Definitions is a new series of posts on definitions of terms used in the game industry. These will range from slang that game players tend to use on forums to more formal terms that industry insiders use. Some of these are generic terms that can apply to other things, but I will explain what they have to do with gaming. I will also try to focus on words and phrases that are not so clear cut, words in which you cannot always infer the meaning just by context.
So network effect. While this is a term used in business in general, in the game industry it is usually a property that applies to Massively Multiplayer Online games (MMOs), which includes free-to-play games, but can also include non-MMOs. The basic idea when it comes to games is that the more players a game has — its player base — the more enticing it is for new players to sign up. Once a game gets a sizable player base the network effect can be such a big lure that the game balloons into a behemoth, popularly named an “800 pound gorilla”.
Big populations result in the network effect that the virtual world feels more alive. The main reason to play MMOs is because of the social connections you make. You do not just want to conquer the world by yourself. Unless other players can see it, all that work is meaningless. You want to work with a team to make progress, and then be able to show off that progress to other players you meet.
Large populations also have other network effects. One example is dungeon queues. World of Warcraft with 8 million players is generally going to have shorter queues than Rift with 1 million players. There are that many more players looking for a group. You are bound to find a set of matching players in a shorter time. When it comes to the in-game economy, large populations ensure stability. Inflation will not be an issue. Stable prices make it easier to learn the value of various items and not get ripped off.
It goes even beyond this to things outside of the game itself. A popular game is likely to have lively forum discussion and many bloggers writing about it, so you will always have interesting topics to read and discuss with others. There may even be professional sites with paid writers and video producers. External websites might do contests related to the game to feed off some of the game’s popularity.
It is important to note that game design can have a big effect too. World of Warcraft requires one tank, one healer, and three DPS characters to start a dungeon. If the balance of players is not right, you can have scarcity of certain character roles. The dungeon queues are then longer. League of Legends, on the other hand, does not enforce character roles in the queues. Queues to join a multiplayer game in League of Legends will always be shorter than Warcraft’s dungeon queues.
So far I have only written about how network effects improve the gameplay, but they also pull in players through their social connections. If you have a choice between two games, one all your friends are playing, the other, none of your friends are playing, you will pretty much always pick the one that has your friends. There can be other circumstances too, such as a popular celebrity professing their love for the game. If they are not being paid to say that but truly love the game, some of the celebrity’s fans might join the game in response.
A related term to network effect is critical mass. When a game reaches critical mass, it has hit the point wear the perceived value of the network effects outweighs the cost of the game or subscription. This is the point where the game just takes off and dominates the industry. World of Warcraft was a fairly popular game even at launch, but it was not until 2006 that it really took off. This was the time when non-gamers started being pulled into the game by their friends. It was common to meet players who had never played any game before World of Warcraft.
World of Warcraft is the historical 800 pound gorilla, but more recent games have also skyrocketed from network effects. Within the F2P world, League of Legends and World of Tanks dominate. Both are team-based games with a mix of strategy and tactics. Both games have reached the point where people are signing up because so many of their friends play. In the traditional console business, the Call of Duty multiplayer shooters have had this distinction for many years. If you are buying a shooter for multiplayer, you may as well get the one that most of your friends are playing, so you can play together.
This does not mean game design can be ignored. The base game has to be good for it to ever have a chance of becoming an 800 pound gorilla and benefiting from network effects. The existing players in the game better be having fun or they will just quit. The longer you can give them fun experiences, the higher the chance they will invite friends to play the game. Even if those new players do not spend any money, they are livening up the game world and reducing queue times for the paying players.