Series Info...Pleasures of the Flesh #9:

Populating Ghostville: Getting and Keeping Players, Part 1

by Heather Logas

Have you ever sat down to play a board game only to realize you are short a player, put the game away and pick up something else? Won (or lost) a sports game because one player got sick and the team had to forfeit? Had a college class cancelled because of lack of interest? Or tried to run your weekly table-top RPG during Christmas break in high school?

It takes a certain number of people to make certain activities worth doing. This can be an especially troublesome prospect for online RPGs, where a fair number of players are required to make thing interesting, competition with other games is steep and each player will pick only one or two games to spend their virtual lives in. Now that you’ve built your amazing new game, how do you draw players to it and keep them there?

Pulling in the People

Mulling this issue over, I found myself thinking back to how we drew new people into our on-going vampire LARP, and how others have pulled people into their on-going LARP chronicles. Three approaches came to me – advertising, convention games, and the power of word of mouth. Can these approaches help bring players to your under-served MUD? Let’s explore…


One way we drew in new players was through advertising. We posted at our local game store for starters. But since the game was vampiric in nature, we also posted at local goth clubs.

Did it work?

We did get a crop of players from both the game store and goth club posts. However, some of the people who came in from goth clubs didn’t add a lot to the game. They became more embroiled in out of character politics and trying to get laid. On the other hand, some of the goth club people did add a good dose of in character drama instead and became very involved in the gamey part of the game. So I would say in this case our results were mixed.

Would it work for you?

The web is a hard place to try and advertise. There is so much vying for a web-user’s attention. But there are ways to get the word out. As much as I talk about Puzzle Pirates, I’m going to have to bring them up again here. It amazes me where I find their advertisements. I have seen banners for them on every site from Penny Arcade to National Talk Like a Pirate Day.

Of course, even though they are small, they have an advertising budget and you may not. But you can still learn something useful from them here: they understand their target audience. This is vital for ANY product, no matter what it might be. Really sit down and think about who is most likely to enjoy your game, what kind of people would most enjoy playing it. Then seek out places where you can advertise for free: different message boards and places like that. Or link exchanges with other sites that target similar people. At GDC a couple years ago, Andrew Tepper (from A Tale in the Desert) was asking the women at the women’s group gathering about where he should advertise, since he realized his game really seems to appeal to women. A few weeks ago I was reading, a site about women and media, and saw a lovely Tale in the Desert ad.

How many hits does he get through that ad? I don’t know of course, but he is presenting the information that his game exists to people who might like it but not know about it otherwise. And that’s the key to good advertising, in my opinion.

Also: make a good web-site. Seriously. Have a good depth of information for what is in your game, and make sure the site looks nice and is easy to navigate. You may not have money to hire a web-designer, but that’s ok. Learn to do it yourself. It’s really not that hard. I have found that I am so web-oriented now that when I was looking into driving schools, I ended up choosing the one with the best web-site. It had all the information I wanted right on the site, so I didn’t have to call and ask anything. My husband was into an online game called Utopia for awhile and was encouraging me to play it. I looked at the site and the manual was so terrible and didn’t tell me any of what I wanted to understand in order to play, so I never bothered. Remember that people have many many things to choose to spend their entertainment hours with. Present them with good and clear information on your site in order to show them up-front what they are getting themselves into.

Convention Games

When a couple friends and I were running a LARP group by the name of Red Herring, we only ran one-shot LARPs at gaming conventions. By our second convention, people were jumping us in the hallways to ask if there was any extra room in our LARPs because they had already filled up hours before game time. We gained a reputation for fun games very quickly, and people would run up to us when they saw us at a con asking “what are you running??”

By the same token, every year (for many years now) the on-going vampire LARP I was once in runs an event at a local gaming convention. Anyone who wants to play is welcome, whether they are a regular player or someone who has never even heard of LARPing before. And every year, enough newbies have a good enough time that they start showing up to the regular games.

Did it work?

Absolutely! It works well because new players have already had a taste of what can be delivered, so they know what they are getting into. The players who join us through conventions are often some of the longest-running players and many are also very quality players.

Would it work for you?

I was trying to think of a good online analogy for running a convention game to attract new players to an on-going game.

The best current analogy I can think of is to get listed along with other games in a centralized location, such as Skotos or mudconnector. I have tried out several games on mudconnector to see what they were like that I never would have known about otherwise.

I wonder though if it would be possible to have an “Online RPG Convention”. This would basically be a weekend where mud developers marshal all their players to be online, and the general (interested) public is invited in to try them out. Maybe special events could be run on these days that launch visiting players right into the action? It would take organization of course, not to mention advertising to the right sites, but it might be an interesting experiment.

Word-of Mouth

When someone is really enjoying a social experience, they tend to try to get their friends to come and enjoy it with them. This is true no matter if we are talking about a football party or a role-playing game. With our on-going LARP, we encouraged people to bring in their friends, at some points going so far as to give an extra experience point to someone who brought in a new player that played for X amount of time. At the height of my enjoyment of the game, I encouraged every gamer friend I had to come and play with us. Many players in the game did the same.

Did it work?

I would say a huge percentage of our new players came because a friend of theirs encouraged them to. New people were usually intrigued with the concept of a vampire LARP, wanted a way to meet new people and/or were looking for another way to spend more social time with the friend that encouraged them to come play. Some people, for example, played a table-top game regularly with one of the LARPers and thought the LARP sounded pretty keen. Some people were non-gaming friends who went to a party or two where gaming friends were around, liked the people, and thought it would be fun to hang out with them on a more regular basis. Still others were work associates who were intrigued by what their co-workers were doing on their Friday nights. Etc, etc.

Would it work for you?

My guess is if you are maintaining a non-commercial or small commercial game, this is the primary way you are attracting new players. I had never heard of Puzzle Pirates until a colleague at Tech told me about it. In turn, I liked it so much that I encouraged both my mom and husband to play (and now they both play way more than I do!) My husband has gotten a good number of our friends to try it, some of whom have since become similarly obsessed.

So you are probably already getting people in by word of mouth. Question is, can you make this work for you more? How would you get your player base to actively recruit new players?

The experience point for bringing in a new player worked pretty well for our LARP. We got some great new players out of it. Honestly, I think it put the bug in the players’ minds to invite people, more than entice them with the idea of a reward. Since your game is online, some precautions have to be made to make sure players don’t just make ten “new” players in order to reap the referral bonuses. But I think this could be worked around.

Another thing that might work is to have some sort of “newbie open house”. Similar to the “online convention” idea above, but with only your game participating. This could be tied in to some event that works within your genre as a way for many new characters to show up at once (i.e. a ship of new settlers, a massacre occurs and sends a horde of new people to the underworld, etc.) Encourage players to invite their friends, and perhaps part of the event would be tied to the various factions of the game fighting over new recruits as a way to bolster their own strength. Some characters would probably be interested in helping to orient the newbies, and steer them away from certain other factions. As with the “convention” idea, I am not sure it would pan out, but it might be interesting to give it a try.

Good Luck

When I created a MUSH for a school project, the most frustrating thing was trying to bring in new players. It didn’t take too long before I finally gave up. Likewise, I have “played” many MUSHes and MUDs where I enjoyed wandering the world for a while, but ultimately quit because there just weren’t any other players to ever interact with.

While exposing your game to as many people as possible is important, keeping them their longer than a couple days is also vital. I will attempt to discuss strategies for keeping the players around in my next article.

[ <— #8: Role Playing for the Masses | #10: Populating Ghostville Part 2: Hooking the Newbies —> ]

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