It's Easy Being Green
Green Man's Paul Sulyok talks rewards, reach and staying hardcore
"Well, it was a Eureka moment, I think we were across the road in the pub, actually," says Green Man Gaming MD Paul Sulyok. "We were kicking around about this idea way back, eight, nine months ago, and we said hang on a second, we've got this and wouldn't it be good if...you know those great conversations that start out 'wouldn't it be good if we could do this' and Lee, our EVP of engineering was there, and Lee said 'Yeah...but you can do it, and that's how it all started.
"It's a classic Green Man Gaming story," he laughs. "We talk about 'wouldn't it be good if', we then speak to Lee, and Lee says, 'You know what, I can do that; why don't we do it?' Then we chew it over, we mull it over. We looked at architecture, we looked at designs, and one thing leads to the next, and you produce a rewards system."
The 'it' in this case is Green Man's new Playfire rewards system, which offers customers cash incentives for playing games. Hit an achievement or fulfil a challenge and Paul Sulyok's online retailer will drop some money in your account - not tokens or vouchers, but actual currency.
The model fits perfectly into Green Man's existing position. Half retailer and half data-collection network, Green Man has established itself in a niche which lets it keep both the customer and the publishers happy. By tracking the activity of gamers with the Playfire network ( acquired in 2012 ) and relaying that information back to the developers, Green Man operates a business which sits neatly in a modern data-mining economy, but paying the players for the data they create brings a refreshing perspective.
"Playfire has two benefits," Sulyok explains. "One is to publishers. Quite clearly, it is a massive advantage to get the cost platform, cost publisher, international picture that we can offer, and that understanding of what's going on in the marketplace. Knowing that there are 616 000 gamers who bought a particular first person shooter, and that 38 per cent of them finished that game in 11 days, is a valuable statistic.
"If you take that and you extend it over the entire 4.5 thousand games that we've got, then the level of information that you have got when you're working with Green Man Gaming as a publisher, is much, much higher, and we share this information with our publishers.
"You can use that cash, because ultimately, do I really want to get another mouse mat? Probably not, to be honest with you"
"Now, turn it on its head. With Playfire, also, we do the same thing for the community. It's a live, breathing, lively community, whereby we can offer them things that otherwise they wouldn't get. Whilst publishers love this, okay, and this gives the publishers a very good insight into what they need to in order to sell more games, from a community perspective we've got the rewards programs.
"What we're doing now is we're saying, right, do you know what, if you play Skyrim and you get this certain achievement within this certain space of time, then you will have the ability to be able get a certain amount of credits which you can then offset against the costs of your next purchase.
"We don't have to do virtual points, or virtual coins, or this, that, and the other. Actually, what we do is we just drop money in your account, because you're a Green Man Gaming customer already, and you've got a Green Man Gaming account. Green Man Gaming is an accounting system, and so you as a customer can interact, and as a result of the interaction, you can get cash for it. You can use that cash, because ultimately, do I really want to get another mouse mat? Probably not, to be honest with you.
"What I really want to do, is I really want to buy the next big game that's coming out. What I want to do is I want to be able to interact socially with my buddies and then I want to have the ability to be able to take that social interaction and convert it into a reward that I can spend."
This scheme is multiplatform, across PC, Xbox One and 360 and Playstation 3 and 4. Data is collected from games bought from any retailer, not just Green Man, so all customers need is a Playfire account to start earning, whilst producing valuable data for the customers on the other end of Sulyok's demand chain. And that chain is growing, rapidly.
"We focus exclusively on the 15 per cent who want to buy computer games, who spend 60 per cent of the marketplace. We don't do female-friendly games. [See the sidebar for a follow up on this quote.] We don't do family games. We actively avoid those sorts of games. Our guys will spend, on average, $720 a year, and buy a game every 47 days.
"It doesn't matter whether they're playing games on their mobile device, or whether they're playing games on their PC, they are the guys that consume the games, and they are the guys who put their money where their mouth is, effectively, or where their mouse is.
"We don't do female-friendly games. We don't do family games. We actively avoid those sorts of games. Our guys will spend, on average, $720 a year"
"The UK is a relatively small part of our overall revenues. We do 40 per cent of our revenue in North America. In 2013, we got a permanent team based over on the West Coast, so we have an office over there. We do 40 per cent in North America, 40 per cent in Western Europe, including UK, and then 20 per cent in the rest of world, of which Australia is a big, big part.
"We launched with the ability to be able to allow people to buy a game, play it, trade it in, and then we would resell it, and we would pay royalties to the publisher every time the game was being resold," Sulyok tells me in a well-practiced rapid-fire pitch. "That was our core USP way back when we first started.
"We've gone from being a start-up, where we were in 2010, to having 260 of the best publishers of computer games in the world signed up to us, and we're signing up a couple of new publishers a week. We sell 4500 different games across 180 different countries every month, in 5 currencies."
Like a lot of new models in a business as fast-paced as gaming, Green Man is expanding fast in a lot of directions. Playfire Rewards might well be an excellent buffer against the vicissitudes of the retail market, but it won't replace that core pillar. Does the company run the risk of bloat and over-stretching?
"Look at somebody like a digital distributor, okay, a platform, like an Origin or a Steam, or a Uplay. Those guys all sell games, which is great, but you don't see many Valve games on Origin - they tend to be very much silo focused. They will sell their types of games, and they won't sell many other types of games, whereas Green Man Gaming, we're generalists; we sell on all platforms. It doesn't matter that Guild Wars 2 is actually being redeemed on the NCsoft platform, because, well, ultimately, we'll sell Steam games, Origin games, Uplay games, NCsoft Games, Square Enix games. We don't mind, we'll sell across the board.
"we'll sell Steam games, Origin games, Uplay games, NCsoft Games, Square Enix games. We don't mind, we'll sell across the board"
"The data is the other aspect - and we have competitors there - and some of them are doing a really good job on the data side of things, the social network side of things. But, ultimately, one of those guys, whilst they're collecting data and they've got millions of users, as have we, what they are lacking is that other component. We have relationships with our publishers, and a lot of very, very positive results for those publishers.
"Our competitors don't have that relationship, so we're sort of an odd hybrid sitting in the middle, in between the commercial side of things, but we keep that very separate from our community side of things."
But what's the stop the platform holders, already looking to take a bigger slice of the retail pie with closed ecosystems and increased digital presence, jumping on the data bandwagon too? Could Microsoft, Nintendo and Sony not cut out the middle man? Sulyok thinks there's more than enough to go around.
"From our perspective, we started this company in the backend of 2009, where there was doom and gloom, and death and poverty everywhere, and everyone was running around pulling their hair out, saying 'we're all going to die; financial meltdown, financial implosion'. I started Green Man Gaming in the middle of this, and the two of us who started it, myself and Lee, we stuck with it, we stuck through this. Now, we believed in what we were doing, and we believed in how we could make a difference and react to the market place.
"Right now, I think the games industry was worth, in 2013, 66 billion dollars, give or take a bit of change either way. By 2015, that's going to be worth 84 billion dollars, and then they're saying by 2017 now, it's going to be worth 100 billion dollars. Now, you speak to one analyst and another, and they will chop and change the exact number associated with that, but no analyst is going to disagree you that the games industry, per se, is growing, and as a form of entertainment, the computer games industry, or the video games industry is taking a larger and larger market share, and our time and our attention.
"The great work that guys have done at Twitch, for instance, this is how people are going to choose to entertainment themselves going forward. You turn around to a traditional broadcaster and say, I tell you what, I'm going to get you to get someone's attention for an hour every night, and they'd be over the moon.
"Gamers are very savvy. That's one thing I would say; gamers are very savvy. Just try and pull the wool over their eyes, and they get it immediately."