Free and Social Games: Do Expansions Work?

Free and Social Games: Do Expansions Work?

The console market and the social games market differs in numerous ways. One market, for instance, tends to inspire a lot of grumbling and hatred from the other (we’ll leave you to determine which is which). More notably, publishers of console games want their audience to eventually detach themselves from the quest at hand in order to pick up the sequel. Social game developers, however, want to hang on to their users for as long as possible. A user who tends to his or her garden for a long time, so to speak, is a user who is more likely to improve the homestead through microtransactions.

Zynga’s strategy is to release new games (FrontierVille, CityVille) while continuing to support the old (FarmVille). The game designers at LOLapps are taking different approach to garnering microtransactions, however. They’re trying out expansions on free-to-play games, like the upcoming Ravenstone Mine expansion for the popular Facebook social game Ravenwood Fair.

“We are using a traditional strategy in games,” the chief executive of LOLapps, Arjun Sethi, told VentureBeat in an interview. “Instead of focusing on how much money we can make from a user, we are focusing on how long we can hang on to that user. Here’s a new world that interacts with the one the user has been spending a lot of time in.”

With 10 million active users (a number that has experienced quite a growth spurt since December, when the active user count was 4.4 million active users), Ravenwood Fair is one of the fastest-growing social games on the internet. About 10% of its active users purchase items and energy through microtransactions, a considerably higher number than the 3- to- 5% that’s typical for other Facebook games.

Does LOLapps have a good thing going? Should it hang on to its userbase through an expansion pack, or should it use its profits to open up new projects, a la Zynga?

Putting together a whole new project takes more effort than making an expansion pack for an existing property. Sure, new properties and projects suit Zynga, a company that’s (probably) worth billions, but a comparatively smaller company like LOLapps would have a harder go of things. It makes sense to stick to an established project, especially one that’s growing in popularity and already commands a respectable number of microtransactions. After all, even Activision-Blizzard manages to keep World of Warcraft the number one subscription-based MMORPG through the release of expansion packs instead of forcing a whole new experience on people.

In that vein, people usually prefer sticking to the familiar instead of starting over with a whole new project. An expansion pack for Ravenwood Fair will serve multiple purposes: It’ll keep veterans around, encourage them to explore new regions (and buy new things, obviously), and players who abandoned their accounts will have reason to poke their heads back in and see what’s new.

Ravenwood Fair is popular, it’s lucrative, and now would be a bad time for LOLapps to direct players’ attention to something new. Better to keep it where it is with an experience that’s new, but still retains the comfort of a familiar place. If the Ravenstone Mine expansion succeeds, we’re sure to see other social game developers try the expansion pack route. Prepare to spend more time in the City, more time on the Farm, and more time on the Frontier.

About Nadia Oxford
Nadia is a freelance writer living in Toronto. She played her first game at four, decided games were awesome, and has maintained her position since. She writes for 1UP.com, Slide to Play, GamePro and other publications, and is About.com’s Guide to the Nintendo DS.

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