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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.

Happy New Year! What Will 2010 Bring?

hapy-new-year-2010I hope you all had a great New Year’s Eve celebration. While 2009 saw the amazing growth of social games, looking ahead, I wonder whether 2010 will be the year where:

  • More complex game mechanics catch on?
  • Facebook changes continue to take away the institutional learnings from leaders like Zynga, helping to level the playing field?
  • A synchronous game other than Poker finds a sizable base within the Facebook platform?
  • That none of the big games reach their previous peaks?
  • EA succeeds in creating a cross over game to the social platform?
  • A social game company behemoth rises out of the Northeast (or anywhere outside of San Francisco)?
  • Facebook credits completely revamps the payment structure of social games?
  • Users tire of “appointment gaming”
  • Facebook growth slows down and developers begin to tackle niches and localization to maintain growth trends?

I’m looking forward to the year ahead and watching the innovation that is sure to come. If you want to get a little bit of a crystal ball’s view of these and other social game topics, I highly recommend reading Tadhg Kelly’s inciteful post on Gamasutra and Eric Eldon’s interview with Mark Pincus on InsideSocialGames.com

Developers Revamp Viral Marketing Tactics to Comply with Changes to Facebook Policies

As originally posted on InsideSocialGames.com

While we recently attributed some of the across-the-board declines in daily active user numbers for Facebook games to seasonality, it’s becoming clearer that recent policy changes by Facebook may be contributing to these declines as well, forcing developers to completely revamp their viral activities. Here are three viral practices that have been reined in and examples of how developers are attempting to cope with the changes.

Pre-Game Gifting Interstitial Screens are Gone

The policy:”You must not prompt users to send invitations, requests, generate notifications, or use other Facebook communication channels immediately after a user allows access or returns to your application.”

How developers are coping: This was viral-marketing 101 for nearly every Facebook game: every time you went to the application, you first had to go through a “gifting” screen before you could actually play the game. Only Playfish refrained from this practice in the past. Now that it’s been taken out of the arsenal, developers like Zynga and CrowdStar are trying different ways of getting users to get back in the gifting habit. Most games have opted to add an icon on top of the game play area, specifically prompting users to send gifts, like in CrowdStar’s Happy Aquarium and Zynga’s Roller Coaster Kingdom:

Zynga’s PetVille has incorporated the gift icon into the basic navigation on the screen, with little balloons that highlight an action they want users to take:

Zynga’s Mafia Wars is more aggressively integrating prompts and banners into the page:

And still, some games still have the gift interstitial, but they are generally smaller games, like Hive7’s Youtopia, which Facebook might not have gotten to yet:

Pop-Ups to Prompt Users to Share Achievements…Revamped

The policy: “You must not display a Feed form unless a user has explicitly indicated an intention to share that content, by clicking a button or checking a box that clearly explains their content will be shared.”

How developers are coping: Instead of the standard Facebook news feed form windows popping up, each game is experimenting with different in-game prompts that users need to activate to show their intent to publish to their wall. PetVille prompts users by having a new icon show up in the bottom right, with a balloon prompting users to share:

Playfish’s Pet Society has a somewhat confusing choice between a sharing icon and a green check mark icon (used to close the in-game pop-up and NOT share), whereas Farm Town by SlashKey prompts with a simple binary choice of either sharing (green check icon) or not (red X icon):

CrowdStar’s Happy Pets uses the check-box approach – although the prompt is by default pre-checked to share so the user must un-check it before clicking on the green check mark icon:

Gating Content Based on Number of Friends…Not Enforced?

The policy: “You must not provide users with rewards or gate content from users based on their number of friends who use your application.”

How developers are coping: This common developer practice often prompted users to request perfect strangers to “Add Me” so that they could unlock levels or items in the game without having to pay for them, thus running amok of Facebook’s intent to keep your social graph strictly to your direct friends (we recently offered up an alternative). In response to the policy being enforced, Treasure Madness by zSlide no longer requires you to have a number of friends to dig under certain heavy rocks. Instead, they now make users pay for “contractors” at 150 in-game gold pieces per contractor. So a rock that would have required 10 friends to lift, now requires 1500 gold pieces:

Yet it’s still a question as to how intense Facebook plans to enforce this policy. For example, Zynga’s Roller Coaster Kingdom still appears to be gating items based on the number of friends, gating the options for booking guests, upgrading park attractions and for expanding the amusement park area:

We fully expect these policy changes to have an impact on growth and retention rates as developers adjust their viral marketing tactics to comply. But with the seasonal impact of people getting away from their computers to celebrate the holidays, plus developers quickly reacting and optimizing new tactics, it may take several weeks to fully understand just how severe the impact of these changes will be on growth and retention rates.