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Prepaid cards continue to drive online game revenue March 20, 2009

Posted by jeremyliew in freemium, games, games 2.0, gaming, payments.
1 comment so far

Two interesting announcments on prepaid cards this week.

Venturebeat reports:

Game currency cards — gift cards players can use to pay for subscriptions or virtual goods in online games — are getting traction. Coming on the heels of a similar report from GMG Entertainment, InComm said today that its game currency card business grew 200 percent in 2008.

Incomm is one of the two leaders in prepaid cards broadly (e.g. for Bed Bath & Beyond, Red Lobster etc) and has been making a concerted push into online game cards over the last couple of years.

Virtual Worlds News also reports on some useful stats from Playspan’s Ultimate Game Card:

21% of customers receive an Ultimate Game Card as a gift; 79% bought it for their own use
48% of customers between 14-18
36% of customers have bought 4 or more cards

The infrastructure of prepaid cards is one of the key elements that is unlocking the growth of free to play games in the west today.

Which companies might prosper in an ad recession? October 13, 2008

Posted by jeremyliew in advertising, Ecommerce, freemium, gaming, Lead gen, recession, subscription, virtual goods.
15 comments

I have previously posted on which online media companies will survive the ad recession. Clearly, all online media companies will feel the advertising recession, but some companies will hold up better than others.

But some companies might do more than survive – they might prosper. Companies that buy advertising (rather than selling it) will find that they can now buy advertising more cheaply than previously.

Ecommerce companies, subscription businesses, lead gen businesses and online game companies are all buyers of online advertising. In the last advertising slowdown, companies like Expedia, Zappos, Quin Street, Lending Tree, Lower My Bills, Netflix, Classmates.com and Ancestry.com were all able to grow to over $100M in revenue by taking advantage of cheap media.

Will history repeat itself in this recession? It is hard to know. Certainly lower CPMs can lead to lower customer acquisition costs if all else is equal. But the difference between this recession and the last one is consumer confidence, which is markedly lower today than in the 2000-2003 time period. As a result, there may simply be less buyers out there to acquire. Compete recently noted the marked drop in “in market auto buyers” over the last two years for example – down 37%:

Certainly, consumers are deferring “considered purchases” including homes, cars and other big ticket items. Etailers selling “necessities” that cannot be deferred, such as diapers or business cards, will do fine. The question is what will happen to the demand for small ticket consumer discretionary spending. Starbucks might be considered a proxy for this sort of spending. Unfortunately, the news for Starbucks isn’t good. Notes Seeking Alpha:

There was a time when getting a coffee at Starbucks Corp. (SBUX) – whether a basic “tall bold” or a souped-up venti concoction – was considered a relatively cheap treat, though those of us with a daily Starbucks habit might think otherwise.

However, a report from RBC Capital Markets analyst Larry Miller indicates that even that daily cup of store-bought java is one of the victims of the credit crunch. Mr. Miller lowered his 2009 earnings estimates – to $0.90 from $0.95, and said:

[The move] reflects our proprietary survey work, which suggests Starbucks sales continue to weaken as consumers are changing their habits and brewing more coffee at home.

This does not bode well for small ticket discretionary spending.

One potential brightspot may be gaming. The games industry has historically been considered counter cyclical. The argument has been that for $50s you can buy a game that will give you 50-100 hours of enjoyment, versus $10 for a 2 hour movie or $5 for a magazine that you’ll finish in an hour. Free to play games make this argument even more compelling. Free to play games may be able to take advantage of cheaper customer acquisition costs in an advertising recession.

For other forms of discretionary small ticket spending, the jury may still be out.

MMOG nuggets from Austin GDC September 18, 2008

Posted by jeremyliew in business models, freemium, games, games 2.0, gaming, mmorpg, virtual goods, virtual worlds.
2 comments

Some interesting tidbits about both free to play and subscription MMOGs coming out of the talks at Austin GDC. Min Kim of Nexon says:

Not just a Korean thing:

“South Korea is still a big market for us,” Kim admits, “but the split is now 50/50 with overseas markets,” which includes the Asian and U.S. markets.

On growth in North America:

In 2005, Nexon America’s revenues were around $650,000. In 2006, when they added Paypal as a payment option, sales rose to $8.457 million, based on item sales. In 2007, once Nexon released its Nexon Cash cards to retail stores, revenue jumped to $29.334 million.

On localization of games:

While many of the free to play games currently come from Korea, Kim feels that the market will eventually be dominated by Western titles. “We’ve seen this happen in other places like China,” he posed. “The big games now are from Chinese developers. I think the same thing will happen in the West, with Western-developed titles.”

On how game design interacts with business model design:

Focus on fun, not just on what items you can sell. “Have an idea about what your business model is,” he advises, but don’t go overboard laying out your business plan completely from the beginning. “Don’t have all your items and categories pegged out. Make sure you have a fun game, first.” 9 times out of 10 the ideas you’ll have at the beginning will be wrong. The players will tell you what they want to buy.”

From a panel on evolving business models in MMOs, CCP’s (Eve Online) Petursson notes that subscription MMOs mostly reward time spent playing (which is consistent with the business model):

All subscription-based MMOs are merit economies – those with most time, win. But the only thing you can’t buy is social merit. To be a purely subscription-based game, you should aim for social merit as it’s the only merit economy defensible against outside influences.

On when Free to play works and when it does not (a function of demographics, geography/ cultural norms and genre):

* Robert: The demographics in LOTRO etc are a lot older: 20-35, male. F2P games tend to be younger, more females, casual, less hardcore. 30 year old males are not playing a lot of F2P and have no problem paying monthly subscription. Younger people and kids are playing lots of games and want F2P for that flexibility. However, F2P microtransaction games can pull in more ARPU than subscriptions.
* Helmar – In CHina, it is illegal to have an automatic debit for sub based game – user always has to choose. For game operator it’s important to realize that most biz models will be implemented by user… better to implement them yourself and tune appropriately.
* Min – also based on genre…not many ppl shell out $15/month to play FPS. There are some F2P FPSs now in Asia. Biz model based on genre as well.

Turbine’s Ferrari notes that F2P games need low barriers to play

What we’re seeing is a shift that a lot of the f2p games are so much lighter than traditional MMOs. Heavy MMOs are beautiful, but that puts a barrier to entry based on min spec – younger demographics don’t have these systems. Global expansion doesn’t support those specs either. Our games are above 5gb in size, whereas Maple Story is close to 1gb now.

Nexon’s Min Kim has a contrarian view:

In S Korea, people have no problem downloading big client products as the web is so fast. I often wonder if browser-based gaming is an interim step until web speeds creep up and people can return to client download.

And multiple comments on the importance of letting your customers pay you how they can and want to pay you (including prepaid cards at retail):

* Min: Offering payment methods relevant to your target demographic is important. Over 20 years old, credit cards are viable. In the teen demographic, prepaid cards are still the dominant form of payment. Maybe SMS payments will come, but it is all about accessibility and convenience. In demographics such as Club Penguin’s, credit cards are a big part of their payment methods as parents are paying.
* Nicolay: I think Habbo has 140 different payment methods. The ability to pay has to be the lowest barrier to entry, otherwise you aren’t getting any money.
* Robert: SMS charges surrender so much margin to carrier, but retail cards may be more expensive just to get into channel.
* Hilmar: It’s puzzling why carriers aren’t lowering their surcharges. People would switch to it immediately, resolving credit card issues.
* Min: There is no access for our consumers to use credit cards. In 2006, we did $8.5M in the US in virtual item sales – in 2007 we did $29.3M in virtual items. Virtually all of that growth came from enabling people to pay.
* Robert: Companies like Turbine are looking at the console to expand their playerbase. Potentially we can use an xbox payment system, so we don’t need to do it ourselves. It’s about expanding access for players.

Acclaim to make $30m in revenue from free to play games this year June 24, 2008

Posted by jeremyliew in business models, freemium, games, games 2.0, gaming, virtual goods.
4 comments

Howard Marks spoke at Paris GDC today, and Worlds in Motion has a writeup, including quotes from Marks about key stats for Acclaim’s free to play games:

For example, profitability is often measured through average revenue per user (ARPU). “Most of the time ARPU is $30-$40 a month,” said Marks. “A month! Not just one time.”

“The next thing is percentage of uniques,” he continued, defining “uniques” as players who spend money on a given game. “We’ve found in Asia, in Korea, we’ve found that 10% of people will spend money! I think it’s great! In the United States it’s less, more like 5-10%. But we’re getting there.”

The average lifetime for a player in the free-to-play space is 3-4 months per game, less than what is generally expected for a more traditional subscription MMO.

That statistic leads to churn rate, which describes player loss per month. “It turns out you lose a lot,” admitted Marks. “You should be prepared to say, ‘I only brought in 100,000 players this month, but only 10,000 stayed.’ That’s okay! That’s okay. Some of them will come back, and you can always get more.”

He also says (according to Worlds In Motion) that Acclaim will make $30m in revenues this year and break even on their core games business, but is investing heavily in R&D. Those are great numbers, and certainly place Acclaim to the front of the pack for free to play publishers in the West.

Successful MMOGs can see $1-2 in monthly ARPU June 9, 2008

Posted by jeremyliew in freemium, games, games 2.0, gaming, mmorpg, subscription, virtual goods.
43 comments

There are not many publicly available statistics on the free-to-play industry in the western world. Here is what I found on the web for some of the popular virtual worlds and MMOGs:

Second Life

Second Life’s economic statistics are reported monthly. In May 2007, Second Life reported:

$165m Linden dollars sold by Linden Lab through the Linden Exchange in May
$127m Linden dollars paid via weekly stipends in May
860k residents logged in over the last 30 days

Since Linden pays $300 Linden dollars in weekly stipends to premium members, there are around (127m/300/ 4 weeks=) 100k premium subscribers paying $6-10/mth. Lets call that $800k in monthly revenue from premium subscribers.

Linden dollars currently exchange
at 264 Lindens to the USD, so Linden Labs made $165m/264 = $625k in currency sales.

These are the two primary sources of Linden dollars into Second Life’s economy, so Linden Labs made at least $1.4m in revenue from the 860k residents that logged in over the last 30 days, or roughly $1.70/active user.

UPDATE: Several comments note that I have ignored the bulk of Second Life’s revenue which is derived from land maintenance. An updated analysis is here.

Club Penguin

When Club Penguin was bought by Disney in August 2007, it was reported to have 12m registered users and 700k paying users. As the monthly charge for paying subscribers is $6, this suggests monthly revenues of around $4.2m. Compete reported 2.6m UU to Club Penguin in that month. Dividing these two numbers we get around $1.62/active user (where an active user is defined as a unique user in that month).

Habbo Hotel

At AGDC in September of 2007, Habbo Hotel‘s lead designer, Sulka Haro gave some statistics on Habbo Hotel’s usage:

Habbo Hotel has approximately 7.5m unique players per month globally — nipping at the heels of World of Warcraft. In the seven years since the game launched, 80 million accounts have been created. Globally, the game typically has 100,000 concurrent users playing at one time.

Furthermore, Habbo was estimated to do $77m in revenue in 2006. In the middle of 2006, Habbo had around 53m accounts. Assuming a similar ratio of monthly players to total accounts in mid 2006 to what Habbo has today, that suggests that there were around 5m unique players per month at that time. Dividing $77m by 12 months by 5m unique players suggests about $1.30 in revenue per active users.

Runescape

Finally, Jagex’s Runescape claimed 1m players paying $5/mth in May 2007 and 6m players per month in October 2007. That suggest $5m/mth in revenues from 6m players, or around $0.84 in revenue per active user.

In summary then we have:

Second Life: $1.70/mthly user/mth UPDATE: Should be $9.30/mthly user/mth
Club Penguin: $1.62/mthly user/mth
Habbo: $1.30/mthly user/mth
Runescape: $0.84/mthly user/mth

The average across these four is $1.40/mthly user/mth*. UPDATE: excluding Second Life, should be $1.25/mthly user/mth.

Having spoken to many other MMOGs and virtual worlds on a private basis, this estimate seems to be a good gauge for what a well performing MMOG can aspire to from a free to play business model.

Do readers have any datapoints that they can add to this survey?

* Note that this is based on monthly users. Many MMOGs calcuate their average revenue per user (ARPU) based on Peak Concurrent Users. On this basis, ARPU can be more than an order of magnitude higher than the $1.40 guideline.

Free to play arguments February 27, 2008

Posted by jeremyliew in advertising, business models, casual games, digital goods, freemium, games, gaming, virtual goods.
3 comments

At GDC the argument continues over whether free to play and microtransactions are the future of games, or whether single sale and subscription models will continue to hold sway.

As I’ve opined in the past, the economic principle of marginal cost pricing suggests that free to play models will become dominant. At a round table on digital goods business models at GDC, one of the EA folks working on Battlefield Heroes noted that their surveys found that hardcore gamers and older gamers objected the most to digital goods, but that casual and younger players accepted it without comment. If the future of gaming is about breaking beyond the hardcore to the mass market, those defending the old models may be missing the larger opportunity.

Russell Carroll has an interesting post at GameSetWatch that sheds some further light on this issue. It is ostensibly about piracy in the casual game business and opens with the stat:

“It looks like around 92% of the people playing the full version of [the game] Ricochet Infinity pirated it.”

Carroll asks, if piracy can be stopped, can sales be increased by 12x? (i.e. would all the pirate players buy). After looking at all the methods by which the company could reduce piracy, and the impact of these methods on both downloads and conversion rates, he concludes:

As we believe that we are decreasing the number of pirates downloading the game with our DRM fixes, combining the increased sales number together with the decreased downloads, we find 1 additional sale for every 1,000 less pirated downloads. Put another way, for every 1,000 pirated copies we eliminated, we created 1 additional sale.

Though many of the pirates may be simply shifting to another source of games for their illegal activities, the number is nonetheless striking and poignant. The sales to download ratio found on Reflexive implies that a pirated copy is more similar to the loss of a download (a poorly converting one!) than the loss of a sale.

Think about this from the other direction. Currently, for every 1000 players, 80 bought the game and 920 are playing a free, pirated version. So the company makes around 80 x $20 = $1,600. If they were to eliminate piracy, they would sell one additional game, so their revenue would be $1,620.

At a recent panel on casual games, Alex St John said that he was able to sell advertising to support casual games monetizing at 15c/gameplay and that he was sold out of inventory.

To make $1,620 on advertising at 15c/gamplay, the 1000 players would on average need to play the game about 11 times each, which doesn’t seem unreasonable. (This assumes that the source of advertising dollars will be scalable.)

If you add to this a digital goods opportunity, the alternative becomes more interesting. Daniel James (CEO of Three Rings) has said in the past that the ARPU from digital goods is about the same as that from subscription, but with a distribution curve that looks more like a power curve – some heavy spenders and a long tail. An industry rule of thumb for digital goods monetization is around 5-10% of players will pay. Applying the same metrics to this game suggest a digital goods revenue stream in the $1,000-$2,000 range, incremental to the advertising revenue.

And finally, this doesn’t even begin to address the question on how many more players will play the game if the free period is not limited to 60 minutes. These incremental players all become candidates for monetization by both advertising and digital goods. Crossing the Penny Gap can dramatically cut the universe of users, as Josh Kopelman has noted before.

I would advise game designers to consider baking digital goods and advertising opportunities into the core mechanics of their new games so that they have the flexibility to explore both these business models as well as the proven subscription model.

UPDATE: Carroll has more data on his casual game pirating experience here.

Freemium service models – paying for convenience in games February 20, 2008

Posted by jeremyliew in asynchronous gaming, business models, digital goods, freemium, mobile, subscription, virtual goods.
4 comments

Last week I noted that free-to-play games will become increasingly dominant. I’ve also noted in the past several use cases for the digital goods business models that will be one of the primary monetization mechanisms for free-to-play games. Selling increased functionality can result in user dissatisfaction if players perceive that the only way that they can “win” is to buy more powerful in game functionality. This can be managed through the use of a dual currency system, as Matt Mihaly noted in a guest post.

One other monetization mechanism that free-to-play games can offer is services. Some games, especially real time strategy games, can be somewhat inconvenient to play because they require constant monitoring and occasionally require actions to be taken in game at a certain time. Gameplay can inconveniently interfere with other activities, like work and sleep.

Travian is a good example of this. In Travian each action takes a certain amount of time, and there is no way to “queue up” orders (e.g. if you want to upgrade your mine after you’ve finished upgrading your farm field), or to “schedule” orders to be carried out at a certain time (e.g. if you want to time a raid on another village to be coordinated with another attack). Instead, Travian requires a player to be in the game at a specific time to give an order.

Offering a player the ability to queue up orders or schedule orders as a premium service is a non controversial way to monetize users. Players who do not want to play can be just as effective as players who are willing to pay (they just need to be able to get online at the right times to give their orders). Players who pay for the service are paying simply for convenience, not for additional in game power.

Managerzone‘s mobile premium service is another example of such a service. As I noted previously, the mobile service gives a player certain alerts and allows a player to take a number of actions in the game from their mobile phone, without having to log on to the website from a computer. This makes the game much more convenient to play, but again doesn’t disadvantage a player who choses not to pay for the mobile service since they can still do everything from the website. It looks like Blizzard may also be considering a mobile version of World of Warcraft.

I’d be interested to hear from readers of other examples of games monetizing premium services.