There Shouldn’t Be A Signup Form

When I buy a AAA game from the store, I have a vested interest in liking the game. I’ve plonked $60 down for it, so there’s less of a chance I’ll abandon it just because the installer is annoying, or the tutorial is a bit dull, or because I have to create an account first. I’ll give the game a chance… at least a half hour.

But if it’s a web game, I’m not going to give it more than a minute of my time. That first minute has to hook me, draw me into the second minute. The second minute has to draw me into the third, and so on, until I’m solidly invested in the game.

This is a lesson that indie Flash developers have had to learn the hard way. That’s why a huge proportion of their development time is spent on things like the menus, the loading screen, the tutorial levels. They know that if they bore me during that first minute, there are literally hundreds of thousands of other games for me to try.

Why Are You Acting Like I’m Already Invested?

But now AAA companies are trying to get in on the quick-play, no-hassle, free-to-play scene. And they don’t understand that they need to make a good first impression. They’ve got a AAA mindset with an indie PR budget.

To start with, there’s sign-up forms. Seriously… they make me fill out a friggin’ web form before I can even download the game! Web forms are exactly the opposite of fun.

Free Realms is supposed to be “ultra-casual”, yet I have to provide a username, password, and an email address before I can start downloading. Why can’t I play first, then sign up after I’ve played for a bit? This is not a difficult technical challenge.

Even worse is Lotro, whose signup form requires 9 pieces of information.

Now, it’s true that older free web games (like Flyff or Maple Story) had similar signup forms. But there’s a zillion free MMO choices now. When I’m bored and spot an ad for one of these games, I’ll click it, see the signup form, and… then hit the Back button. Partially that’s because you’re wasting my time, and partially it’s because I don’t want to be on yet another spam list before I even see if the game is fun. No thanks, I’ll try a different game instead.

Common Knowledge

Every web developer who’s done any amount of A/B testing can tell you that if you make users fill out a form before they’re invested in your product, the chances of them leaving are much higher than if you delay that form until the user is invested.

This is so big a deal in the indie scene that on FlashGameLicense.com, we won’t even try to sell your game if it has a mandatory signup before you can play. It’s too high a hurdle; it also kills viral propagation of the game.

In fact, this is so “common knowledge” that it’s flabbergasting that big companies can’t figure it out.

Stop Forming Me

If your free game requires a bunch of my personal info before I can play, do you have any idea how many customers are bouncing away because of it?

Do you have metrics on it?

Why not?

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15 Responses to There Shouldn’t Be A Signup Form

  1. ffox says:

    you’re making a great point here!

    i recently played an upcoming quasi-mmo (“Vindictus”) and it struck me that i had played through an intensive scene – semi-tutorial and semi-boss-fight – before i even get to customize my character (you know – all the fluff plus choosing name and so on; the only decision made beforehand was class archetype – from the choice of 4)

    it felt surprisingly right and in retrospective – 5 to 10 minutes from registering a login name and pass on a website to playing my first bit of gameplay seemed the best time i’ve seen in a game so far.

    props to that and i hope more developers in our part of the world take up the initiative.

  2. Mike Grem says:

    It’s especially bad when the signup forms are badly-coded, poorly laid out or filled to the brim with advertisements. Nothing kills a signup form for me faster than having to turn off NoScript for anything other than the captcha to work properly.

  3. Nick says:

    John Smedley of Sony gave a keynote at AGDC in 2009 where they outlined very clearly that they DO understand this point with respect to Freerealms. The presentation specifically mentioned how they’d honed in on a number of sign up stages that reduced player investment and ditched them – I’m not sure of the reason they’ve not gone the whole way and allowed you to download the client without imparting any information whatsoever, but they’re definitely, definitely aware of the significance of getting player investment early.

    Perhaps there are other reasons for not ditching sign-up in its entirety?

  4. Mike Grem says:

    @Nick: The only thing I can think of off-hand is to prevent anonymous griefing. Especially in Free Realms, a game aimed at children, having a signup page might reduce the number of people going in to be vulgar and rude to other people.

  5. Eric says:

    Interesting, I didn’t know that.

    Well, the game doesn’t require you to even verify your email before you can play, so I don’t think it’s to prevent griefing. (And it’s not hard to get another email address to grief with…)

    To be fair to Free Realms, there ARE some meager attempts to get people hooked before you have to fork over your info: you can choose your character class and his in-game name. But that feels more like a trick than a sincere attempt at getting buy-in.

    They’re not getting me to say “Hey this is fun, yes I want to sign up!” … they’re trying to get me to say “Well, I guess I’ve already created a character, and I don’t want to lose that, so I suppose I have to give them my email address”. That’s not the same. That effort comes off as manipulative, actually.

    If I would have to guess, I would say technical limitations (and the lack of willpower to circumvent them) are what keep people from being able to sign-up in game in Free Realms.

  6. axhed says:

    i especially like the forms that kick you back with a red field and a note “Your password must be at least 8 characters long with at least one number and one capitalized letter.” to add insult to injury, they erase half of the other fields, too.

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  8. InvisibleMan says:

    If you don’t have an account, your character cannot be saved because the game has no way of linking you to your character. While I agree that when I see a sign-up form I am more likely to leave without trying the game, this doesn’t apply to MMORPGs for me. My excitement to finally play LotRO easily overcame any reservations I had. If I am on a free-to-play MMORPG’s website, it’s likely because I want to play the game. Signing up is not a problem at all.

    This is different for flash games however. If I am playing a flash game, it’s because I want a quick and simple game to fill some boredom time. A signup form is likely to make me leave the game in search of something else, as is a flash game jam-packed full of features.

  9. InvisibleMan says:

    @axhed: I feel like I should pitch in and say that I never managed to figure out how to fix this problem (redirect to another page, and get back with the form’s contents intact). I don’t have as much experience with web programming as someone who does it full time, so this may actually be a solved issue among those in-the-know, but from my experience the problem may not be directly solvable. As an example of an indirect solution, JavaScript could be used to check the fields without a redirect. If the user has JavaScript disabled though, you are kind of stuck.

  10. Eric says:

    @Invisible Man: they just need to delay the signup by fifteen minutes of playtime or less. If I quit within 15 minutes, the odds are that I didn’t really like that character anyway, and/or I’m not coming back.

    But if that’s a real concern of a company, it’s very easy to keep track of somebody’s unique character-ID without a login name: store it encrypted in a Flash local object and/or a browser cookie, for one. Whatever technology the game is in, there are ways to do this. And it doesn’t have to last long — a week will do. Giving the cookie a short duration will keep it from looking like a “spy” cookie to most software.

    On your other point: it was definitely true at first that the people who showed up to play Lotro were excited to finally play it. But now? Not so much. The advertising I’ve seen seems to be aimed at people who had no idea there even was a Lord of the Rings Online, and have no idea how huge and immersive the game is. Are they going to provide all that info just to find out? Some will, some won’t.

    I don’t know how big a hurdle it is for Lotro specifically, but my guess is neither does Turbine, and my guess is also that it’s a pretty significant problem.

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  12. Kierbuu says:

    Funny to read this. I’m sitting at home this weekend and, due to some odd circumstances, I have nothing important to do. So I decided to try out some free games. I’m amazed at the number that want huge amounts of personal info before I’m cleared to play. I could just make up the info, but I’ld rather just move along and try something else.

  13. TickledBlue says:

    Sadly, while it is a well known fact in the web design world and we sing, whisper, plead and patiently re-explain to our clients the need to grow trust and engagement prior to asking the users for their personal details. The issue is that we are a very small (and oft ignored) voice in a forest of security team paranoia, legal terms and conditions and marketing gotta collect ‘em all obsession.

    We have a form that, due to known data entry issues at the backend, we can guarantee an 80% failure rate for – and this is for our paying customers. Yet the business still insists that they jump through this hoop. I have to choke back hysterical laughter when I see the key project goal of reducing customer service calls by moving our clients online – and they sign up form alone will show 80% of them a big red error and tell them to call customer service to fix an issue which is ours in the first place.

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  15. So what is the best way to do this? interrupt them after X amount of time? Warn them that they need to give you information if they want to save? I imagine some games ina realistic-ish setting(or futuristic) could possibly draw the information from the user slowly over time.