“Gaming has changed,” I thought to myself as I slowly maneuvered past the young cosplayers crowding the halls at Gamescom, the largest gaming conference in Europe for players and industry professionals.
I thought back to my childhood, and the games I grew up with. Mario and Sonic were still present, I could still find Street Fighter and Fallout merchandise, and FIFA 20 was, somewhat expectedly, huge. But that was pretty much it — the gaming universe I used to know, tucked in between massive displays of games I’ve never heard of. Gaming was such a big part of my life as I was growing up, and now, all of a sudden, I felt lost.
I grew up in the 80s and, like many kids my age, was an avid fan of video games. I used to love the ritual of going to the store, buying the latest game and hurrying back home with my new k7, anxious to load it in my spectrum 48k, and — when the gaming gods were kind — waiting just a few minutes before playing it with a friend or by myself. As time passed, games became bigger, better, and more complex, but this ritual didn’t change much — replace the k7 with floppy disk, CD and then DVD; Spectrum with Amiga, PC and PlayStation; and a few minutes with… well, most of the times, still a few minutes.
Throughout the mid-90s, Sega, Nintendo, and Atari tried their best to break into online gaming, but the technology just wasn’t there. And so, up until the end of the century, most video games were still meant to be packaged in a box, sold in a store, and consumed in the same way I consumed them growing up, by a community of players just like me.
Enter a new millennium
The 2000s blessed us with fast internet connections and cheap servers. That’s when the gaming industry (and music, and TV, and retail, and many other industries, for that matter) started to change dramatically.
“Widespread online gaming was the biggest milestone in gaming evolution this century,” says Frederik Hammes, COO at Travian Games
During the next few years, online gaming would explode. Runescape was released in 2001, the first MMORPG, or massively multiplayer online role playing game. For the very first time, millions of players around the world could play, interact, and chat with each other in-game. The following year, 2002, Xbox was launched, and with it, Xbox live and Halo, a game so popular it encouraged online gameplay worldwide, and forever changed the way companies and players think about the gaming experience. It wasn’t just about the single player quests or state of the art graphics. It was about the community.
That’s why, during this time, I was inspired to create an online community of gamers that even led me to host a gaming segment on TV for a couple of years. I was really on top of my game back then. But I couldn’t have predicted what was about to happen next. A new generation of gamers was born, whose experience with gaming was as far, far away from the commodores and sinclairs, shaky internet connections and LAN parties I’d known as a kid. For them, gaming was a whole different thing.
New business models
The advent of online gaming was a massive step, but that’s not all the internet had to offer. Distribution and monetization of games also changed radically after the physical disk became all but obsolete.
“Flat rate internet availability enabled the shift from single player boxed games to multiplayer “games as service”,” says Mathias Pletschacher, Senior Community Manager at Kakao Games.
How big was that shift? 10 years ago, 80% of the games in the US were purchased in physical format. Today the tables have turned completely in favor of digital distribution.
With games being bought online, played online and regularly updated, Games as a Service became a very attractive business model. Instead of the typical one time purchase, some games offer a subscription model. You pay a monthly fee and you get an ever developing game.
Last year, in 2018, the massively popular, 15-year-old World of Warcraft decided to change their pricing model to lower the entry barrier to new gamers. Instead of purchasing the base game, as they used to have, players can just pay the typical monthly 14,99$ subscription fee.
More, Google is launching its streaming Stadia platform, Apple is launching Apple Arcade, and Microsoft is launching its xCloud streaming platform. These new subscription players have effectively joined PlayStation Now, Nintendo Switch Online, EA Access, and other services I kept hearing about during Gamescom, such as Discord, proving the subscription fever isn’t exclusive to streaming media platforms and publications.
Free to play
Probably the most revolutionary change was the introduction of the free to play (FTP) model. The gaming companies offer free access to the game, or parts of it, and get their return on optional in-game purchases — i.e., the freemium model, first popularized in early massively multiplayer online games — or by selling advertising space.
Free to play is not an easy category — the barriers to entry are literally the lowest possible, and gamers can jump ship every time they encounter a glitch, or a less-than-smooth interaction with other players. However, some games have successfully navigated these turbulent waters.
For example, World of Warships, a game produced and published by Wargaming, and Travian, a game to which I’ve dedicated more hours than I’d care to admit. But no game was more successful than Fortnite, with its more than 125 million players around the world. The monetization model is not the only reason behind Fortnite’s immense success, but being so easily accessible definitely didn’t hurt.
As you’re reading this, hordes of players are playing complex single player or multiplayer games online, for free! So what chunk of revenue is being generated by “free” games versus pay-to-pay? The answer may surprise you.
In the halcyon days, a game’s success was measured by multiplying the number of units sold by the unit price — it was all about the number of games you could sell. But with subscription and F2P games, the decisive factor is the player experience, or the number of players that a game can keep continuously engaged.
Keeping millions of players engaged demands a new approach to player support.
A “whale,” as a gaming executive was explaining, is a player who spends massive amounts of money on in-game purchases. They spend so much in fact, that they can have dedicated support people, just managing their experience. And when a whale doesn’t login for a couple of days, the gaming company notices. They’ll call them to ask if everything is OK. And if they happen to mention that their computer is broken, they’ll have a new one promptly delivered to their home, to make sure they get back online sooner rather than later.
To better understand how the shifting landscape is affecting player support and how they’re leveraging technology to boost their players’ experience, I thought I’d touch base with a few experts in the field.
We mostly publish Free-to-play games, which is quite different than supporting a box title. Our games evolve with time, so there’s a constant work to do in terms of training and knowledge base management. Player support used to be a cost, nothing more. Now it’s a retention lever and we know that delivering a great support experience to our players increases the fidelity and the engagement of players in our games.
We try to drive automations as much as possible, creating widgets and tools using Zendesk API, and increasing self-service features for our players so they don’t have to contact us for a number of cases. We also work on AI as much as possible, balancing cost effectiveness without compromising the level of quality and experience to our players.Fabien Dupont, Player Relations at Wargaming
Those games [MMORPG] are so huge content wise that it covers almost everything you can face in Customer Support. Our users use mostly social media and Discord — they want something fast and easy to reach.
Even if I personally prefer a human touch, I can see benefits for technology — it is faster, and it filters requests that don’t need human actions, helpful for both users and workers. However, I would still keep the human side, because technology lacks the empathy and social skills which are really important in customer relationships.Maud Bleu, Team Lead Customer Support at Gameforge
The move towards online games rapidly increased demand for player support and communication. There was also a noticeable shift in expectation with players being less willing to research and read up on their own.
Forums and SNS have been staples for community communication, and creating ticket via in-game or website has been the way to go for customer support. Discord gained a lot of traction lately, and feeding private messages from SNS into ticket systems is a good way to address the trend of users reaching out directly for support. If an issue can be fixed with a sophisticated automated system, this can improve player experience. For example, a player being able to restore accidentally deleted items via website. Deflection tools, on the other hand, often complicate the request for help and need to be used responsibly.Mathias Pletschacher, Senior Community Manager at Kakao Games
Player support basically went from Tech-support to a integral part of the experience. As much as games became a service, the support became a key category of quality of a game like graphics, UI, Balancing.
The more hardcore the players, the more they pick their own channels. As a very traditional browser games publisher and developer they rely a lot on forums as a form of asynchronous exchange medium. Newer audiences gravitate towards synchronous communication like Discord.
We use tech in the background to do what tech does best — repetitive, monotone work —, and as much human touch as possible towards the player, doing what can’t yet, and possibly never will, be simulated — empathy.Frederik Hammes, COO at Travian Games
Everyone I’ve talked to is deploying automation and AI in their support systems — in the form of chatbots, help centers or even simple FAQs — to complement the work of their agents. This hybrid approach helps players take care of matters themselves 24/7, while at the same time freeing up support teams from the routine issues so they can focus on building relationships with their players.
Multilingual player support is another big concern for the gaming industry, allowing companies to open new markets across borders, boost global sales, and expand franchises. Take Wargaming Mobile as an example. Last year, at Game Quality Forum, they revealed that they more than doubled their in-app upgrade rate once players realized they could get customer support in their native language.
Patricia Gomez, the Head of Content and Insights for Player Support at King, the company responsible for your Candy Crush addiction, sees multilingual player support as a top priority:
Users or players like to be contacted in their native language, as opposed to getting a response in English. Language in gaming is very informal, so you need to talk to players in a very familiar way, so you cannot sound like a robot.
At King, we have certain words that are specific to us — we call them Kingo Lingo. So we need to make sure that we use those words and those expressions all the time, because they are a part of the gaming experience. So normally we track all this Kingo Lingo in our glossaries that we shared with the Unbabel team to make sure that we use them in a consistent game across games and languages.
Online gaming shows no signs of stopping anytime soon, and the Game as a Service trend is likely to keep driving support as a key aspect of the player experience. Beyond that, I’ve been following the industry for enough time to know that it’s a fool’s errand to try and predict the next big thing that’s going to revolutionize gaming. But one thing’s for sure — despite looking fondly at all the hours logged in the university computer room playing Doom II and Quake, I can’t wait to see what comes next.