Hooked on Your Game: How to Use Retention Mechanics to Keep Players Coming Back
Do you have a game that players just can't put down? If not, you're not alone. In today's crowded and competitive gaming market, retaining players over time can be a challenge. But fear not: in this article, we'll reveal insights into hooking players and keeping them engaged with your game. From retention mechanics to genre considerations, we'll provide valuable insights and advice for game designers looking to improve player retention.
Well, let's get started with an agreement, gameplay is king.
The core of player retention is gameplay, the more fun a game is, the more players will play it and keep coming back. Having established that, we will now discuss different mechanics surrounding gameplay and independence that can improve retention in addition to strong gameplay.
The first pillar of player retention mechanics are clear routines, daily, weekly and monthly routines. These are flexible and should be developed to adhere to the game’s goals. Games with less content can create more lenient player routines to allow better content spacing.
The first routine retention mechanic is the daily gameplay loop, many games will use daily and weekly missions to create a clear loop of daily play. The goal of this is to establish the basic requirements from players on a daily basis. This promotes both integration of games into the daily routine of players, clear short term and mid term (weekly) goals on top of creating a sense of progression and completion of easily anticipated tasks.
A good rule of thumb is to aim for 15 minutes to clear a daily loop.
This mechanic is further enhanced by daily, weekly and monthly log in calendars, these incentivise players to log in, even if the player can’t commit to the full daily routine. They are also a good way to create developer - player relationships as more often than not these rewards are not meaningful in the greater scheme of the game. The last piece of this puzzle is mid and long term goals. These calendars should have clear milestones of better and unique rewards to incentivise players to keep coming back for a clear, free, meaningful end goal.
The common ground of both mechanics in momentum and daily routine integration, the goal is to have players coming back, on a set basis, as part of their daily lives.
The second pillar of player retention is meaningful progression. Oftentimes players will play a game they enjoy yet drop out due to feeling stuck in place.
This is due to the fact that many games require a level of grinding and an increase of the difficulty curve. As today, most games aim to be a years long service over an experience with a clear ending for profitability and business, the content curve becomes much more difficult to balance, often stretched out and players get frustrated feeling stuck.
Circumventing this is possible through meaningful player progression over various ways; The first and simplest one is a “local” interpretation of player levels. This is one of the most common game design features to give players an easy and clearly communicated way to gauge their progression over the game since numbers are easy to understand. A more broad approach would be to create a mechanic that is tied to the player's progression in the game and add a layer of rewards. A good way to do this is to create an account level mechanic and reward players for every level with bigger rewards on every 5 or 10 levels and outstanding, game affecting rewards on longer term levels like 50 or 100. This once again creates short, mid and long term goals alongside giving the developers a way to significantly impact the player experience.
A very strong approach here would be to offer a reward (at for example level 50 which can be reached in 2-4 weeks) and have this reward be outstandingly meaningful for a starting player like a character of the highest tier. And while most players will likely won’t be strongly impacted by this when eventually reaching this point, it is very alluring for starting players and affects the entire game economy with establishing clear value for a prestigious award.
Monetization to Retention
Monetization in of itself is a major topic in games. It is not often that developers look at monetization as a means and not an end, and even then, mostly as a deteriorating and not a beneficial factor.
Well, smart monetization can be a meaningful beneficial factor for games.
The simplest example is, of course, the now very popular battle passes. In essence, battle passes are a commitment to the game. They involve progression, goals and rewards while using the fear of missing out (FOMO) to incentivise spending as well. Additional retention mechanics based on monetization are cumulative spending rewards, a form of player interest like the notorious daily VIP system gift, purchasable cumulative rewards like special discount tickets given to players on reaching milestones and more.
The reasoning here is different from the previous mechanics, instead of setting clear goals (which can be done here as well), players are retained through player engagement, investment and attachment to the game.
Another approach here is in the form of gating content and rewarding players with free time skips or gating unlocks. These can be both monetized and used to streamline progression in order to enhance retention. The issue with this approach is that more often than not, impairing player progression with “hard walls” and gating is distancing players from the game as it is a frustrating experience and not an engaging gameplay mechanic.
Catch-Up and Returning Player Mechanics
Another useful tool for retaining players over the long term is allowing ways for new and returning players to get “back in the action” and close the gap to more progressed players. There are multitudes of ways in accomplishing this, from giving players time boosts, to straight up providing end-game characters and gear. These mechanics are of the more game specific as they can affect the entire player base and disengage players from the experience due to skipping on a lot of the learning and skill nurturing required in many games.
As such, these mechanics should be first gauged over the game’s learning curve and current end game positioning. More skill oriented games like MOBA games can reward returning players more with currency, thus not affecting other players or shortening the path of learning, it merely gives the player a faster progression in the game’s content itself, which often takes years to catch up on regardless of player progression and has no direct effect on the gameplay. Games that are less PvP and more PvE oriented can opt for mentorship mechanics that reward both advanced and new players alike, thus benefiting both and increasing the engagement levels of both while pushing a level of social interaction as well, another option for PvE games is times boosts which incentivize players to play more while not directly skipping any potentially meaningful content. A way to alleviate this further is content completion rewards which are not directly retention related by tie in nicely to overall player engagement and benefit retention and the player experience.
Over all, over a game’s life, returning players become a decent chunk of the player base as a whole and are required to be adhered and acknowledged, this time, in order to keep them in or at least coming back for more. Lastly, one of the most important aspects of these approaches is to clearly communicate the value of the rewards. The returning players may have forgotten the meaning of the rewards in the game or their functionality, a reminder or optional tutorial can be a nice addition here, and are, currently, very much missing in the industry.
Social Interaction and Customization
Arguably the strongest and most important way to engage and retain players, social interaction is a tool that can be incorporated into most games nowadays in some form or another. From rewarded invites through guilds and team gameplay modes to even leaderboards and a degree of competitiveness, we believe that in every game there’s room for integration of a degree of social mechanics.
Their effect is undeniable, MMORPGs, online gaming communities, the prevalence of social mechanics in the top 100 grossing games charts and the amount of studies online on online interaction, we know fact that the social aspects are the most engaging and effective over players as a broad audience, doubly so for mass market products.
Casual games can add anything from simple leaderboard mechanics in the vein of candy crush to chat systems, emotes or a player hub. Events and community challenges, even game wide with indirect player interaction like server goals are shown to be effective and engaging. These show players that the game is alive and the experience is shared. More core approaches include PvP and Co-op in games, group systems like guilds and out-of-game interaction options like a community discord server.
Aside from the direct impact on retention, these mechanics also massively drive up the value of our next talking point: Customization.
Self expression and representation are becoming more and more important nowadays and games are not exempt from this. Players want to be able to see themselves in their characters.
Player customization is among the strongest ways to create rapport, engagement and commitment to a game and its characters. Aside from being easily monetizable and directly impacting retention for the better. Customization and social interaction flourish together, players want to be able to show off their hard earned or bought accessories and express themselves and, naturally, this is best achieved with other players.
A unique example here is VRChat, a VR game released in 2014, which is what some would argue, already, a form of a metaverse, is a unique hub of player interaction with radical self expression and social interaction. With a steady DAU of 25k players over the years (growing steadily since 2018), this game lives solely on the connection between social interaction and customization and thrives on a relatively new and low user base platform with almost no competition.
Having discussed player routines, progression, the connection between monetization and retention, catch up and returning player mechanics and social interaction, it feels like we’ve covered a lot and yet, barely scratched the surface. Retaining players is a major subject with every single aspect of game design directly affecting it, community management, update and patched and progression streamlining are just some of the other topics we have on the subject we didn’t get to in this article.
Having prioritized arguably the most effective and important aspects of positive impact on player retention, the key factor and our base assumption for this entire article remains the same. Gameplay is king, players will play the games they enjoy. They will come back and support these games. It is how to keep them in, monetize them and retain them over the competition that sets good games apart from the great.
We are hopeful this article will be of help to game developers, designers and investors alike when things of the next game under their sights.