For an MMO to survive, it needs stickiness – at least if they plan on getting people to continue to pay on a monthly (or just use the cash stop). Destiny, D3, CoD aren’t really MMOs due to the lack of the word massive, but more so because their financial model is box-based. FPS types in particular, launch a new version every year or two. MMOs, the more generic kind, last for years.
Stickiness is important because it keeps people playing, it keeps the world alive. It’s more than just a user base. As most MMOs have a leveling phase, even a high amount of players that played sporadically and left would cause a serious issue since there’d be less and less people as you leveled up. Players need to play, and then keep playing for extended periods of time. It’s been noted in quite a few places that people are what keep other people logging in. If it wasn’t for guilds in WoW, it would be fair to say that a significant chunk of their users would have left a long time ago. People need something to do when they log in, and someone to do it with.
A couple years ago (pretty much to the day) I wrote a series of posts about social economies (1, 2, 3 & 4). In terms of timing, this was during FF14’s relaunch, a year after SWTOR’s conversion and during the “hype” phase of Wildstar and ESO. Looking back at it, it’s almost a wish list for what I was expecting in both of those games and truth be told, I was generally disappointed.
Say what you will about the leveling portion of a game, the truth of the matter is that the mechanics either work or do not work. Most people get a darn good feeling for a game in the first hour. From that point until the “end game”, it’s the social aspect that keeps people playing. Sure, there’s always the solo-minded player, but even they need to see other people playing the game around them. But group-based activities have a massive impact on retention. During the leveling portion it gets quite complicated mind you – travel time and level disparity the 2 main issues. Mentoring/level sync is a key solution to address this, though only a few games support it. Group teleports are also quite useful, though to avoid abuse they typically need long cooldowns. While simple in concept, the mentoring portion can be quite complex to implement, still… it pays off exponentially later on. FF14 learned this lesson well in v1, and made massive strides in progress with ARR. There is group content everywhere while leveling, level syncs are included and group teleports are simple.
Once you reach end-game, then the real challenge of long-term gaming takes place. Progress moves from “do anything and you get experience” to “do this small subset of activities to get gear”. Both have the same result, more numbers, but one is a heck of a lot more complicated to balance. The content needs to be accessible and engaging. For every hurdle that’s put in front of content, a game loses players. This isn’t a bad thing, as that hurdle is certainly a motivator ion terms of challenge to the player base. It’s just balancing how many hurdles you put in to see the players using the content drop in line.
For example, ESO at launch had veteran levels. You reached the max for your faction, then needed to do both of the other faction’s quest lines to reach the true end game. It was pure padding and a massive hurdle for the player base. People just abandoned the game completely at that point, since it opened up the same issues mentioned above about the leveling portion of the game – level disparity and travel time. ESO didn’t have guilds as seen in other games either, it was simply a chat channel. So the sticky glue keeping people together was pretty weak.
Wildstar at launch had veteran dungeons, adventures and raids for max level players. Each was a solid content piece on its own. Unfortunately, in order to move from one tier to the next, the attunement hurdle was present – requiring gold medals. One small mistake and the gold medal was gone, and so was the group. I personally ran dungeons with the guild and it was fun if you weren’t chasing a medal. Sadly, if the guild wasn’t around, random groups were next to impossible to complete. Without the ability to be social outside the guild, people left in droves. It took a while but the devs updates the content to provide more solo/group options at 50, but also to drastically reduce the attunement requirements, making random groups much more viable. Before the F2P conversion though, there were simply not enough people playing to get into a random group, making populations stagnant/decline. It had a pretty solid guild structure, but without accessible content, people just didn’t have anything to do but chat. And without “roots” in the game, people moved on.
WoW’s recent expansion went full-out on making content accessible, with the tiniest of hurdles. I ran a test with my Druid and was able to level from 91 to 100, and complete LFR without leaving my garrison (aside to collect more building plans). There was no incentive to be social and with the fast-food mentality of content, it was far from engaging. Losing half the subscribers(!!) is a pretty solid sign in itself that the social glue keeping that game going has almost dried up.
Designing stickiness is hard work. Looking at one item alone isn’t enough; it’s the sum of all the parts. A game could have great dungeons but no group-finder. It could have superb guild tools but nothing for the guild to actually do. Beta testing, heat maps, analytics…those all indicate what is working and what isn’t. It takes a really good dev team to plan that ahead of time and an even better team to make the changes after the game has launched. It’s good that both ESO and Wildstar have made some large strides to address their core issues from launch. Fingers crossed that the next MMO out the game applies all these lessons before launching, and saves themselves a ton of headaches.