You just started playing a new MMO or other online multiplayer game. You’re really excited and get to thinking how cool it would be to play with your friends. So what do you do to sell them on this newfound addiction? Do you tell them how awesome your rewards will be for recruiting them? Or do shower them with details about the game’s most attractive features? Unless you have a weird friend group, it’s probably more of the latter.
Until recently, MMOs and MOBAs only incentivized the recruiter and not the recruitee for participating in recruit a friend programs. It made little sense because the recruiter was already incentivized by wanting to play with their friends. MMOs already had that group of recruiters buying into pitching their game. What MMOs lacked was a reason for the recruitee to choose that friend’s game over another one. This is mirrored everyday in non-MMO products too via word of mouth. Word of mouth is a powerful tool in promotion and it results from passionate fans, not extrinsic rewards. Humans generally want to spread the word of products and services with which they’ve had good experiences. Yet online games, especially free to play MMOs, have long seemed to consider extrinsic rewards for friend recruiters the best vehicle to fuel growth.
Analyzing Recruit-A-Friend Programs
League of Legends took this self centered style to the max level with their old referral program. Recruiters could earn a ton of Riot Points (the game’s premium currency), rare skins, and even content items named after them. Of course, no ordinary person could possibly earn the top tier rewards and instead was dominated by online personalities such as TotalBiscuit. It’s unclear how this referral program impacted League of Legends’ status as a gaming powerhouse, but it has since been discontinued. That they’ve dropped incentivizing recruiting friends is indicative that Riot no longer believes it’s a strong growth driver.
Other MMORPGs have chosen to evolve their programs instead of trashing them. World of Warcraft tries to promote friends playing together via EXP boosts and friend summoning. Leveling and travel is pretty easy in WoW though so I’d question the efficacy of such a program. Final Fantasy XIV gives more tangible benefits to both friends and recruiters after a subscription is purchased. These rewards encourage low level play and partying together like an EXP boost below level 25. That rewards are capped at five recruits is odd but does suggest Square Enix is more interested in small friend groups over referrals from online recruiter warriors.
Star Wars: The Old Republic shows greater signs of adapting to the times. First, previous subscribers who have been unsubscribed for 90+ dates can be “recruited”. Most recruit a friend programs disallow old subscribers for some bizarre reason. Hoping old players return makes a lot less sense than actively trying to draw them back in. Recruitees receive unfettered access to content through level 50. New players also get a Jumpstart Bundle to make leveling easier. Recruiters receive Cartel Coins (premium currency) for each friend actively subscribed.
Among the top MMO games, the greatest disparity in recruit a friend programs lie between RuneScape and TERA. RuneScape runs an older model which heavily rewards recruiters while giving recruited friends a measly 10% EXP bump for seven days. No one’s buying into that. On the other hand, TERA is the gift that keeps on giving. TERA’s BuddyUp System lets veteran players (over level 40) mentor/recruit anyone who hasn’t played in 30 days. Mentors earn rewards while recruits level and guess what? Recruits also earn level specific rewards for leveling under their friend’s tutelage. Additionally, playing together increases a quantifiable friendship level that offers benefits such as the ability to teleport to one another.
One idea I have not seen adapted to subscription or buy to play MMORPGs is the concept of spawning. For those unaware, spawning allows someone who does not own the game to play it, as long as they group with someone who does. It’s used in StarCraft 2 and older Diablo games. The hope for the developer is that the new player will get hooked enough to want to play without their friend. The only way to do that is, of course, to purchase the game. As cool as virtual item rewards are, playing a paid game for free is far more encouraging. Strong rewards for recruiters would also be justified with ‘spawning referrals’ because of the larger time investment. Spawning in MMORPGs could be exploited but simple restrictions could be put into place to avoid such situations.
Honestly, recruit a friend programs have always seemed like an afterthought. Times are a-changing though. Developers are clearly showing promising signs of adaptation in recent years. However, that evolution is far from complete. Proper recruit a friend programs can drive tons of new players and are worth investing in. Word of mouth is an exceptional marketing vehicle that MMOs will need to get creative with to properly utilize. With the ability to hand out infinite virtual goods for free, it’s just a matter of finding the right mix. MMOs want to get players hooked, and get them hooked early. And nothing is more captivating than a friend to play alongside.