Storms on Cloud 9 #32:
by Scott Holliday
Obviously, the title of this article is mostly irony. The majority of online games have a hard enough time gaining an audience. In contrast, losing players is all too easy. On the other hand, while you've got them, they're completely yours. The key then is to rope them in and keep them.
Sounds easy enough, but why is it such a problem? A common bit of wisdom circulating around the industry is that you will get your highest numbers in the first few months. After that, you are doomed to a slow outward trickle. Why? Very simply, the initial influx is associated with the desire to try something new or maybe even the competitive rush to the top. After that, if you lose a player for a moment, they might never be back. Whether it's another game, a different interest, or just getting more sleep, you've lost them.
So what can you do to keep them? Unfortunately, the most likely answer is that whatever you do can't really change the world. Only the most "hardcore" or devoted players are still playing the same games they were five or ten years ago. Even games that have tried to keep up with technology and new gameplay mechanics start looking old and dry for new players. And though it's nice to aim to capture the hardcore audience, what makes you think they'll leave the game they are in currently?
Assuming all of this is true, what's the point of this article? The reason it still matters is a difference of degrees. What order of magnitude is acceptable for player loss? Ideally, your amount of loss would be less than your influx. Considering it hasn't ever happened yet, don't bet your chickens. On the other hand, losing the occasional player is much better than bleeding them out from a mortal wound. It's the difference between remaining profitable (or at least viable) for years instead of months (or days).
All that said, what can be done? There are many "right" answers. Good stable code. Friendly customer service. Depth of content. Designing systems to enhance gameplay rather than annoy players. Encouraging the community by special events and offers. Rewarding players for their efforts in improving the experience for everyone. All of these are clearly important. However, one of the most important lessons I learned in dealing with any audience actually comes from public speaking. Take their eyes and don't give them back
This is also the stage magician's mantra, even though the intent is the opposite. Whenever you are faced with an audience, you must capture their attention and then keep it directed. For teaching, or giving a presentation, this usually involves constantly keeping the eyes busy. First, you point their eyes to the first idea. Give them time to understand it, but not enough time to wander. Before they have time to lose interest, you quickly move their eyes to the next idea. For those of you who love laser-pointers, one important lesson is to move the pointer slowly enough so that their eyes follow from each point of interest. The stage magician uses the exact same techniques. By gluing your eyes to the motions your see, the real trick occurs somewhere else.
So how does this apply to online games? I think the answer should be obvious. Make sure every moment is filled with something that is of interest. As an example, think of how many online games require vast amounts of meaningless travel. Some games brag how their world is millions of square miles--meaning that it just takes that much longer to get from point A to point B. In the case of a certain game I played a few years ago, travel was so monotonous (and long) that many players would use tape to hold the "run" button down and then go watch TV. To the ever-decreasing community, it became known as the "massively multiplayer screensaver."
However, travel is just one of the most obvious examples. Whenever you have a case of "wash, rinse, repeat" eventually your players are going to feel cleaned out. Players wouldn't normally have any desire to make bots or scripts if the gameplay itself was interesting. The same combat over and over can be just as bad, even if you can't tape down a button to speed through it.
So how do you spice it up? First, look for tasks that can't be automated. Conversation, puzzle-solving, riddles, pattern-recognition. For many of the rest, if a computer can do it better than a player, odds are it's pretty boring. Second, make sure that player skill and memory has some importance. Nothing is more meaningless than issuing the command to "fight" then sitting back to watch it unfold. Third, make each moment important. During combat, hints or cues or "critical moments" can add a lot of excitement to the game. Lag and latency will cause problems sometimes, but the chance to make a difference in the outcome will help keep the player at the screen. Last, mix it up. Travel would be more exciting if there was constant danger. Random encounters, traps, weather, or even the chance to find something valuable or interesting. Combat would be more interesting if it involved your brain. One of the best game experiences that I've had involved a standard creature that had been reskinned with a different texture. We knew he was special, but we couldn't figure out how to beat him. We kept coming back and trying different things until we figured it outů and had a great time doing it.
Some upcoming games have taken an entirely different approach. Travel is boring? Then why have travel at all? Click the map, and there you are. I've often heard it described as the "movie" strategy. You don't see people in movies riding a meaningless car trip for hours. So why would you want to watch your character do it? On the other hand, some players might say the same about leveling, or combatů or even conversation. So I suppose this approach helps define who your players are.
As conclusion I'll give an exercise for you designers out there: imagine yourself having fun playing a computer game. At that moment, what would your character be doing? Now imagine the same game, except your character is doing that exact same task over and over.
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