MMOs require new blood. Not exclusively or anything; you can keep an MMO going for quite some time on existing happy players. But existing happy players might be just one patch away from existing unhappy players, and then another patch to no-longer-players. Or they might have their life circumstances change, or they might just get a little bored, and the short version is that if your game is losing players faster than it’s gaining players, you are not in a good place. Thus, the original statement: MMOs require new blood.
Unfortunately, a lot of MMOs are really bad at actually keeping new players. Seriously, MMOs tend to be like going fishing with just a bit of bait tied to the end of the line, no hook, while slowly whispering “please keep holding on to the line” to the fish in the hopes that this will work. So with that in mind, let’s take a look at some of the ways that MMOs can make mistakes and wind up losing the new player inspired to try out the game.
1. Non-functional or idiotic tutorials
Look, developers, I need you all to understand something: You do not need to explain WASD movement to me beyond saying you have WASD movement. This is not novel. It astonishes me how many tutorials slowly walk you through how your character moves and how jumping works and so forth and then at the end vaguely mention big, complicated systems that are actually hard to understand as a footnote. Star Trek Online stands out as a game that has a functional tutorial that explains the basics in depth… but then stops explaining once it gets to the stuff people actually might struggle with.
And that’s assuming your tutorial even works. If it’s full of broken links, it’s just a moment when players will head out quickly; ditto huge text blocks. Text dumps aren’t tutorials; they’re reading the manual broken up by moments of gameplay.
2. Unclear goals past the tutorial
A lot of more open-form games fall victim to this. You get a tutorial that gives you clear goals and explains systems, and then you’re told to just… wander out and do whatever you want! And that is the moment when a lot of players are going to leave because they don’t actually know what they want to do yet. You haven’t given them the tools to self-define goals.
Good game design – yes, even for open-form titles with stronger sandbox influence – gives you some direction if you’re not sure where to go. No, I’m not saying that every single game needs a main story line or anything, but if you give players a set of goals to work toward that can be discarded at any time, it gives new players a sense of what they can do without stopping the ones who know what they want to do.
3. Forcing early cash shop interaction
The more you push people to give you money – and the earlier you do so – the more people are just going to hop out quickly out of spite. Seriously, this should be obvious. You want people to give you money for your game, I know, but if you force it early and make players feel like it’s expected, it breeds resentment and the impression that this game is going to become hella pricey real quick. If you hold back, people are more likely to think, “Yeah, I’ve had lots of fun with this… why not drop a few bucks?”
4. Early mandatory socialization
This is kind of the same problem as the prior item in a different way. A lot of players want to be able to start off playing the game and figuring out how the game works on their own, to be able to walk into a group situation with some idea of what needs to be done and how the game works. If you force people to enter group scenarios early without any understanding of how the game works, some people are going to bounce off right there simply because… well, what if I make a mistake? What’s the accepted procedure? What if I embarrass myself?
Again, yes, you want people to socialize and work together because social bonds keep people playing. But trying to rush it just makes people anxious and uncomfortable.
5. On rails for too long
This is the flipside to the earlier drawbacks. Having a strong early tutorial and guidance early on is very important, but you also want players to feel like they can go off and do other things rather than “you are locked into this route and cannot so much as go exploring without our say-so.” This is common among bad themepark designs, making everything nothing more than a series of mildly interactive hallways; no sidequests, no detours, no options, no chance to even say, “You know what, I’d rather do that random event right now over to the south instead of continuing in the main quest right now.”
I mean, heck, I tease World of Warcraft for how it’s designed, but even in that game you can choose how you want to level and the order you take on content right from the beginning. You’re not stuck in a strictly on-rails no-exploring system from the start.
6. Confusing, underexplained systems
Let me go back to STO for a moment: The game’s skill system does actually make sense… eventually. But it’s never well-explained by the game. It’s confusing even to veteran players. If you look at an item’s stats and you cannot figure out what it’s supposed to be doing for you or how it’s better than another piece beyond “bigger number go brrrr,” you may need to take the time to do a better job explaining how the game’s systems work.
7. Broken pieces
Look, I love Final Fantasy XI. But the fact that it’s hard to get the game to install correctly and you have to tell new players to gently ignore the tutorial quest line and do X, Y, and Z, when the game never tells you to do those things? When you have to explain that the best way to progress in the game’s story is actually to totally ignore all of it except for the Rhapsodies of Vana’diel story because that will get you better advancement for a long chunk of gameplay? Yeah, there’s some broken stuff in here, and you can’t blame a new player for having no idea what to do and just saying “nope” early on.
8. A focus on weaknesses
All right, designers, we need to have a talk. I know that some games, like Final Fantasy XIV and Star Wars: The Old Republic, have convinced you that having a strong story running through your MMO breeds player engagement. The thing is, these are games telling stories that are written by, well, really good writers. Guild Wars 2 doesn’t just happen to have a story; it has a story that has been worked at and improved over time and often manages to at least be impressively weird and at times moving. Your generic anime isekai plot is… not that.
Now, that is not a problem in and of itself. There’s no problem with having a game with a garbage story but fun gameplay and neat crafting, for example. It becomes a problem only if your game, say, spends the first dozen hours in a strictly on-rails story section and leaves people saying, “Gosh, I love this game except for its story, which I hate and can’t skip.” Figure out what you’re actually good at, and put that front and center.
9. Imbalance of challenge
You do not want to be insta-killing your players within the first five minutes. But you also don’t want to be making your players feel like they can take on anything and everything without thinking for the first dozen hours, either. So many lesser games start you with wildly overpowered early rewards that mean you spend your early leveling experience basically gliding through combat without anything providing more than a slight speed-bump, and others “create” challenge by basically sticking you in terrible everything until you reach the midgame and can easily get better gear and suddenly the challenge evaporates.
Challenges should feel balanced and generally consistent. If I’m struggling to kill a wolf at level 1, it should be because your combat system is intricate and there’s a lot to do, not because the wolf hits crazy hard and I lack much health. If your combat doesn’t reach a “balanced” point until 30 hours in, most people are never going to see it.
10. Gift overload
This might feel like a weird one. After all, if you log in and get a bunch of free gifts, that’s a good thing, right? And the broad answer is yes, in theory, but too many gifts can both obscure the value of any given gift and make players confused about what they’re supposed to use those gifts for.
Did this gift package give me a half-dozen potions that are super rare and I should hold on to them for extreme situations, or are they actually common convenience items? I have no idea! I’ve been playing this game for five minutes! Don’t give me a login bonus and a new player bonus and a player power event bonus that forces me to search out what these items are, why they’re worthwhile or not, and if I should hold on to this stuff or throw it in the trash.
Or, I mean, go ahead and do that. I have games I play where I know these answers already. I can just go play those instead.