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Devs share free-to-play retention tips

Raph Koster, Steve Meretzky and more give advice on upping retention for everything from social casino to hidden object games

If the Game Developers Conference is a place to exchange ideas, there may be no more efficient use of time at the show than the microtalks sessions. The first such session this year took place Monday as part of the Free-to-Play Design and Business Summit, and packed insights on player retention from seven veteran developers into a series of six-minute talks. For readability's sake, here are quick recaps of each speaker's main points.

Steve Meretzky | Vice President of Creative, GSN Games

Meretzky's talk was about the social casino field and daily log-in bonuses. He said such bonuses for players checking in with a game every day are incorporated in most genres, but there's a unique twist to it in social casino games. In free-to-play games, the core loop of grinding adds money to the player economy, while the purchase of items drains it. However, in social casino games, the core gameplay loop is actually the drain to the in-game economy.

As a result, social casino games deal with the log-in bonuses in different ways, Meretzky said, saying some titles go so far as to have hourly bonuses. The thing players care most about is the betting currency, Meretzky said, and they care about how much you give them and how often you give it to them. But beyond that, the retention loops in social casino games are still in the very early stages, and he expects a lot of progress on that front in the next year or two.

John Welch | Co-Founder & President, Making Fun, Inc.

Welch focused his microtalk on battle card games, saying one big advantage of the genre is that there's a nearly endless supply of content to give players. In Dominion Online, there is no retention plan other than having a ton of great gameplay, Welch said. But for those that do employ retention tactics, there are a variety of options. Limited time in-game events and daily log-in bonuses are common, but there are more clever ways out there. For example, Defender of Texel uses limited time achievements, while Lil Alchemist adds research timers to the process of combining cards.

It's nice if you have a great game, Welch said, but it's really hard to create a game like Dominion or Hearthstone. As a result, most top card games need to be more skilled at using timers to drive urgency and get players to keep coming back.

Raph Koster | Designer, Independent

Koster focused on long-term retention tips, starting with the obvious: using quests to guide people. However, he cautioned people not to overburden the player with a rigidly determined quest progression line. Instead of constructing a game around fulfilling checklists (which means players will leave once they've finished the checklist), it's better to build games that don't require such a significant investment in ongoing content development.

"Building Games" like Dwarf Fortress, Minecraft, and SimCity gave players reasons to play even after they'd finished any pre-determined objectives. They let them create their own narratives, something developers can encourage by enabling new stories or sharing their experiences with others. Koster even suggested ditching a standard tile system for game interfaces, saying players could not only fit more items on screen (which could be sold to them), but would also be encouraged to creatively express themselves in the game and share the results with other. Trading items between players is another option that can increase retention in a game, but Koster warned it reduces the average revenue per user.

Teut Weidemann | Senior Online Games Supervisor, Ubisoft Blue Byte

Weidemann talked about retention in shooters, saying the game itself should ideally be enough to get players to come back. But if you're going to use log-in bonuses, there are better ways to do it than just giving players currency as soon as they show up. He pointed to World of Tanks, which doesn't reward people for logging in, but does reward them with double experience for the first victory of the day with each tank.

Weidemann also espoused the idea of having multiple classes for players to level up in, and then multiple weapons to level and add-ons to unlock. What those multiple progression systems do is create short-term, mid-term, and long-term retention loops for players, giving them reasons to keep coming back. On top of that, Weidemann suggested adding premium accounts, where players can purchase limited-time subscriptions. If a player gets double experience for a seven-day period, they're going to play as much as possible for that stretch.

Weekday special events and experience boosts also help, especially if the developer publishes a calendar with their events spelled out so that players can plan their real lives around that content. Collectible and rare weapons are another retention gem, especially in Ghost Recon Online where players are given a very limited window to grab special weapons. Weidemann also touted social retention, using leaderboards and tournaments to keep players coming back for more.

Tamir Nadav | Senior Producer, Disney Interactive

Nadav discussed retention in word games, specifically Disney's Words of Wonder. There are some unique challenges with word games, starting with the players' vocabulary. Word game players need to understand a wide variety of words. At the risk of stating the obvious, Nadav said word games have to be localized. Once that hurdle has been cleared, Nadav said collaboration can help retention, such as when Words of Wonder included a feature to let players provide each other with hints. On top of that, players want to show off, so there had to be ways to share them with other people. On the other hand, the developers then had to create a censorship function to avoid inappropriate language from being shared with others. To help players feel smart, Nadav gathered stats for their playstyles and gave them a "Wonder Score" that increases as they play.

"Really what it boils down to is we want players to feel smart regardless of whether they're very good at spelling words," Nadav said.

Because turns in the game take time, Nadav said they also focused on putting a lot of personality and color in the world. The big takeaway for Nadav is that if players can care about the world they're in, they will do anything to fix it. If the owl character appears despondent at a player's failure, they'll pay lots of money to give it another shot.

Mike Sellers | Creative Director, Rumble Entertainment

Sellers discussed retention tactics in role-playing games like Marvel Heroes, Path of Exile, and Kings Road. In terms of retention in such games, leveling up and adding skills to a character are tried and true methods, as are quests, the lure of better gear, unlockable character types, and guilds.

More recent innovations have included crafting and evolution elements borrowed from card battling games. They're a huge time and money investment for players, and big driver of retention, Sellers said. In Realm of the Mad God, Sellers said there were upgradeable pets could be fed items to evolve, and fully evolved pets could then be combined to form new pets with better abilities, which could then be evolved and combined as well. Meanwhile, Kings Road adds daily log in bonuses and rewards for co-op play in especially high-level dungeons have helped. Even fleshing out the game's back story was a driver of retention, Sellers said.

Those techniques aren't all that remarkable, Sellers acknowledged, which makes him wonder if things are becoming stale. He said the industry needs to explore more retention, monetization and acquisition methods, particularly social retention methods, if it hopes to grow in the future.

Kenny Dinkin | Chief Creative Officer, Making Fun, Inc.

Dinkin focused on retention in hidden-object games (HOGs), specifically through narrative. Narrative is an excellent driver of retention, Dinken said, as anyone who has Netflixed a season of House of Cards in a single weekend could attest to. However, story in games is pretty inelegant so far, and particularly awkward in free-to-play games that are driven by grinding, repetitive gameplay.

HOGs stumped narrative designers at first, but Dinkin said they're actually well-suited to it. Playdom's Gardens of Time had a chapter-ized narrative centered around various characters, and playing through the game multiple times with different characters provided different aspects of the story and a reason for players to keep coming back. Criminal Case took the concept to the procedural crime drama, while Pearl's Peril propels players through an adventure, but layers it with a personal space players can customize. Dinkin's own Hidden Express had no story when he first started work on it, but adding in characters and time-limited events helped shore up retention, decrease churn, and lift the game's monetization by about 18 percent, he said.

Brendan Sinclair avatar

Brendan Sinclair

Managing Editor

Brendan joined GamesIndustry.biz in 2012. Based in Toronto, Ontario, he was previously senior news editor at GameSpot in the US.