With the explosion of free-to-play games (especially on mobile), coupled with the incredible rise of eSports, it’s more important than ever to not only attract a big audience, but keep them as engaged and paying users. At GDC, developers and market analysts discuss how to monetize gamers and convert new players to paying ones.

Companies like Google are looking to help developers grow their audience and revenues from the 1.5 billion mobile gamers that are out there in the world with the “Grow Users, Earn Revenue: How to Build a Successful Games Business with Google” session, presented by two of Google’s product managers who were joined by Matt Casertano, SVP of game operations at SGN (famous for Cookie Jam). Attendees learned how to better use Google’s ad solutions, like the recently announced “Search Trial Run Ad” program, which lets users stream up to 10 minutes of a game straight from the browser search listing without having to download or install anything.

But building an audience is just the start. Games need engaging content to get them to stay. King Digital, makers of mega-hit games like Candy Crush Saga, talked about how compelling game experiences lead to a successful game economy in a session titled, “To Buy or Not to Buy.”

This is a strategy that is echoed by Joost van Dreunen, CEO of SuperData Research, who presented the “Best Practices: User Conversion, Payment Flows and In-Game Economy Management” session at GDC. When asked what the best incentive is for converting players, he responded, “Focusing on the player’s experience, and designing something that is larger than just the game, is key. Companies like Riot [League of Legends] keep a strict mantra of ‘player experience first, monetization second,’ and it is paying the dividends. But you have to be willing and able to control all aspects, which is usually much more than companies want to commit to.”

[a]listdaily also asked about how monetization strategies have changed with the explosive growth of free-to-play games. “Initially, monetization was more of an after-thought,” said van Dreunen. “Following a flawed logic of ‘If we build it, they will come,’ a lot of game companies discovered that having a lot of traffic doesn’t automatically translate into a sustainable business or worthwhile experience for the end-user. In a sense, game companies have matured around monetization as it is now part of the overall design strategy.”

At the same time, eSports have become a powerful means of prolonging both player engagement and a game’s lifespan. Counter-Strike: Global Offensive released in 2012, and has been a mainstay among eSports tournaments. The game’s life actually goes back further if you count the initial release of Counter-Strike in 2000. League of Legends first hit the scene in 2009. Topping both is StarCraft, the game credited for being the original eSport when it released in 1998, and is still being played almost twenty years later. This kind of long-term engagement made sessions like “Exploring Monetization in eSports: How to Extend Your Consumer Engagement,” where eSport executives discussed strategies for integrating eSports into a game’s ecosystem, all the more relevant.

Furthermore, Microsoft announced the Xbox Live Tournament Platform yesterday, which will be supported on both Xbox One and Windows 10. Created in partnership with companies FaceIT and ESL, and due to arrive at the end of the year, the platform lets developers set up small-scale tournaments and possibly help games grow in popularity as a competitive eSport. If successful, eSport promotion could become an integral part of a great many competitive games in the future.

When asked how this new platform could help game monetization, van Dreunen responded, “This is going to be a great way for small games to encourage engagement which will have an indirect return on investment. But monetizing matchmaking directly will alienate players, so as long as publishers are looking at this as a means of building their player community, it will prolong player lifetime and affinity with the title.”

There are a couple different monetization strategies, but what’s the most common mistake developers make when they try to get users to purchase premium content? “It varies, of course,” said van Dreunen. “But game makers often overlook the amount of available content today. Basic economics tell you that if there is an abundance of supply, prices tend to come down. In another time, you could write a book, and live off the proceeds for the rest of your life. Entertainment in general has become more abundant, easier to produce, and it is consequently more challenging to hold on to price points from the past.”

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