The Real Key To Player Retention

WoW Pet Battles

Behold, pet battles! The future of all MMORPGs.

There’s little doubting that the long-term financial success of MMOs is in player retention. Box sales alone don’t count for much and I could easily run off plenty of examples of games that sold well on release then took a nose dive after a month or two and now languish in low popularity limbo. However, when it comes to what matters most, few developers actually seem to have been able to unlock the secret player retention.

BioWare for one looks like it’s suffering and if their latest awful promotion is anything to go by, they seem to be having trouble holding on to players that have hit the level cap. Personally, I’m not surprised. SW:TOR is a lot of fun and the story mode stuff is interesting but ultimately it doesn’t have the long-term hook that other MMOs have (at least for me anyway). The similarity between classes, the limited storylines, the overall lack of things to do… eventually people are going to get bored.

Obviously content is important and some MMOs, like RIFT, are fighting hard to constantly drip feed it to its playerbase in an attempt to hold onto their valuable subscriptions. Interestingly, while it never made the same initial big splash that SW:TOR did, I’m betting that RIFT has maintained a pretty solid subscriber rate whilst SW:TOR’s has been dropping steadily. That’s just all my conjecture, of course.

However, as important as content is, I don’t actually think it’s the be-all and end-all to player retention. Whilst other games have tried other tactics (like crazy grind fests), I think the real key to holding onto players is in giving them a variety of compelling, by otherwise rather inconsequential, sub-games to occupy themselves with. This is something Blizzard does very, very well and, if the feature list in Mists of Pandaria is anything to go by, they’ve certainly come to realise the power it holds.

I mean, how many people have spent countless hours fishing in WoW? Or trying to complete every single little Achievement? Or trying to obtain a Skeletal Raptor mount through Archaeology? Or becoming the top arena team? Or grinding for heirlooms? And this is before I mention the other typical MMO staples of crafting, PvP battlgrounds and gear grinding, again something that Warcraft has implemented very successfully (much to my chagrin, I might add). And now Blizzard will be throwing in collectible pets for pet battles and a new farm mechanic which I can only assume is something akin to player housing.

Indeed, it seems that the real strategy to retaining players isn’t so much in giving them leveling, story or even endgame content but by giving them mini games and side features that they can occupy themselves with for hours on end. Of course, the world has to be crafted right in the first place but ultimately the things that hook people doesn’t seem to be the drive to constantly run through the same content again and again or take down the same raid over and over but by making them feel like their virtual avatars have their own hobbies.

This is nothing new either and right from the first moment that SoE introduced the Gems side game into Everquest or when Mythic added player housing to DAOC, we’ve seen a desire by gamers to enjoy the frivolous. What’s interesting though is these side activities seems to be transgressing from added extras to a core strategy for holding onto subscriptions. I, for one, expect to see companies like Blizzard start to focus less on adding content in favour of side activities instead. Like it or not, it’s certainly a lot more efficient for developers to add features like Archaelogy or pet battles that will potentially keep players interested for dozens of hours than a whole new dungeon which they’ll get sick of after four or five run throughs.


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  1. While I’ve kept a healthy distance from WoW after quitting the raiding scene for good, I must say things like these sound very interesting. I’ll stick by the sidelines for now, see how it goes, but I vastly prefer this over “here is a new set you need a group that is at least this good and consistent for”. I’d like there to be enough to be left to do in an MMO when real life or just other interests take hold so you can’t be as dedicated anymore. Sure, things like the dungeon finder did a lot — or too much, actually, I get annoyed now with having to manually find groups in other games haha — but pre-raid gear really feels like it is still an inferior stepping stone that the large majority of players will actually not go beyond.

  2. Syl says:

    What you’re basically saying is the MMO needs to give players variety in playstyles; and that I fully agree with. “content” is a fickle term – some people can make their own content out of the oddest side features.

    I have high hopes that GW2 will be able to shine in this area; there is so much variety with PVE (with different dungeon modes), outdoor bosses, minigames, professions, group PvP, WvW and add the dynamic events and side-kicking. plenty of things to do for every flavor of player!
    A second big factor of player retention is imo the social side; playing with and “for” your friends/guild is a very powerful aspect. MMOs that push the community and cooperative side of things have an advantage here. this explains too why WoW’s curve has decreased ever since the game became less about community and more about soloability or anonymous cross-server LFG.

    • Gordon says:

      I think WoW goes beyond content though and adds side games which appeal to the collectable parts of our personalities. Achievements and Archaeology are a good example of this and I’d bet Pet Battles and farms are going to be even more ‘collectable;.

  3. Grimnir says:

    A fairly significant factor you’re missing is who these games are trying to cater to. Back in the old days when games were taboo, and MMO’s were for the ultranerds, the little frivolous things were frowned upon by the playerbase because they wanted new content. These are the million or so players that bandwagon around to new releases because they devour content and have been trained that once you get through the first sitting, you’re not getting anything else but fluff.

    The fluff pulled in, and retained an aging, casual crowd that had no problem with these light impact diversions. WoW got as big as it did because it hit the casual mass market first and catered to them for years. Granted, they’re the biggest out there so whipping up content isn’t a big deal for them, but smaller MMO’s trying to do the same thing aren’t seeing the same success.

    Rift, with it’s constant content is holding on pretty good, at least noticeable in-game. This I would attribute much to player loyalty that has developed over time seeing them push out content. Not because they’ve added fluff systems, and I really don’t think the systems they’ve put in place really had a pedestal to sit on. Then games like EVE where fluff was so violently rebelled against so much as to cause in-game rioting certainly has very little issues maintaining a playerbase and has been one of the most solid in slow steady year-over-year growth.

    Just because games haven’t had the budget or willpower to grind out content and instead have to settle for mini-games, doesn’t mean that’s necessarily what their playerbase will stick around for. What we have here is an emerging market segment that’s becoming more interested in games and basically wants the equivalent of their Facebook game list in their MMO so they feel more comfortable about being casual.

  4. bhagpuss says:

    I think you’re pretty close with this. MMOs come in a fairly broad range of flavors, but in that classic “divide the world into two categories” trope, them-park MMOs are either Task or Portal. The old style, as described by Grimnir, was “Task”. It was hard work, you got your head down and did your grind. Fun? It wasn’t about fun!

    The new style is Portal. Click our icon on your desktop, let us take you to a world of entertainment! I personally found WoW incredibly thin in this respect. The biggest surprise to me, coming to WoW for the first time five years after it launched was how little there seemed to be to do other than quest and level up. I guess it depends what you’re used to. Coming from feature-rich MMOs like EQ2, Vanguard or even Wizard 101, WoW seemed very one-note.

    Collectible battling pets, though. That really is the crystal meth of gaming. Get that working and no-one’s ever going to leave.

    • Gordon says:

      “Collectible battling pets, though. That really is the crystal meth of gaming. Get that working and no-one’s ever going to leave.”

      Hehe, yep. There’s a reason why Pokemon was huge in the late 90s. Like them or not, Blizzard are certainly shrewd when it comes to the features they add.

  5. Kelindia says:

    The biggest reason for me why Rift is still around is because they have taken old ideas and put a new spin on them making them into something almost unrecognizable for the most part. The core of playing an MMO is having something fun to work on when you log in. Whether simple raiding is enough for you or having alot of variety does it having something you enjoy doing is the key.

    For me what makes Swtor not that good of a game is that there is enough low quality story via side questing that you want to look for extra things to do while leveling. Your options were only flashpoints, battlegrounds and space missions. Flashpoints weren’t offered through a LFG making them harder to run, there weren’t very many warfronts and the space missions were both easy and repetetive.

  6. Azuriel says:

    It seems almost obvious in retrospect, right?

    MMOs need reasons for people to log in every day. When I finally unsubbed, it was not because I ran out of things I could do in WoW, it was because I was tired of being the only one in guild chat. Maybe the people who faded away would have done so no matter what Blizzard did, but chances are a few would have stayed had they something interesting to do aside from running the 10,000th heroic.

    • Gordon says:

      Absolutely and I think Blizz will be focusing more and more on side content in future expansions too. After all, it’s better for them to add only 5 new levels of content and some addictive pet battles than dozens of dungeons or hundreds of quests.

  7. ScytheNoire says:

    I agree that variety is the real key to keeping players. It’s not how many dungeons or quests or raids you have, but how good the PvP, achievements, and other time wasters are. The only thing that kept me playing WoW so long was achievements. In Vanilla and Burning Crusade, I got bored and quit. But in Wrath I was there the whole time, because of achievements and Wintergrasp. I love achiements and big PvP battles with a goal.

    This is why SWTOR failed for me, no achievements and the big PvP, Ilum, was a disaster. This is also why I look forward to GW2, they have a ton of achievements that count for your account, not just single character, and the WvW looks like what I’ve been wanting for years now. Warhammer had a chance, their RvR was fun when it worked, but they wasted too much on PvE content and had lots of technical issues.

  8. Telwyn says:

    I would not judge WoW as quite the success here. Beta of MoP has convinced me *not* to buy it, pet battles or not it’s more of the same old model. The game is becoming less and less about playing a virtual character in a virtual world. Mini-games with a vague general theme are the norm.

    I personally would hold up EQ2 or Vanguard as a much better example of a deep MMO with broad variations of playstyle possible. Games where you can level all the way to cap as a crafter (or even diplomat!) offer gameplay variety without presenting the user with a new UI every few minutes (as per all the dragon/tank/robot/whatever riding quests in WoW).

    I think SWTOR have not done enough here, the focus is almost exclusively on combat. Yes we have player housing but why no real customisation? Yes we can craft but that is a disembodied queue-management mini-game. Rift may have had lots of updates, but until very recently it was all about combat as well.

    I’m not actually a sandbox or nothing guy, but I think some theme park games offer a much better variety of rides than others..

    • Moon Monster says:

      Yeah, I agree that WoW is an odd choice for ‘Game with lots of stuff to do’. If anything, WoW is one of the least appealing games to me for that reason. It feels very, very focused on leveling, dungeons and raids. The fishing minigame is just tedious.

      But the general idea is right. I think EQ2 and Lotro have hung on because of that. Now those are games that it feels that there’s Other Stuff To Do.

      I’d say that Swtor is moving in the right direction with the legacy stuff. It tickles the same achievement/long-term-goal brain area, for me at least.

      • Gordon says:

        I think WoW has a lot of stuff to do actually. Aside from EQ2 (and maybe LotRO which I’ve not played), it has a ton of side games and activities. Don’t forget, it’s the game that introduced Achievements!

    • Gordon says:

      I’ve been purposefully avoiding the MoP beta so I can’t really say as to whether or not it will be good. I’ll certainly buy it, I’ll play through it… and then we’ll see where I am a month or two after release.

  9. [...] at We Fly Spitfires writes an insightful piece on Blizzard’s WoW strategy and how it means they keep more players – “I think the real key to holding onto players is in giving them a variety of [...]

  10. wraithe says:

    I have to agree with Azuriel. As a player on a low pop server (Frostmane) and having survived like 3 complete raiding roster changes in the guild I’m in, there comes a point when everything just gets monotonous. I mean, yeah, the essentials of an MMO is monotony with the whole level, gear, raid, level, gear, raid, etc etc. I always found the most meaningful and most fun in what happened in between all of that. New heroics were fun and when that got old you figured out what achievements you needed but when that got old you might go do old heroics or old raids or whatever the case may be.

    For the first time in my whole WoW career I’m on a break because I feel like there’s not enough to do and/or no one to do it with and for the very same reason. Yes, I have loads of achievements I still need but with no one around to at least talk to it feels more like a job no matter how much the drive for the achievement is desire.

    Side features also deviate from aforementioned monotony. While I really want to discover the story and end content planned for Mists, at the same time it really just is the past three expansions all over again. So, I for one, am absolutely ecstatic about something like Pet Battles. It’s cute, unexpected and promises to be another form of mindless, time consuming fun.

  11. browolf says:

    Those things that wow has that people feel compelled to complete are grinds by a different name. There’s no getting away from needing grindy content to keep players busy for long periods of time. Clever designers recognize the need for variety as not everyone likes the same things.

  12. Zellviren says:

    Unfortunately, I don’t think “fluff” is the way ahead at all. Taking Casterclysm as an example, there’s never been more to do in WoW in terms of fluff… Yet there’s also never been more people complaining of nothing to do.

    The problem, for me, is depth. And because the current development team don’t really know what depth is, the pet battles are probably likely to fail.

    Contrast that to the Burning Crusade, where there was nowhere near as much to do but nobody complained about there being too little. That’s because zone/group questing, professions, reputation grinds and exploration were all deep and meaningful ways of enjoying the game, rather than streamlined side attractions that don’t actually let you develop your character at all.

    • Gordon says:

      I think the issue with Cataclysm wasn’t the content but the playerbase. The playerbase of WoW has basically stopped growing and ultimately, no matter how hard a game tries, there’s only so long people can stay entertained for. WoW did incredibly well by bringing new players into the game that would enjoy its content for months and months but now I think those days are truly gone.

  13. greegan says:

    I think is very hard to find a mmo with very fun, my ultimate mmorpg very fun is daoc: dark age of camelot

  14. Jeffrey says:

    Is that in your point of view the key to player retention in general or just the retention of a few type of players?

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