Picking the right strategy

Tonight I have random thoughts on strategy I want to explore.  For a MMORPG company/publisher, all strategy boils down (or should boil down) to two options:

  • Retain current players
  • Acquire new players

The choice seems simple, but so many companies make the wrong choice.  I feel like I’m constantly playing games where the wrong strategy is being used, and its usually a failure to retain current players.  In fact, the only games I see succeeding at retaining current players are older games with teams who realize they have a dedicated following and its time to start supporting them.

I’m amused by how some companies later go about acquiring new players.  Most of the time this is why you see a transition to F2P: Cheap access to volume.  The irony at work here is that a transition to F2P focuses entirely on acquisition of customers and essentially burns the current players, and as a result the scales are tipped and you’re back to square one.

Focus on both strategies right away, and don’t neglect one.  That’s where MMOs are a monstrous undertaking, as many other businesses tend to choose one of the two strategies at a time — a luxury MMO companies can not afford.

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spinks - January 31, 2013

Player organisations/ guilds etc need to think about this as well. The guild that stops recruiting and stops being welcoming to new members is chasing players away from the hobby too.

Howdy Doody - January 31, 2013

Both of those strategies are easy if the game is good. Both are hard if it’s not.

I’m not sure that strategy has much to do with it.

Howdy Doody - January 31, 2013

By the way. A bit off topic but…

I’ve been coming to this site for quite a while. You all are doing a fantastic job. Not only are your topics more and more thought provoking, but you are are still providing a constant reason to check your site on almost a daily basis.

While sitting here I was just thinking about how impressive that is.

Bravo to you both!

SynCaine - January 31, 2013

@Spinks: Like a good MMO, a solid guild does not actively recruit. They provide for their current members, and those members ‘recruit’ because they are happy. Others also see your group doing stuff they wish they were doing and ask to join. At that level, the guild becomes selective, further refining the experience into something worthwhile.

That’s how an MMO should work as well. Provide something for your current players to enjoy, and growth will happen.

A trash guild that mass recruits is just like a F2P MMO. They will take anybody, and while the raw numbers will be there initially, in short order no one cares and the whole thing implodes or drops into obscurity.

Ettesiun - January 31, 2013

I would prefer a three steps strategy : “Big Head, Long tail”
1) Focus on attracting new players to profit from “hype” : “Big Head”
2) Analyse who will be your core customer for the following months
3) Focus on keeping this core paying for the game : “Long tail”
– Keeping in mind that some players can be “content” for your core market
4) You may go back to 1) for extension, but it will never be as big as the first launch.

Ideally you should have reimbursed your game from the initial purchase : you may have to modify your game to adapt it to core market and this will create new cost.

Keen - January 31, 2013

@Howdy Doody: I think it’s actually a lot harder than you give it credit. I should have clearly stated that this is a marketing thing and an aspect of design. For marketing post-release — yeah, if your game sucks it’s hard and if your game is great you’ve got it made. But that’s because the devs have probably already begun to address the design side of this strategy.

From a design perspective, designing your game to keep players or designing your game to retain players is much harder. Think about Blizzard. What techniques do they use to keep their current players, and what techniques do they use to bring in new people? If you really think about it, Blizzard is in full-blown retain mode to the point of having a cyclical player-base. Obviously it works for them, because they have 10 million players.

I can’t write up a huge post right now (sitting in class), but think about EQ2, Rift, LotrO, and EVE. All very, very different in their approaches.

Howdy Doody - January 31, 2013

Yes I would love to see some examples of what you are thinking. I guess I’m just not seeing it.

With all the choices we have today mixed in with all the times we have been burned I just can’t see anything other than if the game is good or bad. I don’t see how any strategy, pre or post development, can have much of an impact on the finished product’s state of being either good or bad.

I’m sure it’s me. I’m in such a “glass half empty” MMO frame of mind that I don’t want to see any Hooopla. I just want marketing to show me the game and shut up. I’ll be the judge if I stay or go!

Keen - January 31, 2013

@Howdy Doody: You’re not distilling the issue far enough, that’s all. All you have to ask yourself is, “Why is this game bad?” That might help you unravel the thread. Obviously your reasons for a game being bad are different than mine, but from a strategy perspective I think things become quite objective and hard to argue ex post facto.

I don’t remember if you tried GW2 or not. ArenaNet has/had an awesome strategy for bringing in new players. They enticed everyone with stuff like WvW and dynamic content. The problem with their strategy was that they didn’t focus enough into designing the game to retain players, or even market the game to retain current players. The marketing part there is key, because their strategy continued to suffer when they released information about a direction they wanted to take the game that contradicted previous marketing efforts to attract new players. Now they’ll have to work twice as hard.

Green Armadillo - January 31, 2013

For SWTOR in particular, I’ve gotten the impression that the dirty little secret is actually a third bullet – not merely retaining existing players, but actively opening the door to make more money off of the subset of the faithful who are willing to pay. All games with pet/mount shops do this to some extent, but Bioware in particular have combined an odd subscription model that does not exactly offer a lot of stuff for non-subscribers to buy with a heavy emphasis on the cash store item gambling packs.

We can’t know for sure what portion of these are being bought by people who remain subscribed, but when you look at how many are clearly being purchased and the costs/benefits involved, it would certainly seem ill-advised to start buying massive quantities of packs before renewing your subscription. I don’t think this model – we’re talking about a new gambling pack every month, and even the normal cash store doesn’t get the good items so they can be saved for the packs – would be tolerated in a game that still had a mandatory subscription. In a non-subscription game, though, it seems that people are more inclined to tolerate it as a necessary evil of the F2P world.

swarmofseals - January 31, 2013

The reason why older games can focus on retention is that they have generally dwindled to the point where the people who are still playing are very dedicated to that game (and thus easy to retain).

I no longer think it’s possible for any MMO to increase its playerbase in the months following launch. The last MMO to do this was WoW, and I’m convinced that it was only able to accomplish this feat by accessing a large audience of people that had not previous played MMOs. Thus the fanbase at time of launch was relatively smaller than the pool of gamers that they ultimately would access.

The problems facing MMO developers are extensive. First of all, the MMO audience is quite diverse. It’s tough to design a game that will appeal to everyone over the long term. As a result you have a large number of people who are interested in a game enough to try it out but not many of those people will not ultimately like the game enough to stick with it for more than a month or two. This isn’t because the game is bad, per se, but perhaps the game does not cater to their specific preferences.

Another major challenge is that MMO gamers ask a lot out of their games. Many MMO gamers expect their game of choice to fill most if not all of their gaming time — often 10-20 hours a week or more. They expect the game to hold their interest at that level of play for an indefinite period. I can’t think of any other genre that works this way. Fans of most other genres expect to dabble in multiple games or expect a game to provide a finite amount of value. Most single player games contain between 5 and 20 hours of gameplay. A single player game that provides 50 hours of high quality gameplay is generally considered to be outstanding whereas an MMO that provides 50 hours of quality gameplay is an abject failure.

I think that these are the primary factors which cause every MMO to undergo a period of contraction following launch. Net positive retention is just not possible for anyone who launches with any attention at all unless the game is marketed as being so niche that the only people who buy it are a narrow, carefully targeted audience.

ANet talked about this recently, although I don’t recall where. They basically said that they expected to lose population steadily until they hit a stabilization point, and their strategy was then to build from there. They also claimed to have already hit that point and have seen numbers increase since then. While I have no clue if this is true or not, it seems like a very reasonable strategy to me:

1. Sell as many boxes as possible
2. Find out who your core players are
3. Build from there

Ryne - February 1, 2013

When LotRO went F2P, I was playing that faithfully and putting in about 30-40 hours a week, and I thought I was excited about it. That said, when it came around, something just clicked off for me and I almost immediately stopped playing. I had a solid guild, no negative player interactions or anything like that to turn me away, but I just no longer had the desire to play or put money into their microtransaction system. I’m not quite sure what I’m trying to say here other than I know that F2P generally is not my bag, and I think it’s because I feel guiltier paying for points than a subscription for some reason.

Gentle Nova - February 1, 2013

Agree with SynCaine, as I think it relates to what Keen is getting at about good design being at the core. If it’s designed well and thus runs well, the experience will speak for itself and naturally attract people to it. Doesn’t matter if you’re talking about a guild or a game.

@swarmofseals: I’m confused. If they haven’t figured out their core players by the time they’ve launched the game, let alone prior to building the game, they are in serious trouble. Identifying these things should be the first thing you do in the project discovery phase (and it even applies to building a guild).

xenovore - February 1, 2013

@Gentle Nova: You can only guess at who your core player base is during design phase. Of course, it should be an educated guess, and hopefully you guess right. But you don’t really know until after release; only then can you really see which players the game is actually retaining.

In GW2’s case, I’m going to assume that, first and foremost, ArenaNet went after the GW1 player base, e.g. same world setting, and then took a guess at what might attract WoW, LoTRO, etc. players. And from personal experience playing GW2 after playing WoW, I’d say they guessed right on some things and guessed completely wrong on others. For example, I think they did some cool stuff with the combat, but at the same time, a lot of us are turned off by the lack of well-defined tank, healer, DPS roles.

swarmofseals - February 1, 2013

@Gentle Nova — Basically, what xenovore said. It’s impossible to know who your core players are pre-launch. You can make a guess but you can’t know for sure.

Also, it’s good for a game company to attract a larger playerbase initially than its core base. Launch price box sales are often the same a three to four months of sub time. If I were making an MMO I’d much rather sell a million units and settle into a core playerbase of 500k than to sell 300k units and grow into a core playerbase of 500k.

xenovore - February 1, 2013

Definitely a major part of the strategy should focus on the social or group aspect. I was just browsing Eating Bees and noticed an important point: “Relationships equal retention”. I don’t think modern MMOs focus on this enough; instead they cater so much to the individual player. I.e. the design is “Let’s make everything solo-able” instead of “Let’s bring players together”.

Blargh - February 1, 2013

depends on where you draw the line to call something a modern mmo, I suppose

the latest mmos on the other hand….. their retention model mostly feels like “get as much as we can at launch, grab the money and run”

solarbear - February 2, 2013

Pretty much every MMO that has come out has had enough people try it out at launch that if it had a decent ‘tail’ it would have flourished.

This his where game companies need to put their focus. Eve is the one game that has done a great job of this. Game companies could learn a lot from Eve.

X-T - February 2, 2013

I’ve never played Eve, but I do play Vendetta Online. They don’t have the largest player base but the players they have are very loyal. I have NEVER once thought their retention model feels like ‘get as much as we can at can and grab the money and run’. There are only 4 Devs that make this game and they seem to really enjoy doing it. They jump online once in a while and run events or just interact with the players. They also have a forum for suggestions, bugs and do listen and implement player’s ideas.

Some of the strategies they’ve used which I think have worked well for them are:

Once a year around the Christmas Holidays they offer ‘free play time’ to any former subscriber who’s subscription has run out (before October, I think). This always gets former players to resubscribe after the ‘free play time’ is up.

They expanded their player base by porting the game to different platforms. It now works on PC, Linux, Mac and Android tablets and phones. Being a game that worked directly in Linux without an Windows emulator is what got me to play originally. Now being early in the Android market has brought in and continues to bring in new players.

Another idea they are currently trying is a Kickstarter to raise funds to bring the game to the iPad and expand the game content and revamp the graphics.

I didn’t see anyone else mention these type of ideas so I thought I’d add them.

Gankatron - February 2, 2013

“If you really think about it, Blizzard is in full-blown retain mode to the point of having a cyclical player-base. Obviously it works for them, because they have 10 million players.”

Perhaps I am just out-of-touch with WoW these days, but I am uncertain about this statement; I am not necessarily disagreeing, but I am not sure I appreciate why your contention is accurate.

Personally I have felt driven away from WoW by marketing techniques that seem to cater to an increasingly more casual player base, and so retention does not feel like the model they are shooting for. Conversely they seem to be constantly redefining themselves through progressive simplification of game mechanics for increased accessibility.

Perhaps the old vanilla WoW demographic has become so disenfranchised that they no longer have relevance to this proposed retention model?

I have felt that the cyclic player base idea stems more from players’ dissatisfaction with newer MMO’s, with WoW representing that ex-gf always ready for an angry booty call; and going along the lines of that analogy, very quickly one realizes they made a mistake to rekindle the relationship as all of the reasons why they left in the first place are not only still present, but have gotten worse over time spent apart.

In short I don’t feel that WoW has done anything to retain me, quite the opposite, and instead offers novel, but gimmicky promotions such as the ability to play a kung-fu Panda to acquire new players (here “new” is defined as plain new ones or those where the game is functionally a different MMO from when they initially left).

I would be curious to find what proportion of that 10 million figure are subscribers retained for over a year versus new a pool of players that flows in and then leave over the course of a few months; this would be a better indicator of retention than net subscriber numbers.

Gankatron - February 2, 2013

*”versus a pool of new players”

UnSubject - February 4, 2013

Within your retain versus acquire strategies, you’ve missed one important word from both: profitable.

Both are easier said than done. Especially if your existing players want things that would make the game unattractive to your acquisition targets.

The problem in saying, “Choose both”, is that you have limited resources, so you (i.e. the developer) has to make the call between spending the time on finessing the starting areas or developed new max lvl raids. There’s a general theory that it is more expensive to acquire new customers than retain them, but if MMOs don’t get more new players than they lose – and MMOs always lose a % of players month by month – then the title’s revenue shrinks.

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