Mafia Wars Tests Paying for Thai Expansion: Dawn of a New Social Game Model?

When the Daily Active User (DAU) numbers are broken from Facebook for a week, it’s hard to figure out trends, but the 3rd expansion set for Zynga’s Mafia Wars (and heavy advertising to promote it – and possibly stem growth from Playfish’s slick new mafia-themed entry Gangster Wars) has helped the game reach it’s highest DAU numbers (6.6 million) since December 12th (when the perfect storm of a very messy release, user backlash, and the removal of pre-game gifting caused numbers to plummet).

The promotion of the Thai expansion is interesting because it harkens to that of a video game release by trying to create hype and a desire to get invited to play the expansion. Users were prompted to unlock different items by hunting for jobs with specific logos. Then users were prompted to send gifts of Thai Baht (the currency used in the location) to friends. And then there has been the limited roll out to select users. The ads prompted you to go and see if the “passport” was unlocked for you to go to Thailand. And if it wasn’t you were hit with this:

mafia-wars-thai-passport

Three interesting options:

  1. You could try to get it for free (and I’m sure the odds on that are low or designed to reward a certain type of prolific player who is likely to help market it),
  2. You could socially spam all of your friends (someday it would be nice to target to just your Mafia Wars friends) with a wall post (which provides valuable viral marketing for Mafia Wars ) in hopes that your Mafia Wars friends had an extra passport (a sort of by-invitation-only mechanism like gmail and Google Wave that makes it feel like an exclusive club), or
  3. You could buy the expansion pack for 30 Reward Points (the equivalent of $6 of the paid currency in the game).

This last option is the most intriguing, as it suggests a new wrinkle in the freemium business model of social games – something to be expected where these “games as a service” begin to emulate MMORPGs more and more. The buying of expansion packs is fairly common in MMORPGs when new worlds or realms are opened up with a ton of content. The hardcore players buy it when it first comes out and then the expansion pack is added to the core game over time. The same model makes a lot of sense for Mafia Wars, as the expansion packs to date have been targeted at hard core users (you can’t get to Cuba until you’ve hit level 35 and if you weren’t already playing, an expansion pack to Thailand is not going to make you rush to sign up and play).

The price ($6) does seem a little steep at first glance. It is shrewdly priced above the lowest Reward Points bundle (25 Reward Points for $4.99) in an effort to get users to “increase their purchase size” to the 50 Reward Points for $9.99 bundle. One could also argue that users may already have a large stockpile of Reward Points as they were given away to retain users over the holidays.

One could also speculate that the sale of virtual goods may have been declining for many reasons: 1) an overall saturation of the Facebook audience for a mature game, leading to a reduction in new users who are the lifeblood of virtual item sales, 2) hard core users (who tend to be your more prolific buyers) at the maximum 501 mafia seeing less value in buying new items once they have their entire mafia outfitted and 3) a tremendous give-away of loot items (both on limited-time discounts and as part of the “gift safe house” promotion) since Thanksgiving. When a game matures and your hard core users don’t have anything to buy (or do), you need to find something else to meet that demand. Expansion packs are a logical fit and it’ll be interesting to see Zynga’s experiment unfold.

The questions going forward:

  • Is any other RPG-style Facebook game even able to attempt this model? After Mafia Wars (24 million MAU, 6.6 million DAU), the next largest RPG-style game on Facebook is Playdom’s Sorority Life with only (6.1 million MAU, 988,000 DAU) and no real history of expansion packs to date.
  • Can any game genre outside of RPGs do this? Once could argue the additional fish tanks in Sim Fish games are a bit similar, but those are usually at a smaller price and don’t provide real content, which make them almost seem like virtual items.
  • Does the expansion pack model allow developers to add levels without all the repetitive jobs and energy that Tadhg Kelly recently criticized as unethical design?
  • For this model moving forward, how much free content should there be? Could this open up a hybrid model where a subset of users would be willing to buy an expansion pack that just took you through a story while non-payers would have to slog through new levels with repetitive jobs?

Interested in your thoughts as to whether this is a model that can succeed (in at least skimming off user’s willingness to pay among core users) and whether any other developers will try to follow suit.

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