Why free-to-play should be like Disneyland

"We talk about monetization more than we talk about community and that is backwards"

Laralyn McWilliams, CCO at The Workshop, has explained why free-to-play developers should look to Disneyland's ticketing system for inspiration.

"[Disney] arrived at the understanding that ultimately their magic is in their community. It's about the people who come, not trying to get money out of the people who come," she told Casual Connect.

"We have companies who recognize that too and you can see strong parallels in the fact that they recognize that their success is based around happy players, around happy people. And because there are people who are doing this in this space, I know we can do this."

She says being committed to thinking about people would lead to more money and happier players.

"Let's take a look at what Disney did and why they made the choice to change away from micro-transactions for their attractions to a different one. It was very strategic, they weren't thinking about making a nickel off of you today, they're thinking about becoming a part of your life."

She explained that when Disneyland first opened, rides were charged individually - like micro-transactions. Disney soon moved to ticket books which contained a selection of tickets graded A-E, and rides were also graded according to their status and popularity. Pirates Of The Caribbean, for example, was an E ticket ride. But as it learned about its customers Disney adopted the model we know today, the unlimited passes that allow people into parks. With Disney World the company added hotels, restaurants, activities, even Disney Cruises.

"We talk about monetization ten times more than we talk about community and that is fucking backwards"

"They made the shift from being the company that provides a space that's fun to being the company that's responsible for you having fun in their space. You see them start to transition to an active role in entertaining people instead of a passive role in laying out activities."

McWilliams then went on to compare this to the free-to-play model, and the way people talk about companies that are monetizing their players well and offering players a life-long experience.

"Whenever I'm in a monetization talk with somebody and I say look at what Blizzard and Valve are doing, they're really monetizing in a smart way, I always get the same answer... they have deep pockets, and they don't really care about money."


She argued Valve, Blizzard and Disney are all entertainment companies, and they all care about money. The changes Disney made meant that park visitors stayed longer, stayed in the hotels, ate more meals with Disney and Disney began to measure customer loyalty in years.

"It totally possible for [games] to do this, there are people doing this right now."

She pointed to Guild Wars 2 and its box price being akin to Disney's annual pass. Just owning the game reminds her to play it, a gamer or park visitor feels they need to extract as much value as possible from that original purchase. Just as a park visitor buys hotdogs and souvenirs, a Guild Wars 2 player can buy add-ons for their account through micro-transactions and often will because the upgrades on offer improve their experience of the game. Those add-ons then make players return to the game. She also pointed to Lord Of The Rings Online as an example of this model done well.

"Do people care enough about your game to cosplay?"

"Are you giving enough room for immersion for your players? Are you trying to make sure that you are not just putting something out there and saying 'have fun' but are you the shepherd of their fun?" she asked.

"One way to tell that is do people care enough about your game to cosplay? And before you say I'm only going to have examples of big high-budget MOBAs and MMOs, how about Words With Friends? It launched in 2009... and lots of people play that everyday, they've been playing every day for five years, it's now a part of their life. They extended it to a physical [board] game, and before you say 'cosplay?' this is the equivalent for Words With Friends, people make cakes. It has the same kind of rabid fans you have in MMOs."

She suggested thinking about customers in terms of loyalty in years was important, games that have done this successfully include Everquest and World Of Tanks.

"Can your game inspire that sort of memory for people? Can it become a part of their lives?" she asked.

"We talk about monetization ten times more than we talk about community and that is fucking backwards. We should be putting community first, community is how we make money. And when you look at successful games, they're the ones winning all the community awards."

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Latest comments (8)

Brian Lewis Operations Manager, PlayNext7 years ago
Sigh. I just wish that this had been more substantial. There are a lot of good points that could have been made, but it seems that they were overlooked in favor of fluff.

Community is what can turn a product into a sutainable brand. However, it has nothing to do with the creation of the product, its viability as a product, or even its initial sucess. A great community doesnt make a bad product any better, or a great product any worst.

The DisneyLand example is GREAT. I have used this myself many times, but I also included the supporting facts. For example, the change from tickets to books to a gate fee didnt have anything to do with community (that came much later). This was simply a change in how they gated their content (rides) to keep things running smooth. As the park became more an more popular, they had to change the way people experienced the park, to accomodate the volume.

I am showing my age here a bit, but I remember the tickets/ticket books, then the change to the gate fee. I also remember the changes in crowd densities and the lines on the rides. I am also familiar with the (relatively) new additions of the fastpass and other line changes. Having been there, seen that, and even having seen parts of the backend decisions for some of this, I dont look at this with the rose colored glasses that many may have about this. These were decisions made based on the physical need for crowd control.
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Nick Wofford Hobbyist 7 years ago
I see some really good science at work as well though. The entire reason people pay such outrageous prices to go to DisneyLand is because it's (barring some rare days) always a happy experience from start to finish.

For example, just look at the menu. Was it expensive? Hell yes. But it's all high protein, high sugar items that are chosen because they give you energy to hit the park for longer. This means that when you leave the park, you'll have nothing but nostalgia and positive memories (which is what leads to so many repeat visits).

I do agree that this should've been more content-heavy. I'd have liked to see more on the subject.
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Brian Lewis Operations Manager, PlayNext7 years ago

DisneyLand was not always synonymous with good service/experience. There were many years where there was a lot of dissatisfaction with both the experience, and with the staff. Much of this was under the watch of Eisner. I do not blame him for this directly, but I do think he set a tone for the company that resulted in DisneyLand not holding up to ‘The Happiest Place on Earth’ tagline.

I am very happy to say that I have personally seen a huge improvement in the overall DisneyLand experience in the last decade. They have really latched on to the ‘experience’ as being the most important thing in the park, and have realized that the customer is just as much a part of this as the staff. This is where the community aspects of the park really shine, and where this article has good resonance… but not for the reasons given.
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Daniel Trezub QA Analyst, Ludia7 years ago
I think the point here is "if the experience is memorable, the price is (almost) irrelevant". People pay expensive Disney tickets because they KNOW the experience will be memorable. No matter if the main reason for the ticket existence was crowd control, now there is this "side effect" that is more loyal customers (or guests as Disney call us). Maybe in games we should still try harder to find the equivalent to the park ticket...
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Patrick Plourde q 7 years ago
What I don't understand in this article is that at Disneyland you must pay upfront and that the experience was better once the customer was monetized that way. Technically this argument advocate 60$ with the option to buy additional DLC/items model. So what's the link with F2P?
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Brian Lewis Operations Manager, PlayNext7 years ago
I think the point here is "if the experience is memorable, the price is (almost) irrelevant". People pay expensive Disney tickets because they KNOW the experience will be memorable.
Correlation does not imply causation. The Grand Canyon is a majestic wonder, that provides a memorable experience. Does that mean that it was built for that? No.

The current focus on the user experience, and the community aspects of this is a result of the changes made to the park over time (and the best doctrine to sustain overall value to the company). DisneyLand is a limited resource, not everyone can be there all the time, and partake in all of the events in an unlimited quantity. They have rationed out the limted resources using the tools that they have to maximize thier value... and once that peaked, they found an additional resource... community.

The focus on community was a way to create a secondary resource around the first, enhancing the value of the park, while creating new content for the consumers. None of this would have had any reason to exist, if the park itself was not immensely valuable, and enjoyable.

Disneyland is (in many ways) the ultimate themepark example. It used to be F2P, but due to resource constraints has move to P2P. The intent of this article is to imply that F2P should focus more on the customer experience, and less on monetization. However, the issue is that business models are only about monetization, so F2P or P2P has no relevance on a focus on customer experience. The customer experience focus can only come into play once a product has proven itself in the market. Once you know that the product is good, you can further expand its value with community.. Doing this with a poor quality product is a waste of resources.
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Summee Farooqi Product Manager, Perfect World Entertainment7 years ago
I think this is a difficult comparison to make. The argument is that Disneyland has stopped nickel and diming customers when that is actually quite contrary to the truth. Despite making rides more accessible, they've done the same thing free-to-play products have done by giving perks, boosts and front of the line access to those that are willing to purchase it.

Disneyland encompasses nearly every game business model, the have the upfront retail box model, the subscription model with annual passes (which have nearly doubled in the past few years), and the free-to-play model where even if you got in free your experience will vary based upon how much you spend within the park.

If anything Disneyland has taken advantage of their customers more than even the most scrupulous free-to-play games/developers/publishers.

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Summee Farooqi on 25th July 2014 6:55pm

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Klaus Preisinger Freelance Writing 7 years ago
A Disneypark is perfect at building up your expectation, while approaching, waiting in line and starting a ride. But each experience is carefully crafted to never satisfy you. Take Space Mountain, which is the perfect Disney attraction. A huge buildup for a gentle downward slide. Everything you do leaves you wanting more, hoping the next attraction is the one. You do this because before you even entered the park, your brain switched into the mode of chasing something the park does not provide by design: closure. So you run from corner to corner. At the end of the day though, you get the fireworks as a means to provide "closure" in a language you understand from Disney movies. You may now go home with the fluffy feeling from a Disney animated movie.

A wandering carnival, on the other hand, will take you in for free, ruthlessly cheat you in such a way that you can almost enjoy being taking advantage of once you get it. The roller coaster there has no elaborate setup and narrative, it is there, you pay, you enter, you ride, the end. But since the carnival moves on to the next town by the end of the week, nobody is too insulted, see you next year.

Both those business models may work and one could make comparisons to good f2p and bad f2p games. However, there is a crucial difference. Be it Disney or carnies, both are happy to take you for one day in the year, because both know their way of conducting business will overstay its welcome with even the most hardened of customers after one week. A f2p video game ignores that lesson. It wants to be the only game a player interacts with, which is a fatal mistake you would not catch anybody in the traveling entertainment industry making.

Much like Disney, video games try to extend the time period before the attractions wear off, by increasing the sheer size of the park, abusing a human tendency of wanting to see everything at least once. In that regard, f2p games are very much like Disney and the carnival combined: make it big like Disney, run the customer into the ground like carnies, move on to another town.

Back home where do you go for entertainment? A place with which you have a good relationship. A place which cannot get too abusive, since it cannot move to the next town, or attract people from across the continent. Few video game companies these days try to be that place, they are chasing Disney for whatever reason and in the process they turn into the type of carnies towns do not invite back the next year.
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