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“We treat all our players like whales”: Community management at 5th Planet games

By on August 26, 2013

“Zoe is a god to people.”

I was interviewing Robert Winkler, CEO of 5th Planet Games. We’d been talking about his company’s platform policy (hit everything all the time) and their growth from ramen-profitable start-up to leading developer with a portfolio of hit titles. His enthusiasm was infectious, particularly when talking about the super-fans of their biggest game, Dawn of the Dragons. According to Inside Social Apps, the game made $10 million in revenue in 2012.

Zoe is one of their most important super-fans. She spends thousands of dollars in Dragons, but because of the nature of the game, this isn’t just a personal indulgence. Dragons is a co-operative game, and the money she spends is a gift to other users, helping them to succeed in raids together. Her famed generosity — not to mention her personal prowess as a highly skilled player — has made her a hero in the game’s community.

When Zoe first began spending huge sums of money, 5th Planet got in touch with her to make sure that everything was okay. “We spoke to her personally because we want to make her happy,” said Winkler, “but most of what we know about her is from what she posts in the forums. She’s very open.” Zoe’s engagement with Dragons is communitarian; this is her hobby, and it’s a way she connects with other people.

Community management is often an under-valued aspect of game development. In fact, many people don’t consider it to be part of game development at all, instead treating it as a peripheral function or even outsourcing it to remote operators. But for 5th Planet, it’s a vital part of their business.

“25% of our payroll is in support or community management.” Robert Winkler’s commitment to building those positive relationships with and between players goes beyond simple budgeting. “I personally commit a lot of my time to it. We fly our players out for a weekend to spend time listening to them and getting feedback on design documents. Each time it costs $15000” 5th Planet carry out one of these ‘council’s every month, and Winkler is happy to spend the weekend with players even though he has four children and a fifth on the way. “It’s worth it,” he told me.

When anti-developer trolling began to emerge, they turned to the community itself to ask how to solve it. “Players in a council told us to do video interviews so that people would understand how passionate we are,” he explained. They followed that advice, and have managed to shield themselves from some of the worst excesses of passionate fandom. “We show that there is a person and a face behind what they’re doing.”

Dawn of the Dragons has very healthy user engagement, with at least 10,000 daily active users and 50,000 monthly active users on the Facebook app alone (source: appdata). I asked Winkler if 5th Planet is using any of the more common marketing techniques to build a userbase across their network of games; cross-promotion, for example. He said no — their investment is in “stories and communities.” “Users are more likely to play the same game across different platforms than to play other 5th Planet Games on the same platform,” he revealed.

I was surprised: why would people go from Kongregate to Facebook just to play the exact same game? Part of it is about experiencing the unique features of each platform. “Kongregate has livechat, Facebook has social integration, Armor Games has comments threads,” Winkler explained, and all of these little social features subtly change the nature of play. Completionists want to know that they’ve experienced everything the game has to offer.

This urge to complete the set is underscored by community recognition. The 5th Planet forums show badges next to players’ user handles, one for each platform that they have played the game on. Someone who has only played Dawn of the Dragons on one platform has less authority in the forum community.

5th Planet’s investment in the community goes all the way to the design of new game content. “Zoe has the best magic in the game,” said Winkler, “She’s very high level.” In fact, Zoe at one point hit the highest level in the game. When they added further levels, they dedicated the content to her personally. “We used her likeness for the art.”

It’s not just super-fans who get star treatment at 5th Planet, either. “There are so many people around Zoe that helped to get her where she is, and they have never spent a dollar,” Winkler acknowledged. “We treat every player like a whale… Our goal with customer service is to go beyond satisfaction. We want to delight players.”

About Zoya Street

I’m responsible for all written content on the site. As a freelance journalist and historian, I write widely on how game design and development have changed in the past, how they will change in the future, and how that relates to society and culture as a whole. I’m working on a crowdfunded book about the Dreamcast, in which I treat three of the game-worlds it hosted as historical places. I also write at and The Borderhouse.