The years have grown and expanded the MMO community significantly. It's still hard to believe that it's been over a decade since Ultima Online chugged along on our connections to AOL; that Dark Age of Camelot seemed like it would have a permanent place in some of our hearts. Even the fact that World of Warcraft is five years old seems a long stretch of time, enough to make some of us feel old. There's a lot that we, as an MMO community, have seen, many people we have known, many games we have left behind, and new horizons that we continue to look to. Once in a while, however, our nostalgia kicks in, and we wander back to where we started.
It's a simple truth: players come back. With all the time we invest in our gaming, and all the changes that each game undergoes over time, we become curious. What have our "old friends" gone through while we've been gone? Who still remains? Why did we enjoy the game? Why did we leave? So, we come back. Sometimes we stay a while, reconnect with old friends and guild mates, or find ourselves enjoying the game. Other times, we wonder why we bothered with the downloading and installing in the first place.
Good game companies recognize this, and offer regular "welcome back" specials to players that have gotten lost along the way. Come back for free, get some extra experience, and make sure you check out the new stuff is usually how the advertisement goes, just as it will this weekend with Lord of the Rings Online's regular Welcome Back Week, an event that got me back to the game on a regular basis. City of Heroes also offers regular "welcome backs," Age of Conan offered one after their last major patch, and Lineage II recently offered one of these events. Even World of Warcraft is offering a seven day come back offer.
Some of you will point out that these events are marketing ploys to win back players who left the game - you'd be right. After all, who better to lure into the game than once loyal players who already helped fund the game's progress? They are, after all, the ones who can see and praise the game's progress, or find sentimental attachment to what once was. They lend character to the game's community, able to relate stories of the glorious or horrible past, and provide experience for newer players to learn from. In a way, they're like the old folks who shake a wavering finger and say, "Back in my day, we had to grind both ways up the hill, without epics." Their insight is valuable - not just for the players of the community, but for the developers themselves, who can hear and see the feedback of someone who's not only been around a long time, but who has left and come back.
As fun and interesting as it can be to come back to an old game, it's not always easy. Getting the game installed, patches downloaded, settings readjusted, and then picking up where you left off can be daunting. In fact, that very process is often what keeps ex-players from coming back during these events in the first place. There are two things that game companies can do to remove the barriers to those they want back:
- Make a quick download client. A "lite" client that contains the essentials and early areas (as many players who come back first start new characters) can ease the load of players who simply want to drop in and say hello, or see a few new changes. Players who want more can go for a full install or a background download of the full client.
- Provide a quick guide to returning players of "What's changed since you've been gone." Clearly customizing this for every player is too much, but it's no harm to create a guide that documents quickly, and clearly, the major changes of the game, especially those that directly affect game play. Offering in-game GMs or counselors for these events also can alleviate the pressure off players from not keeping up on the game's changes in their absence.
That's just to get ex-players back in, though. Once we're in, we have a chance to become attentive critics, and that's why developers should also actively seek feedback from those who log in during these welcome back events, via surveys to all participants. As mentioned above, ex-players have strong, unique insights into the development of a game. They can provide not only a quantitative, but also a qualitative, analysis of the progress on major game developments. All opinions are subjective, of course, but quality feedback can be gathered and analyzed when looked at on a larger scale. Besides, players like knowing that their opinion is not only valued, but solicited.
Hopefully, more companies will follow suit in opening come-back trials for lost players. We can't live in yesterday, unfortunately, and many of the games we played in the past have simply aged, no matter their forward progress. The more these games age, the more they tarnish, but bringing back the people that helped guide the games to where they ended up is sometimes the right amount of polish to add.