One of the really strong MMO panels at GDC this year was the MMO Rention Panel with Gordon Walton and Scott Hartsman. Gordon and Scott are two of the top MMO designers in the world today and both have a wealth of knowledge on our industry, player perspectives, and overall game play with any online game. If you do not know who they are, Gordon Walton is currently working on Star Wars: The Old Republic and Scott Hartsman is working at Trion. True veterans of the industry it was no wonder they tackled the topic of keeping players in an MMO. They addressed things that worked, things that did not work and kept the crowd entertained with some of the triumphs and epic fails.
The first thing addressed in the session was that there is no silver bullet for keeping players in an MMO. There are different methods that have proven to work, but nothing is set in stone and players can leave for a variety of different reasons. The guys gave a list of some things that do work in game terms: compelling fantasy activity, always have the game available, persistence of data (keep the game current), ongoing support and service, have an evolving play environment. These principles list out as pretty basic, but they do bring up a good solid point. The question here is; how many MMOs actually meet these criteria? In looking at Gordon and Scott's list, several do not add up.
The guys mentioned Player Mastery as a factor in keeping MMO players happy. They stressed the idea of "giving players new ways to be awesome in your game." As gamers we love to master skills. If you look at PvP combat, everyone likes to beat other players through sheer skill. If games cater to players who enjoy mastering their skills then players will look to return. If you give them new ways to master skills then you really have a great chance of having them return often. This technique works well, but it can give the developers a lot to think about. Another area here that was touched on was game balance. Although game balance is a major issue in MMOs, Gordon pointed out that players love to find a game imbalance which can give them a possible edge. This is all part of player mastery.
The largest area that developers can use to track player retention is in game data. Almost any developer knows that the value of in game data is eternal. It gives you a clear picture on what your players are doing on a daily basis. If you have a great capture tool for data then you can track and see trends in what players are doing through metrics. In almost any service style business metrics can drive new plans to help customers. In games, metrics can be used to form strategies on a new expansion. This information is essential to MMOs because players continue to come back to the game.
In some of their examples, Gordon and Scott talked about the good and bad experiences they had. Scott brought up EverQuest's Hell Levels. He said many players were leaving the game just before they hit a Hell Level, a rough spot for keeping players in game. Gordon mentioned two instances the first was with Ultima Online and how players were given a reward for their subscription. This was great because it showed how long they had been playing. The other was an older game called Air Warrior. The game began adding Historical scenarios which many of the veteran players stayed for. If a new Historical dog fight was about to be released it would draw in the players who had put the game down for a time.
The panel was great for developers and players alike to really take a good solid look at what we do in MMOs and what keeps us coming back to them. Scott gave the developers some great advice which was "eat your own dog food!" He said that devs must play their games to see things from the player's point of view and find out what they like to do. As I finish up this article I think it is more about the question of MMO retention overall than an actual review of the panel itself. I wonder what keeps you playing an MMO? What are your reasons to return? Perhaps we can give the developers some new ideas as well.