GDC Online Speaker Spotlight: BioWare's Levy Talks Dragon Age: Legends

BioWare San Francisco producer Ethan Levy recently looked back on the Google+ and Facebook-based Dragon Age Legends, noting that brand recognition, core-focused gameplay, and some key marketing tactics helped the game find a dedicated audience on social platforms.

The game launched this March alongside Dragon Age II, and serves as a turn-based spinoff of the mainline Dragon Age series. As of this writing, Dragon Age Legends sees more than 220,000 monthly active users, according to AppData.

Levy played a key role in the game's creation from day one, and in fact was the first employee to join the BioWare San Francisco studio (formerly known as EA2D). Previously, he served as lead producer on the game's predecessor, Flash game Dragon Age Journeys, and has experience working at casual game poublishers like PlayFirst and iWin.

At next week's GDC Online in Austin, Texas, Levy will host a metrics-heavy talk titled, "Dragon Age Legends' Road to 100k Likes," which will go over the successes and lessons learned for the game's pre and post launch marketing strategy.

In this interview, Levy speaks out on some of the other key factors that contributed to Dragon Age Legends' success, and discusses the ways in which social games can reach out to core players.

What factors do you think most contributed to Dragon Age Legends' success?

I would cite two key factors in contributing to Dragon Age Legends' success. The first is being tied to a big brand in Dragon Age, and having strong support from the core franchise owners in BioWare's Edmonton studio. Being closely tied to the HD game's release and having custom items players could earn in Dragon Age II by playing Dragon Age Legends was a key part of our early momentum, and being part of the Dragon Age brand meant we received a lot more notice from fans and press then if we were just some startup releasing "Dragon Puncher" on Facebook.

The second factor I would cite is the game's core gameplay loop. At the time we released Legends, and still to this date, few social network games feature what a core gamer would recognize as gameplay. Many social network games more closely resemble activities or addiction machines in the eyes of gamers. By having a strong gameplay loop with fun and meaningful combat, we were able to create a game that was accepted by BioWare and Dragon Age fans as authentic.

What were some of the marketing tactics you employed for Dragon Age Legends? Which ones did you find most useful?

Pre-launch, we employed some tried and true tactics from the console marketing world. This included press releases, a cinematic trailer, a closed beta program with beta key programs on major enthusiast outlets, email marketing and cross promotion with other EA games and communication channels.

Of these, we were especially happy with the results of the closed beta program, which helped drive a lot of excitement and awareness of Legends. The cross-promotional and email marketing efforts driven by EA's Play4Free publishing group have also been a bright spot for Legends, as they have allowed us to derive a lot of value from EA's existing player base.

With social games, many developers argue that post-launch support can be even more important than pre-launch development. Would you say the same is true for social game marketing?

I would agree. Developing and marketing of social games is significantly different from packaged goods, and success is driven by a long-term commitment to establishing a relationship with and providing value to your players. Pre-launch marketing can be used to create your initial base of fans and drive early momentum, but being a Play4Free game means that all you have accomplished by getting fans excited is to get them to show up for the first day. You still have to get them to come back for the second, third and fourth day, get them to invite friends and convince them to open up their wallets.

It is a social game's responsibility to create fun for players over the long term. In my opinion, the goal of post launch marketing is to keep excitement and engagement high amongst your existing players, and bring new players to the game.

What do you think social games can do to better reach out to a "core" audience?

I think that social games hold a stigma amongst the core games audience for not being fun, for not being games and for largely being spam machines. On the other hand, the percentage of gamers who play social games, and the amount of time they spend playing these games, are on the rise as more quality games have entered the market, and the spam tactics of early days Facebook games no longer work on the platform.

I think reaching core gamers is all about providing a high quality game experience that is meaningful and fun. Developers also need to recognize that when players come to a social network platform to game, it is for a different style of play then they get on their console. Social network gaming is about short session gaming that is highly accessible and delivers a quick, satisfying dose of fun.

The play pattern is much different: a social game should be tailored for playing three or more five to ten minute sessions a day as opposed to being geared for a single, multi-hour session each day. A social game should be accessible enough that a player could have their first session while half paying attention in a meeting (or class), understand the fundamentals of the game and have fun even without reading a single word on the screen.

How will your GDC Online talk address Dragon Age Legends' marketing strategy, and what do you hope attendees will take away from it?

My GDC Online talk is largely focused on the pre-launch marketing tactics employed to build early momentum for the game. I will walk attendees through the various tactics we used on Legends, breaking the session into the "big brand" tactics that developers outside of a large publishing organization like EA might not be able to employ, and the more guerilla, direct to consumer marketing tactics I think are valid for game developers on any size project or budget.

Attendees will walk away from the session with a lot of knowledge and direct data about how to effectively allocate limited time and resources to successfully market a social network game, whether they have a big brand like Dragon Age to work with or are launching the first title from an unknown startup.

Additional Info

GDC Online will take next week, from Monday, October 10 through Thursday, October 13, 2011 at the Austin Convention Center in Austin, Texas, and will continue as the leading worldwide event dedicated solely to discussing the development and business trends surrounding connected games -- including casual titles, MMOs, virtual worlds, and social networking games.

For more information on GDC Online, please visit the official GDC Online website, or subscribe to updates from the new GDC Online-specific news page via Twitter, Facebook, or RSS. GDC Online is owned and operated by UBM TechWeb.

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