MMOs: Building a Fan Base

Recently, I decided to purchase and participate in an MMO for the first time ever. I wanted to research a very popular MMO community and explore this increasingly popular gaming trend. I had heard many things about this sort of gaming, but was curious as to how interacting in an online community would be beneficial to my gaming experience. Also, I wanted to see what other benefits there were to being a part of a virtual world, seeing within this an opportunity to utilize the game as a marketing tool, and at the same time analyze how the game itself was marketed to me.

For those of you unaware of the term MMO, it stands for Massively Multiplayer Online. And most of these communities are just that: Massive! The MMO I dove into recently is World Of Warcraft, put out by Blizzard Entertainment. I had played Blizzard games before, and knew about WoW through friends and TV ads, knowing already going into it how popular and widely used it was. So widespread in fact that even Verne Troyer has a character online, according to a recent TV ad. Well, I said to myself, if Mini Me is playing I better get on and check it out!

So, I purchased the game and began to play, and even though I am very late to this MMO party, I still can enjoy the game as much as the first person to reach a level 80 character would. The game plays the same for everyone, with the exception of how one interacts with other players in the online 3d world. I have three months to decide whether the monthly subscription is worth continuing my adventure and as someone working in marketing, I immediately began to question my own motivation for diving into a world that was both unfamiliar to me and possibly a big waste of my time and money.

So, how did they convince me that this was the MMO I should try first? I reached the conclusion that it was simply word of mouth with a splash of Verne Troyer. That was enough for me personally to come to the decision that I would be happy with this purchase. It is very easy to see, especially with the more popular games, that many people from many different places sign on the instant a MMO game is released. Even other multiplayer games see the most people online right at the release of that game. Having this base of people before the launch of a game based in an online community is a lesson in marketing that could be used to get people on board with a marketing campaign in the real world as opposed to the virtual world. This strategy may only be relevant to selling games, but could be derived from something more universal. Finding out I find is more challenging than reaching level 80.

First, I looked at a few other games, like Eve online that boasts its own economic system within the games' very own immense universe. However, it looked too complex for me, but very interesting nonetheless. I think Eve is more geared toward the software engineer that needs a way to keep himself sharp. I would be way behind. That doesn't mean that it doesn't attract a huge number of people to its servers. Which leads to another interesting point, when you start an MMO as a software company, how do you know ahead of time if there is even a demographic out there that will buy into it? What lessons can we take away from the way successful MMOs advertise, effectively reaching out to a mass of people by simply designing a unique environment within the context of a particular franchise or genre?

Well, for Disney that answer is simple. Pirates of the Caribbean online is free to anyone. So, even people who aren't into the franchise, but do have an interest in expanding their virtual online community interactions, will probably sign in and create a character. An MMO that is free for everyone to use is attractive to the modern day gamer, even if they never saw Johnny Depp swashbuckling on the silver screen. Maybe after playing the MMO for a week, they would want to go back and view the films, which I'm sure is Disney's plan. Interesting concept for Disney, launching an MMO game that serves to promote a franchise as well as continue growing an already large fan base based around the films. That's a different approach, most games start out on their own, create their own creative franchise within the game and then hopefully have an MMO that is successful. But, can you build enough of a fan base from a MMO to turn the tables on Disney and make a film out of it? Well, apparently so, as Blizzard's movie plans are in the works: "Warcraft" is set to release in 2009.

This all goes to show that in our current age of virtual interaction, our virtual lives translate to our real ones in that our interests in genres of entertainment, be it sci-fi, fantasy or action will influence our willingness to take part in an online simulation based around that specific genre or franchise. The point I raise is that virtual interaction could also lead us to buy a movie ticket or DVD, or anything else for that matter. So word of mouth has become virtual, in a sense, and one could create a world around which to sell anything to anyone. An MMO based on trading virtual stocks for example, or an MMO just for people who own or have interest in owning a particular product like Nike sneakers for example. A place to buy, trade, sell and interact with other Nike sneaker owners. Its all about creating a space to interact outside of our normal reality that opens up the possibility of influencing people toward a specific marketing goal. Buy more games is the goal of many, as expansion packs for a lot of these MMOs cost as much if not more than the original. But, these strategies can all be utilized in whatever way the moderator and programmers desire, and that is what makes it both specific to gamers and universal to consumers all around the world.

This type of viral marketing is something that the modern tradesmen can no longer afford to dismiss as pure fan based radicalism. It is a real way to reach real people, in a way that is fast, easy and friendly. More so eventh an our real life interactions, which have roadblocks such as negative speech patterns, interpersonal problems and other things that get in the way of getting messages across to large groups of people. For gamers, the message is clear: this is what I'm into and here is where I can find people who are into it too. The challenge for us is to find ways within the real world to make people feel as comfortable. As it stands, they are separate worlds, but as time goes on I would not be surprised if these forms of interactions were integrated and in a big way become a part of our everyday lives.