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Column: How Can ArenaNet Get Ex-Players Back Into The Game?

By Jason Winter on August 11, 2014

There are two types of MMO fans that companies make significant efforts to satisfy. Obviously, players who are currently active in the game get attention, while people who have never tried the game are the main targets of advertising and promotional campaigns.

But what about the third category of player? The one who used to play the game but doesn't any more? How can an MMO company reach these people and, most importantly, get them back into the fold? Specifically, what could Guild Wars 2 do about this?

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Unlike subscription-based MMOs, Guild Wars 2 can't really offer a “free weekend” to lure people back. Gem-store discounts are nice, but how often have you been lured back to a game by them saying, “Hey, here's a different way for you to spend money!”

A lot of people quit a game because they get bored of it or it “offends” them somehow, by nerfing something they loved or introducing something they hate. While MMOs do make some effort to draw people back in with descriptions of what's changed in the game, they rarely put on the same kind of push they do at launch. Should they?

Millions of voices, suddenly silent

Let's look at the numbers for Guild Wars 2. Even after just one year, GW2 had a lot of lapsed players. The game has sold over 3.5 million copies (that was as of a year ago; we'll probably hear an updated figure as the second anniversary draws near, but we'll go with this one for now), but the number of currently active players is... well, a guess. It's commonly assumed to be somewhere between 500,000 and one million players, which would mean somewhere around 75% to 85% of people who bought Guild Wars 2 no longer partake of it. That's 3 million or so “semi-fans” who were attracted to the game at one point but drifted away – and 3 million fans that don't usually receive much attention from acquisition-based marketing.

So there are around 3 million potential “old-new” players. Some are unreachable and will never come back; they didn't like the combat or how there are no raids or whatever. Short of a major overhaul to the game, which would be akin to the Star Wars: Galaxies New Game Experience (which went so well), there's practically nothing ArenaNet can do to get them back.

But if a they could get just 10% of those bodies back in the game – around 300,000 – that would be a major boost to the population and, in theory, sales in the Gem Store. That seems worth it. But how to accomplish that?

Manifesto destiny

For that, we can look back at how the game was originally pitched. The centerpiece was, of course, the Manifesto. While it's certainly fair to criticize the disconnect between what it promised and what was delivered, there's no doubt that it had a profound effect on attracting people to the game. Nowadays, instead of lavishly produced pieces like this, we mostly get minute-long trailers and 30-minute podcasts. Both are nice, but the first don't really tell us much and the second seem more keyed to existing players; lapsed players probably don't learn much from the first and have little interest in watching the second.

As effective as the Manifesto was, I'm surprised there haven't been any true follow-ups. What if there was a similar video, produced maybe every year or so, that was a kind of recap of the changes to the game that addressed many of the community's concerns? Right now, if you're a lapsed player, you can research everything that's changed, but, spread out as it is, you're unlikely to do so. A one-stop, well-promoted, must-view video, in the same vein as the Manifesto, would solve that issue.

For instance, last year's “One Year Anniversary” video could have covered: the Living Story, and how it adds content to the game every two weeks; the addition of fractals as a kind of incrementally more difficult PvE content; and ascended gear, which would be a touchy subject and should probably be a little honest about it (like how it's only slightly statistically better than exotic).

The Two-Year video would talk about changes to the Living Story and permanent content; the new wardrobe system; megaservers and a more populated world; and maybe Edge of the Mists, which is only-sorta PvP but helps solve the major issue of WvW queues.

Note that nearly every topic I'm addressing covers a complaint that people had about the game and that probably caused a good number of them to quit. ArenaNet probably has better information than this on why people quit, but these cover a lot of the posts I see online that start, “When I played, this part of the game was pretty bad, did they do anything to fix it?”

In fact, a middling dose of honesty would probably do wonders for people who think ANet was too full of themselves and could do no wrong. They can't totally say, “We screwed up” in a promotional video, but they could include lines like, “Think dungeons are too easy? Try fractals!” “World bosses are facerolls? Try the revamped Tequatl or Three-Headed Jungle Worm!” “You wanted more control over your character's look? Check out our new wardrobe system!” “Hate Trahearne? You can kill him in the Living Story!”

OK, so we don't have that last one... yet.

Promotion predicaments

So, once that message is out there, how would it be promoted? How can you reach players who aren't playing the game any more?

Surprisingly, traditional social media could work. I've studied MMO Facebook and Twitter follower activity for a while, and games rarely lose net followers. Sure, some people come and go, but the overall numbers keep going higher, except for the most unsuccessful of games. If an MMO's active population stays steady or declines over time, as is popularly believed, then the fact that these numbers keep going up would indicate that players don't necessarily stop following the game when they stop playing it. In other words, there are a lot of lapsed players who still follow Guild Wars 2 on social media.

As I write this, Guild Wars 2 has 1,053,138 Likes on Facebook. As we estimated above, the game probably doesn't have a million active players, and many who do play don't follow it on Facebook. So there are a lot of non-players who do follow it. (By comparison, an MMO that started huge and stumbled big time, Star Wars: The Old Republic, still has 2,411,107 Likes on Facebook.) Numbers are smaller on Twitter, but the same principle holds: Unlike with active player numbers, these numbers always go up and represent a large number of inactive players and other folks who haven't disconnected with the game enough to completely break all ties with it. (YouTube appears to be another story.)

For those who have stopped following the game closely, the video would still be sent out to all the major media sites (like this one) and potentially viewed by a bunch more former players. And it could also serve as a nice centerpiece at conventions and other appearances.

Not only Guild Wars 2, but nearly every MMO could use some way to win back players, yet it's something that they only seem to give the barest attention to, and I'm not really sure why that is. What other ideas would you have for getting lapsed players back into Guild Wars 2 as it is today? (And this isn't about “what they NEED to change to get ME back” but about what they could do with the current game to get players back. Stay classy, comments section.)

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