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Games have always rewarded players with virtual points and other rewards that become a source of pride and cred. But in an attention-based economy, some companies are willing to give real, physical rewards for gamers who hit the highest achievements in games.

Through target marketing and in-game analytics, you can deliver such rewards instantly and get them to the right person. Wired Game Life editor Chris Kohler (pictured above right) interviewed Brian Wong (left), the chief executive of Kiip, and gamer social network Raptr CEO Dennis Fong (center) about rewards at our GamesBeat 2012 conference this week. Here’s an edited transcript of their talk.

Chris Kohler: Playing video games is supposed to be, in and of itself, a rewarding activity. But some people have found that rewarding players for playing can be its own reward. Or money is the reward. Either way. Here to speak about rewards in video games are Dennis Fong from Raptr and Brian Wong from Kiip. Gentlemen, let’s begin by defining terms. What does “reward” in video games mean to you?


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Dennis Fong, Raptr CEO: I think the type of rewards that we do at Raptr consist of two different things. One is rewarding our most loyal customers. So it’s more akin to an airline loyalty program. The people that play your game a lot, you want to reward them for being very enthusiastic fans of your game.

The other type of reward that we do is actually more in the form of a targeted advertisement. At Raptr, we have over 13 million people, core gamers, in our community, where we know literally everything that they play, how long they’ve played it, and who they play with. And so as a partner of ours, you could actually offer a reward. Let’s say you’re EA launching Star Wars: The Old Republic. You could say, I want to reach the top 10 percent most hardcore World of Warcraft players. That’s another type of reward that we offer.

Kohler: So there’s an element of customer loyalty, a video game publisher saying, “We want to find our consumers who are the most active in our games and keep them around by rewarding them.” Then there’s also, on the flip side of it, this element of “We want to find people who are the best customers of our competitor’s game and target them, to try to bring them over to our game as well.” Brian, tell me about what you do as far as rewards over at Kiip.

Brian Wong, Kiip chief exec: We have one major mission, and we use this line internally at the company: It’s “every achievement deserves a reward.” At the bottom line, we realized that the user is ultimately the one who’s going to vote with their play choices and what they’re going to end up engaging in. We want to make sure the user feels rewarded and fundamentally has a great experience. We also happened to build a business model around when people are in these moments of happiness. We like to find existing patterns of behavior, whether it be in the part of a game where you’re hitting an achievement, like leveling up or getting a top score, and in that existing pattern of behavior, bring big brands in to reward you with real-life goods. So imagine if you could level up and get a free latte from Starbucks, let’s say. Or a $10 gift card from American Apparel. Or a free bottle of Dr. Pepper. These types of reinforcements, we wanted to use this natural, existing, organic behavior pattern.

Our rewards are about taking moments of happiness, where a user feels like they’ve done something meaningful, and bringing brands that help make that even better. The way we do it is incredibly important to our model, which is the fact that they’re serendipitous. We don’t do things that coerce or make people do something. You don’t actually know when you’re going to get it; you’re not playing for the reward. You want to play the game because you want to play the game, and you get a reward as part of an existing pattern.

Kohler: So now that we have an understanding of what you both are doing, Dennis, give us a case study of a particular reward or how you might approach that for a certain popular game. What sort of reward would you think of giving to players? What would they have to do to earn those rewards, and what would be the benefit for the parties involved?

Fong: Just to get a basic understanding of what Raptr does, we track the gameplay across all different platforms, and then we rank every player against the rest of the community, based on the number of hours they’ve invested in a game, how many achievements they’ve unlocked, and how far they progressed.

Kohler: Do players have to sign up for this, or are you just tracking…?

Fong: Yes, they sign up for Raptr, which is a kind of social network for gamers. They enter their Xbox Gamertag, their PlayStation ID, their Steam ID, and then it starts tracking all of this information about them. Inherently, people care about their ranking, because the top 10 percent in any game is ranked Elite, and so they get bragging rights, basically. But as part of that, there’s a rewards program attached to it.

I’ll give you an example for a reward we just recently ran, where we gave away 5,000 beta keys to Mists of Pandaria, the upcoming World of Warcraft expansion. I think we gave away the most keys of any partner of Blizzard’s. What they wanted to do with that particular reward was to target people who had spent hundreds of hours playing World of Warcraft in the past…but no longer played. They wanted to reengage users that used to be really engaged with the game, try and bring them back to the game. And also to target active players, the guys who are really the hardcore World of Warcraft players today, which is more like rewarding their loyal customers for being loyal customers.

Kohler: Now, how is it that they can’t find those people on their own? What is it about Raptr…. How do you find those players for them better than they could?

Fong: One of the core tenets of Raptr itself is around data. We have really deep analytics across all different platforms. Game companies know what their users do when they’re playing their games. But what happens after the player stops playing your game? What games have they moved off to? How many hours are they still spending playing games? What games did they play before they started playing your game? We track all of this information. We have a dashboard that you can log into as a partner to see all of this data. What are the top 10 games players play that are not your game? All that stuff. And so part of it is just the analytics that we have that nobody else has, because we’re also cross-platform. We can identify the same user across multiple platforms. Maybe a user used to play WOW on the PC, and now he’s playing on the Xbox instead. We can tell you that.

Kohler: Can you use publicly available data to supplement what users share with you voluntarily? Or is it all pretty much that self-selecting sample, the users going on and voluntarily sharing with you?

Fong: Well, we track all of this automatically. We have an app that tracks all of the gameplay on the PC and the games you have installed and how many hours you’ve played them. We hook into the Xbox, and we pull all the data from the Xbox profile. We also have a lot of touch points, where we can reach the user through our desktop application on the PC. We have an iPhone app we can ping the user on. We have the website. So in answer to your question, we have a lot of different ways we can reach users, and we have a lot of deep analytics on our users, which is why a lot of game companies partner with us.

Kohler: So Blizzard says we want to find X number of people who used to be hardcore World of Warcraft players, and now that they’ve lapsed, we want to give them these beta keys. What happens after that? How do you determine who these people are, and then how do you approach the gamer. “Oh, you’re being rewarded!” Well, what did I do to get that reward?

Fong: We have a notification system on Raptr that can ping you on the iPhone; it can ping you on the desktop app, or on the website when you log in, or through e-mail. It’s really first-come, first-served, so it’s not a sweepstakes or a giveaway. We kind of tease people…. We don’t actually tell people how to unlock a reward, how to be eligible for it. We just tell you that it’s coming. The day that it hits, you get a notification that says, “Hey, for being ranked hardcore and above on World of Warcraft. You’ve qualified for this reward.” All you do is click a button to claim it.

What we see, actually, that’s really interesting is that there’s a huge viral effect there, too. We’ve given away other stuff, not just beta keys. We gave away 10,000 free copies of Rift and 5,000 free copies of Minecraft. We don’t pay for any of these; our partners give them to us to reward their players or to reach new players. A lot of times, the players themselves…they’re not interested in the reward, but they still share it, because they know they have a lot of friends who are interested. A lot of these users that people are trying to reach are really influential. They put in the most hours, they have the most achievements, and they have a lot of friends who play games.

Kohler: You’re identifying the tastemakers, the people that players look to when they say, “Hey, what games are out…?”

Fong: Exactly. And so we see thousands of tweets and shares saying that they’re excited over getting a reward in the first place, one that they weren’t expecting. Or they say, “Hey, I just got this free copy of Mists of Pandaria, a beta key to it. I don’t really play anymore. Who wants it?” We see that a lot as well. There’s a lot of afereffects beyond just the reward itself.

Kohler: So essentially, for Blizzard, they say, “OK, we can give away X number of beta keys,” and instead of just giving it randomly, they get a more targeted group of people to give them to.

Fong: Yeah. They can make their hardest core users feel appreciated, which I think is really important in this world of games as a service. It’s really about the community and making sure your users are happy, that your most loyal users are happy. And then also you can really handpick the players you want to bring back. You can be targeting your competitor’s games, or you can target the guys that used to play your game and no longer do.

Kohler: And from the gamer’s perspective, it’s, “Oh, I’m finally being recognized for my achievements in Call of Duty….”

Fong: Yeah. I mean, look, some of the most hardcore gamers put in thousands of hours playing these games. Now they feel like, “Hey, I’m getting something back for all this time I’ve invested.” These guys…you get something back in the form of reputation in the community, which I think is what a lot of gamers care about. “People know me as one of the best players in X game.” But now we’re saying, “Hey, you’ve unlocked the 60 percent off discount at Logitech for being this guy,” or “You’ve got this free exclusive first peek at a new game that nobody else in the world gets for being this guy.” We’ve found a very positive reception to this.

Kohler: And so you’re not sending out rewards to people or packing up and shipping out headsets and whatever. You’re not doing prize fulfillment here. You’re connecting them with companies that will get them these rewards.

Fong: Correct, yeah. When we’ve given away games or we have huge discounts on hardware and so forth, our partners handle all the fufillment. Gamers just claim a coupon code, which they can use on whatever website that they use to purchase the stuff.