MMO designer Raph Koster runs down the key mechanics that drive retention in online games

    
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If last week’s “games as a service” conversation piqued your interest, hop on over to Raph Koster’s blog. The veteran MMORPG designer has a new piece up on retention specifically – you know, that thing non-MMO companies obsessing over “games as a service” keep forgetting they’re gonna need to make that viable as a strategy for more than a minute.

“There is no ongoing service without retention,” he notes. “This is why some game genres work better than others as services. If you can figure out how a given genre can retain, then you can make it work for GaaS. Whether or not it works for F2P is a separate, secondary question. And a lot of game types are built to be consumable, snackable, or played very intermittently. By their nature, they will work poorly as the sole anchor for a service (they might work great in the context for a service that has multiple offerings).”

Then Koster provides a literal list of the key mechanics (and their pros and cons) to drive retention in online games: a steady content trickle, “persistent profile investment” (think: achievement scores), in-world investment (like housing), social connections, economy, depth, PvP competition, creative tools, ongoing storylines, and emergent play.

“If you can’t make money from a userbase that has decided to make your game into a lifestyle choice, well, you’re not trying.” -Raph Koster
You know, all the stuff you want out of a great MMO.

“Once you have retention, you can worry about how to make money,” Koster concludes. “If you can’t make money from a userbase that has decided to make your game into a lifestyle choice, well, you’re not trying. Again, it doesn’t imply a particular business model: a service-based game is not a dirty word, doesn’t mandate constant moneygrubbing, doesn’t mean it has to be free to play. It just means that you the developer and you the player are in it for the long haul.”

We’re barely skimming the surface here; go read the whole piece over on Koster’s blog.

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Anstalt

Great article from Raph as always.

These are concepts I’ve been thinking of for a long time, particularly in relation to why I hate the modern world of MMOs! Looking through his list of retaining activities, you can see that most modern MMOs are missing the majority of them, or only have them in a very basic form.

It also clearly shows why focusing on story is a stupid idea – story is good for retaining people whilst they still have story to complete, but the instant the player finishes the story, they’re gone. Coupled with the shallowness and simplicity of modern MMOs, players can now blast through the story in a very short time.

I long for more MMOs that focus on deep mechanics and emergent gameplay.

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Fenrir Wolf

I suppose that depends on who you’re retenting (which, unlike other ludicrous words I’ve found are real lately, is not a word), or retaining if you’d prefer that.

I think that the vast majority of them aren’t meant for me. Which is fine! I don’t really grasp the problem people have with “this isn’t for you.” I suppose it’s narcissism at work, once again. “Not for glorious ME? How dare you????”

Far too many humans I’ve met are entirely unironically that blue-haired lady from Saiki-K. Which is concerning.

Some are for me, though, which is nice.

I’m a minority demographic. I think anyone who happens to be of a subculture or doesn’t share a mind of the homogeneous hive (because apparently the hip, in thing is to deny being daleks whilst actually embodying almost everything of what makes them so dalek-y). When you’re not a part of that, there’s lots of things that don’t fit.

You gain an appreciation for that which does, those moments of loveliness where someone’s realised you exist. I feel that a number of groups out there — from autism to furry — could relate to those feels.

How would one manage to retent a me, then?

The primary focus would be a world which has a building crescendo of hope to it, rather than just focusing on edgy tragedy. This pretty much counts me out of the majority of MMOs already. I prefer .hack//SIGN, a tale where the heroes can overcome adversity in a difficult reality by coming together and sharing in one another’s strengths.

It’s bizarre that I, as an introvert, enjoy that. Whereas most extroverts seem to prefer schadenfreude, tragedy, undercutting, and cut-throat competition. When you realise that, the world of Guild Wars 2 makes a bunch of sense.

To me, it’s baffling. But I’m not the target audience. The target audience is people who like groups that can’t let past wars go, enjoy diminutive sociopaths, and have a thing for celluloid Mary Sues and Gary Stus. Which sounds like Hollywood actors, so that was an ill-considered mangling of words. The plant-folk, yeah?

I don’t enjoy that.

I enjoy jumping puzzles, which is probably the only reason I still start up GW2.

The primary way to catch my attention is to have a game focused around skill rather than grind and RNG playing the game in one’s stead and trying to somehow fool the player into believing this isn’t the case. So that’s, again, the vast majority out of the picture.

Then there’s mystery, intrigue, complexity, and puzzles worth a damn. Since the MMO is likely trying to cast its net as wide as humanly possible, it’ll oversimplify with the fervour of a paranoid parent. So even fewer titles have passed this filter.

That’s why I like so few. I enjoy bits of games, but not all of them. Whereas, for a time, Tamriel Online held my interest for its diverse characters and gripping narratives (the Clockwork City especially), it lost me with its inconsistent gameplay, and ardent push toward the game playing itself more and more without even needing you, but only if you’re there to push buttons and pretend!

Which is the illusion, isn’t it? The reason bots are a threat to most of these games is because they do play themselves, you just pres butan and win. You pres butan. You pres butan. You pres butan ten thousand times and then your numbers are upgraded. Gosh, you got gud! ZOS’s love for this, rivalled only by Blizzard, is what ultimately alienated anyone who values skill.

Here’s the cycle of most MMOs:

– The players pres butan a lot.
– “Oh noes,” opines the developer, “the players pres’d butan too often and now some are too gud and others are nubs!”
– Activate! Random Number Generator Balancing Initiative — Go! Save us, Grand Fighting Robot RNG!
– Yay! Balance is fukt! Now we put in more grind for players to do. Fixt!
– The players pres butan a lot.

Cynical? Certainly, but I’ve been alive long enough to know a pattern when I see one. It’s the same pattern used all too often.

As such, the MMOs that’ve held my attention the longest are those who’ve ticked other boxes. Which so few have done.

The Secret World had mystery! Suspense! Puzzles! Yet it bored me with its grind.

Tamriel Online had entertaining characters! Narrative! Lore! Yet it bored me with its grind.

Guild Wars 2 had jumping puzzles! …jumping puzzles! …and j–no, that joke’s getting old already. Um. It had rather fun collectables! Yet it bored me with its grind.

Champions Online wowed me with its character creator! It hooked me with its unashamedly goofy ’60s Batman humour! Yet… it bored me with its grind.

As such, I bounce off of a lot of MMOs. I come for the race choices! Yet I end up let down and buggering off to escape the grind. I mean, I’m so done with these overly enthusiastic narcissistic obessions, even regarding one’s own species. They leave me feeling rather tepid. I’m even tempted to exercise my hyperbole and say cold.

That’s not really true, though. I have too much verve to be cold inside. Try to deny me my verve, reality! You shall be found wanting.

Still, it leaves me tepid.

As such, I do turn to MMOs for escapism. I just feel that, for the most part, perhaps the entire genre simply isn’t for me. I watch with interest regardless though to see what fascinating new inhuman options they might present me with next.

When do I get bugs? I want bugs. I want to play something like the original thri-kreen with giant compound eyes and bulbous abdomens. Hard to model armour for? Oh, most assuredly. Worth it? YES!

I’m still thorny, prickly, and decidedly miffed about what happened to my most cherished bugfolk in D&D 3.5. Darn you, Wizards of the Coast! Darn you all to heck!

I just want co-op experiences set in unusual locales with inhuman options that revolve around well told stories, which the player interacts with by making meaningful choices and having the dexterous skills to pay the parkour bills. Is that too much to ask?

It probably is, isn’t it?

I just want to play a game where I can be a bug person in a post-Singularity society that passes its time by creating madcap parkour adventures.

I want to go on cooperative treasure hunts with my insectoid friends through fiendishly designed ancient ruins filled with traps, environment puzzles, riddles, confounding geometry, and more to test their wits to their limits.

That’s not the Universe I live in, though, is it? No… No, it is not.

The Universe I live in is one where everyone wants to play as an insipidly homogeneous, porcelain and pretty human committing grotesque acts of genocide against anything they deem unnatural for the base sin of looking different than they do.

Sigh.

Still, I live in hope! It’s all I can do. That or lose my mind entirely. I’ve lost enough of it as is.

Mordyjuice
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Mordyjuice

Just do the tourist thing, show up for a month and play it until it gets grindy then moving to the next MMO on your list. I’ve got 3 MMOs (WoW,ESO,GW2), 2 ARPGs Diablo 3, Grim Dawn, and one heavily Modded Skyrim SE.

As soon as something gets grindy I move on down the list.

kjempff
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kjempff

Everything and nothing is grindy. Grind is just a state of your mind.

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Sorenthaz

Haven’t read the full blog post yet but I think one of the big things that keeps me around is variety of activities + the way rewards are handled.

FFXIV is a great example with how they lay out their rewards – you can do specific content each week (Alliance Raids, 8man Raids) and get at least one piece of progression gear that serves as an upgrade, and as you do this stuff you get tomestones and/or tokens that go towards longer term upgrades (tomestone gear + their upgrades). Then there’s the option to do extreme primals to get another potential upgrade, but you aren’t limited by how often you get rewarded from it; you can also push Savage raid content in order to get the best iLvl gear for that respective period. Then of course there’s also the Relic grind which rewards you for sinking time into whatever type of grind it requires, but you aren’t timegated in terms of how far you can progress within a given week, and at the end of it you get to have some pretty sick glamours.

Then you’ve got other activities – Gold Saucer content (including Triple Triad, Chocobo Racing, etc.), PvP, crafting/gathering, retainer ventures, Grand Company squadrons, leveling other classes/jobs, PotD/HoH… and all of them have their various rewards and ways that you can essentially show off your achievements (titles/cosmetics/emotes/minions/mounts/etc.).

Pretty much everything you do in that game feels rewarding in some degree with a good mix of time vs effort factored into it.

In comparison WoW has been falling short on this imo. They have a variety of activities for progression, but they all ultimately reward you in a similar fashion – rolling for a chance at an upgrade or reward with no guarantee that you’ll be able to get what you want/need to progress. There’s no real light at the end of the tunnel like there is with XIV (where at the very least you know you’ll be getting tomestone gear for participating in content every week). The side activities are great fun and do have their rewards, but the actual method of progression is basically “do things and hope you luck out” – FFXIV has much more tangible rewards where you know what you can get and unless you’re absolutely unlucky with dice rolls you’re going to get something each week if you’re doing the latest alliance raid or 8man raid. Not to mention you can tell what is ‘BiS’ and what you need to do in order to get it, something that WoW has completely abandoned for the sake of keeping Mythic Raiders and everyone else stuck on a neverending treadmill.

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styopa

^agree with all of the above. Plus, two other points I think worth noting:
1) the benefits are durable, and more or less permanent. Due to the anti-alt method of FFXIV, all of this effort is expended to improve your character, forever. Accumulated tokens or rep that’s not particularly useful for this job? No big, they’ll be associated with that toon ergo they will always benefit that player, whenever you decide to play some other job. As an altoholic in most games, I can’t stress how cool this is – never, ever having to grind rep for a faction each time for each toon and then getting rewards that are bind-to-character (remember, the whole idea of gaining stuff to your account ala WoW is a relatively recent idea)? I’m totally hot for that.
2) not all of the coolest stuff is gated behind skill-content. There’s a CRAPton of things like glam items, hairstyles, emotes, pets, etc that you can get from all of the side-content you talk about that (to some people) are meaningful upgrades that they DON’T have to grind to ilvl400 gear to have any chance of getting.

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Schmidt.Capela

And a lot of game types are built to be consumable, snackable, or played very intermittently. By their nature, they will work poorly as the sole anchor for a service (they might work great in the context for a service that has multiple offerings).

A good example in a different market segment: Netflix. Most of the content in there is one-shot, and even very successful ongoing series tend to engage the average spectator for less than 4 hours per month, but Netflix has so much content you can go through, the snackable nature of its content isn’t an issue.

Social groups are the primary glue in games in general.

I agree, but in my case at least the strength of this retention mechanic actually turned it into a negative. You see, strong social ties kept me playing certain content inside a MMO way beyond the point where I was getting burned with it; it almost caused me to swear off the whole MMO genre.

End result, I made a conscious choice to never again let social ties keep me playing any kind of content inside a game, or even a game itself, beyond the point where I’m no longer having fun; to that end I now actively identify and cut short any in-game social tie that might grow strong enough to keep me playing when I’m not having fun anymore, in particular by driving away players that start to rely on me and always making everyone I play with aware that I could vanish without warning to never return.

Economic play and arbitrage

I’m not sure how widespread my own preference is, but for me this actually lowers my desire to keep playing, at least when playing with other people. I dislike commerce enough that if a multiplayer game has this among its core gameplay loops chances are good I will skip it without even giving it a try.

This doesn’t drive me away from single-player games, or multiplayer games where I don’t directly engage other players in the economic gameplay, though; perhaps because in those situations I look at the economic gameplay as just another kind of puzzle to be unraveled.

Player vs player competition

Again, I’m not sure how widespread my own preferences are, but if the game tries in any way to mix this with any other retention mechanic, chances are good I will hate the result and be quickly driven away. PvP mixed with anything else is anathema for me, and if I have to give up on anything in order to avoid PvP that will also drive me away.

On the other hand I’m a big fan of pure PvP, as in PvP from which all persistence, all PvE interactions, and all rewards for winning or penalties for losing are stripped. As long as there is no PvE, no persistence, no rewards or penalties involved I can play PvP content for weeks at a time without growing bored.

User creativity
Emergent play

I mostly group those two together in that using them has one important challenge: they depend on attracting and keeping enough of a certain kind of player, which isn’t guaranteed even if the developer does everything right; the network effect (as in, players of that kind joining the game because other similar players are already there) is particularly strong, such that attracting the first players of that kind to jumpstart the retention mechanic is never guaranteed. Due to this, using those as the main retention mechanics for a new game is basically gambling the future of the game on something you can’t control.

It’s still worthy planning for these retention mechanics even if you aren’t going to fully implement the required features to fully utilize them, though, because if you allow players with similar gameplay preferences to congregate the natural growth of the game might bring enough of those players to kickstart those retention mechanics; if that does happen then it’s in your best interest to quickly implement the missing features.

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Bruno Brito

I agree, but in my case at least the strength of this retention mechanic actually turned it into a negative. You see, strong social ties kept me playing certain content inside a MMO way beyond the point where I was getting burned with it; it almost caused me to swear off the whole MMO genre.

End result, I made a conscious choice to never again let social ties keep me playing any kind of content inside a game, or even a game itself, beyond the point where I’m no longer having fun; to that end I now actively identify and cut short any in-game social tie that might grow strong enough to keep me playing when I’m not having fun anymore, in particular by driving away players that start to rely on me and always making everyone I play with aware that I could vanish without warning to never return.

Why not just try to make the relation flourish outside the game?

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Kickstarter Donor
NeoWolf

Now Bree, have you been stalking the SWG developers again? hmm.. be honest? lol

Joking aside, he speaks a lot of sense but developers knowing this is sadly not the same as them putting it into practice. If more did we’d all be happeir and have more to play.

xpsync
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xpsync

It’s really about finding people’s carrot’s in area of interest. My main carrot still to this day is figuring out “the game” how it works for lack of better explanation. Once i’ve done that if there is still interest in “the game” as in world, exploration, even more learning, community, grind, atmosphere, then i make a lifestyle choice so to speak.

It’s why i believe sp games are pretty much over for me now, within an hour or two i’ve figured out how it works and all i see ahead is repetition, grab quest, complete quest, get a little more story, nothing to learn, all static.

EQ2 and SWG grabbed me hard as there was so much to learn, explore, player interaction, moving up in these worlds was the carrot to learn, learn, learn, explore and experience what is over that hill, behind those scary locked gates to that dungeon and you had to work for everything every step of the way.

EQ2 while i mainly did end game content i always remember one quest which was always a carrot for me and it was to kill a 1000 something, getting that named to pop, the list goes on and on of what mmo’s used to be like. Nutshell, truck loads of carrots.

My latest two obsessions are Warframe, so much to learn, so much to achieve amazing game, and peeps less popular option Fallout 76 but it’s the exploring, self survival aspects which have kept me engaged so far. The overall feeling too of progression, it’s another key carrot, in single player games i don’t get that anymore.

However online and i suppose it’s the human factor in some ways is that progression feels more important… well no more satisfying?; and no, it’s not the elites epeen thing, as i’m always way behind everyone else, Fallout 76 i’m 32 majority of everyone 150 plus, Warframe harder to gauge but been 16 for a long time now.

The largest problem with games today is the cookie cutting, no depth approach (for me) for the masses i imagine the easier and less to learn the better.

kjempff
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kjempff

EQ2 and SWG grabbed me hard as there was so much to learn, explore, player interaction, moving up in these worlds was the carrot to learn, learn, learn, explore and experience what is over that hill, behind those scary locked gates to that dungeon and you had to work for everything every step of the way.

Yeah that is the key to retention. Always a new hill in view, always new things to explore and learn. This can only happen if the mmo has great depth and hidden stuff, having to earn and learn your way and not being pampered and herded.
I can’t say I got that from Eq2 but very much from Eq1 though, but I understand what you say.

Warframe is another great example of a game where 95% of the game is hidden, and you have to actively seek it. You could argue that it is bad game design to find the depth on the wiki instead of in-game, and I would certainly prefer that it would be more logical and learn by playing the game, but the important part is that is hidden from me and that triggers my curiosity so very much.

Story driven themeparks have a hard time providing both the depth and the hidden things to trigger imagination and curiosity.
To create retention, the game need to get me(the player) invested, and nothing gets me more invested than feeling of accomplishment, and that can only happen if I feel that I figured it out and that I chose my stories.
Sorry the last part was not really a reply to you, just generic ramblings (with a narrow focus on pve mmorpgs, not considering pvp or other type of games) :)

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Arktouros

I think the part unaccounted for is that game developers using GaaS model aren’t looking for long term retention like a MMO. It’s like planned obsolescence. They want to retain the customers just long enough until the next game in the series comes out. Doing so requires a more delicate balance of updating the game with enough content and features to string people along but not so many good features and enough content that the next game in the series doesn’t look like a straight upgrade.

I’ll also point out that after many years playing in PvP environments he’s wrong on his suggestions on how to use PvP to retain people. The ability to win in a competitive environment is critically important but what’s even more important than that is having a way for players to recover from losing. Like a very common problem for most survival games is that losing typically means the destruction of numerous hours worth of grinding/labor. People just won’t suffer those kinds of losses and the system needs to be designed in order to allow players to easily recover and compete again. Another critical aspect often ignored is the persistence aspect. A lot of developers make this decision that any kind of battle should also be persistent but that causes a lot of issues when one side gains dominance. It creates a scenario where the other sides are beaten into quitting and you end up with one dominant side. However by comparison you look at something like GW2’s WvW with a weekly reset and going on 7 years every friday WvW is packed because a new week is a new round and a new opportunity to win.

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Raph Koster

Recovery from losing really doesn’t make up for the emotional impact of losing all the time. It still chases a huge amount of people away. It certainly helps — obviously, losses that cost a lot hurt worse than losses that only cost a little — but a loss is still a loss, and people like wins.

The issue with persistence and PvP has been known since the late 80s or early 90s, I think.

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Schmidt.Capela

Recovering from a loss being difficult or time-consuming is a particularly bad situation because it breaks another of the retention drivers: in-world investment. It creates a situation where players are prone to simply leave the game when they have their first big loss because they just lost a big part of what was motivating them to stay.

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Sorenthaz

Yeah but at the same time at least in a PvE environment that can also be a motivator to go “okay I need to be careful and plan accordingly” or “okay so I can’t do this yet”. Only real examples I’ve had this with is Runescape and FFXI where death was quite costly.

In PvP though? Yeah it can be demotivating, especially if that loss creates a snowball effect where you keep losing because you can’t build yourself back up to compete. That’s one of the issues MOBAs face, but MOBAs try to curtail that by obviously putting everyone back at the same starting point each match, with each match typically lasting 10-30 minutes average depending on the game (only real exception would be DotA). It’s also why Survival Sandboxes seem to be running their course, and public servers tend to devolve because you’ll have folks who just keep everyone else from being able to build up and fight them.

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Schmidt.Capela

Yeah but at the same time at least in a PvE environment that can also be a motivator to go “okay I need to be careful and plan accordingly” or “okay so I can’t do this yet”.

That assumes the player enjoys playing carefully enough for that incentive to serve as a substitute to the in-world investment retention mechanism.

Which many don’t, and in some cases it might even have the exact opposite effect. I, for example, tend to consider the game too boring if it’s not killing me at least a couple times per hour; this, obviously, is incompatible with any kind of death penalty that takes more than a couple minutes to completely recover from.

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Sorenthaz

Yeah of course. It’s why games with steeper death penalties even for PvE tend to be niche or have slowly built up audiences. There’s always a balance of sorts with that stuff based on the audience you’re aiming for. I.e., permadeath PvE probably wouldn’t attract a large crowd, but adding some carryovers (like in Rogue Legacy, Dead Cells, Survived By, etc.) could help open it up to a potentially wider group.

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Schmidt.Capela

A rogue-like with permadeath is kinda different from a longer term RPG, even if the trappings are similar. In a video-game RPG the main drive is often to accumulate power and riches in an environment where persistence matters; in a rogue-like the main drive is usually to see how far you can get this time.

This different focus means players that might abhor losing their stuff in a longer-term RPG might not mind losing everything in a permadeath rogue-like. Accumulating riches was never the objective in the rogue-like anyway.

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PanagiotisLial1

Recovering what is lost does play a big role. A lot of people that normally did not PVP, used to PVP in WoW Battlegrounds cause there was no loss recovery really.

As opposed to a high value loss in a full loot pvp games – especially it involved a lot of build structures too that take time, can result in someone quitting. All the full loot pvp games I played, I seen some guilds going into gradual hybernation and moving altogether to other game or just quitting each one following their way. They pretty much didnt feel like going through the grind again and in some cases they had less numbers than the time they actually built these structures.

The usual problem there is typically when a server opens in the full loot pvp games a race begins to amass the most members possible. Once 1 or 2 guilds/alliances feel they are ahead enough of the competition sweeping attacks begin and they farm other guilds/alliance for loot/gears/gold, stopping every PVE completely. The targets of the attacks recover 1-2 times before quitting and moving on. Every recovery they also usually come with less members as more and more quit. At that point in the game population drops dramatically. A while after aggressors start to become bored as they find no targets. That is pretty much the story of most indie full loot mmorpgs that started with a big population boom and ended up barely sustaining by scaling down costs

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Arktouros

Which is really where giving players the opportunity for wins is very important in your PvP game design. You see this in successful competitive game modes like Battle Royales or MOBAs because the matches reset after each game. Each player has to rebuild up their character and it’s an all new opportunity for them to potentially win.

Most competive MMOs don’t do this. They want to keep things persistent and even if they have timed duration on their matches the world state remains “as is” and there’s functionally no reset. There’s no opportunities for people to switch around and you end up with stagnate PvP scenarios where the winners always win and the losers always lose. This is a majority contributing factor to why I’m more interested in Crowfall over a title like Camelot Unchained for example because there’s an win state and a transition after for the next campaign.

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Tee Parsley

CoH devs reported that ‘time returning to the game’ was the single most powerful negative from loss. I guess the more destructive the loss, the longer it’d take to get back to the previous playing level or experience.

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Fervor Bliss

The feeling of how outmatched you are also plays into the despair, If you are looking at months of grind to match a players gear that you that the game puts you into a PvP match with. It is easy to say goodbye forever.

laelgon
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laelgon

Just to add on, I think a big problem with losing in the current stock of PvP titles is that a lot of the losses happen when the loser isn’t actively playing. That’s a huge disincentive for players, that first time you log in to see everything gone because it’s someone else’s primetime when you are at work, sleeping, or just doing non-game activities. Offline protection mechanics will often be open to abuse or be seen as imbalanced in favor or against players in a particular region, which also drives players away.

Hamblepants
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Hamblepants

Great article, thanks Bree (and Raph).