With a quarter of a million registrations a day and 220 million accounts on its books, free-to-play specialist Bigpoint loves numbers. Its many games, which include Battlestar Galactica Online, Drakensang Online and Farmerama, may be free, but with a philosophy that says "you can be as creative as you want to, but base it on numbers," the German publisher is becoming one of the richest players in the online marketplace.
We met Philip Reisberger, its chief games officer, to discuss the importance of creatives understanding financial realities, a Darwinian approach to game design, why EA doesn't understand monetisation and why Team Fortress 2 shouldn't have gone free-to-play.
You’ve said that Bigpoint has over 200 million registered users. How many of those are active players?
I can’t go too much into detail, but I can give you a little understanding. First of all, we’re getting 250,000 new registrations every day, and that comes out of three different channels. The first is viral, which I like very much. They’re the best users, with the best conversions and the longest lifetime. Next there’s performance-based marketing in which you’re buying the user, and Bigpoint is actually quite good at that. I think we’re actually the biggest entertainment customer at Google. We know how much to pay for a user in order to get them into the network. The third part, which we started building up seven years ago is media partnerships. Basically, we have over 1000 media partnerships providing content to websites. They send the traffic at no cost, and it’s a revenue-sharing model. That’s how we get our nice numbers for sign-ups.
In terms of overall registrations, we’re currently at 220 million. Unfortunately not all of them are active at the moment, but it’s a two-digit number in the millions in terms of how many are currently active. As an example, we made a minor update to one of our games, Farmerarama, a few months ago and we had two million people logging in instantly just to check it out.
Before working at Bigpoint, Reisberger worked in logistics
How much of this success is down to your non-gaming background?
What my brother [Tobias, Bigpoint's chief games officer for casual games] and I did prior to this – my gaming history is probably shorter than yours, for example – was the finance business. We love numbers, we love analytics, we love statistics. That’s how we built up Bigpoint: to be a very numbers-focused company. That doesn’t mean that we sell insurance of refrigerators or anything like that, but we follow certain guidelines. We say you can be as creative as you want to, but base it on numbers.
In terms of the numbers, you’ve said that your approach to microtransactions is akin to allowing somebody to jump ahead in a bus queue. It’s one of the first times a designer has ever likened a game design to creating a queue.
The queue itself is just to illustrate the incentive for a certain mechanic. For me it’s to make sure that our game designers aren’t just writing nice stories. In the traditional industry, game designers just write nice stories like they’re making a film. The analogy with the queue is that people want stuff that helps them: they want things that will help them get to the front of the queue. So for us game design is partly about writing nice stories, and it’s partly about having the right balancing, and it’s about understanding the mechanics of how to monetise things. It’s not just about wanting money from players, it’s about making them want to invest money on their own.
Hack and slash RPG Drakensang Online opened its public beta in early August
But to sell people that kind of advantage, don’t you have to turn the game into something that resembles a queue in the first place?
One of the main dangers of game design is focusing on the numbers. At the very beginning, it has to be fun. You can’t focus on the numbers. Revenue has to be a consequence and not the pre-requisite.
How do you balance that? You’ve said that the Bigpoint difference is that you approach things from a numbers perspective, but you’re also saying that the heart of the product has to be something fun.
We have very, very creative people, but they still understand the business. If they come up with a great mechanic, they don’t say, “Oh, yes, but we have a five percent drop off here, what do we do?” Usually, they have the standard creative process – the same for every game designed – but they also just understand how to make money out of it. There are other ways, as well. We can look at the numbers and say that people start dropping off after a certain point in a game, so we know we have to look creatively at that point. We have a creative approach and a numbers approach, but, yes, when you start a game, you always have to have that creative centre.