Players leave games. According to Marc Robinson’s 2013 GDC talk, “On average, less than 40% of players return to a free-to-play game after just one session.”
And as you know, our first duty as professional game designers is to create compelling experiences. We make games for the players to enjoy and play! If they leave our games too fast and too often, we have failed.
Thinking of the reasons why players are leaving your game is a great opportunity to put yourself in their shoes. Not only that, your financial success largely depends on the size and fidelity of your audience. In particular if you are monetizing your game with in-app purchases.
The data science team at GameAnalytics recently unveiled the results of their latest study. The report shows that a strong player retention is correlated with your game’s financial success. In particular keeping your very first players entertained. This means that it is critical to retain users if you want to make a living off of your work.
There are but a few reasons why players are leaving your game. The 2 most important ones are frustration and boredom: the archenemies of flow. If you don’t know what flow is already, it is a mental state characterized by the feeling of energized focus and a complete absorption in a given activity. That is a state of deep enjoyment, if not passion. That is the state we want our players to fall into with our games! Regardless of the genre we going for.
This is, once again, our first duty as game designers – approached from the angle of positive psychology. A good player retention boils down to a design that calls for flow; a fluid and deeply rewarding experience. And please do not mistake that for a casual and grinding-based game! Your game’s progression could feature many chosen bumps and still look fluid to the eyes of the right audience (as in the Die and retry genre).
In this article, I didn’t want to simply list cliché design mistakes that we are all aware of. Instead, it is a checklist. The notes below are a collection of potential reasons why your players might leave the game, ordered from the most to the least important one. Make sure to double check them all to keep players in the zone!
Why are players leaving your game? Or rather, why are they either frustrated or bored to the point they quit? Here are a few reasons.
How to improve player retention in games
1. Your game intro sucks
In pretty much every domain of their lives, people want to get started. They don’t want to wait before they can get a taste of what your title has to offer. From the very moment they start your application, you should give your users a reason to stay. At all times! Your title screen, your loading and your first level will make up for the players’ first impression of your game. This impression will stick with them, even if they don’t uninstall your game right away.
You can check our previous article for a more detailed rundown of the topic: How to create immersive intros.
2. Your game’s sessions are too long
We now have busy lives. Or maybe we don’t. But our modern society makes us feel like we haven’t got time anymore!
Chances are your players are overwhelmed with notifications and other polished apps trying to grab their attention. If you are creating a game for grown-ups, they likely have a day job and a family taking most of that time. They cannot afford to play for hours in a row.
It shouldn’t take a whole hour to go through a meaningful chunk of your game. Nor to reach the next checkpoint. This doesn’t mean that you have to follow the trend mobile games established, where 2-5 minutes long sessions is the norm. If you target experienced gamers, you can still get away with half an hour long sessions. And well, if you aim for the mobile market, you will have to make it possible for the users to play for as little as 3 minutes if you aim for a large audience.
The right session length of a desktop game depends on the type of project you are working on. But even MMORPGs like World of Warcraft or Final Fantasy XIV made it possible for busy players to clear a normal dungeon in 15 to 30 minutes. MMOs tend to account more and more for the needs of a whole range of target users rather than a specific profile.
3. You are not targeting the right audience for your project
It wouldn’t be efficient to target 60 years old players with a Beat Them All.
Although this point is game design 101, it is always a good reminder. As designers, we build a framework of experiences for others. Because we can’t please everybody, we have to pick a target audience. That is to say a group of people whom we know will be interested in our creations. We have to study that audience. We have to go seek some of those individuals, get them to try out our product and give us feedback early on during development.
Picking the wrong audience also means dilapidating your marketing budget. Trying to appeal to the wrong users is utterly dangerous! It wastes both your time and your money.
4. You are targeting a saturated fringe of the market
Alright, let us imagine that we nailed our audience: women of age 40 and above, mostly unexperienced players, who have some free time. With that hypothesis, we are creating the next fresh match-3 games. It is an original title, highly polished, it receives great feedback from the press and we are starting to build up a small fan base already.
Chances are it won’t work. Why? Because there are already plenty of good puzzle physics and match-3 games available out there. In particular, big companies like King have a large and faithful audience already. People won’t easily switch to other similar games, regardless of their quality.
We work in the entertainment industry. Although our games are our creations, they are still products sold on a market. Whenever we bring a new product out there, we have to make sure that it solves a need. There is no real need for new match-3s today.
And even if your production matches the quality of your competitors’ games, a company like King has something you will hardly outweigh. It has had a lasting positive relationship with its users.
5. You didn’t run enough tests
Nowadays, buggy games and software tend to be the norm, sadly. It is even surprising to see AAA titles released in a highly polished state, bug free! Yet bugs are a plague. Any quirk hurts the viability of your product, the smoothness of the experience it offers. Bugs frustrate the players (even if some are pretty funny!), thus can push them to uninstall your game.
We must have end users try out our games very early on. Almost from the very first prototypes! As independent developers in particular, we cannot track down every single bug in our games alone. Even if we take the role of a tester, we still have an exhaustive understanding of how our creation works that hinders our ability properly track down all of its defects.
6. Your tutorial slows down the player
Dark Souls 2’s tutorial is quick and accessible to all players, yet it is optional.
A tutorial shouldn’t force the experienced player through a long, boring, patronizing first game session. As the tutorial is often the first taste the player will have of your gameplay, it is critical to pay great attention to it. Here, I just want to stress out the fact that your tutorial should take in accounts the whole audience you are targeting.
If you are making a JRPG or an FPS, a fair part of your end users won’t need a tutorial at all. Don’t force them through it! Dark Souls 2 offers us an example of a great tutorial, contained in a both well-designed and optional area (you can run through straight through the main path to reach the game’s hub city).
If you want to learn a few more insights about what can break your tutorial experience, Ernest Adams compiled 8 Ways To Make a Bad Tutorial.
7. Your game is too hard to pick up.
As independent developers or in small teams, we tend to do our own testing. We also balance our gameplay accordingly. However, the game’s difficulty should be calibrated against our target users’ skills, not our own. Iterative beta testing and the use of game analytics are key to staying objective with our game’s balance.
If the game offers an unfair and punishing first experience, the player will likely leave. Unexperienced users in particular. This is also true if your controls are unresponsive or imprecise. Poor controls make your game hard to pick up and unpleasant to play.
Uninstalls in the later stages of the game
Our first goal is to prevent players from leaving in the early game. Otherwise, they won’t play. But we also want them to keep playing until the later stages! On average, only a fraction of your players will ever see your game’s ending. They will quit the game before they reach that point. So here are some reasons why players may leave your game in the later stages.
8. Sudden rises in difficulty
Unwanted difficulty spikes will ruin the user’s experience. Don’t get me wrong: I am not saying that your game shouldn’t be hard. However, it should be fair at all times. The Souls series is a solid example of an unforgiving game with a beautiful difficult curve. It even lets the player choose his own difficulty, without knowing! Super Meat Boy and The Binding of Isaac are both very hard, and were successful.
9. Grosbilling or a backfiring grind
Being invincible for a few seconds in a Mario game feels great. Because it doesn’t last.
Do not forget that your game’s challenge has to match the player’s skills in order for him to stay in a state of flow. Flow is what will keep the player on your game ultimately. And it’s a tough balancing act!
In Skyrim, I remember reaching a point where dragons became a formality. My skinny thief could slay them with a single slice of a knife. This broke the immersion and the epic dimension of the universe for me. Guess what? That is also when I stopped playing.
10. The game relies too much on grinding, lacks intrinsic rewards
Grinding is a powerful tool. Used well, it boosts your player’s feel of skill progression. It offers concrete, quantifiable series of material rewards for the player. But grinding isn’t enough to make a great game.
Blizzard, the masters of grinding, still spend ages polishing the core mechanics, the visuals, and the background of their games. Diablo 3 is not only a hack and slash: it is a beautiful, dynamic action game. World of Warcraft features dozens of unique regions and dungeons to explore in groups! Although grinding is central to those 2 games, it is only present to reinforce their respective main qualities, their core gameplay.
11. The game requires a big time investment to become enjoyable
This used to be an issue with MMOs: The 4th Prophecy and other Dark Age of Camelot required the user to invest a lot of time before they could really enjoy the depth the gameplay had to offer. Once again, not all players nowadays can invest that time in a game. And as I showed above, most modern MMOs are adapting to this new user profile.
Final Fantasy XIII is an example of a single player game that features a 30 hours long tutorial. The game systems are shown one by one to the player during that period of time, along a linear path. Only thereafter, the game offers a huge open level. That is the main critique it received.
Your game should always offer some entertaining content early on.
The specifics of social and Free to Play games
The points outlined above should ring true for a wide range of games. Not all games are social, so that is why their specifics are coming last in this list.
Retention in Free to Play games have been and are being analyzed over and over. Most reasons of poor retention in Social Games are straightforward and easy to find on the Internet. Below, I have tried to pick a few not-so-intuitive tips for f2p retention.
12. A toxic community
In “Social Games”, we can read the word “social”. Most of the time, those games are not really social: they bear that name only because they integrate interactions between the game and social networks. But multiplayer games generally offer a way for players to communicate with one another. Be it through a general chat, in game emotes and interactions, or private messaging.
Well, you should carefully track how your community builds up and evolves if players can chat in your game. An aggressive community towards rookie players will scare most of your new users away! Real social games need to have good community management.
13. Resources are too scarce
Zombie catchers makes it easy for the player to find more game accelerating resources by simply playing more.
That is one of the plagues of Free to Play titles. What people call Pay to Win, or as I like to call it, Free to Pay. If we give non-paying players too few resources to make good progress, they will soon feel frustrated. Be it in the early or later parts of the game.
Monetization strategies that revolve around forcing the users to pay don’t work. Throwing prominent ads at them to buy some more resources will result in the players leaving the game. As Seth Godin explains it very well in Permission Marketing, the users have plenty of alternatives to choose from. You are building a relationship with them. The design of your game shapes that relation.
14. Your game sessions feel empty
Following on the last point, social games players want to engage in a variety of activities in your game. Each gameplay session should feel lively and rewarding, regardless of its length. Using our previous example once again, Zombie Catchers stays fresh by alternating fun hunting based gameplay and some simple shop management. You can play for a few minutes and enjoy multiple gameplay phases.
15. Your game punishes inactive players
The 21st slide from Kongregate’s talk summary at the Casual Connect Asia in 2013 says it all. On one end, making it dangerous for the player not to come back to your game often will force him to get into a playing habit.
However, people need to take breaks. At any moment, your users may have to stop playing because of an important upcoming event. An exam maybe, or a birth… They also need to go on holidays sometimes. When they come back to your game, if they have lost their progress, their resources and their headquarters, they will likely quit. Instead you can reward an old user for coming back after a long absence! Fortifying their appreciation of the game.
16. Updates are not coming fast enough
Let us end with an easy one: social and multiplayer games need to be kept alive. If you want to retain users on the long run, you need to keep them busy or give them a reason to come back. Regular and substantial game updates, every 1 to 3 months, are key to staying in the mind of your users.
If your updates are slow, chances are your users will not only uninstall the game, but they might also forget to check it again later.
To sum up today’s article, players leave your games for 2 key reasons:
- Frustration, or anxiety
Those are your greatest enemies as a game designer. The antagonists of flow.
Next week’s article will focus on long-term game retention and habit formation. This should give you some clues to keep players coming back to your game in the long run.
This is an approved cross post. You can find the original here.