Learn2Play, the new Real Money Trading?

Extract from advert for Luke's Gold Making Guide. Real Money Trade (RMT) is the buying and selling of virtual property or currency for real-world money. Many virtual worlds now embrace this trade in virtual currency and goods, often as a source of income for the world’s operator. Blizzard, the developer of World of Warcraft (WoW), does not:

“RMT is a TOS [Terms of Service] violation. The fanbase is pretty committed to being against it, and we’ve got a group of guys that are committed to stopping TOS violations. The game was never designed for that in mind – everyone starts off even. In the real world that’s not true, but in WoW everyone starts even, and the RMT stuff messes with that.”

Not just rhetoric. They have sued a leading supplier to prevent them advertising in-game. And they regularly ban large numbers of accounts used to “farm” gold.

That environment seems to have expanded another quite logical commercial market: Teaching players to play. “Learn2Play” in the vernacular, or “L2P” in shorthand.

Rather than buying gold (in-game currency), players buy the knowledge of how to make gold themselves. The market isn’t restricted to gold. Guides to power-leveling (advancing a character through the first part of the game as fast as possible) are also popular: Rather than pay someone else to level a player’s character, players can buy a guide containing instructions optimised for rapid leveling.

This article explains Learn2Play, and explores some of the history and trends in this “market”. It focuses specifically on World of Warcraft, in English, which is sufficiently popular to create a tangible commercial Learn2Play market. It draws on my own experience from selling these guides.

Superficial analysis suggests the World of Warcraft Learn2Play market is valued at over $3 million revenue per year. In spite of WoW being an online experience, revenue from physical book sales may still exceed revenue from the virtual equivalent. The market is far smaller than RMT. But the notion that people are willingly investing US dollars in knowledge and skills that are useful solely within one virtual environment, should perhaps deserve as much attention as other real-virtual money transactions.

On this page:

Understanding Learn2Play

“Official” published guides (books) for video games are a substantial market:

“The game [book] publishing biz might just be the biggest industry you’ve never heard of. Publishers rake in about $100 million a year. Top books can sell more than half a million copies. The Halo 2 guide sold nearly as many copies in its first week as Bill Clinton’s autobiography did.”

Players have been writing and distributing game guides over the internet for at least twenty years. The oldest guide in GameFAQs archive dates from 1988. These are no longer just “cheats” – details of how to use hidden features to advance through a game more easily. Indeed cheating in online games normally involves exploiting unintended game mechanics, or alteration of how the game’s programming works, and is (socially and often contractually) unacceptable in an online environment. This article does not discuss “cheat guides”, rather it deals with guides that teach players to play legitimately.

As the complexity and depth of games has increased over time, so has the length and detail of the guides [1]. Fan-based works tend to provide greater depth than published guide books. And are often free [6].

Quirks of MMOGs

For conventional (concept defined by Ultima Online) Massively Multiplayer Online Games (MMOGs), such as WoW, works “published” online by fans have several advantages over paper books. MMOGs differ from other types of video games:

  • Inherently deep and complex – often designed to engage their players over months.
  • Constantly evolving content, as features are changed, or new content is added. The product life-cycle is also longer than other video games (many years, compared to a few months).
  • Constantly evolving player-base: New players replace veterans with a typical rate of turnover of 9-12 months.
  • Noisy communities, endlessly discussing… everything. While this happens for all games, it occurs more for MMOGs than single-player titles.
  • Social pressure to perform well while playing (obvious in group situations, where performing well is likely to get you invited back in future).
  • Inability to “reload a saved game” – mistakes take longer to recover from.

Good gameplay information is important to the MMOG player, yet can be hard for them to gather and digest. Particularly “casual” players with limited time. This should create a huge market for “official” published guides. However, the vast amount of information, some of it changing from month to month, tends to make frequently updated online content much more useful than published books. Since book publishers seem reluctant to publish content electronically, nor are able to update content day-to-day, online content is almost all unofficial “fan-based” work.

Sources of information

For World of Warcraft, Blizzard’s design philosophy can be summarised as “easy to learn, hard to master”. They provide a lot of supporting information for new players. In addition, they to have designed a game that is relatively easy for new players to learn – many will never need to refer to documentation outside the game.

But the further players progress through the game, the less they will be able to learn from official sources. Trial and error is a viable method of learning, but it is terribly inefficient.

Chat

In-game chat and social interactions between players can be informative. As in the physical world, this depends a lot on the individuals and circumstances:

  • Some knowledgable players have the patience to teach others, but most tire quickly of fielding questions, particularly about “basic” topics.
  • In group situations, where the party or guild has to work together to succeed, players are more willing to share information with one another, because it will help the group succeed.
  • In competitive situations, such as resource gathering, sharing information may hinder a player, since it introduces additional competition.

Forums

Forums can provide a slightly less personal source of gameplay information. Unfortunately, the volume of information posted makes it impossible to read everything, let alone digest it all.

The “best” information is generally lurking in specialist forums. WoW’s Elitist Jerks is a great example. It’s full of veterans discussing the finer points (and there are a lot of finer points) of WoW’s class balance, raid tactics, and guild management. It is aggressively moderated, so very focused on informative discussion. If you read it every day, your game will improve. But unless you’ve been playing the game intensively for the last six months, most of the topics will be rather hard to understand.

Databases

Unofficial databases containing information about items, creatures, quests, and so on, are common to most roleplay-orientated MMOGs. Content is typically gathered from many players, so the information is kept current. While most such services start as “fan sites” (created by fans of the game), some developed into valuable commercial enterprises. Wowhead (a World of Warcraft database site) was recently sold for over $1 million. That price reflects the value of the advertising space the site carries – specifically for mass-media advertising priced based on advert impressions [5]. An official database, The Armory, was launched in March 2007. However it is increasingly used as a data source for other fan-built websites, rather than drawing traffic away from unofficial databases. These database sites are an excellent reference companion while playing the game, but don’t specifically teach players to play.

Guides

Everything a player needs to know is freely available… if only they can find and digest it, and then still have time remaining to play the game.

That’s the role of guides: To digest, optimise, and present information in a structured way. Preferably with language and layout that anyone can learn from. Rarely do guides provide information that was not previously known, at least to some players.

Guides take a number of forms: From short forum posts, to websites dedicated to one obscure topic (like fishing), through collaborative projects (such as WoWWiki), to paid e-books covering specific topics, and subscription services giving access to a range of guides. Some of these sources are both guide and database – particularly WoWWiki.

WoW’s design influences the type of demand for guides:

  • Advanced parts of the game which are otherwise poorly documented – for example, strategies for defeating raid bosses (enemies that require perfectly coordinated groups to defeat).
  • The fastest or most efficient path through parts of the game that have many options – for example, leveling guides (which aim to provide the quickest path through the game for players that want to reach the final “end game” stage as fast as possible).

Overview of World of Warcraft commercial guides

Books

Several hard-copy “official” commercial guides for WoW have been published by BradyGames. Guides cover strategies for the game as a whole (2 editions), the expansion, dungeons, an atlas, and a compendium of books [10].

Multi-game websites

Subscription-based games network sites offered guides to a range of MMOGs, prior to the release of WoW. For example, Multiplayer Strategies appeared around 2003, at the time of Star Wars Galaxies’ launch. It now offers guides to several popular MMOGs, including WoW, with one subscription covering all content. Large gaming sites like Gamespot (CNet) experimented with subscription-based content following the “dot com” financial crash, which reduced revenue from advertising. This included paid access to game guides. Most of their content is now freely available again.

Early commercial “fan” works

The first “unofficial” commercial guide specifically written and sold for WoW, seems to be “The Ultimate World of Warcraft Leveling & Gold Guide” by Brian Kopp. It was first sold via eBay in the August 2005. This was certainly the first commercial guide to get noticed: Vivendi, Blizzard and the Entertainment Software Association sought to use the Digital Millenium Copyright Act (DMCA) to prevent Kopp from selling the guide, “asserting that Kopp’s guide violated the video game maker’s intellectual property rights“. The Public Citizen, which defended Kopp, outlined the contentious issues:

“A video game is copyrightable just like a book, and just like a book you should be able to comment on it, create new works inspired by it, teach about it in classes, write newspaper articles about it and so on. … By claiming that mere publication of a how-to book about its game infringes its copyright, Blizzard has interpreted its intellectual property rights in a way that would prohibit legitimate commentary that is protected by the First Amendment.”

The case was eventually settled out of court, and Kopp was allowed to keep selling guides. Arstechnica highlights that Blizzard may have been acting to limit gold farmers (i.e. RMT), since the guide would be particularly useful to those groups.

Affiliate sales growth

The action against eBay sales triggered an alternative sales model to be adopted (although a few guides are still sold via eBay): Affiliate-based advertising. That typically doubled the price charged for guides (to over $30), since affiliate advertisers need to earn enough to make advertising worthwhile. The affiliate model was well-suited to most of the individuals initially involved, who likely had limited incomes and no way to raise capital themselves: Affiliates are paid directly from sales revenue, so if the guide doesn’t sell, advertising it costs the guide author (almost) nothing. Of course authors do have a key role in the “partnership” of providing quality products and convincing “pitch pages” (the text the potential customer reads once referred to the author’s website) – if their guides genuinely never sell, the affiliates will eventually stop advertising them.

By the summer of 2006, affiliate run “review sites” (of variable quality) had sprung up, and adverts were appearing on fan sites and Google. Blizzard’s anti-RMT policy helped: Many popular fan sites refuse to accept advertising for RMT, which meant Learn2Play guides could be advertised cheaper. Advertising RMT is expensive – for example, Google Adwords charges advertisers up to $5 per click for the search term “wow gold”, compared to $0.50 for “wow”. The best written pitch page is unlikely to convert more than 5% of referrals from adverts, so it is not viable to advertise a WoW guide (that typically earns the affiliate $15-20 per sale) unless RMT competition has been excluded.

Growing specialisation and professionalism

Guides gradually became more specialised: For example, “The Ultimate World of Warcraft Leveling & Gold Guide”, developed into an Alliance faction leveling guide, and (later) gold-making guides. The early guides were simple e-books – customers were sold the right to download a document. It has become common to offer additional tools, such as User Interface modifications (used legitimately) which help players work through the content of guide from within the game. Instead of Blizzard using the Digital Millenium Copyright Act against authors, it is now being used by authors against websites that illegally host direct copies of their commercial guides.

Extract from Azeroth Advisor front page. Learn2Play has continued to attract individual casual authors, but during 20007 has shown growing professionalism and scale:

  • Kopp and “Joana” (character name) joined under the banner of Spugnort, and launched their own affiliate network. Most guides had, until recently, been sold via ClickBank. They have also further diversified into more specialist guides, covering topics like Player-vs-Player combat.
  • Professional gamers (e-sports veterans from Counter-Strike and Quake), Team iDemise, launched a World of Warcraft leveling guide. This is interesting, since they are both using their “gaming skills” to produce content, and logically taking team skills developed through games into the business arena. In a market filling up with material written by “some kid you’ve never heard of”, a unique selling point (“we’re gaming gods”) will be important.
  • Alternative approaches are being taken to presentation. For example, the Azeroth Advisor (Mentor Media) uses game-like animation and interactivity in its design (illustrated right – I do not know if such design extends to the paid content). That example is also notable because it uses a subscription model, yet only covers World of Warcraft.

Blizzard’s position remains uncertain: Their recent machinima policy frequently uses the words “non-commercial purposes”. The policy accepts the use of commercial hosts (funded by advertising or premium services), so long as the content is made available in at least one form that is free to user. By implication, selling advertising space on sites related to WoW is acceptable, since the site’s content is similarly free to view. In contrast, commercial game guides essentially use WoW to make money, and are not free to view. They contribute to Blizzard’s coffers indirectly – players surely play the game more as a result of reading them – but perhaps they contribute less than a licensed product would. The Kopp action did not create case law, so the creators of commercial World of Warcraft guides are still walking on thin ice: There’s a risk that one will go too far – maybe use too many screenshots, videos or other game assets – and Blizzard will call in the lawyers again.

There are a few factors that will increase the popularity of guides over time:

  • Constant evolution and expansion of the game’s design and content: The longer the game exists, the more content there is for players to navigate through, and the more confusing the game is likely to become for new players.
  • Constant player turnover (veterans leave, replaced by new players): Simultaneously knowledge is being lost from the active player-base, while the new players arrive who need to learn that knowledge.

The opposing downward trend is due to the life-cycle of the game: The total player-base increases rapidly after launch, peaks, then slowly declines. Expansions (or equivalent large blocks of additional content) create additional curves: All the curves then stack, which tends to mask the underlying pattern. Raph Koster provides an illustrated explanation. Although subscribers to WoW continue to grow globally, usage by English-speakers may have already peaked.

I cannot predict the result of the interaction between all those factors.

Google it!

I have used Google Trends for analysis. This shows changes in the volume of searches for a particular search term over time. I believe Google dominates searches by WoW players – for example, El’s Extreme Anglin’ occupies the top position for the search term “wow fishing” on both Google and Yahoo, yet Google accounts for 90% of all search engine referrals [2]. Consequently, I will assume Google’s trend data broadly represents the behaviour of players as a whole.

The graph below shows the trends for the terms “wow guide” (in blue) and “wow gold” (in red). Time is shown along the horizontal axis, search volume on the vertical axis. Although the absolute number of searches is not stated, these trends are not indexed: Both terms are searched for with similar propensity, so direct comparisons can be made between the two lines.

Figure: WoW guide (blue) vs WoW gold (red)
Graph comparing the search term WoW guide (blue) vs WoW gold (red).

WoW launched at the end of 2004 (when the blue line starts to rise). Searches for gold lag behind slightly (likely due to a combination of early players not needing it, and suppliers not yet having started selling it), but grow faster until the autumn (fall) of 2006. Since then, the term “wow gold” has tended to decline. In contrast, “wow guides” lept up at the start of 2007 – presumably due to the launch of The Burning Crusade expansion, which added more unfamiliar content.

Many of the people searching for “guides” will be expecting to find free content. More of those searching for “gold” will expect to pay for it. So we cannot draw conclusions about the relative sizes of the commercial RMT and Learn2Play markets.

Searches for “wow” (indicative of underlying interest in the game) continue to grow steadily – rising slightly more with the launch of the expansion, although not as much as guides. Other guide-like terms with slightly lower volume (such as “wow leveling guide” and “wow fishing”) broadly follow the same pattern, with exceptions: Interest in leveling guides does not start growing until a year after the game’s launch – perhaps this was when players started to level second characters solely for the purpose of “end game” activities, or perhaps those guides took that long to write. And interest in fishing does not increase immediately upon the launch of the expansion – it lags behind by a few months. Presumably players are too busy playing the new content to fish – no sense of priorities…

The new RMT?

That graph inspired the dramatic title of this article. The decline in searches for gold was unexpected. Searches for gold should be increasing:

  • The Burning Crusade expansion introduced a range of new, expensive items to spend gold on – “epic” (they go faster than regular ones) flying mounts being the most coveted (and expensive). Logically this should have resulted in increased RMT activity [3].
  • Blizzard’s recent attempts to limit in-game advertising should have pushed advertising into other channels, such as web search.

Perhaps Google searches just aren’t an accurate reflection on RMT trends? Or perhaps over-supply of gold has meant players don’t have to search as hard to find it? Or perhaps the relative rise in the popularity of guides is caused by The Burning Crusade, and otherwise the trend for guides would also have mirrored gold?

This isn’t conclusive proof than WoW’s RMT market is in decline. And there may be no direct relationship between the RMT and Learn2Play markets at all. It is, none the less, a curious pattern.

Valuation

This crude valuation of the WoW English language Learn2Play market is built upon limited data and uncertain assumptions. The results should be read with considerable caution. I’ve defined the market narrowly, in terms of guides that are sold directly for money. This excludes online sources that are free to the reader, but still generate revenue from advertising.

Online guides

Meet Luke. His guide was one of the first to explore the topic of WoW gold making in depth. Personally I’ve found it sells well, although the conversion rate (the proportion of visitors to his site that actually buy the guide) is only 1-2% (compared to 3+% for some guides). The guide currently sells for $37. That price is fairly typical for commercial WoW guides. The guide is downloaded as a PDF, so there is no reason for buyers to repeatedly visit his website (as is the case for subscription-based guides).

Compete shows about 8,000 unique visitors (individual people) to his website each month. Compete only records US users. In my experience (an English language WoW site), the US accounts for 75% of traffic. Let’s assume a low estimate of 10,000 people per month. Using a conversion rate of 1.5%, that’s 150 sales worth a total of $5,550 per month, $67,000 per year.

Unfortunately Compete is stunningly inaccurate for medium-traffic websites [4]. For example, capsu.org was frequently recorded with 2,000 unique US visitors per month, when the server logs reveal it actually gains about 65,000, of which 75% live in the US. That’s quite a margin of error. Examining Alexa (which I also consider unreliable, but two estimates are better than one), suggests traffic between our two domains is similar. So let’s assume a high estimate of 60,000 people per month. Using a conversion rate of 1.5%, that 900 sales worth $33,300 per month, $400,000 per year.

Of course that’s the value of the revenue generated. 61% (which again is a fairly typical margin) goes to the affiliates, many of whom will spend most of their earnings buying advertising space in which to place affiliate links. Of the remaining 39% ($25,000-$150,000, depending on estimate), there are still costs to cover: Primarily ongoing maintenance of the guide (MMOGs frequently change, so text and strategies need to be constantly updated), but you’ll also need a lawyer on hand to limit the (illegal) redistribution of your work. The cost of each additional sale is very marginal – the maintenance cost is almost the same regardless of numbers, and affiliates bare the cost of advertising.

Brian Kopp, is listed on Compete with just under 20,000 unique monthly visitors. Add a third for non-US traffic, giving 27,000 total [8]. With a conversion rate of about 2% (again, from personal experience), that gives 540 sales per month at $35 each: $18,900 per month, $227,000 revenue per year. No allowance has been made for returning customers seeking (free) updates, which will slightly over-estimate the revenue. However, the Compete data may be inaccurate for this site too, so it is likely our estimate is too low.

Those two guides are among the better performers. Some only bring in a few thousand dollars each month.

Subscription guides

Analysing subscription services covering multiple games is even more difficult: Unreliable user statistics, no data on subscriber numbers, no information on the balance of information subscribers access. However, both Killer Guides and MultiplayerStrategies attract about 7,000 unique US visitors per month (according to Compete) – less than some of the single-guide sites. Given the range of content available, we might expect them to attract far more visitors. That suggests either:

  • There isn’t a market for guides covering multiple games. Logical, because few players will have time to play more than one or two at once.
  • Subscription services are less popular than one-time purchases.
  • Depth is preferable to breath: Logically, multi-game networks will struggle to provide the same depth of coverage as single game, single topic guides can.

Overall, the lack of reliable website statistics makes estimating the value of WoW Learn2Play market terribly difficult.

I’m confident the commercial online WoW Learn2Play market is worth at least a million dollars each year, but probably not much more than that at the moment. I estimate Affinity Media’s three WoW database sites raise more revenue from (mainstream media) advertising [5].

Published books

How do those figures compare to revenues from published books?

BradyGames, who publish the official WoW guides, have not released any figures on WoW book sales (that I could find). It is the only Bradygames games franchise mentioned in the Penguin Group’s 2006 results (PDF; Bradygames is an imprint of Dorling Kindersley, which is an imprint of the Penguin Group, which is all owned by the Pearson Group), so we can assume World of Warcraft books sold better than anything else BradyGames sold in 2006, but can’t be certain how well. Assuming overall WoW book sales are comparable to the “top books [that] sell more than half a million copies“, and each book sells for around $15, that’s still $7.5 million revenue from book sales. Perhaps that much each year.

An alternative method of estimating book sales is to derive them from Amazon.com rankings, as Morris Rosenthal describes. Ideally ranks should be sampled overall several weeks, since the ranking system primarily reflects recent purchases, so will vary slightly from day to day. But I’m impatient. The table below, shows the ranks and estimated annual sales volumes for the 5 BradyGames guides currently sold [7].

Book Rank Estimated annual Amazon sales
Burning Crusade guide 5,002 2,600
Master guide 7,402 1,600
Dungeon companion 8,900 1,400
Strategy collection 16,713 1,000
Atlas 18,363 900
Total 7,500

Related analysis by Rosenthal quotes Amazon.com’s annual book sales revenue as $2 billion. The Association of American Publishers states US book publishing industry sales were $25 billion in 2005. Amazon’s market share is therefore assumed to be 8%.

So, 7,500 Amazon.com sales scale up to 94,000 US sales per year. At $15 each, that’s $1.4 million per year. Add in the other major English speaking territories where WoW is played (Northern Europe, Canada, parts of Oceania), and the total revenue should rise to around $2 million per year. Again we are making many assumptions: Critically that Amazon sales reflect overall sales patterns, when they probably do not. For example, the online nature of the game might mean an online retailer will take a larger proportion of the business. Alternatively the tendency to buy game guides in game stores, rather than bookshops, may not make Amazon such a logical choice.

It’s revealing that in spite of WoW being an online experience, revenue from physical book sales may exceed revenue from the virtual equivalent. But consider that the cost of licensing (the “official” badge), producing and distributing books are higher than online guides, so the balance of profits might not reflect the balance of revenues.

It is all a long way from the 2 billion dollar RMT market.

Buying an education

Google trend analysis, the growing number of suppliers of commercial guides, and the apparent popularity of published books on the subject, all point to one thing: The increasing willingness of WoW players to buy guides.

The game design and social factors outlined above will tend to cause increased demand for guides. The interesting aspect is that players are prepared to buy them, with hard currency, just as in the past they have purchased virtual currency. Much has has been written on RMT. Increasingly virtual goods (paying real money for items that exist only within a virtual environment) are attracting interest. Yet virtual education still seems focused on teaching physical-world skills over virtual channels; not teaching people to exist virtually. The notion that people are willingly investing US dollars in knowledge and skills that are useful solely within one virtual environment, surely deserves as much attention as other real-virtual money transactions?

Ethically, is buying knowledge/skills in an online game any different from paying for a college/university course, or buying a technical book? Blizzard’s initial reaction (to Kopp) would suggest they either view the topic much like RMT, or they are simply keen to control all revenue from the commercialisation of their game. But they have not since attempted to block the trade.

Beyond World of Warcraft

Could the same patterns emerge as clearly in other virtual environments/games, or are my observations somehow unique to WoW?

Circumstantially, the first statement is correct: Published book guides to video games are, as described above, a $100 million/year business. The official guide to Second Life, is more popular than any WoW guide book, based on Amazon sales [9].

There are characteristics of the underlying market that are unique to World of Warcraft:

  • Scale for a complex game: While there are less complex/more casual online games with more players, WoW is far more popular than its nearest comparable competitor. Given the difficulty in financing the development of games on the scale/complexity of WoW, it is possible that there may never be a logical successor to the game. Online guides require a lot of effort to write and maintain, but each additional sale is very marginal: There are massive economies of scale, which mean the more popular the game, the more viable the commercial Learn2Play market.
  • Blizzard’s anti-RMT stance may or may not be encouraging players to purchase guides instead of gold. We have no conclusive evidence. However, the policy is effectively lowering the price of commercial online guides, by creating prime advertising space which excludes Real Money Trade advertising, and so allows guides to be advertised cheaper than RMT.

Other characteristics will be common to most MMOGs, and perhaps also other non-game virtual environments:

  • Slow reaction by book publishers to serving MMOGs: Specifically the ever-changing nature of these games, which makes books out of date rapidly. But also the existence of a viable sales/distribution channel that is entirely online. For WoW, individuals have moved onto market territory that book publishers seemingly forgot to occupy.
  • As the game expands with more content, or the player-base tends to play more casually, the demand and willingness to pay for guides will logically increase. The limiting long-term factor is the tendency for the total player-base to decline over the game’s life cycle.
  • My flawless economist’s logic concerning the scale of the game (above) must be countered by the economic irrationality of guide authors: Many are willing to write for free, and so may still enter tiny or over-supplied markets where they are unlikely to recoup the costs of writing. That means that Learn2Play will always be fiercely competitive, with little regard for profitability.

In spite of the title of this article, Learn2Play is unlikely to replace RMT. But for World of Warcraft, the market for commercial guides and game information appears to be growing strongly, while the WoW RMT market is not.

Into the future

Is there a long term future for Learn2Play? That’s a question with far too many “ifs, buts and maybes” to consider fully.

If the future involves a move to smaller, more “casual” games, the outlook at first appears bleak: There is no shortage of material covering popular games like Maple Story and Fish Tycoon, but no scant evidence of anyone selling that information. But maybe the advertising model merely prevails here?

Logically, the less complex the game/world, the lesser the need for information about it. But the more mainstream the market becomes, the more it will attract people who are unwilling or unable to teach themselves, as most of “early adopters” or “hardcore players” tend to do. I’d have thought by now that proficiency with Microsoft Word was second only to proficiency with crayons, yet Google returns over 50 million results for the term “Word training course” – many costing several hundred dollars a day.

The operators of online worlds could yet embrace Learn2Play in the way many have integrated RMT and virtual goods into their designs: Imagine if in-game trainers actually sold the player training, and not just their character/avatar. It opens up a whole new avenue in the use of micro-transactions within game-like virtual environments.

Further reading

The background research for this article is superficial, and not robust: There must have been other papers or articles written on the topic of game books and guides, and their role in educating people to interact solely within virtual environments. There is a growing body of literature on the use of game-like virtual environments for training and skill development (Galarneau and Zibit, PDF, cite many), yet I have been unable to find any other analysis similar to my own.

Notes

  • [1] Analysis of GameFAQs trends shows the average size of files (an adequate proxy for content, since all files are plain text) increase from about 15KB in 1990, to almost 100KB by the start of 2006.
  • [2] Based on a sample of almost 50,000 search engine referrals per month. Live.com (Microsoft) is not a major source of referrals. It weights the terms “WoW” and “World of Warcraft” completely differently, so El consistently shows up for the second (since the words “World of Warcraft” are in the header of each page), but not the first. Unfortunately, based on Google trends for the two terms, “WoW” is now far more commonly used.
  • [3] The expansion also devalued gold – earnings and overheads at the level 70 (the new maximum) are approximately twice those at level 60 (the pre-expansion maximum). Long term this will not have altered the RMT market, since those generating gold for sale will also have gained the ability to earn more.
  • [4] Compete it is designed to inform mainstream advertisers, who generally loose interest in websites with less than 10,000 visitors/day.
  • [5] Using Compete data (which should be accurate for these popular sites): Thottbot serves 3.5 million visits per month (one person entering the site once), viewing 9 pages per visit on average: 31 million page views per month. Wowhead serves 1.1 million visits per month, viewing 17 pages on average: 19 million page views per month. Allakhazam serves 1.6 million visits per months, viewing 9 pages on average: 14 million page views per month. While Allakhazam covers other MMOGs, Alexa reveals that 84% of traffic is to the WoW section, so I’ve included all the Compete data, since it is only a small over-estimate of WoW traffic. That gives a total of 64 million page views per month across the network, or 775 million per year. Assuming an average of two adverts per page, that’s about 1.5 billion advert impressions per year. Given the nature of the site (many brief page views), I’m going to assume the main advertising model used is based on advert impressions – or “cost per mile”, CPM. The value of display advertising varies enormously, from tens of cents per thousand page impressions to over $30 per thousand. Games sites tend towards the lower of those scales (since their audience tends to be time rich and income poor, so spend a lot of time looking without buying). However advertising space of WoW sites is generally worth more than other games (Game Advertising Online provides evidence for the difference, although the model used there is cost per click (CPC), not advert impressions). Assuming $1 revenue per thousand page impressions (probably a low estimate), Affinity Media’s WoW advertising space is worth $1.5 million per year. There are a lot of different trends that confuse the picture: The changing popularity of the game, expansions leading to greater complexity and hence more need for information, and probably a rise in the value of advertising space (advertising networks using more behavioural techniques to target adverts better, and overall greater use of online media by advertisers). While any large-scale enterprise funded by internet advertising is a risk (the post-“dot com” collapse in advertising revenue highlights that), Affinity Media’s millions invested in WoW database sites seem like a shrewd move. Particularly in light of a possible stall or decline in WoW RMT (Affinity was formerly linked to IGE, a major RMT supplier).
  • [6] Why some people painstakingly research and write thousands of pages of informative text about popular games, and then effectively make it available for free, demands explanation. Originally these guides were written and distributed via usenet (newsgroups) and services like BITNET: There was no way to charge for them, nor were they sufficiently long or detailed to justify a charge. In more recent times, social/peer competition seems to have become a major driver: The kudos associated with having written the “best” guide for a popular game can be immense, with guides read by millions of people – more than many (commercially) published authors. But each writer has their own reasons. IGN’s occasional FAQ Writer of the Week series gives some further insights.
  • [7] Rank data collected on 7 September 2007. Subsequent review two days later found most ranks had improved – by around 1,000 for the more popular books, more for others. Your mileage may vary.
  • [8] Again, based on my own experience, only 75% of visitors to English language WoW sites will be from within the US.
  • [9] There is only one official Second Life book, yet five official books covering World of Warcraft, so direct comparison of rankings is misleading. Given that Second Life’s active users are substantially lower that WoW, the popularity of the book is surprising. Perhaps WoW is perceived as a game, so considered more familiar, so less likely to trigger a book purchase?
  • [10] A second dungeon companion was published at the start of September 2007, while I was writing this.
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12 thoughts on “Learn2Play, the new Real Money Trading?”

  1. Interesting article : )

    World of Warcraft is a great niche market. Many internet marketers have realized this, resulting in very expensive keyword bids on Google Adwords lately. I notice many “fresh” adverts popping up now and then, only to last less than a week, before realizing they can’t compete with other ads with higher quality score.

    Bear in mind if you’re bidding on competitive keywords such as “wow gold guide”, you’re also competing with gold selling companies who have a much higher advertising budget and wont mind increasing their cost per click (CPC) to outrank your ad.

    All in all, the markets getting competitive but there are still some real gems in there.

  2. “The Spugnort’s World Gaming Network has over 80,000 active members and has sold well over $1 Million US worth of digital gaming guides in the past 12 months.”

    – Posted by Spugnort/Josh on 12 December 2007. So if anything, I slightly underestimated the value of the market.

    However, the market may be starting to “cool off” now, as Blizzard eases the pressure of gold-making (via mechanisms such as daily quests) and levelling (it recently made levels 20 to 60 go much faster). Of course, the upcoming second expansion, Wrath of the Lich King, will add another 10 levels to the top of the game, and no doubt introduce all sort of new things to spend money on…

    There was also some interesting discussion about this article, at Elder Game.

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