Saturday, June 2, 2012

The Shortening MMO Retention Curve

Psychochild writes:
"Raph Koster has pointed out that big MMOs follow fairly predictable growth curves. The fact there's been a drop so far so fast means that curve has gotten shorter, or the curve has changed dramatically. Neither is a positive sign for traditional MMOs."
I wonder if Koster's famous graph from 2007 was the last point in history in which the model worked. 

I stayed with WoW raiding through 2006 despite generally low satisfaction because where else was I going to go?  LOTRO wasn't out yet, nor had EQ2 completed the Rise of Kunark era revamp that made it accessible to solo players.  If solo play was a substantial part of your gaming, it was WoW or bust through mid-2007. 

I've never seen hard numbers for what happened over the summer of 2007, but Blizzard made a dramatic shift towards "accessibility" starting in the fall of that year.  I don't think it's a coincidence that this change in emphasis coincided with Blizzard's first real competition for the solo demographic and their revenue. 

By contrast, a dissatisfied customer today almost certainly has one or more alternatives (unless, of course, they're focused on open world PVP, sandbox games or other things that don't fit in the "theme park" model) - as Psychochild points out, this includes increasingly high-production-value single player games.  Moreover, recent history suggests that it is very rarely a good investment of your time and money to stick with a game that launches in an unsatisfactory state.  Games that ship unfinished are very likely to do poorly enough to force layoffs that ensure that they never get finished. 

It's easy for us talking heads who spend time writing about games on blogs instead of playing games to admonish our peers for failing to "support" innovation.  In reality, we're customers, not investors, and it is very unlikely that our one purchase, or even several hundred purchases, are going to make or break a game's success in a way that shapes future development.  As a blogger I might prefer to see any and all games succeed, but as a consumer I can't in good conscience recommend throwing money at something you aren't enjoying just because it has some trait you would like to encourage.   That may indeed be a non-positive sign for the market, but I don't see it changing anytime soon.


  1. While the shortening of the MMO "retention curve" may not be a positive sign for "traditional MMOs", I can't see why it's necessarily negative for traditional MMO players. Are we sure we prefer to be locked-in to a single MMO for years at a time rather than than spending three months here, six months there in half a dozen over the same period?

    I've always played multiple MMOs concurrently. Within my first year of playing (1999-2000) I'd subscribed to EQ, UO, AC and The Realm. Over the years this has become a more and more attractive option with the growth of open betas, F2P and Freemium models.

    I don't see it as a bad thing if MMO developers begin designing their worlds in the expectation that players will come and go rather than come and stay. They just need to be cannier about offering frequent incentives to pop back in and see what's new and about not raising barriers to entry that can only be crossed by massive investment of time.

    The MMO did not spring fully-formed in final, immutable perfection from the brow of Raph Koster or Brad McQuaid or Richard Garriott. The form is a work in progress and with luck it will still be morphing into new forms for decades to come.

  2. Two comments @Bhagpuss:
    - "We" is not a single uniform demographic. For traditional MMO players who raid/PVP/etc with their friends, being "locked in" is the only way to ever get anything done. Choice is paradoxically bad because your guild can no longer agree on what game to play.

    - The downside to designing the world around nomadic playerbase is that it could dramatically curtail the scope of games. It's great for me that I can spend $30 each on six games and snag all the content for the price of one $180 annual fee. It's less great for those six developers, who will either need to get six times as many customers, extract more money from their non-nomad customers (see: gambling boxes), or cut development accordingly.

  3. On supporting innovation:

    You're right in that it makes no sense to support innovation in itself, because that's not what we're paying for. We're paying for fun. If you're innovating in crappy games, the market should make you go do that with someone who can make the game fun.

    And if the product sucks, it doesn't necessarily devalue the innovation. An innovation will be recognized as such and will have a good chance of making it into a future game that IS actually fun.

    On the nomadic playerbase:

    Many MMO's are so huge, I have no hope of ever finishing them, so having more MMO's with smaller scope works for me.

    I've been playing Guild Wars for about a year, I'm 1/2 way through one of the three campaigns I bought. I will NEVER see all the content in that game.

  4. There's also the fact games are failing to adequately utilize the stickiness of social connections. The more the better. Facebook proves that works.

  5. I believe Rift does this retention well. They are on their 9th major content update since release (about a year ago?)

    The game is amazingly different now, and have been back since 1.7

    Perhaps you should take another look at it.


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