The free-to-play business model has provided huge revenue to the games industry, and community strategies have been central to its success. Throughout the whole release process, the community management team is the lynchpin of ensuring that gamers start playing, keep playing and keep putting money into the game. In addition to these new opportunities, F2P gaming has created some unique new challenges for community managers in the games industry.
In buy-to-play models, each customer is broadly responsible for an equal supply of your revenue. They’re all important, but no one customer can have a huge effect on your revenue stream. For a F2P game, the bulk of your revenue is going to come from a small number of your players. In fact, the number is estimated to be as low as 2.2%. This heavily weighted revenue stream can cause problems for your community, as these players (so called “player whales”) begin to realise how important they are to the success of your game.
When Player Whales go Bad
The upshot of this 2.2% rule is that most of the members of your community aren’t paying customers. The vast majority in fact. Those who are paying, are likely to be paying a lot. This can lead to a feeling of status and entitlement. The upside is that feeling of VIP status is a strong motivator to continue spending money. The downside is that it’s also a strong motivator to act like a jackass.
It’s a tempting trap to cater to whales even when they’re misbehaving. After all, they’re the ones keeping your lights on. Worse, this kind of edict can come from above. Your boss might demand to know why you’ve alienated a big money customer by asking them to stop screaming abuse at other, non-paying customers. I once had a member of upper management cheerfully unban an abusive member because they’d agreed to help organise a community event that no one else wanted to do. Needless to say, I had both parties assassinated. In the short term however, the member in question gleefully doubled down on his bad behaviour, confident that he was beyond the reach of the moderation staff as long as he was considered valuable. Thankfully, he wasn’t beyond the reach of a sniper’s bullet.
A misbehaving whale is just another kind of toxic user, and the effect of toxic users on a community is well documented. They alienate other members, poison the culture of the community and leave it struggling in the long term. If you’re running the community for a F2P game, that community is too important to be rendered toxic. If your community gets a bad reputation, you’re out. You’re done. The only people who want to be in a community of jerks are other jerks, and that market isn’t big enough to support your business.
Revenue Isn’t The Only Way a Player Can Contribute
There’s a faulty premise at the heart of appeasement strategies: that if a customer isn’t paying, they’re not contributing. A great member of your community isn’t just one who’s bought the most boondoggles. They can also be a person who’s welcoming to other users, making your community seem like a friendly, welcoming place. It could be someone who posts great content, like strategy guides and walkthroughs in your community. It could be someone who enthuses everywhere they go about how great your game is, and gets all their friends to play. If your game is multiplayer, players are the content of your game. Just by continuing to play they make your game a more engaging prospect for other players. The more happy players you have, the more players you can bring in. The more players you bring in, the more money that 2.2% can provide you.
A badly behaved whale might be bringing in money, but they might also have put off countless other customers without you even seeing it. A player who says “forget it, this community is full of douchebags” might never show up on your analytics, but they’re definitely not going to show up on your income sheet. If your community is busy enough, a toxic player can put off a hundred prospective players. Each of those players might have introduced a friend.
Take a Firm Hand With Recalcitrant Player Whales
Your community should be built from the ground up with the idea that members are equal in status in the eyes of the moderation staff. If players think that they’re entitled to special treatment from moderators because they spend more money, you’ll never be able to shake that sense of entitlement. Take a long view of your community. No one member can ever be more important than the community itself. Don’t try and increase revenue by pandering to the 2.2%, increase it by making more people want to join them.