The Daily Grind: What’s the best way MMOs can improve player retention – other than new content?


Months ago, Gamasutra published a piece about the long-tail of game development – basically, how to keep a video game selling copies and/or attracting players long after it’s faded from the front page of every website and dropped out of Steam’s top 10. The specific suggestions are simultaneously obvious, depressing, and irrelevant: make a game that doesn’t suck and does get good reviews early on, make a game streamers want to play long-term, and get your game in a sale or Steam’s roundups. The most useful-to-MMOs bit came when the author homed in on an alternate path to success, which is to focus on retaining the players you have instead of spending all your effort chasing new ones.

This again seems obvious, but you have but to look at MMO studios over the last two decades to realize how many of them legitimately do not do this. Like, Star Wars Galaxies’ NGE is probably still the most catastrophic example of a game collapsing specifically because a company was fixated on all the players it didn’t have at the explicit expense of the huge playerbase it already had.

So for this morning’s Daily Grind, I wanna talk about long-term MMO retention. Obviously, the most important way to retain players in an online game is to publish more content that your players (including lapsed players) want to play. So let’s focus on the other stuff. What’s the most important thing an MMO can do for player retention – other than more content?

Every morning, the Massively Overpowered writers team up with mascot Mo to ask MMORPG players pointed questions about the massively multiplayer online roleplaying genre. Grab a mug of your preferred beverage and take a stab at answering the question posed in today’s Daily Grind!

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Stop being money-grubbing life-sucking parasites?

People play your game if it’s fun, they don’t do it to maneuver through your bull#@(% attempts to siphon everything you can from their wallets. I know for myself I tend to stop P(L)AYING if they are doing things that are making my enjoyment suffer.

Take for example ESO, which I’m currently playing as NON-ESO+ after playing ESO+ for a year…which I can just barely play, can’t do barely any questing, because my inventory fills up steadily with all kinds of trash because I’m not paying. It’s making me want to leave, but instead, I’m just changing how I play, by just IGNORING anything below purple item-wise now…I’m trying to convince myself to just not even pick anything below that up even but it’s hard to resist…(When I know it holds barely any in-game value…)…as the ‘fun’ part of the game to me is the thieving system where you can pickpocket/steal stuff (And the thrill of almost getting caught sometimes) and sell it off to a fence…but money doesn’t really serve a purpose other than to buy crap from other people you don’t need, or buying housing to ‘play house’ which I don’t care about anymore…

But they have a account wide feature that when you earn certain things, it’s use-able by all. (Why they made ‘achievements’ character-specific…I don’t know…it turns into you having to just repeat doing the same quest-lines over and over again…that’s boring as *^$&.)

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I would love to read a Massively Overthinking column on this very topic. Would also like to see more opinions on games that have done this well.

As for me, I agree with lots of what I read below (especially with Blazing Coconut) and what keeps me coming back are big projects like a house or a special achievement that feels monumental yet still attainable.


In broad terms..
Make worlds not stories.
Create expandable systems with depth.
Player agency.
Lasting, feeling of accomplishment.


Make the IP relevant, grow a community, allow for some kind of player created content.

To make the IP relevant you need to have something besides the main game, novels comics, toys, arpgs, games with shorter production times than an MMO or an expansion, fast food tie-ins, almost anything you can imagine can help an IP being more relevant.

A good community will market and advertise the game for you, if someone whose opinion i trust tells me to try a game i do it, and they will probably be in game guiding me to the stuff that appeals to me in particular, you can’t pay anyone to do that, it’s impossible.

Players will always be better at creating things other players will want to take part in than devs, devs need to think about monetization, profit, retention and lots of other stuff, while the only intent of player created content is fun.

MOBA and BR started as game modes created by modders.


The most useful-to-MMOs bit came when the author homed in on an alternate path to success, which is to focus on retaining the players you have instead of spending all your effort chasing new ones.

Hrm…so companies should focus on customer engagement?

That doesn’t seem to be very popular right now.


From my point of view, there are probably 3 very important design decisions that would greatly increase player retention. However, some of these ideas would potentially reduce accessibility / churn rates, so the companies may end up with lower initial numbers but stronger long-term numbers. So, the business really needs to be clear on what their aiming for, if they want both they’ll probably fail.

1) Get the right IP
Regardless of what is in the game, I feel like IP is probably the most important factor. Established IPs tend to make the most sales as there is already an existing fanbase who want to live in your virtual world. That love of an IP can get players past crappy gameplay, giving them enough time to fall in love with the rest of the game.
2) Add more depth to gameplay mechanics.
This is a hard one to achieve as I don’t think many designers know how to do this. But, MMORPG mechanics have been steadily getting shallower over the last 10 years. Adding depth means the game stays engaging for longer, emergent gameplay is more likely to happen and repeating content is more enjoyable as you’ll be able to get a completely different experience by making different meaningful choices.
3) Make it more social
Friends don’t let friends quit. An MMORPG that has a strong focus on social engagement between players will have much higher retention than other games, because those social bonds create a strong attachment to the game and a powerful incentive to keep logging in. Sadly, many design choices recently have taken the genre the other direction, lowering the importance of social bonding and instead focusing on accessibility in order to improve their churn rates.

Blazing Coconut
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Blazing Coconut

I think the formula is pretty simple:

1) Fun game loop. Whatever the thing that players do the most… it should be fun. Combat is usually that thing, so make sure your combat is fun with players feeling like their skill means something (even if it doesn’t). Fun combat likely involves movement and positioning and an interesting relationship between the abilities that a player uses. What is not to be overlooked is that foes should be interesting as well and not just giant HP bags.

2) Keep all content relevant. Leveling systems are great for progression but if you don’t have a way to let people do older content, you reduce your game to 1-2 small activities that are optimal. Let people do the things they enjoy doing and don’t make anyone burn out on new Raid #22.

3) Make power curves horizontal not vertical. Scaling ever vertical just means that you need bigger numbers. Making your power curve more horizontal where you add ability and not raw numbers always makes more sense.

4) Give players systems to make their own stuff. Housing. Tailoring. Music. Art. Whatever those systems are, let people be creative to make themselves unique. That’s what people really want. I don’t want to be Fighter #9201, I want to be Lord Bobo who rules over Castle Incredible.

5) Try to come up with systems to give people “content” whether that’s a mission creator, or a bounty system, or any other tools to let people make things to do.

6) Add RP tools, emotes, servers, channels, good ways to speak at each other, customization, whatever. RPers will stick around longer than most other players… and… nearly every RP server, unofficial or not, is far more busy that any other server. RPers have staying power and community power.


Agree with all of this. Really feel that a horizontal power curve is the way to go. In this way you also don’t have to zone everything by level as long as you have enough base power and skill you can tackle anything and then this gets rid of dead/end game zones in that then people can be where they want.


Here are a few of the things that I personally feel would keep people playing more (well at least me anyway)

– Make the leveling journey mean as much as the end game and in that make it enjoyable I don’t want it to feel like its just there as a giant 40+ hour tutorial. This makes me bounce the hardest in games.

– Horizontal progression and allow me to change my build at times with not to hard of a power wall. I want to be able to make a custom character that feels right for me this is where skill based games get it better than level vertical progression.

– Make the over world feel useful and not just as I feel it is now a bigger lobby for the instanced content (think if 1/2 the game in Destiny 2 was just wasted for you to wait for a strike team)

– Give me some risk/reward if the only thing that I can ever lose is time then there is no risk to anything.

– Persistent in world housing that does things like adds inventory space safe zones etc as an instance house just does not do it for me.

– Make the game have multiple way to level. If I wanted to grind let me grind if I want to instance spam let me instance spam and try to level it out. I also don’t mind slower leveling as it makes me appreciate the game more as I do love the journey over the end game treadmill.

– Make the game more sandboxy so that people can create content with other players and make the game more interactive.

– Also make exp mean something after level cap give me a reward or something kind of how like Destiny does this as it still makes doing content mean more than just useless currencies that become useless for the next currencies as I will not get on the gear treadmill it mean nothing.

In the end I want to live in a persistent world that is not just a bunch of instanced rooms that I don’t interact with the world and others in it outside of spam a instance as once I get to end game I will bounce unless I have some connections to the community if I want a waiting room then I can go play other games that do that just better.

My best examples of games that did this right when they were good were UO and SWG.

End rant.

2Ton Gamer

Design a game for long term players and not flavor of the month streamers or those who breeze to end game and move on. (Gaming Locusts). Make repeatable things worthwhile and put more time than the initial implementation with consistent updates. Do not over-promise things and if you come out with a system, do not abandon it. Also, yes include PvP for those who want to do that, even if it’s limited to a special area and keep on top of it. PvPers will keep coming back and playing between endgame lulls. Make it rewarding for others who might not necessarily want to try it something they can dip their toes in for fun from time to time.

Demon of Razgriz
Demon of Razgriz

Build your community. To me, most games can and will survive simply because the player base fees as if it’s a part of the experience. The better the relationship between devs and community, the better the game.