One of the hardest things for any game to do is retain its player base. This is a less pressing concern for games that require an upfront purchase as they are still receiving some income. However, free-to-play games all require their players to spend money in game to fund them. With AAA releases often only having around 10% of the players completing their story modes, is there much hope for any free-to-play MMO? Clearly, there is, since plenty of them have gone on to be a smash hit.
First, it is worth mentioning that SuperData completed a study where they found “On average, 6.21% of players who logged in for the first time in the 1st month a game is released will log on 360 days after their first login”. And by comparison, only a tenth (0.63%) who logged in for the first time 12 months after release logged in another 360 days after that initial login. This clearly shows how important a successful and smooth launch is for any free-to-play game MMO. Developers can’t afford to have a shaky start. Players are not going to wait around for a game to develop and eventually become something they want to play. Being able to hook people immediately with enticing gameplay and quality performance are imperative. Honestly, if Pokemon Go didn’t involve Pokemon there is absolutely no way it would have done well. The app was pretty poor, the developers continually shot themselves in the foot through slow patches, elements of the game not working or shutting down third party services that actually improved their own game.
However, if your game manages to make it to the 2-year point it is suggested that this is where retention starts to pick up again. Presumably, this is due to the quality of the game being at its peak. The developers have had time to take on feedback and make substantial improvements. Word of mouth is also a major reason new players start and hang around. But what is it that keeps people engaged. Quite simply, having things to do.
If people are enjoying your game, then you need to make sure they have enough to do. Destiny (not free-to-play, but still a good example) was applauded for its gameplay but lost lots of players due to a lack of content. Players wanted to play Destiny like an MMO and soak up every last inch of the game, but the game just wasn’t built for this level of consumption. Even with several expansions, regular patches and updates the game is still considered to be lacking in quality things to do. This is an issue. If you think of World of Warcraft or Final Fantasy XIV, there is no end of quests, skills to level, fish to catch and equipment to craft. They are made for people to sink thousands of hours into and still be left with an astounding amount of things left to do. Whether it’s a mobile or PC MMO, a game needs to have lots to do.
Look at the hugely successful Clash of Clans. It can easily be played in short bursts or longer sessions. Its success and of games like it has helped to drive the popularity smartphones. Players can carry it around with them and have a quick game on the train or while waiting in line for a coffee. There isn’t anything in Clash of Clans that requires players to pay real-world money for, instead, everything just takes a set amount of time. Players can spend real money on an in-game currency that speeds this up, but this is entirely optional. In fact, players can collect this currency slowly through performing in-game actions. However, for only a few pounds or dollars players can speed up the game and play for longer periods with ease. In this way, Clash of Clans earns money solely because of how enjoyable the game is. Players only spend money to keep enjoying the game without needing to take a break while they wait for their troops to refresh or buildings to be constructed. Players who put Clash of Clans down for the day inevitably come back later to check on the progress of their village and raid other players for resources. Short bursts of addicting gameplay work excellently at retaining players, on mobile games at least.
This can be a bit harder for PC MMOs because they often have a much richer set of systems, so aren’t built for quick paced gaming sessions. Instead, they draw the player in with beautiful worlds, complex systems and items, and the ability to play with others collaboratively. This social aspect is the reason many people play MMOs. Many of the people I know who previously played or currently play games like Final Fantasy XV or World of Warcraft are willing to pay a monthly fee because the game was of a high quality, but also because it allowed them to play with their friends.
Many free-to-play MMOs rely on people making and keeping friendships within their game world. This social gaming is key to the success of many games and when this is combined with addictive and enjoyable gameplay, then the game is going to be able to retain players. Even if a group stops playing for a time, it only takes one player to drag their friends back into it again and again.