Step 3) Collaboration: work together and build bonds. This is a subtle but important step. We’re more competitive with our friends than strangers, so design collaborative features that bring players together, that give your players reasons to interact, and help them become better friends.

Step 4) Competition: show off. Closely linked to the previous step. We must make sure that collaboration takes place in an area of the game where players can easily show off – both players must benefit from the collaboration, and they must both see how well the other player is doing. For example, FrontierVille encourages players to help clear trees from their friends Homestead and rewards both players with coins and experience points. Note, the time spent clearing trees is disproportionally reward because Zynga are encouraging players to visit their friends Homesteads. The greater the incentive to help their friends the more often they’ll visit their friends, and the more often they visit the more often they will compare their progress to that of their friends.

5) Conversion: spend money, save time. Now that we have players regularly judging their own progress against that of their friends our sales proposition is simple – spend money to progress faster. As the progress curve starts to flatten out players begin to progress more slowly and levelling up takes longer. The key is getting this inflection point right – slowing the game down at the point your players are sufficiently competitive – and then offering a way to pay to progress faster, or keep up with friends.

These are the five steps to convert players to payers. Use them by designing features and mechanics in your game that fulfil each step, and then build a journey that drives players through each stage. In the next post I’m going to talk about how this sales process can then be used to design and balance your games economy. What is a virtual t-shirt worth? How long should players wait between levels? How many coins should a quest reward? These are all driven by your sales process, and the steps between acclimatisation and conversion.

Matthew Warneford – follow me on twitter

1 Keep in mind there are many reasons why players might end up buying virtual goods, and unsurprisingly, the motivations, and how much they spend, varies significantly by age and player archetype.

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