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Catching a whale: How to treat your VIP gamers

Posted August 7, 2019
pixelated whale

In the free-to-play games industry, stories have long circulated about “whales” — customers who spend huge amounts on in-game purchases. This has created an interesting opportunity for game developers: If you’ve got a customer who has spent thousands of dollars on a single game, how do you create a player support experience that reflects their level of investment?

A study conducted by Tapjoy found that the top 10% of players based on dollars spent made 70% of all in-app purchases, with a median revenue per player of $335. Mobile game developer npnf has also said publicly that it makes most of its money from just 50–100 players — some of whom rack up six-figures in purchases within just three months.

And the trend is accelerating. Earlier this year, Electronic Arts (EA) revealed that it had made $1 billion to date from in-app purchases on free games; its Madden NFL franchise alone accounted for $490 million of that total.

It’s evident why games companies want to keep whales happy — and coming back. Here’s how a VIP player support program can help.

How do VIP programs work?

The VIP concept was first conceived in real-world casinos, and is now used by some of the largest free-to-play games companies. VIPs often enjoy special benefits such as earning a bonus on any in-game spending. For example Zynga, which has one of the most famous and long-running VIP programs, offers chip bonuses and access to exclusive Zynga Poker tournaments.

While every game company handles their VIP program in a slightly different way, most begin with specially trained player support agents. The most important task these agents undertake for VIPs is communication. They are responsible for ensuring that all messages from VIPs are answered within a very short time frame— sometimes within just a few minutes. Glu Mobile, for instance, is known for providing VIPs access to a special hotline, with a posting on a community forum that denotes: “Any messages you send to Customer Care are marked with the highest priority, ensuring that you’ll receive the quickest service possible.”

VIP agents also serve as a liaison between the customer and the company, providing valuable feedback regarding new game features, collectible items or balance changes. For instance, a recent job posting from EA for a VIP manager on its Command & Conquer: Rivals game noted that one of the roles and responsibilities would be to interface with the game development team.

Tiered VIP programs

A trend emerging from Asia — where video game VIP programs first emerged — is for publishers to showcase tiered VIP statuses within the game as a way of inspiring lower-spending users to engage more heavily with the game.

These tiered systems, which are openly advertised to all players, generally distribute points for actions like logging in, spending money and interacting with other players. The points are then converted into a ranking.

The biggest perk of an in-game, tiered VIP system is that it gives ordinary players — sometimes called minnows and dolphins — goals to strive for, while also maintaining higher tiers for the true VIPs to reach.

[Source: Machine Zones Game of War: Fire Age]

Tiered systems also tend to be very good at conveying their benchmarks and benefits, as demonstrated by Machine Zones Game of War: Fire Age. Ensuring VIP bonuses are well-defined doesn’t just help customers, it also ensures that the company has defined a consistent, resource-efficient plan for their VIP program.

It’s all about engagement

The core accomplishment of any VIP programs is not to communicate more closely with valuable players, distribute bonuses, provide unique content or add structure to operations, but rather, engagement.

One of the most important success metrics for free-to-play game companies is retention — and the best way to drive retention is to increase engagement. This is one of the reasons why VIP strategies often differ in their approach. Every game is unique, and the most effective way to increase retention are going to vary between them.

Games companies should thus focus on benefits that align with their retention mechanics. If the game is about poker, for instance, a good benefit may be access to special high-roller tables that keep VIPs coming back.

Delivering VIP customer service

Whether a VIP program is right for your studio is dependent on the level of service you’re prepared to provide to your players. VIP programs can be resource-intensive, and games companies may struggle with finding the right talent to tend to these high-value customers. Working with an experienced customer service outsourcing partner is key to making these programs profitable and scalable.

With the help of customer service experts, game developers can find out what makes their VIPs tick — and how to keep them around as long as possible.

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