Retention and Rebound

Rage-Quit vs. Yawn-Quit

Long ago, when my friends and I were playing EverQuest, one of our party members decided to do some soloing after everybody else had gone to bed. He fell into a pit and died. In EverQuest, you lost everything you owned when you died, so all of his gear was now at the bottom of a pit. He then (foolishly) tried to get his gear back by himself, and subsequently lost all his backup belongings. The next day we offered to help him get his stuff back, but it was too late: he’d already rage-quit. He never came back.

If your last memories of the game are anger, then it’s much less likely that you’ll ever be back. But you might also quit just because you got bored, or some fancy new game caught your attention, or because you ran into money problems. In these cases, you may very well come back later.

No game will keep all their players forever, but when players do quit, you want to make it likely that they’ll come back again later.

Metrics Tell You What’s Going On In Your Game

As a game producer, you’ll be keeping an eye on certain key numbers to help you steer the game. Here’s some basic ones.

If people keep paying after the first free month (or whatever freebies you offer), they’re “retained” in the game. Obviously, you want your “retention rate” to be high — otherwise you’re in big trouble. A game that launches with a poor retention rate is likely going to die: nobody wants to play it.

But assuming a large percent of your players are retained past the first month, your next goal is to keep them around as long as possible. The length of time they keep playing is their “retention length“.

People will inevitably quit at some point. Do they quit forever? Hopefully not. The number of people who come back to your game eventually is called your rebound ratio (or rebound percentage, or so on), and how long it takes them to return is the rebound duration. A game that’s doing really well might have a rebound ratio of 25% or more, with a rebound duration of eight to twelve months.

While priority #1 is to have the longest retention you can, you should also put a priority on making the rebound ratio high. This is the key to keeping your game going for a decade or more: your best fans keep coming back year after year to help keep the servers lively.

When a game damages the rebound cycle, they shoot themselves in the foot. SWG’s “New Game Experience” update did that for a lot of people — no matter what SWG does now, they aren’t going back. EverQuest burned the bridge for many because their death penalty was so high.

On the other hand, I don’t rage-quit most MMOs. Instead, I just get bored, either from lack of content or lack of friends or lack of compulsion to play. Those are all fixable things. In Lotro I simply couldn’t find people to play with; now that it’s “free”, I intend to go check it out. They didn’t burn their bridge. I didn’t rage-quit, I yawn-quitted. Much better for rebound. Knowing how many people are coming back is really valuable info.

One last warning about these metrics: don’t make the mistake of jumbling your new players and returning players together. If you use one single statistic for “retention length” for the game, it won’t mean as much.

A great game will have an initial retention length of 6 months — that’s how long new players stay. The best I’ve ever seen is Asheron’s Call 1, back when it had very little competition. Its initial retention was nine or ten months. (That’s incredibly high, and I can’t imagine a modern game beating that average, even WoW… there’s too many other choices to switch to when you get bored.)

But even the best game will have a lower retention rate for returning players. If your initial retention rate is six months, your rebound retention rate might be three months. Keep these separate so you can tell what’s going on.

Using Your Metrics to Make The Terrifying Changes

When your game is live, it can be hard to figure out what to change. No matter what the topic, somebody will tell you that it is ruining the game. Others will tell you it’s the reason the game is still afloat. It’s easy to become paralyzed.

Suppose you know that some people are quitting because the death penalty is too high. But other people say they’re only playing because the death penalty makes the game challenging. (Or any of the other reasons that MMOs might be designed with a high death penalty.) Should you change the death penalty? Hard question.

The above metrics will get you started in answering this question. Is your retention length high and your rebound rate fantastic? If so, no — definitely don’t change the death penalty. The people who are quitting may say it’s because the death penalty is too high, but apparently they’re still coming back anyway, so this isn’t a deal-breaker for them.

On the other hand, the more likely case is that your rebound rate sucks. And it’s up to you to figure out why it sucks and fix it so that the game will continue to have players in the years to come, long after all advertising money has dried up. Returning players are really important in the later years.

Whatever metrics you have, use them. They will at least help you narrow it down. If in doubt, address the issues that will alienate the existing playerbase the least.

If you have to change the game significantly, I would always err on the side of making the game easier. That tends to cause people to bitch, and some to even rage-quit over it, but mostly they still come back. Making the game easier may hurt viralness (the odds of someone telling their friend about the game) but it won’t hurt the game’s retention or rebound ratio, in my experience.

It’s all a gamble. It’s all making moves with very limited information. It sucks, basically. And no matter what you change, you’ll hear about it from angry vocal players. Worst of all, you have to wait a long time to find out if you’re right — typically up to six months before you can see how the changes are working.

But don’t make the decisions randomly, and don’t try everything at once (as I’ve seen many teams do). Unless you’re about to go under and are doing a Hail Mary to save the game, you need to make changes slowly enough that you can tell what the results are.

Not Just For Game-Balancing

When we say that games should record a lot of metrics, people seem to assume it’s for balancing the game. Sure, metrics can help balance a game. But instrumenting your game is really time consuming and expensive! (I hope I didn’t make it sound easy. Collecting the data correctly and turning it into useful reports can easily be a full-time job.) If metrics were just for balancing, the cost may not be worth it.

But it’s almost always worth it to heavily instrument your game and billing services, because that data helps you figure out how to grow. Statistics like retention rates and rebound ratios are just a start.

(If you’re stuck on how to get your rebound ratio up, here are a few ideas.)

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7 Responses to Retention and Rebound

  1. David Armstrong says:

    I left WoW twice and came back only the one time. I’ve had the desire to go back several times – knowing that all my stuff was there, that I can simply pick up where I left off, etc etc. I have not acted on my desire to return because the reasons I left the first and second time are still there. The first time I came back, well, WoW winked at me seductively and I couldn’t resist.

    I think this might hearken to your previous article, about the futility of upgrading graphics in an aging game; all my gripes about WoW were quality of life improvements, PvP balance (I’d have settled for fun), and developer feedback. You said that cosmetic bits like graphics are a waste of time in the long-run (paraphrased). I think Blizzard considered things like Warlock Green Fire, rearranging character slots on the login screen, and a more variable appearance (how you look is not your stats) to be low priority, or a non-priority. Most of what I wanted were optional bits that wouldn’t have mattered in the long-term either.

    Blizzard made the conversation of the game about something I didn’t want to talk about and I got frustrated with the BlizzCon conventions and the forums. At BlizzCon 2009, I was the dumb kid that asked when casters would get a legendary staff, and a developer meekly answered “early in Cataclysm.” And on the forums, despite their repeated assurances, it was the accepted wisdom that only the moderators were there, and they were patrolling with the ban hammers. The developers had fled the coop long ago.

    So as I meander in and out of coherency with this comment, let me get to the point: the gameplay was what drove me away from WoW, and what I could interpret from the shadowy answers the company gave to my questions was what kept me away. It is important how the company treats the players while they are with the game so they won’t still be angry months later when a new feature entices a second look.

    I never felt as though my class was a priority, or that my concerns mattered to them. It’s been over a year since I last logged into WoW, and I’m still bitter about the game and the company. The atrocities committed upon the Starcraft ip has only added to the animosity.

  2. Tinman_au says:

    Interesting article.

    I played WoW for only a few months, left and never really had the urge to go back. For me it just had a lack of depth…what you see is what you get kinda stuff. WoW (for me) was very much a “2D” 3D world (like a comic…good for a quick read, but no “meat” like a good book). I think that can effect retention too, if you feel like you did/saw everything the systems/zones/classes had to offer, there’s no real drive or desire to return.

    EQ2 I tried going back to, but didn’t even last a week…I couldn’t get over how bad the graphics looked the second time around, everything just looked ugly and fuzzy (maybe a graphics update would have helped!!)….what can I say, I can be a fickle bastard I guess :o)

    The games I’ve returned/return to though, definitely have/had that nostalgia you mention, but also more depth…I didn’t move on from them because I felt “done” like I did with WoW, there was just something new around that I wanted to try.

    Games I’ve returned to and enjoyed again for a while are AC1, EVE and (still currently playing) Warhammer. WAR may seem as shallow as WoW game play wise, but the addition of ORvR means it’s actually got a lot of depth (theres as many strats/tactics s there are players/guilds) and while WoW has PvP, it felt pretty pointless when I tried it compared to a city siege/defence.

  3. Ira says:

    Fine information! I have been browsing for something like this for a time today. Excellent!

  4. Passerby says:

    What about games that use Free to Play and micro-transaction models as well as Subscription/Free to play/micro-transaction hybrids?

    A game like Lord of the Rings Online would probably have different metrics. Do you have any views on this?

  5. Jimmy Z says:

    Passerby: You’re right, F2P MMOs do keep an eye on different metrics and mostly it revolves around weighing the amount of players against how much money they spend. You keep an eye out for stuff like “average revenue per paying user” which obviously always more than “average revenue per user” because on average most of your players won’t be paying a single dime.

    My own personal feelings about the whole F2P vs. subscription model are quite ambiguous. On the other hand I like the flexibility F2P gives you as a player and how, in theory anyway, it enables a constant trickle of new content in small doses. However on the other hand it easily turns in to a feeling of being ripped . “10 dollars for a pony? Are you kidding me?!” or “PayToWin” as some people refer to the phenomenon where your performance in the end-game raids/PvP/whatever is severely diminished (or at least you feel so) unless you buy stuff from the Game Store or whatever the micropayment service is called in that particular game.

    Here’s an interesting read on the F2P business model:

  6. browolf says:

    I’ve quit wow twice out of boredom and ffxi from frustration. From what I can figure, if you’re not a fan of alts then wow has inherent boredom issues but ffxi has at least fixed stuff that frustrated me in the past. That’s why I’m back in ffxi and am unlikely to quit again.

    MMOs are like UK politics. the opposition never get in until the tipping point of the population are sick of the existing government. An MMO fails when it elicits negative feeling in too many of its players at once. The reason wow survives is they cater to a variety of different players. So people are quitting and rebounding at different times and there’s no wow killer alternatives. everything I read about wow strikes me as they “fix” one thing which then makes other things worse. There seems to be a lot of negative feeling around about some wow features at the moment but the alternatives aren’t strong enough to prevent rebounds.

    If ffxi hadn’t sorted the frustration factor I’d have been back in wow with cataclysm.

  7. Passerby says:

    Jimmy Z: Thanks for the link. I suppose hybrid systems will have two sets of metrics, one for those Eric mentioned to track the subscribers and then average revenue per active user for free players. And perhaps one more to track players who move from being a subscriber to a free player and vice versa.