At GDC Online on Friday, MMO veterans from major developers shared key tips on player retention, engagement and keeping a game going strong after launch.
"Really from launch, even from a year afterward, it's still part of the development process," said Sony Online Entertainment Executive Director of Development Lorin Jameson. "…You kind of transition from looking for the audience you want to understanding the players that you have."
But keeping players engaged is the tricky part. "Understanding and getting to that core audience that really identifies with your brand … is very important," said Jameson.
Nathan Richardsson, executive producer at EVE Online developer CCP, said that focusing on a game's core audience has been one key to EVE's longevity. "About 20 percent of the people who played at launch are still playing EVE, so there is a very strong core audience." He added, "The EVE development team has never been bigger than it is today."
Jeff Hickman, executive producer with EA Mythic, stressed that developers need to stay focused on their audience, and also on what makes their game appealing in the first place. That can be difficult when competing with so many other MMOs, he said.
"One of the biggest things that you struggle with is chasing everybody else," said Hickman, and this struggle sometimes leads MMO developers to make drastic changes in an effort to appeal to another game's audience. "Don't fuck with the core of your game," Hickman advised.
BioWare Co-studio Director Rich Vogel agreed, "Changing the fundamental core of your game is really risky to do."
But in order to have players to keep engaged, developers need to be able to attract the initial base. While the panel speakers all work on games with varying business models, they agreed that accessibility –- from the first click registering for the game –- is crucial.
Hickman, who works on titles like Ultima Online, said the game has its very hardcore audience that has been playing for years, but attracting new players included the introduction of a new front-end client, which exists alongside a "classic" client.
"Did it widen our reach? Absolutely," said Hickman. "…You have got to make sure that it's very easy for players to get into your game."
Jeff Steefel, executive producer at Lord of the Rings Online and Dungeons & Dragons Online developer Turbine said the subscriber base for the studio's games has gone up "significantly" since it started offering free-to-play and microtransactions as an option. He said the studio was surprised at the results, but Turbine realized the new model made the games more accessible with less commitment.
"It all comes down to giving flexibility to the consumer -- then all of a sudden they're much more engaged," both in terms of playing the game and spending money, Steefel said. "…Engagement is what drives how they spend money."
But player engagement is tricky, particularly in such a competitive space. EVE Online's Richardsson explained that his MMO's regular free expansions have been key to retaining players. With the release of the free expansions, "churn goes down to nonexistent," he said. Richardsson argued that CCP is not just "throwing money away" with free expansions, but it shows players value, and that keeps them playing the subscription-based game.
Min Kim, VP at MapleStory developer Nexon America said, "The console player always cares what new and hot-looking etc." But with MMOs, it's more about "the content [the game] gives to them" over a longer period of time.
And showing players the value that the content offers is important. Richardsson said, "Remind the customer why he is giving you money. Always. … A frequent schedule of releases is the best way to do it."