VentureBeat and Xsolla recently presented a BrightTalk webinar entitled "As the world resets, how do you retain players & create lifelong relationships?" The panel of guests included Dean Takahashi (Lead Writer, GamesBeat, and the moderator), Berkley Egenes (Vice President of Marketing, Xsolla), Deepthi Menon (SVP, Words With Friends, Zynga), and our very own Raph Koster, CEO of Playable Worlds.

You can check out the hourlong discussion here on BrightTalk (registration required).

Afterwards, VentureBeat cornered Raph for an in-depth interview:

Building a game that keeps players engaged for years — and deserves to be subscribed to

The pandemic lockdown has made so many leisure time activities unavailable — but we’ve seen video games step into that breach, and the number of gamers from every demographic soar.

There’s clearly a real opportunity to capture people whose overall engagement with games was previously lower, who are giving it a shot or spending more time on it now than they did previously, in the hopes that when circumstances return to normal, they’ll remain at a higher level of engagement. The subscription model has shown a lot of promise for engaging players and keeping them over the long term.

But it’s easy, when wearing a business hat, to talk as if the business model is the thing that changed player behavior, says Raph Koster, CEO of Playable Worlds. Successful subscription businesses owe more to the quality of the service being offered than the business model.

“In terms of what works, the number one answer is a game that deserves to be subscribed to,” Koster says. “The ultimate intent of a subscription is to offer a service that holds players for terms of years. And making a game that will hold somebody for years is very hard, and a completely different proposition from making consumable content games.”

Much of the industry is transitioning toward games as a service for a number of reasons. Costs continue to rise for developing games, and as costs rise, risk-taking falls. Publishers grow more conservative. That means a lot less creative endeavor. In mature markets, acquisition costs tend to go up, particularly when they’re auction market environments. Any case where you bid against others for advertising space strongly favors incumbents with deep pockets who can buy up ad inventory. Companies start competing on the basis of polish, of dollars, and so on, rather than on innovation as a core premise.

In a world like that, if acquisition costs go up, you want to hold players for as long as possible. The original subscription games were massively multiplayer games where player lifetime was measured at a minimum of two years. That’s a big shift from a packaged goods game, which is already an old-fashioned concept, with 12 hours of content.

But any form of subscription has a pretty sizeable price sensitivity gate right up front. The flip side is that a subscription pre-qualifies users who are willing to pony up and make a commitment — you need to be more sure as a consumer.

The game, then, says Koster, must actually meet that need. “In order to keep someone subscribing and re-engaging you need to prove your value every month,” he says, “because each time a player’s card gets dinged is an opportunity for them to say, wow, I paid money and I don’t feel like I got sufficient value out of it. That means you’re in an ongoing relationship, and your game and your service must be designed to maintain and nurture that relationship.”

There’s a host of specific implications around that. The game has to be available. It has to be fun every time a player logs on. It has to stay dynamic, with new content, new challenges, and ongoing evolution.

“All of those things are pretty big lifts for a studio that’s used to making a fire-and-forget puzzle game that they don’t need to update ever again,” Koster says. “We’re seeing the whole industry trying to turn this corner right now. This is why triple-A games suddenly have chat and item marketplaces and so on, when they’re historically linear narratives.”

MMOs are great examples, he explains, because they’ve been successfully running with the subscription model for 25 years and have been monetizing quite successfully this entire time. Whether you end up looking at something like Ultima Online, still running with a subscription since 1997, or World of Warcraft, which has continued to run with a subscription for a very long time, there are many examples of MMOs that successfully managed to do subs for ages and ages.

There’s a host of best practices that are easy to extract from that, including, ironically, pivoting to free-to-play once you start dropping below a certain volume of regular users on your sub, using season passes, and turning expansion packs into major events to give your game fresh access to press, media, marketing, buzz, influencers and so on.

The king of this right now is Epic with Fortnite, which has massively leveraged those signature events driven by the new season content release in order to drive enormous amounts of visibility as a re-engagement and acquisition mechanic.

However, says Koster, the biggest thing in driving loyalty is for players to perceive it as a two-way street. “Having transparency, openness, and honesty from the operator, including things like public development, inviting player commentary, making them feel like they’re part of things,” he explains. “The most successful ways to drive long-term community all have to do with the audience perceiving the operator as being part of the community, and not above it. That sense of, we’re all in this together, is absolutely crucial. It’s the number one driver of loyalty.”