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The Free Zone: Issues With F2P Games' Visibility And Image

Column By Richard Aihoshi on May 06, 2014

Over the past decade or so, I've had occasion to wonder if various free to play titles would have benefited from more visibility than they actually achieved. Most of these times, I thought they could have done better in terms of reaching their potential target audiences. So, why didn't they?

There isn't a simple “one size fits all” answer to this question. Indeed there are quite a few possible reasons, and in most cases, I suspect it would be inaccurate to blame just one. With this caveat, here are three inter-related things I believe to be less than optimal, but that I've seen and continue to see from F2P publishers. 

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“Me too” advertising, publicity and public relations

How frequently do you see a program within any of these functional areas that causes you to sit up and take notice? In my case, it's not very often at all. A sizable majority of what's out there looks and feels pretty derivative if not completely generic. It gives me the impression that the companies in question are reluctant to think outside the box. They appear to take what their competitors do, put a small spin or two on it, and hope it will somehow come across as fresh and different.

There's actually a second layer to this, one that is seldom seen by players. When publishers hire staff and/or contract with agencies, they tend to place a fair bit of value on experience with major titles and clients. What they don't seem to appreciate sufficiently is that doing things “like the big boys” might not be the best strategy if you're not one of them. Indeed, it may not be even if you are. After all, if your goal is to stand out, there aren't many ways to do so. The most obvious is to be different, which is rather difficult when you try to follow someone else's lead.

A small fish in a big pond

While it may not happen universally, it does seem reasonable to assume that, at least generally, an agency prioritizes its larger clients. This is likely to mean things like senior account representatives and creative staff working directly on their programs. The same people may oversee smaller accounts, but... well, let's just say that hands-on experience doesn't always make someone a top-notch supervisor.

This isn't, however, a one-sided situation. Do I think it's possible for big agencies to be over-enthusiastic when they pitch their services to F2P publishers? To varying degrees, yes. On the other hand, do I feel that the latter always truly understand that all clients aren't created equal? To different extents, no. Some, perhaps quite a few, would rather engage in wishful thinking, which can range from moderately to tremendously optimistic. As an admitted generalization, they tell themselves that hiring an agency with large-account experience will put them in the major leagues. Then, they hope their programs and campaigns will be competitive despite having much smaller budgets. 

Not reaching or not maintaining critical mass

Reach and awareness are two critical factors in building both the awareness and the image of a game. What's more, most F2P MMOGs begin the process at a disadvantage. The game media isn't knocking on their virtual doors asking for the chance to write about them. Actually, it can be even worse. Publications decide the titles they will cover and how much exposure, if any, each will receive. This means they don't do every preview, interview, etc. that they are offered.

So, it's kind of a chicken and egg situation. The more visible your game is, the better its chances of getting increased exposure. There's a threshold level at which this starts to happen; you begin to get more bang for the money, effort, time and other resources you expend. However, many F2Ps fail to reach it. The result is that their efforts, while not useless, end up being not very efficient.

Even for those that do achieve decent awareness, there's still the decay factor to consider. After an acceptable level has been attained, it needs to be maintained. After all, there are always plenty of other offerings out there striving to attract the same target audience. So, while it's easier to hold someone's attention than to get it in the first place, you can't do nothing and expect solid retention - just like with the games themselves.

Closing queries

What's your opinion of the current overall status of  advertising, publicity and PR for F2P MMOGs?

What campaigns do you remember because you felt they were especially strong?  

Which do you remember because you thought they were bad?

Aside from simply spending more money, what do you think F2P publishers should do differently to become more effective in attracting and retaining attention?


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The Free Zone
Richard Aihoshi has been writing about MMOGs since the mid-1990s, always with a global perspective. As a result, he has observed the emergence and growth of the free to play business model from its early days in both hemispheres.

He is the former Editor of RPG Vault and his column, focusing on free to play MMOs, appears on MMORPG.com every Monday.
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