A couple of blog posts inspired this particular Devil's Advocate today, and they all play a part in the overall theme of player retention. It’s going to get a little “bloggy” in here, so bear with us.
Going chronologically let me first point you to a post by Keen on Keen and Graev's Gaming Blog. Keen points out that for a large number of gamers these days, a new MMO has one chance to make an impression, and that, if the impression isn't good or is otherwise not a perfect, fully-featured MMO experience or world, the average gamer of this day and age is likely to take his money elsewhere.
Keen also points out that change is necessary to avoid what he calls the MMO three-monther phase, where gamers stick for a short while, then move on to another game. His idea is that if an MMO exists that “drastically altered how players perceived the act of playing, then maybe the player's mind will be drawn to other areas, thus giving developers time to actually patch” in new content.
Over on Hardcore Casual, Syncaine puts up a very good point about pointing resources and designs toward particular directions. He basically says that games can either be designed for long-term retention for a dedicated player base, or it can seek to continually cater to everyone and fail in trying to do so.
Syncaine also makes a good argument for having a world by making the players the content of an MMO. While his rhetoric is a bit pointed against certain theme-park tropes, the point remains that you can get endless “free” content by engaging players and making them the authors of their own tales and adventures.
Lastly, over on Mana Obscura, Gazimoff asks about the retention rate of Star Wars: The Old Republic. He cites research related to the churn rate of World of Warcraft and of subscriber retention, and predicts that the subscriber base will settle into a healthy million players after the second month: probably enough to turn a profit and make up for the $200M investment, but potentially not enough to please everyone who had a stake in SWTOR and wanted to get richer quicker.
The Retention Conundrum
Personally, I feel that one of the mistaken ideas these days about the game space is that it's an all-or-nothing bid for subscribers and players: that you must get a subscriber, keep him, or damn it all to hell. This is not how the art of subscriber retention is made these days, because the nature of the games being played has also changed.
One of the things Keen noted in his post linked above is that World of Warcraft steadily grew its subscriber numbers by refining the game repeatedly and introducing new elements, all of which are now seen as standard in a theme-park MMO. Syncaine, who is currently playing EVE Online, is enjoying a world that has also constantly evolved (with a few debatable missteps here and there).
The modern MMO needs to address the idea that a majority of gamers are looking for fully-formed experiences they can play, with the years of evolution culminating in something meaningful for them. They also have to take into consideration the many available options out there that allow them to have meaningful experiences beyond a single game world. The issue, however, is that in a quest for monetary return on investment, I feel developers aren't keen on accepting that people will leave.
Depending on the success of SWTOR to maintain a healthy, profitable subscriber base, I think it's time developers accounted more for people leaving and coming back to play the game after trying something new.
Some developers, especially those in theme-park games, feel that nerfing raid content and retooling and giving out “welfare epics” is the way to keep people interested, but it hasn't worked. SWTOR is banking on subscribers rerolling and experiencing the other fully-voiced stories to maintain customers, but that may not be the solution for all games, especially theme-park games. I know a good voiceover hasn't kept me from switching subs or maintaining multiple free to play games.
The answer, at least in my opinion, is for developers to keep making content and new features, to keep fixing bugs and polishing the game, and to convince the folks bankrolling the games to give them some breathing room for evolution in exchange for longer-term gains in profit over a few years rather than gazillions in a month or two. By maintaining a healthy subscriber base through constant content and polish and augmenting it through happy returning players (who come back to see what's new and are flabbergasted that so much awesomeness has happened), you can have the makings of many game worlds filled with new players and more potential for long-term industry growth.
Of course, convincing a 60-year old investor to accept long-term gains when he doesn't have the same number of years in front of him as a 40-year old investor is going to be tough. I think, however, that the most difficult thing about doing this sort of mental readjustment is convincing everyone that they play a part in making the future of MMORPGs as a whole bright.
Chances, Choices, and Changes
Despite what some might say about today's MMO gaming sphere, I believe that we as gamers are pretty well-off these days. We are not starved for choices in MMORPGs, and there are many that cater to various genres and gameplay styles.
Retaining players is harder than ever due to the many games available for people to play, both online and off, but I feel that the chance is there to grow the MMORPG industry as a whole. Developers should choose to accept that some players will come and go - and that their dedicated subscriber base will keep them healthy - and work towards creating new experiences for long-term, new, and returning players. Dedicated supporters of games would do well to show the games they love their support by fostering a strong, cohesive community that can be inclusive and without hatred or disdain for others and helpful enough to acclimatize new players to a growing world.
By doing this, subscriber retention won't be a problem, because the system of the gaming world would already be changed. It's a bit ideal perhaps, but it's something worth working towards if you want the future of your MMORPG hobby to be assured.