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Tag Archives: Retention

The First Time User Experience

Let’s say you got a player to install your game. Hooray! You’ve got all sorts of hooks in place to keep them playing for weeks and months, but before the player encounters any of those, there’s a much more important retention concept you need to run through: The first time user experience.

The first 15 minutes of your game need to be stellar. During this time, you need to teach the player how to play the game, convince them to come back for a second play session, and make sure they have a fun time. On top of this, you might want to do other things, like ask them to invite other friends on Facebook or associate the account with Facebook or Google Plus. The first play session is the most crucial, and I really can’t emphasize enough how important it is. Criminal Case spent 30% of its development time doing nothing but working on the first time user experience! A team of 25 people spent six months working on an experience that isn’t even an hour long! It might sound ridiculous, but Criminal Case managed to keep 9 million daily average users after just six months!

You can have the greatest game in the entire world, but unless you make a fantastic first impression, that’s going to be of limited benefit. That first time user experience is crucial. Every second of that first experience needs to be carefully designed and tested over and over. You can’t get someone to play for months without getting them to play for hours.

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Posted by on September 12, 2014 in Game Thoughts

 

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Appointment Mechanics

When I talked about energy mechanics, I briefly mentioned that energy refilling with time was an example of an appointment mechanic. What is an appointment mechanic? It’s something that just tells a player “Hey, come back and play again later!”

The purpose of appointment mechanics is to make make playing the game into a habit, a routine part of your day. Remember that a free to play game lives or dies based on its ability to retain paying players, and a player is really only likely to become a paying player if they stick with the game for longer periods of time. It’s impossible to emphasize this enough. Retention, retention, retention. This isn’t limited to free to play games, either. If you’ve ever played an MMORPG, you’ve probably seen daily quests. Games with a focus on multiplayer or social elements may also have these, such as Animal Crossing’s fruit, Pokemon’s berry plants, and Nintendogs’ contests.

Come to think of it, all of those examples are from portable Nintendo games. I’ll have to examine this more closely in a future article.

Anyway, let’s look at some examples of appointment mechanics in games. I’m going to use Marvel: Avengers Alliance as an example here because it’s managed to retain me as a player for over two years, and I just hit the level cap this morning.

 

Energy

maa_energy

The game, like most free to play games, has an energy system. It costs 10 energy to initiate the core game loop (fight a battle), and it caps at 60 energy. Energy replenishes at a rate of one point per six minutes. This all boils down to a player being able to fight one battle per hour. A player gets up in the morning, burns through a few fights, goes to work, burns through some fights over lunch, returns to work, goes home, then players some more. That’s habituation right there.

 

Specialized Energy Systems

challengesimulator

In addition to the regular gameplay, ranked PvP battles and puzzle-like simulator challenges also require the expenditure of energy. However, this is a specialized form of energy that does not take away from the regular energy pool, so a player that engages in PvP or simulator challenges  loses nothing by engaging in the normal mission structure. I should note that “practice” PvP matches do not cost energy, but also provide no experience.

 

Remote Ops

remoteop

Players can use the flight deck to send their collected heroes off on remote ops missions. The heroes are unusable for a while, but when they come back, they’ll get a little experience and currency for your trouble. The experience your heroes gain might seem to break the “No experience without an energy cost” rule, but hero experience and player experience are different things. The real point here is that they bring back silver, M:AA’s soft currency. It’s like an invest/express game where you plant a crop, wait for some time, then collect your money. The real benefit here is that players get to choose their own timer and set their own appointment and expectation of when they’ll play the game again.

 

Training Time

maa_training

When heroes get enough experience to reach their next level, they need to train before they can gain more experience. While training, a hero can’t be used, but once you’re done, you can unlock new skills or equipment slots. This gets people looking forward to coming back. The higher a hero is in level, the longer it takes to train them. A hero that’s been used a lot is going to be missed more, and the player is going to be even more invested in seeing that hero come back from training.

 

Helping Friends

maa_social

Once per day per Facebook friend, you can go visit their cities and collect rewards. This is especially valuable when special events are running that require a special resource called Unstable ISO-8 to participate.

Gift Limits

maa_giftlimit

There’s a limit on how many gifts you can claim from friends each day. This is separate from the friend-visiting mechanic. I’ll go into this in more detail when it comes to social mechanics, but the general point here is that if you see a lot of a resource that you want (especially Unstable ISO-8!), you want to claim the gifts as often as you can.

Random Daily Login Reward

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It’s our old friend, the Random Daily Login Reward!

 

Daily PvP Quest

pvp_daily

While a PvP tournament is running, players can earn a random daily prize if they manage to win five battles. The player isn’t just being asked to come back to the game. The player’s being asked to participate and really get involved.

 

Daily Consecutive Login Rewards

Not only do you get a random reward for logging in, you also get a daily reward that improves in quality based on how many consecutive days you’ve logged in. This is an extremely powerful appointment mechanic that really deserves its own article.

Whew! I covered a lot. I hope this was educational. Still, that’s ten different types of things a player is waiting for, and that’s just in this one game. On top of that, only four of those things are tied to daily resets. Everything else is on a visible timer that ticks down while players watch and wait (Or break out their wallets to fast-forward). Like with energy mechanics, these can be monetized, but their real purpose is to make a game into a habit.

 
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Posted by on August 26, 2014 in Columns, Game Thoughts

 

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Energy and Retention

Let’s talk about a popular retention mechanic: Energy.

energy (1)

Sims Social Energy Icon

That’s right. Energy is a retention mechanic. It can be used to monetize (and do social stuff), but it’s primarily a retention tool.

Let’s define energy mechanics, just so we’re on the same page. Energy is a time-renewable resource consumed when players initiate a game’s core gameplay loops. It’s a rough definition and needs work, but it suits most of our discussion purposes.

I’ll break this down a little further, to make it clearer. Energy is a resource consumed when players initiate a game’s primary gameplay loops. A game’s core gameplay loop is what people would consider to be the broad actions of playing a game. Planting crops, solving puzzles, launching missions, investigating crime scenes, etc. When a player initiates this, the energy is consumed. Variations do exist, although they are still tied in concept; in Candy Crush Saga, your energy resource (“lives”) are only consumed if you do not successfully complete a puzzle. However, viewed from another angle, one could say that lives are consumed for attempting the puzzle, and your reward for beating it is to have your life refunded.

In any case, should a player exhaust all of their energy, they are unable to initiate the game’s core play loops. They may be able to do other things with the game, but these actions are usually limited to acquiring consumable resources. They cannot gain experience or see new content. The actions that cost energy and the actions that don’t cost energy aren’t decided arbitrarily. This is very deliberate.

Note how it costs SHIELD points, silver, and time to train Emma, but it does not take energy.

Note how it costs SHIELD points, silver, and time to train Emma, but it does not take energy.

Like I mentioned earlier, energy is a retention mechanic. Let’s think about what would happen if players didn’t have energy. They would start a game, and if they liked it, they’d just keep playing and playing. Eventually, they’d hit a point where they were done with all the content in the game. No more quests, no more puzzles, no more reason to keep playing. That’s when they quit. Even if you do have enough content, they can play until they burn themselves out and quit. That’s bad news for a game. A game needs money to live, and players aren’t usually willing to pay money until they’ve been playing for a while. The game needs player to come back every single day, building up a presence in that player’s life, being a constant source of fun and generating a feeling of good will. That’s when a player might decide it’s time to return the favor and give some money to the game.

That’s why energy can run out, but energy doesn’t just bottom out at zero. Energy has a cap; from casual observation, usually five iterations of the core play loop if it isn’t an invest/express game like Farmville, but in general, you get a play time of 15 to 30 minutes out of a full energy bar. I’ll save the talk about the specific numbers for a future talk, but the point is that energy can top out, and time that you spend with a full energy bar is energy that you’re losing by not having enough space in your bar to hold it. That triggers something called loss aversion. People don’t like losing things, and while a player might not literally be losing something here, they’re losing out on gaining energy, and that encourages people to check back throughout the day, see how they’re doing, and burn off some energy. This is something called an appointment mechanic. Appointment mechanics include things like rest XP in World of Warcraft, but it’s something I’ll talk more about later.

criminal case energy

Combined, those two are the main point of the energy system. Slow a player down so they don’t see all of a game’s content too quickly. Provide an incentive for them to play the game regularly. It’s both simple and effective. That said, energy can also be used for monetization and acquisition. Many games will allow players to spend money to buy energy. Used carefully, this can generate a lot of money, but you need to be careful of making sure players can’t just burn through all your content. On the other hand, if priced so a player spends more than the expected lifetime value burning through the content, maybe this might work out for you. The fact that practically every game will sell energy for money suggests that it usually works out for the best.

Energy is also used in many games as a social mechanic. You can ask your friends to give energy (or rather, click on a button that causes you to gain energy. They don’t actually lose any of their own). You can give energy to your friends. You can invite friends and get energy for it. You can visit your friends and collect energy. There are lots of ways this can work out, but it all boils down to players asking their friends to sign up and incentivizing them to play the game after they’ve signed up. This results in organic acquisitions, better retention, and an actual community of players who will talk to each other about your game.

nomorelives_copy

The player is being asked to wait, ask friends, or spend gold for additional lives.

It’s easy to see energy as primarily being a monetization mechanic, since players usually only see it as a popup that asks them for money, but its power as a retention tool really can’t be overstated. It’s simple and effective, and it’s no wonder that so many games use it.

 
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Posted by on August 22, 2014 in Game Thoughts, Retention

 

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Retention Tool #2: Random Daily Login Rewards

So you got someone to play your game. Congratulations! If you’re running a free to play game, though, your job’s just begun. You need to keep them coming back as often as possible. You want this new player to become a regular player. How do you get them to come back every day?

candy crush wheel

Free stuff! Everyone loves free stuff! In Candy Crush Saga, there’s a wheel in the lower-left corner. It spins and does whatever it can to catch your attention. If you give in to your curiosity and click on it, you get a much bigger wheel that you can click on. It spins and spins until the little clicker thing stops on a space, and you get that prize.

Screenshot-Claim_Daily_Reward

Marvel: Avengers Alliance has a random daily reward as well. A space is highlighted and it rotates quickly through all the different prizes until it slots down and stops on one of them. This isn’t limited to social or mobile games, either. Look at Warframe.

Rewards

It just cycles right through the rewards until it hands one over. Let’s take a moment and think about these random daily login rewards. For discussion’s sake, let’s go through that phrase backwards:

Rewards: The player gets a goody. Players love that.

Login: The player has to log into the game to get their tasty prize. It isn’t something that just builds up in their game account until they come to claim it.

Daily: This is the really important part. The whole reason this exists is to get users to come back every day. This cool prize is just waiting for players to collect them, and players can’t just log in every few days and collect a backlog of prizes from last week. They need to be in the game every single day. If they don’t show up, they don’t get anything!

Random: This is the part that really fascinates me. You have a daily login reward already. Why have a random element? The job’s done, isn’t it? Technically, yes, but it’s the random element that really makes the random daily login reward (I’m just going to call  it RDLR, not because that’s a real industry term, but because I’m getting tired of typing it.) so effective.

If you look at that Candy Crush image, you’ll see a big box labeled “Jackpot”. One of the spaces in the Marvel: Avengers Alliance image has Loki’s staff, just like in the movie! These RDLRs aren’t just prizes: They’re a VARIETY of prizes. They can be energy, or some premium currency, or a time-limited goody, but there’s always one prize that the players really want. In many of these games, the RDLR that players end up getting is usually a minor expendable resource, but there’s always the chance of getting something incredibly valuable. If the user skips a day, they aren’t just giving up a free energy refill. They’re giving up the chance to get that big prize!

The games make a big show of the random element, as well. A big wheel spins. A light cycles through the options. There are ticks and beeps and other noises that slow down and build suspense. The player might almost get that big prize, only for a last-moment shift that settles on a different reward.

Those “near-misses” are carefully-engineered. Like modern slot machines, there aren’t any physics involved. They generate a random number, likely in the thousands or hundreds of thousands, and have that mapped to a prize. They play an animation to make it settle on the pre-determined prize, and the ticker slowing down near the jackpot is an intentional tool to raise suspense. It reminds the players that those big prizes exist, and that maybe tomorrow, they’ll be luckier.

The daily login reward might seem minor, but it’s a small moment of excitement, right when you start the game. It’s an experience! It’s four to five seconds of fun! It sets the mood for the entire rest of the play session, and it gets the user thinking about coming back tomorrow.

PS: Look at that “Try Again”  button on the Avengers Alliance screenshot. They figured out how to monetize the RDLR! Brilliant!

Addendum: After attending tonight’s SV IGDA meeting, it was brought to my attention that it need not be random at all. It only needs the appearance of randomness. For example, a player who hasn’t logged into the game in a while might log in, and to encourage them to stay with the game, they might be presented with the highly-desirable item.

 
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Posted by on August 13, 2014 in Game Thoughts, Retention

 

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The Freemium Funnel

Free to play’s been featuring heavily on my mind lately, and I figured I could shed some light on how freemium games make their money. This applies to all free to play games. This is not exclusively a casual concept. Remember that Team Fortress 2, League of Legends, and DotA2 are all free to play games. Many of these lessons, I learned from Design Rules for Free-To-Play Games. Specifically, the extra chapters you get for buying the eBook version.

To understand free to play games, you need to understand three major concepts: Acquisition, retention, and monetization. These are stages of a player’s life cycle, and the company wants to make sure that as many players get to that final stage as possible.

Acquisition

This is the process of acquiring a new player. Getting new players usually comes from spending money on marketing and from organic growth when users get their friends to play. A key concept here is the Cost Per Acquisition (CPA. Also called CPI or Cost Per Install, but let’s stick with CPA), which is how much it costs, on average, to get a player to start playing your game.

Retention

Retention is keeping those players you just spent money to acquire. This is often described as seven day retention, thirty day retention, or something along those lines. A seven day retention rate of 50% means that half of the people who sign up for your game are still playing it a week later. A game with a high retention rate is one that players keep coming back to. Eventually, though, every player stops playing a game, and this is called churn, the opposite of retention. A game with a high churn rate is a game that players aren’t sticking with.

Monetization

When a player decides to spend money on your game, that’s when they’re monetized. If you’re lucky, you’ll see a 10% conversion rate (a term to describe how many players decide to convert into paying players). This is what pays the bills and keeps the game running. The important concepts in monetization are Average Revenue Per User (ARPU), Average Revenue Per Paying User (ARPPU), and Lifetime Value(LTV). ARPU is how much money you get on average from each player you have. ARPPU is how much money you get on average from your paying players. LTV is how much money a player is likely to pay, on average, before they quit playing.

What This All Means

The success of a freemium game can (in extremely broad terms) be summarized by comparing the Cost Per Acquisition to the Lifetime Value. This is how much money you spend to get someone to start playing your game and how much money they’re likely to give you before they stop playing. If you have a low CPA and a high LTV, you’re doing great! On the other hand, if you reach a point where you’re paying more to get a user than they’re going to pay, it’s probably time to sunset the game.

Where Design Fits In

For the most part, design in a free to play game is about retention, retention, retention. That isn’t to say that designers can ignorer acquisition or monetization; the game would fail if they didn’t. I just mean that retention helps with acquisition and monetization all by itself. A healthy retention rate means players stick with a game for longer, giving them more time to convert to being a paying user and giving them more time to convert into a paying user and boost LTV. A game with great retention means that the game gets a large community with a lot of seasoned players who can drive organic traffic and bring in more users, who will themselves bring in more users, which drives down CPA.

There are techniques you can use to design retention into a game. Giving players rewards for logging in on consecutive days is a popular one, and getting the player to schedule appointments to check in on the game (Come back in 24 hours to harvest your strawberries!) is also common. There’s one technique even more common than those two, though, and it’s a technique that every game, freemium or not, strives for, and achieving it has been the subject of countless books and endless debate: Just make the game fun.

 
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Posted by on August 11, 2014 in Game Thoughts

 

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