Gourmet Ranch Keeps Growth Fresh With Fishing Expansion, Royal Wedding Campaign

RockYou studio Playdemic’s Gourmet Ranch is enjoying a growth streak following the release of a fishing gameplay expansion and a themed campaign that launched just ahead of last week’s royal wedding between England’s Prince William and Catherine Middleton. Both monthly active users and daily active users have nearly doubled since mid-April to just over 5 million MAU and 580,000 DAU.

The combination farming and restaurant sim asks players to maintain their own farm/ranch to produce ingredients that they then use in cooking recipes. The completed dishes are then traded with in-game characters or sold to restaurant customers for in-game currency that can be spent on more crops and animals, expansions and decorations. After acquiring Playdemic in January, social game publisher RockYou reinforced Playdemic’s game update schedule around regular releases of new ingredients and recipes.

While the addition of fishing to the game was a no-brainer given the game’s dependence on producing your own ingredients, the royal wedding presented Playdemic with an opportunity to build a themed campaign within Gourmet Ranch that clicked with the core gameplay. Like seasonal campaigns around Christmas or Easter, the goal with the royal wedding campaign is to increase engagement with players, strengthen monetization through the sale of themed items and encourage viral growth as everybody on the Internet seemed to be talking about the wedding.

In the Gourmet Ranch campaign, players could buy royal wedding themed ingredients and decorations. The ingredients went into themed dishes that were part of a quest to prepare a dish to be served at the royal wedding. The new items went live last Tuesday and are still available in-game as of today, but the quest ended on April 29 with the real life event whether users had completed a royal wedding dish or not.

“This [campaign] was hugely successful because [the wedding] was an international event,” Playdemic’s Vice President and General Manager, Paul Gouge tells us. He also credits RockYou’s experience with seasonal events like Halloween or Thanksgiving events in other games with informing Playdemic’s planning and execution phases. As Gourmet Ranch grows, Playdemic plans events farther and farther out for logistics purposes. “We have a calendar with all our annual events [planned out],” he explains. “The royal wedding got added maybe six or eight weeks back.”

Seasonal campaigns and events present social games with an opportunity to increase user engagement and monetization through themed premium items. Like with brand integrations, the challenge comes both from working the items and actions into the game in a way that jibes with the core audience and from the opportunity cost of developing special items and quests. Seasonal campaigns also present social game developers unique challenges in timing, planning and execution across multiple regions and languages.

Take, for example, an Easter campaign that features premium decorations and a find-the-Easter-bunny quest. Easter 2011 fell within a week of the royal wedding and within two weeks of Mother’s Day, presenting a developer with a possible scheduling conflict around executing the campaign. The developer must decide how far in advance of Easter to launch the campaign, when to end it so that it doesn’t drag through the other two holidays, and whether or not to make the campaign available to regions of players that may not celebrate Easter.

To the first point, Gouge jokes that Playdemic “put our finger in the air” to determine the timing of most campaigns, but added that as long as a campaign makes sense for a game, developers should keep it running. To the second point, he cautions developers against spamming users with one too many seasonal campaigns running against each other:

“You have to be careful about players burning out,” Gouge says. “It’s about making sure the user isn’t bombarded with information.”

To the last point, Gouge admits that Playdemic got lucky with the royal wedding first because it was an international event and second because Gourmet Ranch is primarily played by people in the United States and the United Kingdom, two big fans of the event. In the future, however, the developer will have to consider how to plan events that have cultural resonance with other audiences as Playdemic is currently rolling out localization for the game in other European languages.

“I think that’s really pressing with games as we move into international [development],” Gouge muses. He explains that it’s not as easy as just planning region-specific campaigns because some regions may want to celebrate certain holidays from other regions, and no player ever enjoys feeling deprived of the “full” user experience when they see other players posting on forums about an event that wasn’t open across all regions.

Another consideration in seasonal campaigns is allowing users to enjoy maximum engagement with the campaign even past a hard deadline. For the royal wedding in Gourmet Ranch, Playdemic will stop selling the themed ingredients as of today, but will let users to prepare the themed dishes with themed ingredients for another week before the campaign ends completely.

“You have to give them time to use what they’ve bought,” Gouge says. “Most people will buy something and use it within about a week.” Though Gouge avoids specific numbers, he says that certain revenue streams within Gourmet Ranch went up as much as 100% during the royal wedding campaign as users splurged on themed items. Thanks to some “retrofitting” from RockYou, Gourmet Ranch now uses Facebook Credits as the sole means of purchasing the game’s premium and standard in-game currencies. RockYou has been pretty aggressive about getting games under its publishing deals to launch with Credits ahead of Facebook’s mandatory July deadline for integration across all social games.

Seasonal campaigns and events are very much a part of the social game ecosystem as social games are seen as a service rather than the traditional video game role of a packaged product. In a rare case of turnabout, console games could actually learn a lot from social games around planning for seasonal dowloadable content. The key, says Gouge, is making sure that the campaign makes sense for the game.

“Come on,” Gouge jokes. “You can’t imagine a Call of Duty royal wedding expansion pack, can you?”