At GDC Austin on Thursday, Dave Georgeson, senior producer for Gaia Interactive's free-to-play casual MMO zOMG, said there are three keys to a successful online game: Make it fun for everyone, get users to want to buy, and make it easy for users to buy.
"I know that's not rocket science, but if you don't get it at a fundamental level, you just won't succeed," he said, adding that online games must be both "accessible and engaging... one or the other is not nearly as sticky."
Make The Game Fun
Part of making a game fun for users, Georgeson said, is knowing your audience. Gaia Online formed in the first half of the decade as an online gathering place for artists and fans of anime. Gaia recognized this core niche and built a business around it.
"The first thing you need to do is identify your audience, then own it," he said. "...If you don't do that, you're missing a very critical step. Get that core right and then figure out the other things. Good things happen when you nail the niche."
Gaia Online grew gradually over the course of five years, slowly adding features. Launched in 2008, Gaia Online's MMO, zOMG is currently in beta. All of it is part of a "20-ring circus" that Georgeson said is important when capturing short attention spans of web-goers.
One way that Gaia keeps its users engaged is by marketing current as well as upcoming features. The company rolls out new features at least once every two weeks. "Do everything you can to get your customers excited, so they never want to quit," he said. "If players get bored, there are a million of other things for them to do. Don't wait three or four months to roll out a big feature with nothing in between."
Gaia Online lets users take part in a variety of activities, like avatar dress-up, shopping, games, and "hangout" areas. All of the features revolve around the core niche. "If you do a good job entertaining, they'll buy something," he said. Provide gamers bite-sized content, offer frequent rewards for playing, smaller time commitments, and early accomplishments, he said.
Maintaining excitement within a game's community means interacting with them via forums, Facebook, and Twitter. Gaia's fans are extremely loyal -- Georgeson once invited fans to come watch him play in a company softball game, and Gaia fans road-tripped from Florida and Illinois to Gaia's San Francisco home to meet up.
Get Users To Want To Buy
Monetizing the users of an online game is difficult. Georgeson said that 90 percent of users won't buy the virtual items or features you're trying to sell. "Accept it," he said. But online game makers should aim to entertain everyone -- not just the 10 percent who will be spending money, he said.
"If you don't have critical mass in your MMO, then the people who are willing to buy won't stay," he said. "When you put together features, build things that entertain everyone." Players like to buy anything that promotes self-expression, a sense of belonging to the community, and anything that lets users get to an end-goal faster or easier, Georgeson added.
Players also like to buy things that they can brag about within the community, and online game companies should also provide users with a venue to brag. "If you don't allow them a way to brag, or they don't want to brag, then the items or systems you're setting up have no value to your consumers."
Online game makers should think beyond just selling virtual items. Some examples, Georgeson said, include in-game features, anything that allows for time shortcuts, name changes/server changes, and premium features.
Make Buying Easy
One of the most important aspects of monetizing players is making buying easy, Georgeson said. A major component of this is allowing for as many payment types as possible. "There are a lot of payment options in the world. If you can, utilize them all." He assured that these payment options do not cannibalize each other. Use mobile payments, game cards, credit cards, cash, and so on -- "If you can barter with chickens, then do it."