There are four basic timeframes in the player lifecycle for an online game. See if you can relate to them with your experiences in Diablo 2, and any other online game you play:
1) Confusion: This is the first month or so. The players are learning the game, fumbling around the environment, finding out what they can do.
2) Excitement: This is about the next 3 months. The players have figured out what they’re doing, and they’re having a blast playing the game. The adrenaline is running as you do everything you can to advance yourself as quickly as possible.
3) Involvement: This lasts for any amount of time from months to years after the excitement phase ends. The players are connected to the community, and have a discernable reason for sticking around. Often, this isn’t so much for personal reasons as it is to keep the community running, because they feel like they’re part of it, and they are.
4) Boredom: This is the last couple months of the lifecycle, and is inevitable no matter how strong the game and its community are. At some point, people just find other things to do, and the game fades in to memory. This is when the game winds down.
I’m sure everyone reading this can recognize this pattern in their time online. It’s the kind of thing most people just don’t sit down to quantify. The timeframes vary from game to game, but they’re roughly consistent. Let’s look at each stage a little more in depth, as we tend to do here.
Confusion is the most bizarre phase of the lifecycle. This is when you’ve just bought a game, and are taking it for a test drive. Most people don’t read the manual, even though it’s the most logical step to take, and just dive right in with no knowledge of how anything works. In anticipation of this, most game companies include some sort of tutorial to help the player learn what they need to know.
This is actually where the game is won or lost from the developer’s point of view. If the players can’t get in to it almost immediately, most will pass on it and pick up a new game. I know I’ve done it, though I won’t drop any names. After a short time, everyone has either moved on, or advanced to the second phase of the player lifecycle.
Excitement is when the players understand how the game works and what they’re supposed to do, and they’re playing it because it’s a fun game. If there are quests that need doing, they do them, because it’s another facet of the game they haven’t explored yet. In an online game, the opportunity is present to get involved in a community based in or around the game. If the players make these ties, and get involved in the game community, they advance to the next phase.
Involvement is when the players are sticking around for the community, and not necessarily the gameplay. Guilds, clans, teams, etc. are all examples of community ties that might keep a player coming back. For an MMORPG like Ultima Online, this is where the revenue comes from. 100,000 people a month at $15 per person is a lot of money. Most offline games lose their interest after the Excitement phase because by definition, there is no community to hold on to. There are exceptions to this, but the general pattern is for offline games to go directly to the next phase.
Boredom is when the interest in the game dies down. At some point, no matter how strong the game is, and how well developed the community is, people simply lose interest. Once this phase begins, it’s very difficult to recover from it; it’s almost impossible. A much safer bet is to try to avoid this phase entirely by putting it off indefinitely.
In 2001, the Themis Group came up with what they call the “Group Player Satisfaction Matrix.” It was based on the Bartle Types from the last column, and looks like this:
Bartle Player Activity Types:
Confusion: 0-1 month—Features—Features—Features—Features
Excitement (2-4 month)—Features—Features—Features—Features
Involvement (2 months – 4+ years)—Features—Features—Features—Features
I’m not making this up; it actually looks like this. As you can clearly see, people want features. It doesn’t matter who or what the people are, everyone likes neat stuff. The way to stave off the boredom phase is to keep them interested. The way to keep them interested is by giving them what they want, and what they want is …features.
This is the biggest difference between online games and offline games: 95% of the work for an offline game happens before release, and 90% of the work for an online game happens after release. An online game isn’t a product, it’s a service. To keep the players happy, you need to keep the game fresh and interesting. There’s actually an entire team dedicated to this post-release updating, called the Live Team. It will be quite a while until I get to this, as it only happens after the game’s released, and this column is mostly about what happens before that time.
So people always want more features. Everyone knows what these are, though, right? Well, sort of. There are two types of features you need to know about and we’ll get to them next time.
(Isn’t it nice having short columns from me again?)
Disclaimer: Behind the Veil was written by Chris Marks and hosted by Diabloii.net. The opinions expressed in these columns are those of the author, and not necessarily those of Diii.net.