How One of My Favorite Online Games Taught Me to Be a Better Marketer

How was your weekend? Mine was nice–didn’t get comics or crosswords on the shopping trip, but we did go shopping a little bit.

Anyway, let’s get to it for today. This could end up being a series of posts, I dunno. But I wanted to talk about marketing and storytelling/fiction lessons I’d learned from an unlikely source…

One of my favorite online games (Runescape).

It started late last August. As a free player, I’d gotten a lot of cosmetic override tokens from last year’s Summer Beach Party in the game (translation: tokens that don’t help your stats, but because things look cool and had just been debuted, people were willing to pay a couple million apiece for).

So I was kinda flush with cash, and dangerously curious about Runescape membership. I’ll get to dangerously in a minute (mostly because of clock watching, so to speak). First, I have to say there’s a bit of a wall between the two tiers of membership in the game–free and paid.

When I started playing way back in ’05, the dudes who got me into it said that paid members were millionaires, and that it was super easy to make money. So I was curious. (A lot of things have happened to change that, like the Grand Exchange. The in-game economy is SCARY close to the real world, and I’m not joking). There are still opportunities, though.

Okay, back to last August. One of the recent innovations that the Runescape people came up with was the bond. Before that, the only way to get paid membership was to fork over cold, hard moolah (the more months you buy at a time, the cheaper it is–but $70 or so per year is something I wasn’t willing to do). With the intro of this bond thing, membership could be had for…

In-game gold.

So if you could scrape the virtual cash together, access to the full Runescape experience could all be yours.

I took the plunge, and bought the bond…for about 12 million gold. This was a sacrifice, because as a free player who generally makes cash by killing monsters, gold is slower to come by (I’m not one of those merchant-flippers who can buy 10,000 of what-have-ya and turn a profit right away–not at this time anyhow).

But I didn’t redeem the bond right away–the Beach Party was still on, and that meant I could still get great XP as a free player with certain minigames they had going. So I waited until the last day of the beach party, and then I activated the bond.

(And promptly made my first member-noob move–trying to place an animal trap on a beach–where there are no animals to be trapped, because seashells don’t count). A guy told me I could train the hunting skill at the rubber ducks, but I didn’t get that then.

From there, a whole new world opened up to me. Runescape is divided into non-member (free) and member areas, as well as non-member and member skills (which free players can only train up to level 5, which we’ll get into). Which also leads to the member quests that need to be done for certain things (which is another separator, of course).

So in a nutshell, the member/pay-to-play world is bigger/faster/stronger/awesomer. So what did I learn from this? Well, I’ll try to keep my exploits to a minimum (unless they’re relevant, of course). Here we go:

As a Runescape free player, you are almost constantly reminded of what awaits you in members’ worlds. This is especially true with one of the best edges members have over free players–bonus experience. Sometimes (like over New Year’s Day), bonus xp is unlocked for everyone, and when you’re training fletching, herblore, woodcutting, or what-have-ya, if you have bonus xp in a skill that you got from an in-game reward or somewhere else, that xp is given to you equal to the normal xp (if you cut a log that gives 100 xp normally, you end up with 200 for the same amount of work).

Problem is, a lot of times free players can earn bonus xp, but not spend it. And there are also a lot of times when you get login rewards or rewards for doing tasks, that that reward is a “member’s object,” which will have the text “log in to a member’s server to use this object,” without giving you an idea of what the heck the thing could be in the first place.

And if you try to train a member’s skill in a free world beyond level 5, you’ll get a red warning in your chatbox telling you sure you can, but any XP you earn will be flushed (unless you want to do that–if you want to trained the Ranged skill by making your own arrows, for instance).

As a member, you’re freed up from these restrictions (oh, and your character can be poisoned too, which kinda sucks–one free-to-play advantage is that you can’t be poisoned).

All of this and more serves as the first marketing/copywriting piece of the puzzle here–exclusivity. Only members get access to certain quests/monsters/parts of the game. That makes it all the more desirable for people who don’t have membership, and so they think they’re missing out on something cool, which makes them want it more (which I guess people call FOMO now–fear of missing out). And it all starts with the free-to-play experience–still extensive, by the way–it’s kinda hard to train 10ish or so skills from level 1 all the way to 99 (or 120 in some cases).

Marketers, copywriters, and fiction writers can use these types of things too–that’s why people sign up for email lists to get freebies, and why authors give away novellas and free stuff to get you on their list(s). They can market stuff to you that you might be interested in–other stories, their own prods or coaching, or other peoples’ prods (as long as they fit with what you’re looking for that made you sign up for that list in the first place, generally). Only for the Runescape folks, that marketing is seamlessly woven in to you actually playing their game (they also heightened that marketing by giving free players limited access to members’ areas and a quest or two, which helped their efforts).

And as far as exclusive, a bonus for writers and other freelancers is there’s only one of you in the whole world–that’s the ultimate. People may have your skills/abilities/talents separately, but they may not have them in the same set you do.

Anyhoo, as a piggyback on exclusivity, the Runescape people cater to their paying customers. This is huge. The paying people are actually who this game is for. Paying members get one extra login bonus chest per day (two in all). All those “member objects” from before? They get to see what they are, trade them, sell them, and more. Members also get to go on Treasure Trail mini-quests that have awesome rewards (well some of them–a lot of them, for me at least, sucked–although the multimillion gold stat-boosting amulet I got was really cool). All new quests released are usually only for members. And skills for members is where a lot of the money is (many monsters in the game with valuable drops need a Slayer level of XYZ to put a scratch on, let alone kill, and Slayer is a skill you train beyond level 5 in the paid member world).

That exclusivity brings us on over to the next thing I learned, because it worked on me…conversion. When they introduced the bond, Jagex (the company that makes Runescape) wanted to make it as easy as possible for people to opt-in to the paid side. That’s how they make their money (unless you spend real money on their RuneCoins to get things like a color change to make your character blue, cool clothes, or extra bank spaces). I’ve heard some people call this something like “micro-commitment.” Getting people to say yes to something little before moving them ahead to bigger things.

As writers and marketers, isn’t that something we’re always working toward for ourselves and our clients? Yeah, sure…helping others serve their audiences and make money is good.

And we want to make it as fulfilling and rewarding as possible both before and after people spend their money so that they’re satisfied, they come back for more, and yep, tell all their friends what an awesome time they’re having and why they should do it too.

That also leads me to the fact that while on a bond, I was constantly looking at the clock, so to speak…which is kinda like a scarcity revolving door. Two weeks seems like a lot (and you get more time if you invest in more bonds), but when you know it’s only two weeks instead of a monthly subscription, things can feel kinda hurried. I don’t know what to call this one–I think of it as nudging me to an auto-pay membership so I could relax and wouldn’t have to think about it so much. Oh yeah, that’s called…continuity. Jagex makes their money on autopilot, I have a nice time, and everyone’s happy (basically the Holy Grail for all marketers on that one–and writers especially. If you can either get people on a recurring billing set up to pay you money for something, or to keep buying your books and stories, or getting folks to pay X bucks for Y repeat service from you, like emails or ghostwriting or what-have-ya you can think of…hello awesomeness). And because the bond eventually runs out, you’re left wanting more afterward too (I thought that was something like the cardinal rule of theater).

Being a member also offered better opportunities, which can sometimes lead to things like status (I can do X and you can’t, na-na-na-na-na, or in another case, I’m part of something you’re not). Which can translate into things like power (I can kill blue dragons–cool!) as well as wealth (blue dragon hides, bones, and scales sell for HOW MUCH?) Those may not translate into the real world until later for writers and such, but who knows?

Starting out as a member even taught me a little about putting the time in. That’s more of a mindset thing, but marketers and writers use it. If I want to hop across those stones to get to the Fire Giant area, I need XYZ Agility level (and the first couple times I tried to jump across those rocks, my character fell on his butt and down into a spike pit–ouch). If you want to hunt little lizards so you can sell ’em, you have to get access to werewolf town basically–which you need to complete a quest to do (see above when I mentioned watching the clock). That’s also why I bought my second bond–to access to monsters that drop a rare pickaxe, and to a kingdom of my very own, with subjects who work for me when I’m not there (which is more like residual income, I suppose).

I don’t know what to call this one, but if you like peace and quiet, a lot of times the members’ worlds don’t have as many people on them either–my brother called it something like “keeping out the riffraff.” It’s not like everyone is swirling booze in a fancy glass, but you get my drift.

Not sure I thought that I could learn this much about business and marketing from doing something I consider fun, but I do admit I am trying to figure out what other streams of cash I can make to get behind the velvet rope on a more permanent basis. After all, it’s just excellent marketing that happened to work on me.

Until next time,



About Ty Mall

Thanks for stopping by. I've almost always been interested in writing, among other things. Along with discovering pop culture, I've uncovered a lot about the craft over the past 10 years. And whether you're a fiction writer or email copywriter, I'm here to pass on what I've found out. And have a ton of fun in the process.
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