Here at Department of Play, many of our clients are deeply interested in improving player retention in their free-to-play and paid games.
The reasoning behind that fascination is fundamentally straightforward. The longer a player is retained the more time they spend engaged with a game, broadening their opportunity to spend. So far, so simple. But to understand how to improve player retention, we need to take a more considered look at why retention is worth pursuing.
As such, in this article we’ll look at core retention theory, explore some examples of typical retention, and share our own framework for improving your games’ retention.
Why is Getting Retention Right Important?
Clearly the more time a player spends with your game, the more opportunity for monetisation there is, whether you are selling in game items or serving rewarded ads. Lasting retention can have a significant impact on revenue.
However, there is considerable nuance to the retention landscape, with different forms of game offering their own intricacies, challenges and opportunities. The rise of hypercasual, for example, has seen greater numbers of users acquired at a lower price or effort. But while such games tend to have incredible d1 retention – even hitting 70% in some cases -they often experience a very leaky bucket thereafter. In other words, acquired players don’t tend to stick around in hypercasual games long term; at least, not without lots of motivation.
Over in the realms of midcore and hardcore mobile games, meanwhile, retention can deliver less than impressive results early on, but significant gains over a longer period of time. It’s a kind of retention worth pursuing past the early days.
To a degree, the more casual a game is, the easier it is for players to pick up, but the harder time it will have keeping them playing. The greater depth of midcore and hardcore games, meanwhile, can make for better longterm retention, at the relative expense of ease of acquisition. Indeed, we could understand the arrival of ‘hybridcasual’ games like Habby’s popular action title Archero as – at least in part – an attempt to bring together the acquisition-friendly pick-up-and-play nature of hypercasual with the retention baiting depth of core gaming forms.
Different gaming forms, then, demonstrate different retention patterns. For example, the top 25% of word games tend to see d7 retention of around 19%, while the top 25% of card games enjoy a rate of just over 18%. Those classic forms demonstrate some of the highest retention a week past launch. By contrast, games from the mid-core simulation genre should expect d7 retention of around 8% if they exist in the top 25% in their category. A top 25% casual puzzle game, meanwhile, might well enjoy between 15% and 16% retention by the same point.
Common Retention Patterns
With all the above in mind, let’s look at some typical examples of the retention lifecycle of various – albeit hypothetical – games.
Example 1: A typical hypercasual title, with day-one retention of 50%, and $0.20 ARPDAU.
As is clear, while cumulative revenue climbs quietly but steadily, retention from day-one on tumbles significantly.
Example 2: A high-achieving hypercasual game that manages a remarkable doubling of the ARPDAU of the title above, starting at $0.60.
While the freefalling retention remains unchanged, the revenue uptake is certainly more enviable than in Example 1. Next, then, let’s look at how a game of greater depth will fare, bringing in better retention, but potentially putting off more players on day-one.
Example 3: A typical midcore title, with day-one retention of 40%, and $0.28 ARPDAU.
Clearly, in this example the game recoups at a considerably slower rate, yet come day-90 the revenue is much higher, and a relatively good number of users are still playing and paying.
Seasoned observers will immediately spot that the above examples present static ARPDAU. In fact, in most games that sport well-designed game economies the ARPDAU should increase. Some titles readily enjoy ARPDAU doubling by day-90. Once more, the potential of quality retention is clear to see.
You may have also come across the concept ‘terminal retention’; a point at which a player doesn’t leave the game, developing significant loyalty. Titles that reach this point can in theory generate revenue for years on end.
Again, we can see the relationship between depth, accessibility and retention, with the latter being so important to climbing revenues. That begs the question, how can a developer or publisher assure meaningful, impactful retention? Here at Department of Play, we developed a simple framework to answer that very question.
A Framework for Meaningful Retention
Outlined below, our framework offers a guide to developing the retention of your game, and highlights what you should be focusing on at what point through the timeline that follows a title’s development and release.
• Grokability: In the early days it is essential that your players find your game accessible and easy to understand. This, of course, will largely be down to work done before release. Decisions around how to onboard new players are key to establishing potential retention. ‘First time user experience’ is powerfully important at this stage. While your game should hope to continually onboard new players over time, in week-one grokability is especially important, in that these opening days are so vital to establishing the future potential of your creation.
• Novelty: How unique and fun your game is will ultimately dictate how memorable it is. Novelty will also impact its exposure, attention and virality.
• Technicality: Considering the stability, speed and battery usage of your game will influence both commitment from individual players, and its likelihood of being shared, well reviewed and recommended.
• Progression vectors: The things users can gain, and the ways they can advance and level up once they are established as a player (for example, XP systems, saga maps and unlocks). Clear goals should also be provided. Players that are given a sense of progress while made to feel they have plenty more to achieve will be more likely to be retained.
• Mastery: Giving players opportunities to develop and improve their ability within a game will equally help to retain them. Users should feel they have the opportunity to refine gameplay strategies, better understand game systems, and acquire items through skill or knowledge.
• Return triggers: A return trigger provides a means to encourage players to revisit your game. Simply put, such triggers help keep a game sticky. Return triggers can take many forms, all with the same purpose; giving the player good reason to come back; perhaps an unmissable event, the arrival of an in-game resource, or a new season in a broad gameplay loop.
• Nudges: Simple reminders can be used to encourage users to come back and play frequently. The likes of timers and daily log-in bonuses are ideal motivators for returning play.
Late (d30 – 90):
• Social comparison: At this late stage, giving players ways to compare their progress, ability, devotion and understanding to others can be vital to retention. Options such as PvP, power rankings and leaderboards are powerful here.
• Live ops: Maintaining a game as a live entity is beneficial for many reasons. In the context of retention events, new timed content, extra levels, fesh characters and more will greatly aid your efforts.
• Meaningful social interaction: At this stage the notion of ‘community’ becomes key to retaining already-devoted players. Consider ways to foster friendships in-game, promote clan allegiances, deliver rivalries and more. Important and exceptionally devoted players can even step up as some form of community lead.
• External: At this stage you may need to look at growing the game and its player community beyond the application itself. Esports, cosplay, expo presence and in-person tournaments offer both opportunity and challenge in this context
Getting Retention Right
Looking at the framework above, it is clear that over time, gameplay mechanics and systems themselves become less relevant, as do qualities such as novelty, accessibility and even content updates. Over time, people will tire of most elements of a game – except for those that involve other people. We each are, after all, social beings.
The following diagram demonstrates the shift in what factors matter most to retention over time. In theory, you will have won the retention battle when you make it to terminal retention, and find yourself busy with more socially-minded efforts.
A step away from free-to-play games – and even video games broadly – affords an opportunity for perspective here. Consider perhaps the most defining example of quality game design; chess. True chess has not been meaningfully updated as a game in hundreds of years, and yet it has taken millions of players to terminal retention over that time. While chess mastery really can take a lifetime, players, both professional and hobbyist alike, commit to decades of play when novelty has long since faded. Why, beyond the brilliance of the core game? Because of the community, rankings, events, forums, tournaments and more. Over time people stick with chess because of the people, the community and the culture. Spanning the full spectrum from casual play to intense devotion, chess capably retains its players.
The core challenge of retention in F2P games, then, is in the balancing of grokability (understandability) and depth. As we’ve seen, grokability brings players in droves, while more complicated games must work harder to acquire new players and keep them during the first critical days of learning. The grokable, however, struggle to retain, with depth being a great boon to keeping players on board. If your game is understandable enough to welcome new players, it may struggle to keep them, while if it is deep enough to retain, it may deter new players.
Ultimately, getting this as right as possible is highly important. Retention is also highly difficult, simply because it needs to be integrated so deeply into the very structure of a game. Small, frequent, local-maxima changes can help, but the impact on retention will be fairly small contrasted to the ongoing effort.
Designing with retention-mindedness from day-one of work on a new game will undoubtedly help, especially using the framework above as a guide to post-release planning. But if you don’t have that luxury, and your game is already well underway, or out in the wild, the framework can still help. In an era when games can be updated remotely, furnishing you game with ‘retainability’ isn’t impossible. And the further from d1 you make it, the less retaining players will be about the game design itself.