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Developer Perspectives: Social Media and MMOs

Column By Sanya Weathers on August 28, 2009

In addition to my column here at MMORPG, the website, I’m also a writer/consultant for MMORPGs, the industry. Listen, when you can’t relocate for any reason, and you live a million miles away from all of the established MMO centers, you scratch together a living by being very, very flexible. As I like to tell newcomers, you want to be really flexible, but not so flexible that you can get your head up your posterior. A community person with that much flexibility is not helpful to the customers. Anyway, my main gig at the moment is for one of the new wave of MMOs – a web-based non-fantasy casual game. One of my daily tasks is updating the Facebook and Twitter feeds for this product.

Side note to regular readers: Sorry, no boobies this week. I couldn’t top that column even if I wanted to try. Instead, today’s column is an attempt to help out people who aren’t new to the internet, but are new to trying to use it.

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There is no modern MMO marketing strategy that doesn’t contain some hideous corporate droid speak along these lines: “Will leverage popular social media outlets to create viral campaigns which will organically grow our potential market by identifying key influencers.”

I can write like that. I even do it for large amounts of money, because it beats stripping. But I laugh on the inside. There’s nothing that can’t be turned into a line of dialogue from Office Space, is there? Especially when the concept is simple: Find people who like to pass on links, people with lots of friends and guildmates. Make your links cool. Connect the two, preferably using someone else’s software like Facebook or Twitter so that it doesn’t cost you anything.

However, please note, aspiring corporate droid speakers – a viral campaign is not the same thing as a Facebook presence. Also, hiring someone to make a viral campaign is perilously close to astroturfing, so unless you can afford to spend so much money that the production values will overcome the obvious corporate connection, stick with doing it in house.

What makes a good Facebook presence?

An official page is a good start. If you search for WOW or World of Warcraft on Facebook, you get dozens of possible pages. There’s one that says “official” on it, and the contact email address even ends in blizzard.com, but it’s difficult to tell if it’s really official or not – there’s no unique content. If you search for World of Warcraft Facebook, the first result in English (with the text except visible on Google reading “welcome to the official Facebook page of World of Warcraft”) is actually the page of a self-professed duper and exploit website.

The studios that care about Facebook (because they don’t have ten million players and would like to) put in more time. There are several, equally valid approaches.

Aion, for example, has multiple groups that were started by fans, but the top result is the official FB page and boasts weekly updates. But they’ve got their players driving the content (the source of real virality, despite what expensive PR firms might say in a pitch meeting). Players are actually using the Facebook page to recruit members for guilds, ask questions, and more.

Champions Online has an excellent Facebook strategy for building lots of fans fast. If you search for the title without being a fan, it takes you to the page – and the first thing you see is not the wall with all the people already in the know, but the chance to win an Alienware computer if you immediately become a fan and create a Champion.

The official Free Realms page is called that, and takes a more portal-to-the-product approach, as opposed to a community hub. It contains lots of official updates – and an employee assigned to be very responsive to customers using the page to ask questions. The page features a big graphic making it easy for anyone who wanders in to transition directly to the game.

The truth is that it doesn’t matter how you rock Facebook, MySpace, Twitter, or whatever. You do it to build community, to draw people together (because with MMOs, the human connections are what spur longevity), and you do it so you’re primed and ready for a viral campaign. Social media sites aren’t in and of themselves viral, they are platforms by which you execute a viral campaign. And if you build them for no other reason BUT to serve as your loudspeaker, the players will know, and you won’t have the effectiveness you planned for.

So what’s the basic building block of a viral campaign?

The answer is simply “cool content people want to be the first to send to their friends.” That’s it. Every other component in a viral campaign can break if you try to push it from the inside.

Cool content has to be one of two things – either low budget enough to look (and preferably it would actually be) totally random and off the cuff, giving players the feeling of discovery, or high budget enough to be awesome. No middle ground is acceptable. I don’t mean to say that players will hate you or anything like that. But the return won’t be worth the investment, because it’ll be too tepid to bother passing around and you’re out all the money.

If the product isn’t cool enough to go viral on its own merits, and you can’t afford a real whizbang production, stop using words like viral. In your hands it’s an empty buzzword, and one that is wasting time you could be spending on development.

If you’ve got awesomeness or money, there are a few tricks. Fiction writers are admonished to “show, don’t tell.” That applies to viral campaigns. Never use words to tell the viewer that something is cool or cutting edge. And for heaven’s sake don’t describe a game as fun. That’s my first clue that no fun awaits me. Give me images, or let me put my hands on the controls of a flash game in the first twenty seconds.

Never advertise your viral campaign. Viral advertising is an idiot term used by an advertising company trying to sound hip. That’s not to say you don’t want to plant your content in multiple places to give it the best chance of taking off, but if you’re smart, you did a trial viral campaign and implanted little tracking tags so you could see which places best passed on your content. Once players start getting the link via advertising, they aren’t part of the cool kids club anymore, and no one will be very excited about sharing. If you put up banner ads to let people know about your viral content, you are using the word “viral” wrong. Put it down.

Make it useful to your players. Useful could mean that it will help them accomplish a goal, tells them something they didn’t know, or made them look cool by being the first to pass it on. If it’s not useful to the user, it’s advertising.

And that’s it in a nutshell, really. Build a community, incorporate social media, and do it all for the members of the community with their needs in mind. Trying to build viral content for its own sake is a soulless enterprise that leaves everyone feeling vaguely used. Tools don’t subscribe to games – communities do.

Sanya Weathers / I''ve been complaining about video games for ten years. Ten years, people. In internet years, I''m not just old, I''m DEAD.

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