[Interview] Social game company FunPlus shares about the impact of live-events, organic growth, and player feedback
As the next installment in our series of interviews about the importance of live-events for social and mobile games, we interviewed Beijing-based social-gaming company, FunPlus. The company talks about Royal Story (one of their most successful games), the common challenges when running live-events, collecting player feedback, and how pirates and pink unicorns made it into their game.
Getting to know FunPlus and Royal Story
Mobile Game Hive: Can you tell us a little bit about FunPlus?
Ji Gu (Studio Head and Business Director, FunPlus): FunPlus is an international game developer, with an office in three countries: North America, China, and Canada. We were established in 2011. Right now we’ve grown to more than 250 people, with four games published on both Facebook and mobile, both for Android and iOS platforms.
MGH: Ok, and of those four games, why don’t we talk about one of your most popular games, Royal Story?
Gu: Royal Story has over two million likes on Facebook and DAU of one million. It went online on January last year, so it has been online for about a year and a half, and the game has reached over 10% growth in revenue every quarter.
For a period of six months last year, we increased our DAU by over 20%, via purely organic growth, and also a lot of that is because of the live events that we host.
Martijn Herrman (Product Manager, FunPlus): We do some advertisements, but not for all the language versions, and it has a lower budget.
Gu: To give you a sense of scale, we have between 16,000 to 30,000 new players coming every day, and roughly out of those, only a couple hundred come from marketing, or from advertising. The rest are from organic growth: App Center requests, wall posts, friend referrals.
MGH: So it has mostly taken off because of virality on social media.
Herrman: Yeah, or from Facebook featuring us.
Planning successful live-events
MGH: So you’ve mentioned that most, if not all, of the revenue growth you’ve gotten is because of live events. How do you plan what kind of live-events to run?
Herrman: Yeah, you can never know in advance how your event will actually do. It’s a bit of trial and error. We try to do different things and not exhaust the same trick. If you always do the same trick, it’ll wear off. You’re forced to come up with new things, new ways, and new mechanisms for your events.
Gu: Martijn mentioned one major factor on how we design live-events, which is try to push for new designs, new features, new content in the live-events. Another major factor that we consider is cultural activities and cultural occasion. You see, Martijn’s from Netherlands and I’m from Canada, so it’s a pretty international team. We have people who are familiar with local cultures, so we can make sure our live-events coincide with what’s happening locally. For example, when the Arabic area is celebrating Ramadan, we add a special Ramadan quest for them, and we have a beer quest made for the Germans.
Success factors behind successful live-events
MGH: So it’s localization even down to live-events. What would you say is the most successful event you’ve held?
Gu: The most successful live-event usually has a couple of success factors. One of them is you always have to prepare in advance. For example, last Christmas we had a live-event that was so successful, it basically broke records for our daily revenue income. We started preparing for that event two months in advance, back in October. We picked that cultural occasion because it’s a festival enjoyed by everyone around the world. So it will achieve a really big impact, with the similar amount of work we put in. Also, culturally, it’s a holiday for spending. It’s easier to earn money. With advanced preparation, we were able to add a bunch of new mechanisms into that event, like for example, a special gacha mechanism, where people shake the Christmas tree and they can get free, randomized gifts. So it’s a lot of fun for the players, and a good monetization tactic at the same time.
Another important factor is being able to anticipate actual situations. For example when we designed the Christmas quest, it was broken down into three stages: The first stage is a ‘pre-heat’, and then the second stage is during the Christmas period, and the third stage is the New Year period. For the New Year period, Martijn designed a special egg that requires players to log-in everyday in order to unlock it.
Keeping players playing through the holidays
Herrman: The problem during Christmas time and New Year’s time is that – especially in Europe – many people tend to go on holiday for some time. They’re not in their homes, so most of them aren’t playing the game. We wanted to give them something to remind them to come back to the game.
So what we did was we gave them an item, and the item would open up and give them another item, but only after a specific amount of time. So that’s how we give them reason to come back and play the game. But of course we have players who won’t go on holidays and who’ll say: “Do we really have to sit around and wait for this thing to open up?” For them, we added a mechanism that, everyday, they could ‘tend’ the item, and then the waiting time would get shorter. So that way, they can have the gift first.
Problems with running live-events
MGH: Planning the needs of different players during the holidays, now that’s an example of good anticipation. Speaking of planning, you mentioned that for this Christmas quest event, it took you two months to prepare. What would you say is the biggest problem you encountered during that time?
Gu: There were several things we encountered during the process. First, we had to make sure the three stages of the event actually fit out the design goal: (a) increase monetization; (b) retain players. So in the actual design plan, there were a couple of iterations. We have different opinions coming from other teams, so we iterate a little bit and continue with the process, by putting a lot of ‘data triggers’ to make sure we can verify our source.
Another challenge we face is making sure it fits in with the development schedule and making sure that everything can come out on time given the massive amount of artwork required. We are really tight on art resources, so sometimes when we initially had a lot of ideas for the Christmas item, we had to reduce those a little but just to make sure the art schedule fit perfectly.
The player feedback loop, and why your game may end up with pink unicorns
MGH: Does player feedback factor into your decision on what content to put in live-events?
Herrman: Yes. In fact, we are in touch with our players all the time. We have the luxury of having a few teams who do that for us. Royal Story is available in several different languages, and we have people on our team who are native speakers of all those languages. Those team members are always in touch with the player community. They’re the ones who talk to the players. One of the things they do is collect all the suggestions of those players on a daily basis. If there’s anything important in the players’ minds, we’ll know about it through these ops teams. Sometimes when we design an item and the players say it’s very ugly, so we’ll design a beautiful version.
Players also bring a lot of suggestions to us for themes of events. Actually, I believe it was one of our player suggestions that they wanted to see a pirate in the game? They’ve seen Vikings in the game, they’ve seen dwarves in the game, and at some point somebody said: “Oh, we want to see pirates in the game.”
MGH: Ah, yes!
Herrman: Like, Pirates of the Caribbean! So we’re currently working on one. Actually, it’s turning out to be a very big thing.
Gu: A couple of examples from the past are, well, we have a mermaid because players asked for it. We also have unicorns because players asked for it.
Herrman: Pink unicorns because the player asked for it [laughs]. In fact we have a lot of pink things because players have asked for it, and they’re very popular too.
How do you know if enough players want an item?
MGH: So how many players have to say that they want something before you consider making it?
Herrman: We don’t keep concrete numbers, but we do require our team to add a ‘hotness factor’ for every suggestion. We would like to have some indication if it’s just one player asking for something, or thousands of players.
Here’s a little bit of how they work: We have operations here, and those operations appoint one to three ambassadors. These ambassadors are players who play a lot, and who are key figures in the players’ community in Facebook. That would mean they are often admins in groups for Royal Story. These groups can have up to many thousands of players. Admins inquire to suggestions inside the groups, then share them with us. They usually would put that in some sort of document. They then would give this to the ambassador and they in turn would give it to the operations team, who then would summarize it and give it to us. So the most popular suggestions are things that are suggested by maybe 20-30 thousands of players. It can reach really high numbers.
Gu: Once we had a petition from 1600 players, wanting a workshop. We gave it to them.
MGH: So your players really get together to tell you what they want.
Herrman: Yes, we basically use Facebook’s nature of interaction using groups.
MGH: Besides Facebook, do you have any other channels where you gather feedback, like forums or Twitter?
Herrman: Yes, FunPlus games have their own forums. There is a section for suggestions as well. Players also send us suggestions directly, that’s possible too, only it makes it harder to track how many people want this. The main channel is really the Facebook social system.
Customer support importance for live-events
MGH: How is customer support important for running live events?
Herrman: Our operations team also does our customer support. If they don’t do that, you’re giving a product and throwing it at your customers: “Oh, here’s our product, have fun with it. If you have any questions, we won’t be here.” I don’t think that’s a very friendly way of working, it will result in people not knowing where to go with their complaints and remarks. We don’t want to have a lot of unhappy players in the community, talking to other players, spreading their unhappiness. That’s what having no customer support would do, and that’s what also a bad customer support will do. If you give a shaky answer, people are going to complain about it to other players.
Gu: Another reason to have customer support is that this team can, they can ‘pre-heat’ an event for us. For Royal Story’s live-events, customer support will post and let players know that “Tomorrow we’ll be having an event opening.” We have data showing that with pre-heating, the player engagement can actually increase significantly, more than 10% in some cases.
Two crucial tips from live-events, and an April Fool’s game event done right
MGH: If you can give just one tip to a game developer who wants to run a successful live-event, what would that be?
Herrman: My tip would be: From the beginning, when you start developing anything about a live-event, whether it is for a pre-existing game or a new game, the most important thing is to think beyond the game content. Game content is only what is inside the game, it’s only half the work, actually. You need to think about whether you want advertisements and how to include them. You need to think about if you want to ‘pre-heat’ or not. If you want to pre-heat it, what’s the best way to do it? How do you make the public curious about the event without giving everything away about the event? If there’s a live-event, what kind of issues and bugs can you anticipate? How can you check if the player’s complaint is a genuine problem or if he’s just misunderstand something in the game? Maybe the bugs they’re reporting aren’t really bugs. How will you check these things? You’ll need tools to do that. You should think about that before you release an event. Otherwise the player will say “I have a problem, you don’t have a way to check it,” and you’ll end up compensating this player with the risk of other players doing the same thing. In the end it will contaminate your event.
Gu: So to compliment what Martijn said, make sure that your live-events fit in with the local culture. That’s a key part in a lot of the successful live-events we’ve seen so far. The better you can adapt the event to fit local customs and traditions, the more you can attract players to play live-events. Martijn, for example, has done a very fun April Fool’s Day event.
Herrman: Yeah [laughs]. Timing was very important.
Gu: The event was basically we fooled the players in the game, but they enjoyed it and we had a lot of people writing positive feedback on the fan page.
Herrman: The joke was timed to run just a little bit before April Fool’s Day. Players would open the game, and out pops this microphone, saying “We have a new feature you can use to scare away the minions in your kingdom!” They’re very annoying, and usually all you have to do is kick them and they’ll disappear. But we had them shout “Minions, be gone!” into the microphone for the minions to go away. Then after 10 seconds or so, the game would say “I’m sorry, the microphone did not pick up any sound. Please make it louder.” So the player would say it louder. Then the game would say “I’m sorry, the microphone did pick up some sound, but it was not so clear, please try again, and try to speak as clearly as you can.” So the player would say it for the third time. Then at the end, the game would say “It’s April Fool’s, you’ve been fooled. Don’t tell anyone.”
The next day, on the fan page, they would see a message inviting them to give a recount of what happened while trying this new “function.” The comments on the post were really hilarious! We had people screaming at their screens. There was a person saying “If the prank lasted any longer my husband would have called a mental home for me!”
In conclusion: If the previous live-events interview taught about listening to player feedback, now game studio FunPlus says anticipation – not just about content – is an important success factor in executing live-events. Look at every angle, and leave no stone unturned, from relevance of the content to how to check the bugs players will most likely encounter.
FunPlus is a mobile social gaming company that puts fun first for players worldwide. The company’s signature game, Family Farm, is enjoyed by over 4 million players each day and growing. Founded in 2010, FunPlus employs over 200 people and is headquartered in Beijing, China, with offices in San Francisco, CA, and Vancouver, Canada.
Ji is currently leading game studios at Funplus, focusing on product design, game operation and team management, while executing business strategy for the CEO and the COO. She’s also a columnist for Forbes China, and a regular contributor to The Financial Times China and The WSJ China. A native Chinese speaker, she is fluent in English.
Martijn is currently the product manager for Royal Story. This involves, among other things, developing new features, quest tasks, stories and otherwise, combining the forces of engineers and artists. He has a Master of Arts in Chinese Language and Culture.