Launched in December of 2006, GuildCafe is a social networking site with a focus on MMO gamers. Like other networking sites, it allows users to create a personalised page and generate a friends list, as well as advertise their guild or clan, or bring their friends from other games into new MMOs they might be playing.
The site’s parent company was founded in September of 2006 by Jon Radoff, an industry veteran who co-founded ISP Nova Lin, before co-designing Legends of Future Past - an award-winning 1992 MMORPG. Radoff notes that he feels the site represents an important evolutionary step forward in online gaming as a whole, as it represents a way to further emphasise the already-important community aspect that drives the market.
We spoke to Radoff about GuildCafe, its implications for online gaming, and his future plans for the site.
When was GuildCafe founded, and what were your aims for the company at the time?
The company was founded in September 2006 with the idea of enabling new categories of massively multiplayer online games by using disruptive approaches such as social networking.
Where did the basic idea for GuildCafe come from?
I think that the computer game industry and the MMORPG industry in particular are in need of more than gameplay and content innovation. Right now, the MMORPG market is nearly winner-takes-all, with only a couple of companies at the top dominating the market for active subscriptions. The idea of the GuildCafe.com website was borne out of the realization that expanding the MMOG market would require innovation in terms of business strategies.
My own background combines experience in both the online games industry along with the development of community-content infrastructure, and I felt that it was time to apply some of the technologies I’d created for the business world and put them in place within the industry I love: computer games.
Were there particular analysts or any particular studies that alerted you to the possibilities for a site like GuildCafe?
Along with our own ideas on bringing new business models to the game industry, there was a convergence of research that convinced us that 2007 would be the time to make it happen.
During 2006 it became stylish to divide the market into two halves: hardcore, and casual – it’s a false dichotomy that I never cared for. Michael Cai at Parks Associates conducted a better analysis of the market and found that players exist in more than just these two categories, including what he’s described as “leisure gamers.” These are people who do not consider computer gaming to be their primary source of entertainment, but nevertheless spend a great deal of time trying new and sophisticated games, and this appears to be one of the largest and fastest growing segments of players.
As I continued to study the market, I looked at things like Nick Yee’s research on how much time players spend in the metagame (the forums, community activities and communications they engage in outside of the online games themselves). It turns out that a large percentage of players spend up to a third of their time in these metagame activities; our own research suggests that “leisure gamers” correlate strongly with those who spend a lot of time in metagame activities.
Finally, I had been reading Yochai Benkler’s book on social networking, The Wealth of Networks, and was struck by how archaic much of the game industry’s marketing models were compared to what the more innovative companies were doing with the Web. Thus, I felt that if we could take one of the core ideas of …Wealth, which is about empowering the customer, discarding the outdated idea of the “consumer” and instead turning them into participants and focus on this growing market of leisure-gamers, we’d be able to create an active community of very loyal, very dedicated players.
How important do you believe community is for MMO gamers?
If you spend much time investigating MMOs, you’ll discover that players often say one of two things about a game’s community. Paraphrasing, these comments are either “I love the community for this game, it’s why I play,” or “the community of this game is terrible, it alienates me”. For a large number of players, particularly the leisure gamers I’ve been talking about, the community is as important a component of gameplay as the game mechanics and content. Companies that create an MMO without recognizing how important it is to cultivate and guide a community do so at their peril.
How much of a market do you believe there is for a site like this, given that MMOs function as chat rooms for many users already?
The market is enormous because we know that a large percentage of game-time is spent outside of the games themselves, and because most players interact with their friends outside of a single game. However, it’s imperative for GuildCafe to be more than simply a communications medium: we want to provide players with tools that help them create and manage their guilds and clans, as well as find other players that are ideal teammates.
Is there a need for a constant community across games? Are many users multi-MMO gamers?
Absolutely. While most players engage in only one MMORPG at a particular time, the typical player also engages in varying levels of involvement in other multiplayer games – including real-time strategy and first-person shooter games. Those games supplement their overall gaming experience, and add to the spectrum of players and games they are exposed to. Furthermore, as the MMORPG market matures, the number of players with a history of past games has increased, and for many people it is important to them to maintain contact with their friends as they change games, guilds and servers.
How will the existence of a community outside the games themselves further the online game industry?
There are two important dimensions to this, and they involve how both new and existing game products sell themselves.
Existing game companies have the best chance to re-attract former players of their games when their current players ask their friends to come back and see what’s new. This requires a community that transcends any given company’s games, and that’s where we fit in, by helping to maintain the social contact between friends who have played with each other before. An old friend who has found new reasons to come back to an MMOG is far more persuasive than any amount of marketing the company might generate.
The second element is to help introduce players to entirely new games. One of the main reasons why people are hesitant to try new MMOGs (and a large reason behind the current winner-takes-all phenomena in the MMORPG market) is because they are concerned about starting in a new game, alone and unknown, leaving behind and possibly losing touch with their friends in the games they’re playing now. By providing them with that continuity, we can also help new game products overcome this objection: trying new games doesn’t have to mean losing touch with friends.
What features have you implemented in the site, and how did you decide on what to include?
One of the first ideas within the site came after we studied what Classmates.com had done for school friends, and what Linkedin.com had done for business people. The first thing we implemented was a system of keeping track of the guilds, games and servers a person had played on which allows them to find and reunite with friends from past games.
From there, we continued to add features that allow members to add information about themselves, including their own content and images, as well as scores and profiles for the games they play. One of the exciting areas this has led us to is an API for game developers that allows them to automatically update profiles and scores with information from their games, which helps make the site a dynamic community that players want to return to frequently.
To what degree are users encouraged to express their gaming alter egos, and do you feel that this defeats the purpose of a social networking site?
Expressing their gaming alter-egos is exactly what the site is about. There are plenty of sites that help people express their real-life personas, whether that’s in a business context (like Linkedin) or a social environment (MySpace, Classmates.com, and so forth). People play games as an escape from reality, and we want to provide a comfortable place where they are welcome to do that.
What feedback have you had from users of the site so far?
It’s been a very gratifying experience, because every day we get messages from our members about how much they love the site, or how they had always wanted something like it. We’re constantly being told how people have found old friends from games they hadn’t played in years, which is great because this is one of the fundamental goals we had when we started designing the site. As a result, GuildCafe has becoming a “staging ground” of sorts for friends to reunite and plan the formation of new guilds and clans for the next generation of MMOGs which is exactly how we wanted people to benefit from the site.
What kind of integration with MMOs do you hope will happen in the future?
Automatic updating of score and profile information to increase relevance of the site to our members; features for allowing in-game invitations to a persons friends in their social network, to help introduce new players to a game; integration of tools for guild/clan management, so that a guild becomes more portable across games (and can thus decrease the barriers to introduce guilds to a new game). The fundamental difference between GuildCafe.com and the “typical” social networking site is going to be the high level of integration between the site and the games themselves.
What kinds of gamers are you seeing using the site at the moment?
The early adopters for the site tend to be gamers with longer histories in gaming. They tend to be the people who are now on their second or third MMOG - or fourth, or fifth…
A big part of this is because the longer-term gamers have the longest histories and the most to gain from finding old friends, but this has worked out very well for us, because these tend to also be the most influential players, and they are the ones who are now leading newer MMOG players to the site.
What plans do you have for the site outside of the beta stage?
Beyond beta, the focus is going to be direct integration with more game content, and we’ll begin to add features that helps introduce our members to new games.
What other plans do you have for the company in your attempt to bring "change to the industry"?
There are over a hundred MMOGs in development right now. Most of them lack differentiation on either gameplay or content, but I don’t think that’s what will cause most of them to fail. Most of them will fail because they rely on tired business models and me-too marketing strategies. We’re going to grow the industry by introducing new, more economic methods for attracting and retaining customers.