I recently had to do 14 days of home quarantine after returning from a trip abroad, and to pass the time during this unpleasant flashback experience to last year's months of isolation, I thought I'd dive back into a couple of online games I haven't been able to make time for lately.
A few patch downloads later, I was ready to re-engage with both Destiny 2 and Final Fantasy 14, both games which have in the past siphoned away far more of my life than I'd care to admit in a public forum but which I haven't played for quite a few months.
Returning to one of those games went fantastically well, to the point that I'm following news about its next major content release with genuinely excitement; returning to the other was, bluntly, disastrous, to the point that while rose-tinted nostalgia still won't let me actually uninstall it, I'm pretty sure I'll never play it again. The reason this merits further discussion, however, is because the design decisions which led to those radically different experiences as a returning player are deeply wedded to the business decisions about how those games are monetised -- serving as yet another example of how crucial it is to consider the business model to be a core part of the game design itself, and to consider its impacts on players at all sorts of different points along their journey with the game.
Returning players are something developers of [evolving online] games should take pretty seriously in their design planning
I won't beat around the bush -- Final Fantasy 14 was a fantastic experience for a returning player, with a series of in-game systems that are designed to allow players to slip back into the game as seamlessly as possible after a long absence. Meanwhile, Destiny 2 was about as much of a disastrously unpleasant experience as I think would be possible without Bungie actually sending someone around to shout obscenities through my letterbox.
In part, this is down to different priorities at these developers, and that's fine -- the FF14 team directly want people to be able to stop playing for a while and come back later, while the design of Destiny's various events and systems has always had a certain edge of not just rewarding consistent daily play, but even actively punishing players who can't make appointments to play regularly at specific times, let alone dip out of the game for months on end. However, the experience -- and my reaction to it -- was also deeply shaped by each game's business model and how they present their monetisation strategy to players.
Stepping back for a moment, there are in essence three major ways to monetise an online game that's in ongoing development. Firstly, you can release expansion packs with your new content, hoping enough of the original player base will want to pay for more of the experience. Secondly, you can charge a subscription, hoping that people enjoy playing the game enough to be willing to make that financial commitment. Finally, you can sell in-game items to players, either purely cosmetic or with some in-game function.
Many games mix and match a variety of these approaches, or attempt to use hybrids that combine them in different ways, but at heart these three basic models describe every form of direct monetisation for service games (as distinct from indirect types where players don't pay you, but instead watch ads, for example).
While there's still a lot of experimentation going on with these models, they're fairly well established, and every designer worth their salt knows that the choice of business model has a gigantic impact on the design and functioning of the game and on how players experience it. The most obvious of these impacts, and the subject of the most bitter complaints, is how the sale of functional items (power-ups, weapons, premium currency, etc) changes the experience of the game overall -- creating a 'pay-to-win' paradigm, in some cases, and creating perverse incentives for developers to put unpleasant and joyless friction into the game to encourage players to pay money to overcome it. Though it's the most obvious instance, however, that's far from the only business choice that demands careful design work to avoid breaking the game experience for players.
This brings me back around to the problem I hit with Destiny 2. The monetisation strategy Bungie has settled on for the game -- having played with a cosmetic in-game purchasing system that never really seemed to properly take off -- is essentially a hybrid model that sits somewhere between expansion packs and subscription, or more specifically, the season pass version of a subscription model that's become popular in recent years. Unlike the season pass / battle pass offerings for games like Fortnite, however, Destiny's regular paid-for updates are really marketed as full-bore expansions to the game, featuring major new narrative arcs, new locations and new activities.
That's a problem if you're a player who bought a given expansion and played it for a while, but were distracted by other things and thus lapsed for some time. As I experienced recently, your eventual return to the game is pretty much a case of 'that thing you bought before is no good now, you can't pick up where you left off because the game has moved on, pay us another $40 for the new thing right now.'
Whereas Destiny 2 isn't making a penny from me without selling an expansion pack, FF14 has my subscription money and can afford to be generous and in how it pushes me to buy new content
It's a jarring experience, especially for players who enjoy the story and general progression; I logged into the game to be railroaded into an introduction mission for a new expansion pack I haven't bought, despite having not seen through the storyline of the previous expansion. And the overriding sense was that while there are still plenty of things to do even if I don't buy another season pass, the game's story has moved on and there's no real way to catch up with what's happened other than going off to read about it on a wiki site somewhere.
This is confounded by the fact that my sense was that I was buying an expansion pack of content, not just a pass to play the game for a certain amount of time; feeling that much of that content is now unavailable or superseded didn't exactly put me in much of a mindset to give the game any more of the money it so clearly wants from returning players in the form of a fresh purchase of the new, latest expansion.
Final Fantasy 14 has a very different business model -- the WoW model of a monthly subscription fee supplemented by major paid-for expansions that appear every couple of years -- but actually, the end result is more or less the same financially. I stepped away from FF14 for a chunk of time, but was still paying a subscription fee that went down the drain; in fact, I easily paid more wasted money to Square Enix for FF14 subscription months I didn't use than I paid to Bungie for the expansion I didn't get to play all of.
There is, however, a very big difference in terms of customer psychology. Everyone who's ever had a gym membership is accustomed to the notion that not using a service you subscribe to is your own problem; being told a product you bought only a few months ago is now useless and you need to buy a new one is a very different experience and naturally provokes a very different response.
This is compounded by the fact that FF14 goes out of its way to make the returning experience for lapsed players as welcoming as possible -- there are specific game systems designed to ease players back in, help them pick up storylines and quest chains they'd been working on, and generally make the experience of re-engaging with a complex game as seamless as possible.
A major part of that is that FF14 has put a lot of work into keeping all of the content from previous expansions accessible and enjoyable even as the leading edge of the game moves forward; on a previous occasion, returning after a much longer lapse, I was able to play and enjoy the game for quite a few weeks as I caught up with an expansion and a half's worth of new content, before ever reaching a point where I needed to think about buying the most recent expansion. That's a luxury FF14 has because of its business model -- whereas Destiny 2 isn't making a penny from me without selling me an expansion pack, FF14 has my subscription money and can thus afford to be generous and very light-touch in how it pushes me to buy additional expansions. As I've just discovered, one consequence of this difference is a truly dramatically different experience to each of these games as a returning player.
Returning players, it merits saying in conclusion, are something developers of these kinds of games should take pretty seriously in their design planning. There are two challenges a service game needs to execute on well if it wants to make money -- acquisition (getting customers to play the game in the first place; in the case of a free-to-play or free-trial game, this process only really ends when they first start spending money), and retention (getting existing customers to continue playing the game and paying money for things).
Of those two, retention is often the one that games seem to struggle with; acquisition is a problem that can be partially solved (albeit inefficiently) by throwing marketing money at the problem, but retention demands that you actually find a way to make your players feel engaged, interested, and like they're getting good value for the money they're spending, not just for a few weeks but for months and even years on end.
That's a tough challenge -- and it only gets tougher when you consider the sheer breadth of playstyles out there, from people who play for an hour or two a week, to people who play for six hours a day -- and yes, the people who play for a while, disappear for months, come back and play some more, and repeat the cycle. As long as they're still in the cycle of returning, these players are part of the retention equation; losing them entirely is a significant cost, as is any kind of player churn, because acquisition is always a vastly more expensive process than retention.
Lapsed and returning players are common enough to make it worthwhile for a game like FF14 (which was this week revealed to be the most financially successful game in the Final Fantasy series to date, which is no mean feat especially given its rough state at launch) to implement entire game systems designed solely to welcome them back and keep them engaged. Other games, of which Destiny 2 is only a single example (and isn't even especially egregious -- it's only getting the boot put into it in this article because it happens to be the example I personally encountered lately) have made design choices that effectively erect barriers to those returning players, making the retention process harder and more 'leaky' than it needs to be.
There are many ways Destiny could do this better, even given its business model -- but many of the problems it faces in this regard were baked in from the moment that model, with its core need to push players to keep purchasing new content, was chosen. A clearer understanding of what that model would do to the experiences of players who lapsed and wished to return to the game could at least drive far better design choices to soften the blow of needing to 'hard sell' the latest expansion so soon in the process; an understanding of why this has happened can at least help to inform designers on future projects about yet another instance where business model design and game design really need to be functioning hand-in-glove.