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Conversations With Whales: The eRepublik 2012 Summit

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Editor’s note: Tadhg Kelly is a game designer with 20 years experience. He is the creator of leading game design blog What Games Are, and consults for many companies on game design and development. You can follow him on Twitter here.

Last weekend I partied in Romania. I had been invited there by a game developer, eRepublik, to attend an event celebrating the fifth anniversary of their game (also called eRepublik). eRepublik is one of my favourite consulting clients, so I was happy to be invited to participate in the festivities in downtown Bucharest and see what they had been up to.

But when I say “party” I don’t mean just visit with the team and go out for a few drinks while breathing in a whole lot of second-hand smoke (in Romania everybody chain smokes, restaurants still have smoking sections, and bars are free reign). Game conventions are not a new thing. Whether at a Blizzcon or a Eurogamer Expo, gamers from across the world like to meet up and share their passions. The eRepublik event was not a convention, though. It was a summit.

The Game

First, some background. Though slightly older than the normal use of the term (especially with reference to Facebook games), eRepublik is essentially a social roleplaying game. It runs in a browser with static graphics, tables and retention-driven mechanics. Evolutionarily speaking, it sits somewhere between games like Planetarion and Urban Dead, and more modern Facebook roleplaying games like Crime City.

It is also more focused on participatory play than, say, Mafia Wars. Both developers and players readily admit that eRepublik can be pretty boring if played alone, and say that its real secret lies in IRC. There are dozens of public and private channels there where players gather to plot and discuss strategy, and this is where the value lies. If new players can find those channels, or if an existing player brings newbies into the fold, the game comes alive.

This tallies with the gameplay. Players are members of virtual countries engaging in industry, politics and war with one another across the world stage. The fantasy of the game is sometimes tied up in nationalistic passions (especially in Eastern Europe, where the game is most popular), and players from various countries have engaged in devious behaviour in the past in this vein. They can only do this by virtue of being socially connected and able to play together.

A Gathering Of Whales

The event was grandly called the “eRepublik International Summit 2012″ because it was mainly about bringing that player community together, in meat space, to discuss the game and socialise. It also had a sense of theatre. The invitations were dressed up as a meeting of military and political leaders from all around the world. And the main session happened in a grand hotel ballroom replete with a UN Security Council style table (see photo), and name cards showing player usernames like Han Solo, Sunsetter and Peach. Many players and developers even arrived in suit-and-tie.

Some players had travelled a great distance on their own dime to be there. One example was a user named Oblige, who had travelled from upstate New York (with his girlfriend) on short notice to take part. Oblige is a very active player in the eRepublik universe, one of comparatively few from the United States. He’s been playing the game a long time, and considers it an essential part of his life. He is also what the social games industry would call a “whale.”

Social games operate on an economic model in which 95 percent of people who play will not pay, so all revenue comes from the remaining 5 percent. That 5 percent tends to follow a power-law curve. Most of them will spend maybe $10, some will spend $20, some $50 and so on. A whale is generally thought to be a player who spends more than $100, but $100 is actually on the low side. In eRepublik (and many other social games like CSR Racing, Clash of Clans, FarmVille etc.), some whales have spent over $10,000. They are the true fans, vital to the game’s success.

Player Passions

So the summit wasn’t the usual games convention because many of the players who had attended (350, I was later told) were whales. It was more like clan-gathering meets investor-conference. In eRepublik’s case this sense of a clan is compounded by the fact that around 40 percent of the game’s developers were once players of the game. Even the studio head, Mihai Adamut, started his involvement with the game as a player.

Past the introductions, socialising the night before and tours of the studio, the main focus of the summit was to talk about the game. eRepublik has gone through several major pivots over the course of its lifetime. It started as a political game, but has slowly become more about military combat. As often as not, the game’s whales have liked or disliked those changes, most notoriously when they rejected a whole new expansion of the game (called Rising) en masse. The studio has tried hard to listen to their concerns ever since.

At the summit, those concerns were many. Some wanted to know the exact details of how a new combat engine was going to work. Others wanted the economy fixed to balance production so that it might become useful. Some of the more political players wanted to see the game move away from war and back to diplomacy, and at least one (Sunsetter) called for the game to get back to its roots as a multiplayer experience. She felt that it had become too individualistic.

This was a theme that I picked up on when talking with George Lemnaru on the day after the summit. George is the creator of eRepublik (now departed to work on a new project), and a legend in the community as a result. He thinks that the game’s politics have gone by the wayside in favour of the military aspects and wishes he’d managed to solve that problem. However he is still very happy with what he managed to create overall. When I asked him what it felt like to be a hero to this community, he smiled and said it was a strange feeling.

Conversation

The word that is perhaps most important to conveying this experience is “conversation.” Although eRepublik is older than most social games, in some ways it’s a proto-example of what I describe as “generation-two social.” The game doesn’t nag players to come back every day, isn’t preying on their social connections purely for user acquisition or lead them by the nose to click, play and spend. Instead it is focused on providing community value, and the studio largely trusts that the money will work itself out (with a few tweaks).

There are reasons for players to gather and help each other, to collaborate on common goals and breed social ties. This has led to a complex culture forming around the game, an emergent universe whose direction is rarely predictable. It has also led to a player community that is sensitive to change, but not reactionary: They want to see the game improve, get better, find ways to attract new users and expand just as much as the developers do.

That conversation is the value that whales seek. While some social studios have treated their whales much as Vegas-style high-rollers, whales are rarely spending just for their own personal aggrandisement. At the summit, Oblige expressed it best by saying that often they do so “to avoid letting their team down” in battles or activities against other nations. To be a whale is to be a leader, a participant and a clan member. It’s the social investment that matters, not the perks.

Players in any game often want to connect, to feel that social value and be able to self-express within a community of peers. In that conversation model the line often blurs between developer and player (as it has for eRepublik) and the resulting dynamic is hard to express. The game becomes something larger than any of its individual contributors, a synergistic experience which is not often apparent at face value. That conversation is the future of games.

Lessons

You can’t really afford to keep your whales at bay in a free-to-play world, to have an adversarial relationship with your players or act as though your mission in life is to squeeze them for money like a casino. That short-term attitude is what has gotten a whole lot of social game studios into trouble. Instead, think of your whales as supporters, like long-time sports fans who travel with you along this strange journey whose end neither of you fully understands. This has certainly been the experience for eRepublik’s makers and players.

Although some might argue that the game is doomed to a small niche, and will likely never scale, the loyalty of its active users cannot be ignored. When you have something as technologically basic as a browser game that manages to draw players from half way around the world to an event to talk about it, you are doing something very right. For half a decade, this apparently little game has managed to sustain two offices (the one in Bucharest and another in Madrid) and I see no reason why it couldn’t last another five years, or even beyond.

There are lessons there that all of us could learn.