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How to keep players playing - Long-term Retention
by Mikkel Faurholm on 04/20/14 07:12:00 pm   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.


Long-term retention is one of the most important factors of releasing to the AppStore and Google Play. With that many F2P titles a game needs to initially hook the player and make the engaged about whatever the story/theme might be. A very underestimated long-term retention strategy is to engage player by creating a vision of what the player might become if some time, and possibly some money, is put into the game. Some games tries to engage through a dramatic back story and a 'helper' that the player hopefully sympathizes with and take on the task as the new ruler in this playful environment. This is especially present in the strategy/builders targeting adults like the ones listed below.


Crime City

 Modern War


Dragons of Atlantis

 Kingdom of Camelot


 The Hobbit: Kingdom of Middle-earth


The problem with this type of engagement strategy is that the player seldom interacts with the 'helper', leaving this working only as an initial hook and not long-term. At some point this helper becomes like Office Assistant Clippy from MS Word in 1997 and it actually ends up working against the intended purpose.

To heighten the likelihood of engaging a player long term, the game needs to create a vision for the player. Visualize the goal, what the player can become, and what awesome features are ahead. People are terrible at creating these visions themselves. Most people cannot see passed what it in front of them right now. It is the same reason that rearranging furniture will help you sell your house. The furniture are still not going to be there when the buyer moves in, but by rearranging your furniture you've successfully created a vision that the buyer can process. enough real estate though.

There are some great examples of games where this vision is presented effectively and feasible to the player - and then there are some examples of games absolutely failing at doing so.

Let's start with the good

Supercell's Hay Day introduces your neighbor, Greg, in the very beginning of the game, and while Greg just like in the examples above, seem like a nice and helpful fellow, he is sure to annoy the hay out of you by the time the first boat arrives. But Hay Day and at the time friendly Greg does one very clever thing before releasing the player out into the wonderful life as a farmer - show you Greg's farm. Instantly the player is introduced to what is possible within the game, what the player has in store. This is a brilliant way to engage a player long term, wanting the same as his/her dear neighbor. 



Mooving on to another great example, surprisingly also from Supercell. you guessed it. Clash of Clans. Clash of Clans ultimately does the same thing, though in a different way. Here you have the same initial hook through the very nice lady telling you quickly build a cannon before it is to late. (A monetization strategy which is most likely going to have a post of its own)

But quickly you are introduced to one of the main mechanics, namely attacking other player and earning ranking points to climb the leaderboard. In the leaderboards menu, there are the 'top clans' and 'top players' tabs that the player can investigate - and this is the brilliant part. Here you are introduced to real players, not a Greg, who's village look like this:


Compared to the initial village any player starts out with, the one above looks pretty damn cool. Creating the vision!


Ok, before this turns into a post about how Supercell can't do anything wrong, let's have a look at some of the games that failed to do this, and paid for it. 

Similarly to Clash of Clans, Dungeon Keeper introduces raiding in the campaign and attacking other player fairly quick, enabling the long-term engage, the carrot at the end of the dungeon, through other player's awesomeness. The Screenshot on the left is myself after ~1 hour of gameplay. The one on the right is the leading player in the world. The difference is there surely, but not creating that vision and the long term engage. Do I want to spend hours and hours to get the dungeon on the right? not likely!




Another common misconception is that the end game, the final boss, should be concealed and not spoiled to the players. This might be how the players of video games in the 80s and 90s would want it to be, but it isn't the case with the casual gamer. If a player cannot see where his/her time is going, the next free game might seem just as interesting, 'cause who knows whats around the corner. Games targeting the casual player needs to show whats around that corner. SO essential in order to create that vision. 


Why do you think you are able to scroll all the way to the end of Candy Land in Candy Crush Saga? 


People have no need for unlocking worlds like in the classic platformers. Show players the entire path to the end product and they are much more likely to keep on playing and maybe even throw in a dime or two to get there. 



Engage your player, through gameplay, through fun mechanics and social features. But remember to keep them engaged by painting that picture for them, show them whats behind the next corner and create that vision. 


What do you think? What makes you play the game over and over again? Is the 'long-term vision' important to you in a F2P game? 


Hit me up @AppCrimes with your thoughts or read more AppCrimes on (new tab)

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Romain Aymard
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Definitly, I remember visiting a Clash of clans top player town and I was like "NO WAY ! I want this village..." and for sur, it kept me engaded for little while juste because I saw this exemple of what I can achieve in the game (and because it looked cool).

However, I don't think it apply only on F2P. It sounds like an old trick in video games (remember megaman when you see zero on the launch screen and you're like "HOW COOL IS HE ?! I want the same stuff !")

On Candy Crush however... I don't know if showing the map is a good way to really increase the vision. Because, yes, there are hundreds of levels. But what if those levels where crappy. I mean, they did a really good LD. That's what should be pointed out to increase the vision, like "Yes, keep playing, next levels will be even more fun (and yes, there are hundreds of them :)"

Mikkel Faurholm
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Romain, you're completely right. This does not only apply to F2P games. Far from it - and I do remember megaman as a great example of this. The reason I underline it in the case of F2P games in simply because of the volume and the accessibility of F2P games today. I see a lot of people just moving on to the next match-three game because they disliked something in e.g. Candy Crush - and creating the vision will surely help.

By creating the vision, you hopefully get people to stay in the game long enough to have other factors be the reason players stay in the game. Socializing, feeling ownership and a solid time investment are what should hopefully take over when the initial "HOW COOL IS THIS?!" is fading out.

I agree that the candy crush example is a little different, than the builders. I think it varies from player-type to player-type, why showing all the levels is an incredible effective retention tool.

The Competitive player will either be engaged through the position of friends, being the social competitor, or through the vast volume of levels to play, ManVsGame sort of players. In the latter the vision created might seem rather vague, but it will still very clearly visualize the huge amount of gameplay ahead if the player chooses to stay. Showing only the path to the first gate would, visually, create chapters, withholding 'the rest' of the chapters. But why would I invest time and money into something that could end in 10 levels.

I'm not saying this is the whole truth, but I am certain that it is a factor that designers shouldn't neglect.

Pierrick Bignet
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Excellent article. Reminded me of this really important piece of design ...

Mikkel Faurholm
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Thank you so much Pierrick! I hope I can remind you of other really important pieces of design in the near future.

Steve Bailey
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This is what I've heard referred to as 'content projection', over the years. It's indeed a a potent thing, but one that can be an organic mire. You can find it in everything from Ghouls 'n' Ghosts back in the 80s, through to Candy Crush Saga, and pretty much anything in between, maps and shops and all manner of selection screens, or cheeky cut-scene cutaways.

My own experience says that this can be quite a complicated blend of art direction and a numerical hacksaw, for taking the gamer heartstrings hostage, and can be as off-putting as it is alluring. Many RPGs, inadvertently or otherwise, may populate their menus and dictionaries upfront, albeit with null entries, and this can be as compelling as it is exhuasting. Meanwhile, the broader use of the game world's assets - think Skyrim's Throat Of The World, or Ocarina of Time's Death Mountain - aren't quantifiable extensions by any particular yardstick, but they're tremendous experiential lures, fabulous cement for my sense of attachment, for the sense of adventure and absorption at hand.

For a good prior debate related to this matter, I remember completion percentages in trad console games being a hot spot of ambivalence. Anyway, thanks for the article, and causing me to make my first post! Apols if my words are a bit redundant by the time this is approved :)

Mikkel Faurholm
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Such an interesting topic I haven't see discussed that much, though seeming so obvious. 'Cause content projection / the vision in the piece can definitely end up defeating its own purpose. This very much depends on the player-type I think, but generally with F2P Games now, I see a tendency towards rather wanting to know what's ahead, than to possibly feel like you've wasted your time, when you realize this game wasn't for you/too hard/wrong theme/dull gameplay, etc etc.

I'm glad that my piece pushed you over the edge, I hope you liked it! Thank you for your feedback.

Romain Aymard
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You have a point with the vision used in candy crush to hook the player long enough to show him how fun (and diabolics) the others levels are.

As Pierrick said, Thanks to remind this. You write it well : short & precise.

Mikkel Faurholm
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Thank you Romain, glad you like it. More it coming soon.

You can check out for my piece on hard currency in F2P on gamasutra.

Jeremy Billow
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Marvel Puzzle Quest also has a great "daily rewards" retention mechanic as well. The value of the rewards scales with your streak of course, but it also displays the big pay off rewards that are out 4-7 days out and lets you know those are just looming over the horizon. Suddenly the penalties for not logging in everyday feel much more severe since you know what you're missing out on. It's caused me to have a 138 day streak now for the game.

Mikkel Faurholm
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Great example of an retention tool that work great along side most games. Actually one of the few times I've heard about an 'ongoing' reward system, rewarding the player with 'unique' items for a longer period than just the standard 5-7 days, but I see the price cycles are build up in a similar manner in Marvel Puzzle Quest. Really interesting point, Jeremy.

The thing is that this often times remain an effective tool to get people back into the game, but daily rewards rarely work alone. I think it is so important look at your game design and ask yourself the question;

"What would make a player come back to this game again and again?"

Forget about event-based notification, external rewards and daily somethings for a second. Stop trying to lure the player with all sort of effective tools that people don't get right half the time. Instead look at what in the core gameplay make people engage and become attached to this game, and how can I show the player that this only gets better in time. I think a lot of games would benefit from doing so.

...and by the way, 138 days? Well done sir!

ganesh kotian
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Excellent post...thank you

Tim Elder
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Excellent article, although I'm left wondering whether "Mooving" was a legit typo or a deliberate shout-out to Ian Bogost ;)