MMOs' Rules Of Engagement

This month, the popular online role-playing game "World of Warcraft" passed the 50 percent mark in market share among MMOs (massively multiplayer online games), claiming over six million subscribers worldwide--the most popular MMO ever made.

Most marketers have likely never played an MMO, but they are changing the business model of video game development, and as a sub-medium, they are intensely powerful. "World of Warcraft"--or simply "WoW," among the faithful--retails for a mere $29.99, significantly less than the average PC game's price tag. But the monthly subscription fees are roughly $15 per month. With 6 million active subscribers, the math does itself. For game developers, MMOs are the gifts that keep on giving. Once the initial development is done, the only major costs are new content development, which comes in fairly manageable chunks, bandwidth and server costs, and customer service.

But for marketers, MMOs offer a different promise--engagement. As a dedicated "WoW" player myself, I know hundreds of players who spend dozens of hours each week in-game. That's more time than they spend watching TV, reading books or magazines, or with any other media. If marketers are looking for content that consumers will pay attention to--no breaks, no multitasking, just hours of constant focus--it would be hard to do better than an MMO.

By way of example--WoW's biggest challenges are areas referred to as "dungeons" or "instances," where groups of five, 10, 20, or 40 players band together and play through a series of challenges--a burned-out city overrun by zombies and ghosts, or the ruins of a temple infested by demons. The instances are, for the most part, the exact same each time you enter them; the thing that varies is the treasure you receive. Nevertheless, players of MMOs will experience the same content over and over. Tales on the "WoW" message boards abound of players running instances 30 or 40 times in a row, looking for a specific item.

Imagine for a moment that Fox could air the same episode of "The O.C." five times in one weekend, with only the ads being different, and expect their viewers to come back every time, eager for more. Massive Incorporated has already begun to serve ads into Anarchy Online, an MMO with a relatively small subscriber base, and gamers' demand for MMOs is going up, not down. The eyes are there, rooted to the screen. Marketers just have to get in front of them.

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