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Emergent gameplay, F2P key for MMO user retention problems
Emergent gameplay, F2P key for MMO user retention problems
October 10, 2012 | By Patrick Miller




"The world is changing. People are eating through content at an alarming rate. I don't believe that the content ecosystem that's in games today -- including our own -- is sustainable. With free-to-play, we're seeing this trend towards what we're calling 'emergent gameplay'."

That's how John Smedley opened his talk at GDC Online, titled "Free-to-play: Driving the Future of MMOs."

Using Google Trends search volume graphs as a metric, Smedley traced the progress of the online games market from World of Warcraft's peak in 2005, to the current era, where World of Warcraft is still the big dog but free-to-play games League of Legends, DOTA 2, DC Universe Online, and Team Fortress 2 are within striking range.

"I don't think you'll see games hit the heights that World of Warcraft hit [in 2005]," Smedley said, "Look at that peak. I think we're starting to see a fractioning of the userbase that WoW built, where some of those players are moving over to free-to-play games. Why? Obviously one answer is that it's free, but I think we need to look deeper than that."

He continued, "When you work on something as large as WoW, it's important to release content over time, and they've done a great job with that. But when you've got a game that's seven-years old, people look for something else to do. Free-to-play means that people can try your game, and then go try something else, and try something else, and then Mists of Pandaria comes out, and pulls people back into your game and they eat that content up. This is very different from 2004."

SOE's own free-to-play transition caused significant growth in its subscription-based MMOs. DC Universe Online, EverQuest II, and EverQuest all went free-to-play; DCUO saw a 1000 percent increase in concurrent players and a 700 percent increase in daily revenue, EverQuest II saw a 40 percent increase in daily logins and a 300 percent increase in new players, and the original EverQuest saw a 150 percent increase in daily logins, a 125 percent boost in item sales, and a 250 percent increase in registrations.

MMOs and their content problems

MMO developers are simultaneously having problems competing for player eyeballs and building game content fast enough to keep players around, said Smedley. "We're bombarded by content, and a lot of that content is eating the time we used to spend playing subscription games. Now I spend some of that time on Reddit ... if you look at WoW, by the time Mists of Pandaria was released, there were spoiler posts on each quest. We spend all this money and time to produce this content, and people consume it faster because they've got game sites and Reddit to help each other."

In order to continue developing MMOs, developers are going to have to adapt to a new games ecosystem that doesn't rely solely on developers to build new content for players to consume "For us, the key to this is sustainable ecosystems," Smedley said, "The ecosystem of games has changed rapidly; the new ecosystem has eSports, livecasting, users that make items to sell (and make money from it) -- all of this is user-based marketing, and the foundation of it is emergent gameplay."

Smedley offered three examples of emergent gameplay: SOE's own FreeRealms and EverQuest II, as well as Mojang's Minecraft. "I don't know about you guys, but I sure as heck didn't see Minecraft coming. It hit like a bolt of lightning. It showed how hungry people are for sandboxes -- for building stuff. In FreeRealms, we offered the ability to make their own houses, and we've done the same thing in EverQuest II that lets users rate each others' houses. The rating stuff aspect can be just as much of the emergent gameplay as the building -- think about rating things on Amazon.com."

Getting players to make (and sell) your MMO

Instead of trying to build MMO content faster than your players can play through it, SOE is trying to open its games up so the users can help build game content and promote it -- and maybe make a few bucks along the way.

Smedley pointed to the player-created items in Valve's Steam Workshop: "The user-created items in this are amazing -- and that's gameplay too. It's not just playing the game, it's being part of the game and the community, and making stuff for it. Players get to feel like they're contributing to the game, and they're profiting from it! This is the future -- letting your players make the game, and be part of the direction and future of the game."

Smedley also noted several different online channels for players to give your games more exposure -- livecasting and eSports competitions on Twitch.TV, user-created wikis on Wikia and Crave, and unofficial community spaces on Reddit -- as examples of how players could engage with your games outside the game itself, and thereby market your games for you.

"This is a trend to take notice of, because a year from now it's going to look a lot bigger," he said. "For us, we recognized this trend, so we built a Twitch.TV client into PlanetSide 2. ... Your game doesn't have to be an eSport, but it has to be entertaining to watch."

Smedley concluded his talk by pointing out how PlanetSide 2's development has been targeted towards this new games ecosystem: "PlanetSide 2 has been the culmination, for us, of focusing on emergent gameplay. We have thousands of players coordinating through voice and chat channels. Strategy matters because they want to know the best way to play, so we let users upload loadouts in PlanetSide 2. Then, dominance -- we wanted to make players feel like they could own other people, dominate continents, and brag to their friends."

Gamasutra is at GDC Online in Austin this week. Check out our event page for the latest on-site coverage.


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Comments


Dan Cashion
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I have been a huge MMO fan since the first Everquest. I think that developers should concentrate on more difficult content rather than quantity of content. If players are eating through your quest content to rapidly then it's too easy. Stop giving away gear that allows players to solo everything easily. MMO's are losing subscribers because the games aren't challenging. If you provide players with challenges that are noteworthy rather than easily devoured, you will find that they will stick around longer.

WoW has made their game so easy it's no longer fun to play. Everyone can have anything in the game. Top end gear is easily acquired by the most casual of players within a couple months of brand new content being released. I quit playing WoW at the end of Lich King. I know I could log back into the game today, level my character to max, and have enough gear to start raiding the end game content by the end of the month 10/31. I wouldn't even have to play much more than a couple hours each night.

EQ2 has made their game even easier than WoW. They give you a pet that is more powerful than almost all the content for each level. I can solo all of the dungeons that are designed for a group of my same level. Bu there is no reason to complete these dungeons because there are very few meaningful quests to complete or gear to acquire.

Rift, LotRO, and AoC are unfortunately the same way. The games are dumbed down versions of WoW where content is extraordinarily easy to plow through. The experience is incredibly fast and it's almost like they don't want to show you there low or mid-level content. It's fly over country. Just speed your way to max level and enjoy this small portion of content.

Make games fun. That's the key. Challenging equals fun. Easy equates to boring.

Michael Wenk
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@Dan - If I have 1 hour a day to play a game, I have to be very choosy. I tend to want to play a fun game that lets me do something. I don't want to spend 3 hours (which in my example would mean 3 days) to accomplish something just because of challenge. That is not challenge or difficulty, that is tedium.

Of course if you don't want gamers like me, that's fine too, but don't be surprised when I don't spend my money on your game...

Dan Cashion
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@Michael - I understand the conundrum, I myself only get a couple hours a day to play games. But even in those couple of hours I am able to advance easily without challenge. I find it tedious to be able to accomplish all my goals without anything standing in my way except the time it takes to run between quests or the amount of time it takes to create a group. Those are the only real obstacles in an MMO any more. What fun is a game that presents little to no challenge?

Mike Jenkins
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@Michael
The issue with catering to the "I only have 1 hour a day" crowd right now is that every MMO in the last 8 years has gone after that crowd.

Michael Wenk
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@Dan It depends on your wants more than anything else. I personally don't care much about challenge as they can't provide the kind of challenge I would want. Most of what is called challenges in MMO, I call tedium. Finding a pattern and then dealing with that pattern is not challenge. It never does something unexpected, or if it does do random things, it does them in a predictable way.

So to me, I want fun, I want something interesting to engage me, and if it can't be gameplay, and most of the time it can't be, then I want story, I want interesting characters, fun things to see, etc. I think its highly odd that the genre we're talking about is MMORPG - Ie, a role playing game. Where's the role? Most of these games are adventure games with a RPG cloak on em, and while that may be cool for some, its not for me.

@Mike I think you're wrong. I don't think the grab for the casuals has been much longer than 4 years, and that was when Blizzard did WotLK, and more when BL did the dungeon finder, which allowed people with limited time to actually experience the content.

And if you're wondering why companies are going for casuals, its because there are so many of them, and they give extreme value, they don't use as much resource and they pay the same by and far.

Mike Jenkins
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I will reserve my judgement on how much casuals pay for a few years from now, if F2P is stronger than ever, or if the bubble bursts. Certainly the "social" casual bubble seems to be bursting at this very moment.

WoW at launch was a relatively casual game. I certainly agree with you that the game, and the genre, has become much more casual since then.

Ramin Shokrizade
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It was in reaction to perceived weaknesses in the designs and business models of subscription and FTP games from companies like Blizzard, SOE, and Nexon that I started developing alternative business models and game designs in 2005. I think FTP is here to stay, but there are ways to implement FTP that are MUCH different than what the market is currently using, that can produce much more sustainable revenue. One key is cyclic content, like what is used in League of Legends, World of Tanks, and Shattered Galaxy (which I helped design in 2001).

I don't think the key is in the difficulty of the content, or even the quantity of the content. The key is maximum ROI for your content. There are untapped ways to deliver this that we just have not used because we are so obsessed with copying existing designs in the industry.

Michael Wenk
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I truly wonder about this. It worries me. It reminds me of the major root cause of the dotcom boom and bust, that we forgot that revenue and profit were the driving forces of the market, not the number of customers you have.

How sustainable is F2P? The answer is we don't really know. There are successes and failures. Given:

"Smedley traced the progress of the online games market from World of Warcraft's peak in 2005, to the current era, where World of Warcraft is still the big dog but free-to-play games League of Legends, DOTA 2, DC Universe Online, and Team Fortress 2 are within striking range."

The above may be true in terms of players, but what about revenue, and profit. If you look at ATVI's data, Blizzard, and the majority of this would have to be WoW, pulls in ~300 million a quarter. Riot and Valve are not public and do not seem to release sales figures for the properties mentioned, so its hard to compare, but if you look at what comes from Riot, I would doubt they're pulling in a tenth of what WoW does. Given that Valve runs steam, its near impossible to determine what money they get and where it comes from.

Of course it all depends on the goals you put out. I'm sure LoL, DOTA2, and the other F2P mentioned games have goals, and since they're still around, they are likely making those goals. None of that really means it sells in the same ballpark as WoW.

Even the titles that Smedley quotes figures for, there's only one number that's tied to revenue and that's that DCUO increased rev by 7X when it went free to play. The thing is DCUO pre F2P was pretty small, and a 7X increase of revenue may not even be enough to pay for the expenses let alone profit.

Of course Sony's revenue model is based on its stable of games, like cable companies do with packages, which works well for them.

In conclusion, I would be very careful in expecting F2P to "save" your game. F2P is an incredible tool, but its just that, a tool. It is not a magic pancea...

Kevin Fishburne
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F2P is just a marketing and sales technique, though because it's in some way tied to gameplay it has the potential to change it for the worse if poorly thought out or even abused.

An idea I keep floating but have yet to receive feedback on is the "coin-op" model. You basically get a free life to start but are required to pay a fee for subsequent lives should you die. This pretty much leaves gameplay abuse out of the picture, allowing the game to stay "pure" while still making money and allowing people to at least initially play for free. Dumbest idea ever or plausible?

Patrick Miller
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There are a few modern games that do this kind of thing already -- see energy mechanics in social games and the "coin" system in Scramble With Friends, for example.

But even classic coin-op games were hardly "pure"--they were optimized to suck quarters at just the right rate. Look at old ads that target arcade operators, for example -- most of them tout higher difficulties that lead to higher turnover and more quarters.

I just played Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: The Arcade Game last night with Gamasutra EIC Kris Graft and Frank Cifaldi, and it's kind of boring when you *don't* have to pay for it (the machine was on free play). There are plenty of points where you feel like the only way to win is to pay another quarter (boss fights, for example), just like the f2p "squeeze".

Vin St John
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@Kevin, Patrick Miller already covered some of this, but:
Consider for a moment that a game which makes money off of you needing more lives would be tempted to challenge you in ways that are not consistently fun. Many games have this problem, most arcade games had this problem.

Kevin Fishburne
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@Patrick Miller @Vin StJohn

Thank you! First direct feedback on the idea I've received.

@Patrick Miller

I'm familiar with energy mechanics, but that's generally more about time/action and less about your player dying through unavoidable misfortune or consistent and consecutive poor decision making. In my case I'm talking about a game with potentially multiple characters per user (continuity) and permadeath, where player death is an anomaly rather than an expectation.

Regarding coin-op arcade titles, yes they strove to not just addict but drain quarters from their players (much like Zynga). This is the profit motive encroaching on design, as has happened in the F2P space on unfortunate occasion.

Your revelation about TMNT reminds me of when the orchestrators of a kid's party in my youth paid Putt Putt to open all the arcade machines so you could slide in a quarter and get it back (the panel was open). It was awesome, but the feeling of infinite lives did cheapen the gaming experience a bit. I had a similar experience later with MAME.

@Vin StJohn

That is true, however in my case the idea is an attempt to avoid such impropriety. F2P mechanisms, even seemingly innocent ones, just rub me the wrong way. Yet I need a high adoption/trying rate and some sort of consistent revenue. The idea that I'd amp-up player deaths to increase revenue is deeply offensive to me, even if I were making the equivalent of minimum wage or less. So far the comments I've received from you and Patrick are extremely encouraging, as it seems it'd work well as long as I don't allow it to affect gameplay. In fact, should certain circumstances result in players dying too frequently I should alleviate that by better balancing gameplay and perhaps even issuing a refund for a "bullshit death". Hmmm.

TC Weidner
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Hardly some secret. Dynamic player driven world and economy. Many including myself have been saying this since day 1. Create the dynamic sandbox world, let the players do the rest, just give them the ability and in game tools and so forth to do so.

I mean how long do MMOs have to stay with this first gen static world, generic quest driven crap?

Mark Ludlow
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The biggest problem there though is maintaining the balance and preventing the inevitable griefing. I've seen more than a few videos of people griefing other players in Garry's mod and Minecraft (such as locking them into an inescapable situation, or blocking off necessary resources), and while it's funny to watch, it becomes a pain when you are trying to have fun and you find yourself unable to because someone else is abusing the sandbox nature of the game.

Michael Wenk
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@Mark Griefing is a problem in online games in general. Hell, you see it in Mario Kart Wii, which is kinda funny when you think about it. It is not specific to sandboxes.

@TC This was the way it was in the beginning of the genre with UO, then EQ and AC came and kicked UO's rear. I have yet to see a sandbox game beat a theme park. UO - Didn't do as well as its others. SWG - Failed miserably, even before NGE/CU, it was bleeding subs, most people said the game was boring. EVE - Sandbox, but is boring. Its doing well in its niche, but it is a niche.

I think there are multiple reasons why a theme park does better than a sandbox. First a sandbox generally has a pyramid hierarchy of players. Usually a small subset of players "controls" the box, and those players, and their friends are usually the ones that have the most fun. Second reason is the content. Content is always second fiddle because the point of the box is to make your own stuff. Oh, you mentioned player generated content, and I assume you mean outside of making the sand castle in the sandbox. Player generated content varies in terms of quality to a high degree, much more so than if you have a full time AAA dev team making stuff. Not to say players don't make some good things, but the vast majority is mediocre at best.

I think those reasons and others preclude a sandbox from really getting a lot of traction. Put another way, if I'm a peon in life, why do I want to pay money to be a peon in the sandbox? I'd rather just do something else to be honest. And if I feel like sandbox play, which I sometimes do, I'll just make my own box with a single player game like Sims, Civ, etc. That way I can be the king of my box.

As long as what people pay for is what defines what is made, you'll see theme parks to answer the last question you had.

Kevin Fishburne
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@Mark Ludlow

I agree completely, and think that the idea of griefing should be addressed at the design stage by implementing equal and opposite gameplay measures to counter it.

Imagine you had PVP everywhere, without the ability to sign off, and someone started digging a hole next to you, pushing you around or unsheathing a weapon. How would you prevent the player just sitting there fishing or playing backgammon with a friend from getting made an example of by the emergent gameplay?

With zero invisible walls and only logical gameplay choices affecting game/actor state properties, what could be designed to prevent such random violence? Some suggestions (add your own!):

Players in fear vocalize, alerting other players who may or may not be party to the scaremongers.

When a weapon is drawn, those around judge the sanity of the wielder based on how quickly and directly they move toward an unarmed player. It could dissipate as they sheathe their weapon or turn and walk away from unarmed players. Equally-armed players could face each other and create more of a "spectator" AI assigned to the surrounding players (less interference).

A player who kills another player, rightly or otherwise, would harbor evidence (the murder weapon, if not bloody clothes and a crazy look in the eye). Other players would see this, not to mention the "player corpse" probably left in the middle of a road not even posed or moved. Details like these could allow players to identify serial killers (PK, Reds, etc.), or at least signs/patterns/gangs of them.

One final one. Anti-griefing features should include the capacity for mob rule, where it's immediately evident to the casual bystander who's causing the trouble and who's getting violence visited upon them in the event you opt to help. Most of the time you'd stop the violence, hear the discussion and put the winner in jail. Depending on the context of the assault, you might finish someone off or turn the tables on the aggressor.

Kevin Fishburne
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@Michael Wenk

In a proper multiplayer sandbox you may be king or pauper, much as in the real world.

Michael Wenk
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@Mark
"Imagine you had PVP everywhere, without the ability to sign off, and someone started digging a hole next to you, pushing you around or unsheathing a weapon. How would you prevent the player just sitting there fishing or playing backgammon with a friend from getting made an example of by the emergent gameplay?"

IMO the attitude that a player has to play your game is the biggest design screwup you can make. Because it can never work. People always can leave. Even if you stop my ability to easily exit, I can always turn the machine off. Or I can pull the plug/battery. Even things like LoL's player council against people dropping matches because they're losing are doomed to fail because a person can always just reregister. Sure you can fix that particular problem, but given what happened when Blizzard wanted to do real names, I think you'd have a marked decrease in players and quite likely the revenue those players bring in.

I think that if you realize that players can leave, then you're motivated to put in measures to prevent people from leaving. In other words, you can shelter the player and give them a nice juicy carrot and keep the stick away from them.

TC Weidner
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@ micheal, I was there for UO, hell I played Meridan before that. UO was indeed a semi sandbox and I wish we would of went in that direction instead of the EQ themepark, but this industry and genre is still in its infancy. People seem to act as if MMOS have peaked, I laugh at that. I think when they get it right, when they allow for dynamic virtual existence of a person's avatar on a cool virtual world, we will see games with 100+ million subscribers.

as for griefing- anti griefing isnt so hard to put in place once you understand the mindset of a griefer.
Actually MMO griefing is much easier to deal with then aim bots and so forth in FPS online games since MMO griefing is a design problem, FPS griefing is design but also more of a technical one.

So Im not buying this griefing excuse as for not allowing players freedom

Ramin Shokrizade
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Sustainable player-driven virtual economies are very complex, and have to be well designed to prevent abuse. Just like real world economies. Many of the rich people in the "real world" are just people that either found exploits in the real world economy, or introduced a new one by lobbying for new legislation that introduces a favorable exploit. The nice thing about virtual economies is that you can design them from scratch to be exploit-free. I'm not saying this is easy, because it is not. Once you achieve it, however, you have built a money machine that can provide you with revenue for a very long time.

Kevin Fishburne
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@Michael Wenk

I said: "Imagine you had PVP everywhere, without the ability to sign off, and someone started digging a hole next to you, pushing you around or unsheathing a weapon. How would you prevent the player just sitting there fishing or playing backgammon with a friend from getting made an example of by the emergent gameplay?"

You said: "IMO the attitude that a player has to play your game is the biggest design screwup you can make. Because it can never work. People always can leave. Even if you stop my ability to easily exit, I can always turn the machine off. Or I can pull the plug/battery. Even things like LoL's player council against people dropping matches because they're losing are doomed to fail because a person can always just reregister. Sure you can fix that particular problem, but given what happened when Blizzard wanted to do real names, I think you'd have a marked decrease in players and quite likely the revenue those players bring in."

Except my server detects a connection disruption within four seconds and initiates AI for the disconnected player. Whether they're in direct control, ghosting or completely offline, they're still playing.

Michael Wenk
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@Kevin - If you start playing for the player when they DC, then at some point you lose the magic of it being multiplayer, because at the point where the AI is in control the player, the other player (or players, though griefing in my experience is usually a solo behaviour) notices.

So you have to figure at some point the player being griefed will just up and leave. You have no control other this, and trying to put control seems... futile, at least to me.

Kevin Fishburne
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@Michael Wenk

You said, "If you start playing for the player when they [disconnect], then at some point you lose the magic of it being multiplayer, because at the point where the AI is in control the player, the other player (or players, though griefing in my experience is usually a solo behaviour) notices.

So you have to figure at some point the player being griefed will just up and leave. You have no control other this, and trying to put control seems... futile, at least to me."

I say: If on average a player devotes one hour a day to playing my game (4%), then 23 hours a day their player is using AI (96%). Considering that at any given time 96% of the player base is being controlled by AI, griefers will be greatly outnumbered (unless they customize their offline AI to grief; a bad idea). Ideally there will be minimal survival advantage between offline (AI) and online players. As far as the magic of multiplayer being lost, the same number of concurrent online players will exist, but offline players will essentially become AI-controlled NPCs. I think of that as a massive gain rather than a loss, as long as online players may identify each other from offline players for chat and scheming purposes.

Tay Allen
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IMHO, Steam Workshop points to the solution (or problem...): design. Players aren't included, as consumers, in the creation of content. MMOs in general have increasingly been built like console games - so it's almost unsurprising that players blow through it.

WoW was mentioned, so I'll use it. The game's peak times included everything from the AQ event to attunements and close ties to the lore. There were little things like treasure chests out in the world... And outdoor bosses. These things are nowthe past. This isnt to knock the game *at all*. I'm a long-time player and really care deeply about the game's success - it's just that these things don't escape notice. There was a lot of character that incentivized real play. Now, we traverse the "theme park" on quest ride after quest ride. There isnt even a need to read the quests anymore. Quality content creation can't possibly keep up with the current design philosophy in any game that chooses to work this way.

Jeremy Reaban
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Even before Minecraft, you had The Sims, which had pretty robust building tools (for houses), and thanks to a mod community, creature objects and other in game items.


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