Understanding free-to-play MMO retention

Now that free-to-play is an established revenue model and accepted by both game companies and consumers, the underlying economics have shifted. Specifically, where initially the market for MMOs focused largely on acquisition, it now emphasizes retention. Keeping your players happy is a much more effective way of spending your time than to merely churn through them and get new ones.

However, following any successful launch, free-to-play MMOs face the difficult task of retaining their players for as long as possible in a process that can seem chaotic and unpredictable. Analyzing the login data we collected from a diverse set of free-to-play titles over five years, we have identified several general patterns that guide player retention and isolated key trends in this process.

First ones in, last ones out

The closer to launch that players first sign on, the likelier they are to be playing on the Nth day after their first login. This is because highly interested players are less likely to wait before they start playing and will not quit playing a highly anticipated game without fully exploring its full offering. On average, 6.21% of players who logged in for the first time in the 1st month a game is released will log on 360 days after their first login. By comparison, only one tenth of players (0.63%) who logged in for the first time in the 12th month after a game is released will log on 360 days after their first login.

Despite the assumed long tail for free-to-play games, pre-release marketing is critical in establishing an initial customer base that is loyal and fully engaged.

MMO retention graph 1

Who sticks around after launch?

Following the marketing effort surrounding the release of your game, a slew of new curious users will try it. But they are also quick to decide whether or not they like it enough to continue using it. Across free-to-play MMOs we observe that Nth-Day Retention of players that log in for the first time during launch month follows a standard service user decay curve. Within the first month, the percent of users returning on the Nth day drops dramatically, with the dropout rate decelerating over time. The observation that only the most dedicated users stay for the long term may seem obvious, but it also reveals a great deal about what to expectations down the road.

The first month is critical in gauging the long term success of your title as it serves as a proxy.

MMO retention Graph 2

Early retention drop off

Among players who start playing a free-to-play MMO during the month of its initial release, the percentage that play on the Nth day after their initial login drops substantially. Specifically, 83% of players who log in for the first time in the same month as the game’s release will log on the following day. As time progresses, retention suffers as only 20% of players who log in for the first time during launch month will log on 30 days later. However, when users start playing twelve months after launch, the percentage that play on the Nth day falls even faster. Roughly one-third of players (35%) who log in for the first time one year after launch will log on the next day and only 3% will log on after 30 days.

MMO retention is highest among players that joined the game during its initial launch period.

Stabilization and dedicated late arrivals

For free-to-play MMOs we see stabilization occurring generally 24 months after release, as this is a period in which the quality of newly arriving players improves. Players that start playing at this time are generally introduced by word-of-mouth or have made the decision to join after more careful consideration rather than trying the game out of boredom or serendipity. Consequently, retention among these late arrivals skews higher, with roughly 40% of users logging on one day after their first login and 2% of them returning on the 30th day after they first log in. This percentage drops further when looking at a longer time frame, such as 90, 180 or even 540 days, as pictured below.

If a free-to-play MMO manages to stay afloat for a period of around two years, it will begin to attract new, valuable players.

MMO retention Graph 3

Conclusion and thoughts on MMO retention

The free-to-play MMO market is a mature entertainment market, as its underlying dynamics have shifted from primarily acquisition-focused to one where retention is key. Based on the data we’ve collected on titles in this category over the past few years, we observe that a strong initial launch, fueled by an effective marketing campaign, helps establishing a loyal customer base. As the retention dynamics for free-to-play MMOs follows a standard service user decay curve, the first 30 days days after launch are also critical in assessing the long term viability and success of a title. Finally, titles that make it past the two year mark generally experience an influx of self-qualifying and valuable users.

Methodology

The above analysis is based on the login data collected from both large and small free-to-play MMOs, involving over one million unique users in aggregate over the course of a five year period. On a monthly basis SuperData receives behavioral and spending information from more than 37 million digital gamers across over 500 titles. Data sources include publishers, developers and payment service providers. For more information on our methodology, please go here.