The Real Key To Player Retention
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.