The returning-player cycle

One of the most interesting aspects of live MMOs is the user cycle. In a good game, players who get “hooked” and stay past their first month are likely to stay for 3 to 6 months total, and then wander off. But a large percentage of these players come back later and are likely to get “hooked” all over again. This is what I call the returning-player cycle, and it’s absolutely crucial that every MMO keep this cycle running smoothly in order to keep population numbers up.

You don’t want to put roadblocks in the way of returning players. For instance, you want to keep the player’s characters and equipment around for as long as possible. In fact, keep the players’ accounts around forever, if it’s at all possible. But what can we do to hook returning players, aside from avoiding these obvious mistakes?

Nostalgia, the Key to Hooking Returning Players

Players come back because they miss the world, the gameplay, and the social interactions they had in your game. In other words, they are returning because of a kind of nostalgia.

A returning player will find great pleasure in remembering things they’d forgotten: the shortest distance between two cities, the secret hiding place of a rare spawn, or where to sell items for the best value. The more of these things they remember correctly, the more nostalgia factor you’ll have.

Big Changes, Small Changes

While “nostalgia factor” might be good for hooking returning players, it’s not good for keeping existing ones. You have to make changes to underperforming cities, zones, and systems over time. But you should make your changes with some thought towards how returning players will view things.

  • DON’T change little details arbitrarily, unless it really improves gameplay, or you’re positive that all players will appreciate the change.
  • DO change entire zones, systems, or cities all at once. Change is important to keeping player interest up. In fact, changing major systems is a good way to get your retired players to come back for a bit, to see what’s new. And don’t be quiet about your changes. Make sure everybody knows and is excited. Hype them up!

EQ2 old-school crafting screen
The EQ2 crafting system was significantly improved,
but the changes were made piecemeal over a period
of about a year, and with little fanfare.
A missed opportunity!

The idea here is that when you make a big change, you can take steps to manage player’s expectations. If they wander into the town of Holtburg and see a sign outside that says “Welcome to New Holtburg”, they won’t be surprised to find things have changed quite a lot. In addition, big changes are also much easier to hype to your existing player base, so it’s just better all around.

I admit I was a little worried that I’d be struck down by lightning for hypocrisy while writing this post. I’ve made my share of tiny little changes, breaking player’s expectations and nostalgia for no reason except that I felt like making minor improvements. But whenever possible, we need to resist this urge. Instead of tweaking a couple buildings in town every month, redo the entire city all at once and unveil it with some fanfare. Instead of making minor class balance tweaks continuously, make a big deal about your rebalancing effort, and launch the changes all at once.

Revealing big changes all at once can be hard on a live-team schedule, but it’s worth it: instead of nickle-and-diming your players’ knowledge and understanding of the game, it gives them something new and exciting to talk about (and come back for) instead. Presentation makes all the difference in the world.

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2 Responses to The returning-player cycle

  1. asakawa says:

    excellent points. and this is what final fantasy falls down on. i had a great time in FFXI but the end game took up a lot of time and i became disillusioned. since then (having gone on to WoW, lotro and eve) i’ve often wanted to go back but they make it so difficult (or at least did – this may have changed but they’ve already lost me). i would have to buy a new copy of the game (you can’t register with the same serial) go through the massive and incredibly slow update process only to find that my character with a huge number of hours on the clock got deleted 3 months after cancelling my subscription.
    as you say, there’s no good reason for this. it only hurts their profits.

  2. MM says:

    Interestingly, I think that the destruction of Arwic and turning it into a blackend, smoking crater at the end of the Shadow War is probably still one of the most talked about events even 7 years later.

    And yet, the filling in of the crater and the creation of the new garrisoned town was a disappointment when I went back explicitly to gaze upon the remnants of the devastation. I’m not sure where this fits in psychologically with your article, but I think that nostalgia was actually LOST in the rebuild.

    My favorite haunts in AC2 where the callbacks to AC1. I would take my Order neophytes out to the still present fallen Shadow Spire to preach the evil of the Shadows and the destruction they wrought. It’s such a shame that the town ruins and quests that might have better helped AC1 players get into AC2 didn’t show up until the expansion. It was great to be reacquanted with the Ben Ten stories.

    What should the expectation be for an MMO sequel? Taking AC and EQ as lessons, what should be the recommendation for building a sequel to an MMO?