Free to play MMOs are in a significant position in the market today, as things have shifted toward a fewer strings attached model over time. First mostly limited to imported, cheaper games funded entirely through cash shops, today' s free to play game may be from a AAA developer or a small, independent one. It might be a traditional MMORPG or come under a classification of “MMO” for data purposes and include genres like MOBAs. Although getting players into a game seems to be the earliest focus, what's really impacting the bottom line seems to be player retention. A new report released last week looks at player retention---how many players continue to play a given game—in free to play MMOs and features some important numbers.
It's common to see much by way of MMO population drops over time. This particular analysis focuses on free to play games and, if the data is accurate (SuperData claims its data comes from “publishers, developers and payment service providers”) is a low number. If a player begins a game during its first 30 days in service, there is just a 6.2% chance that same player will be playing a year from that first date. While populations do tend to drop for MMOs, this figure shows just how steep that drop is over time. At the 60-day mark, it’s down to 13% of the original launch month playerbase, so most of the damage is already done to the population in the first couple of months. To put that into perspective, free to play games counted in this five-year span, lost 77% of initial launch month population by the 60-day mark.
These are free to play games, you might say, and declare players have no reason to be loyal to games they’re most likely not paying for. And you’d be right in there being no pressure to continue playing, yet merely being free to play isn’t a sole reason to blame for not having loyalty to a game. The fact there are so many games to choose from these days is another factor. Where once a smaller population was spread out across perhaps five or six games, today there is always another choice, especially as free to play models and hybrid models have not just achieved a form of legitimacy, but are often an expected model, especially for certain game types.
When we’re at a point where many players or would-be players adopt a ‘wait and see’ or ‘I’ll wait until it’s free’ attitude, the priority seems to have shifted toward keeping those players you can keep around and hope to treat them well in the hopes the word of mouth will help. Developers boast about making their games more accessible by removing the barrier to entry in the form of subscriptions and fees, but that doesn’t mean free to play is a complete answer. If your player base consists of 6% of the original launch audience, that could be a serious sign of trouble, especially when most free to play game players don’t pay.
Although switching to a free or hybrid model seems to be a salvation for some games, these models encourage, but don’t require, ongoing payment. Yet the SuperData analysis also includes games like MOBAs, which face different issues than traditional MMOs. MOBAs are constantly shifting due to an evolving meta, as well as notorious community issues and difficult gameplay. There’s also no meaningful character progression that is an attribute that does keep more traditional MMO players sticking around. So I’d take the figures here with some caution, as they’re an average across distinct genres lumped together. Yet some problems, like MMORPGs’ fast leveling progression, where hitting cap used to take months and now takes weeks or less, might play a role in making players feel less obligated to stay. Perhaps the lower figures on the end of a year reflect those players who feel they’ve done all they could and experienced all the content and there’s nothing left but the same replayable content.
Launches are popular times, but players aren’t sticking around for too long after launch, leading to a loyal core group of users upon which studios need to keep trying to retain. Even if a game sees a successful launch period, it makes you wonder if people are locked into the idea that an MMO experience is going to be finite when they begin playing? The attitude is common among MMO tourists, those who figure they’ll play the free 30 days and leave, or those who consider a game to be a two to three month stop before the next thing comes out.
So while launches are notorious for often being full of trouble, they’re also the most buzzing times on the servers and the one time when everything is new and fresh. They attract players, but those players may not always stick around or show any loyalty. It is clearly vital to attract as many players as possible during launch month, if this is any indication. Two years later, if a game sees an influx of new players, presumably after making improvements, adding features, and maintaining overall stability, there’s hope for a larger, higher-quality population with a slower decay. The impact of time upon a game’s population seems to have a good effect. If a game can run successfully for two years, then it will start to attract players that are genuinely interested in trying the game for itself and not merely out of boredom or on a passing whim.