Michael Fedor of Pocket Gems recalls what happened when a group of players issued an ultimatum over War Dragons
We received the letter on a fateful evening last summer. It came as a post on our forums, but everything from the title to the signature held the same gravity as a Dear John letter. Our top players were breaking up with us.
The letter was essentially a boycott from some of the most influential guild leaders in War Dragons. It informed us that they would no longer be playing the game nor spending any money in it until we addressed a list of demands. This sent our team into a tailspin, but it eventually lead to a revamp of how we approached player happiness and empowerment.
The boycott letter was a huge blow to the team for a few reasons. The first is the obvious one. No one wants to make a game that frustrates players so much they feel compelled to boycott you. These were people we knew on a first-name basis and played with regularly -- we felt like we had failed them. The second reason this shocked us was the letter came the day after War Dragons had its most profitable weekend to date.
In hindsight, however, we probably should have seen it coming. We had been pursuing some aggressive monetisation goals that had been quietly upsetting players. For example, in our weekly events, top prizes were hard to attain without paying. Additionally, once players got the top prize (a divine dragon) for a given month, we’d come out the next month with a slightly better prize.
This strategy was driven by the assumption that players valued exclusivity over powerful dragons, which was clearly untrue. Additionally, we kept a close eye on stats like churn rate and player retention (which were both steady) so it wasn’t obvious that there was an issue.
The issues outlined in the letter were:
- Event rewards were more dependent on money than skill
- Event prizes are unbalanced
- There are bugs and glitches
- Divine dragons are broken
- Game economy is broken
The authors were very influential on our community, so the boycott had teeth. After the letter, we saw churn rate spike by about 50 per cent and stay there.
We wanted to be proactive with our players, so we attempted co-development for the first time in the company’s history
We were able to make some changes fairly quickly that addressed their concerns. For example, we introduced Seasonal Prizes where every three months, we would release four new dragons instead of one dragon per month. Players could save up their event points over the course of a three-month season and earn up to four dragons. This let more players unlock at least one dragon, while actually increasing the total amount of dragons players could earn. We communicated this change on our regular channels and to select team leaders, many of whom helped author the boycott letter, who disseminated the updates through the larger community.
WE MADE A HAPPINESS POD
After we addressed some of the player concerns, we realized that we would need to do more. We wanted to put a system in place where we could prevent this kind of backlash from our players and work proactively to keep them happy. Our solution: a happiness pod.
The idea behind was the happiness pod was fairly simple: if you created a cross-functional A-Team of people whose sole focus was keeping your players happy, what would it look like? The structure we made had one of our best product managers as well as dedicated engineers, quality assurance people, and player experience specialists.
The pod’s sole job was to reduce churn and increase player happiness by addressing the major bugs surfaced by the community as well as sprinkling in delightful features that we thought our players would love. This included things like comical dragons that could only be unlocked through a mysterious sequence of actions, and unexpectedly re-skinning their bases.
Forums and social media are generally ineffective ways to measure the success of these types of features, so we sent automated surveys to random samples of players based on usage, and used those to quantify the features’ impacts.
Additionally, having a business owner manage churn as their sole metric worked great. Churn is a much harder metric to move than monetization, so if your focus includes both churn and monetization, you’ll end up prioritizing monetization because it’s easier. Players also appreciated a direct pipeline into feature development, rather than going through community managers.
WE STARTED CO-DEVELOPING WITH PLAYERS
Working with our players directly via the happiness pod was a great start, but it was reactive. We wanted to be proactive with our players, so we attempted co-development for the first time in the company’s history.
We’re currently working on the largest update in War Dragons’ history, which will add deep social dynamics and meaningful strategic choices. Last July, we tried a limited Alpha release for 10 days and got mixed reviews. We realized that we could solicit more direct feedback from targeted groups of players to essentially make them a key co-designer of the feature.
Last October, we invited players that the happiness pod had been working with to a private beta. As with all developers, we’ve done countless betas before where we use data and survey feedback to improve the game, but this was much more. We had daily conversations with participants and played the feature with them regularly. This helped us preemptively design around specific strategies and team tactics. We also identified emergent dynamics that we couldn’t anticipate otherwise.
Ultimately, players were very split on early iterations of the new feature- some of them loved it and some hated it. However, the feature has been directly shaped by our players’ design feedback.
The new feature will be launching later this year and I have no doubt that co-development with our players has made it a better feature.
WE MADE A CREATORS FACTION
After we saw how much our players appreciated having some agency in the game, we wanted to go further. Another idea we had, which admittedly is still pretty young, was to find more ways to empower them to create outside of the game.
We made a Creators Faction. To do this, we identified creative people in the community and gave them all the resources and team access that we could. Our hope was that this would help them to wrap themselves up in the identity of the War Dragons.
We are at the very beginning stages of this, but it’s one of our favorite projects. It’s already resulted in tons of amazing things like War Dragons fan fiction, comics, podcasts, websites, player-designed dragons in the game and, of course, cosplay.
Getting the boycott letter last summer was hard for the team. However, we took that lesson to heart and have been able to use it as staging ground to elevate our relationship with our players.