Peter Cunningham
Peter Cunningham 3 June 2015

What World Of Warcraft Can Teach Brands And Retailers

There is a lot to be learned from how MMOGs keep users engaged, build in ‘switching costs' and prevent customers going to competitors.

Given that the term ’gamification’, first coined by Nick Pelling in 2002, originated from online gaming, it is apt to consider what brands and retailers can learn from Massively Multiplayer Online Games (‘MMOGs’) like World of Warcraft. 

At first blush you might not see much in common between World of Warcraft and filling your supermarket trolley on the weekend, signing up for magazine subscriptions or even buying cosmetics online. But there is a lot to be learned from how MMOGs keep users engaged, build in ‘switching costs’ and prevent customers going to competitors.

In particular, for a brand or retailer looking to engage with potential purchasers to get them to buy and then refer friends and family, there are interesting parallels how MMOGs work with the psychological user profiles to incorporate elements appropriate for each personality type.


Firstly we need to consider that MMOGs’ business models are either:

A low monthly fee topped up by in-game purchases; or No fee but entirely financed by in-game purchases


In either case, the entire economic viability of MMOGs is based on engaging users to keep them coming back each month. Above all they are competing for a scarce resource; a user’s time. Assuming that gamers do have jobs and actually do sleep, despite their often blurry eyes, it’s a zero sum game as time spent on your MMOG is time not spent on a competitor’s and vice versa. If a user does not spend time in your game, you make no money. It’s simple. 

It’s also an industry with almost zero natural switching costs. All you need is an internet connection and a browser and you can join a free game in minutes. All the switching costs are created from the gamer’s progress in the game itself, whether skill acquired, level and notoriety achieved, social connections made etc. 

Brands and retailers who complain about low switching costs should think of that!


World of Warcraft shares many charactersitics of the classic MMOG, which typically involves fighting monsters in an imaginary world where accumulated points or trophies allow entry to a more demanding level to fight even more powerful monsters. Gamers call this ‘grinding’. 

The underlying concept is simple: offer something to keep users engaged through the ‘grind’. In real life, people are accustomed to earning incentives in return for accomplishing tasks and many brand loyalty programmes have been based on points that can be redeemed for real products or services. MMOGs have instead focused virtual rewards or points, which can acquire a value for the player, allowing him or her to benchmark against others and even gain fame or notoriety as a result. 

What brand and retail marketers can learn from the ‘grind’ concept is that continually offering new experiences and challenges that need to be earned as milestones towards a greater goal can increase long term engagement.  


The ‘Bartle Test of Gamer Psychology’ identified 4 different gamer personalities based on a user’s gaming preferences: (i) Achievers (ii) Explorers (iii) Socializers and (iv) Killers. MMOG designers carefully incorporate elements to cater for each of these personalities and brand and retail marketers can similarly benefit from thinking about how to develop offers that address the personality types of their own customers.  


Achievers are gamers who like to see their names at the top of scoreboards and compare themselves against others. It’s important to realise that an Achiever doesn’t need to see his or her real name at the top of a leaderboard and an avatar and ‘user name’ is often enough. 

By recognising that shopping is inherently social and more fun if done with friends, brands and retailers can move away from selling to individuals and incorporate game elements to motivate ‘Achievers’ to strive to top a leaderboard by sharing and referring more buyers.  Achievers can also be celebrated by inviting them to use their acquired ‘skills’ to help choose or ‘co-create’ your next offer, e.g. putting together the ‘must have’ wine, music or cosmetics collection.  


These gamers are often known as "Spades" for their tendency to dig around to discover new areas, create maps and learn about hidden places. They often resent being expected to complete a task within a certain time as they want to look around at their own pace. Brands and retailers can accommodate this personality by providing ‘hidden eggs’, such as more detail and different levels to the shopping game that only the more dedicated players will find and share. Explorers are also more likely to help you choose or co-create a new offer as they will invest more time with you.  


These gamers play more for social aspects rather than for the game itself, and get most enjoyment from interacting with others and sharing information nuggets. A brand or retailer cannot stop Socializers taking about its products or services, as if there is no official channel then they will just create an unofficial one. 

So brands and retailers should embrace the Socializers and encourage them to interact with each other by providing prominent sharing buttons and communication opportunities. As Socializers love helping other players, the ability to share great deals with friends really appeals to this kind of persona. So make deals that are easy to share and which offer great benefits for both the sharer and recipient.  


This competitive persona loves nothing more than pitting his or her skills against an actual player-controlled opponent, particularly the notoriety of being seen as someone to be "Killed on Sight." Brands and retailers should realise that your Killers are your star referrers and you should pit them against other ‘Killers’ to win that star prize on the Leaderboard by referring the most new buyers.  


One key lesson MMOGs like World of Warcraft learned quickly was that loyal users are much more valuable than game switchers. With the latter category there is little money to be made and so most efforts are made at finding and converting potential enthusiasts and getting them to commit more time to the game. This means that points and rewards are awarded for more hours of play, or with experience points for exploration, for using craft skills to create new objects, or for helping others. 

For brands and retailers, the message is simple. Stop chasing switchers and start with your existing customers and offer exclusives and early access to deals in a privileged club. This means that when they invite their friends, they are inviting them to join an exclusive club that has great offers.  


Price sensitivity is a key concept. Understanding that some users are ‘time poor but cash rich’ and others ‘cash poor but time rich’ means not offering the same path for everyone. Those without the patience to work their way slowly up the levels of a game can buy a pass or some extra weaponry. For a brand or retailer the equivalent of this is not scattering the same ‘dumb’ discounts at everyone. Not all your customers are price sensitive, but some are and they are prepared to put considerable effort into earning a discount. So develop a game strategy to get the discount hunters to work for you in order to get their deals.  


Poorly-designed MMOGs do not have different storylines or well-developed endgames and end up losing players once they work through the primary storyline. For brands and retailers the message here is to mix and match your promotions. Add new ways to get a great deal, vary the prizes and creative ideas to draw in participants. Otherwise you risk ending up like the staid ‘me-too’ friend get friend schemes that quickly bore your customers.  


Even though the term ‘gamification’ seems like it’s been around for a while, clever adaptation of the strategies employed by MMOGs like World of Warcraft can make a great impact on a brand or retailer’s bottom line. If you want to learn how innovative brands retailers like Tesco, O2, Costco and Sony are using gamification principles to get their customers to encourage their friends and family to shop then get in touch. We would love to talk with you.

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