SWTOR Retention Predictions

Discussing retention in an MMO without accounting for social ensnarement is like discussing weight loss without accounting for calories. It is something so fundamental that I have to imagine that the only reason it is not brought up is because it is taken as a given. And yet I have now read multiple blogs talking about SWTOR’s lack of retentive capacity based on story, story, or even god forbid, gameplay with completely straight faces. Here is Gordon from We Fly Spitfires:

And this, unfortunately, is BioWare’s big mistake. They sacrificed on so much in order to squeeze in a fully voice acted ’story mode’. It’s why there are so few classes, so few starting areas, limited racial choices, a small number of Flashpoints and Warzones, and only a single line of progression for each side. Likewise, once the shine of the story mode wears off, you realise that the gameplay is pretty generic if not shallow and outdated. Nils has a good write-up on the subject and, if you agree with him, you’ll probably also come to the realisation that WoW’s gameplay actually has a surprising amount of depth to it (at least in comparison to The Old Republic).

To get this out of the way, WoW’s combat definitely does have a more visceral cadence to it than my experience with the SWTOR beta. At least, it does once you pass certain level thresholds with a given class. Rogues before Cheapshot are hideous. Paladins were garbage for years until multiple class revamps later. And so on.

Having said that… really? Are we seriously to the point at which we are holding WoW up as an example of compelling gameplay as if Cataclysm never happened? Even if we agree that there are two (or more) different definitions of gameplay taking place – the moment-to-moment, and say, the minute-to-minute – I am here to argue that while they are helpful, they are ultimately secondary at best.

Retention in MMOs come down to the people. Daily quests are not compelling gameplay. Heroics are not compelling gameplay. Grinding mobs is not compelling gameplay. What is compelling is that you are doing things either with or for other people. These otherwise asinine activities are utter tripe on their own, divorced from the Show & Tell aspects. When I did 20+ days of daily quests to unlock the exalted Tol Barad trinket on an alt, it did indeed feel good to work towards something tangible. But what made the trinket tangible? The PEOPLE. The knowledge that my geared alt would be useful in a guild raid situation, that some random person could appreciated the amount of investment that went into earning it, that it was useful in the context of other people.

So tell me, exactly, what it is about SWTOR that prevents such meaning from possibly existing in whatever arbitrary trinket they have at the ass-end of a huge endgame grind. We have all endured unfun things in WoW either for the promise of fun later, or because friends make it fun to do unfun things together. What is the difference here? And perhaps more pointedly, if compelling gameplay is the defining factor for retention, why aren’t we still playing WoW? I did not quit WoW because the gameplay changed, I quit because the game ceased to be fun. Great gameplay is not enough for long-term retention. Nor would I even say it’s required. It helps, no doubt, just like voice-acting and emphasis on stories helped get feet stuck in doors of people whom would have never gave yet another MMO a chance. Whereas moment-to-moment gameplay has to compete against every new game released, your social circle is a lot less replaceable.

SWTOR could very well end up flopping due to lack of retention. But if it does, I’m betting the traction loss comes not from lukewarm gameplay or limited instances, but lack of guild infrastructure, social incentives, RPing opportunities, and the other touchy-feely aspects of the game. In any case, considering SWTOR needs 350k-500k subs to operate in the black (even counting the Lucas cut), predictions of its eventual demise are a little ridiculous unless you believe it will be less successful than Rift (currently at ~475k).

Posted on December 30, 2011, in Commentary and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 11 Comments.

  1. To say that retention simply comes down to people and social incentives is wrong. Retention does not boil down to one little thing you can put a finger on and if you master it you will suddenly have millions of subscribers. Retention is simply having a large percentage of your playerbase still being able to find fun things to do for years at a time. Of course being social is often fun but when I run out of fun things I want to accomplish those MMO friends I’ve made won’t keep me playing no matter how many of them there are or how attached I am to their gaming.

    I’ve grown my own guild in Rift to over 500 members and the reason my guild is dieing is because I can’t find anything enjoyable to do. Almost everything feels like your just grinding instead of actual engaging in the world in any sort of way. I can’t bring myself to log in even though the guild is exactly how I like one with lots of people and I actually enjoy managing the guild.

    Retention is simply fun and fun as we know is complex.

    • Fair point. Fun is indeed complex.

      That does, of course, reinforce the argument that gameplay is not the definitive factor here. Presumably Rift did not change gameplay-wise from when you started, yes? Fun simply has diminishing returns.

      I guess the question to ask yourself is whether you would still be playing if you weren’t managing a 500-person guild, or weren’t in a guild at all. I played WoW for about an extra three months after making the mental decision that I wasn’t feeling it anymore. Actually, if I’m honest, I checked out when my guild got to Atramedes and I realized I didn’t want to bother with the inevitable and frustrating wipes teaching people skills that would be irrelevant in three months. I hung on for another 3-9 months because of the handful of people I just played a few rounds of Dungeon Defender with last night.

  2. If you are part of a tight social group, but the game becomes unfun, I’d expect the group to decide to move to a new game.

    For example: from WoW to Rift, or from Rift to SWTOR.

    • The problem always is when people come to the conclusion about something being unfun at different times, or at all. The two friends that still play WoW never gave me any grief over the decision (who wants a friend to be miserable?), but it’s a sad reality that we absolutely don’t hang out as often as we used to. Some days I almost feel it’s worth it to resub, just for that.

      Ironically, the thing that stops me is how I don’t want to resub back onto low-pop Auchindoun, and I’ll be damned if I pay $25+ to move characters around. If Blizzard had a “Steam sale” of character transfers, I might be back in the AH that I miss so dearly.

  3. BTW, I don’t think Rift is anywhere close to 475K right now.

  4. For me other players are almost completely irrelevant to retaining my custom in a given MMO.

    There’s no question of any real-life social obligation coming into play. Apart from Mrs Bhagpuss, I don’t know one single other person in real life who plays MMOs. I barely know anyone who plays any kind of video game at all, let alone even knows what an MMO is.

    Neither do online relationships feature. Of the people I’ve met in-game in more than ten years of playing MMOs for an average of 40+ hours a week I still know one. That’s one. Online friendships last for as long as they benefit my gameplay and not a second longer.

    I have moved servers and even left MMOs I otherwise was enjoying to avoid being entangled in networks of quasi-social responsibility. I generally don’t join guilds and when I do it is never guilds that require any kind of participation in any in-game activity. With the sole exception of Mrs Bhagpuss I have never, not once, ever played a game for a minute longer than I wanted to because of assumed social obligations to another person. I have, however, continued to play MMOs or gone back to MMOs because of imagined responsibilities to my characters or because I liked or missed specific elements of gameplay even though I was otherwise dissatisfied with the MMO.

    I’m not questioning your thesis that social incentives are important to MMOs. It is vital for those players who routinely participate in end-game activity. That’s a minority of players in most MMOs, though. For the big mass of players that end-game players never really notice, social incentives may well be secondary to both story and gameplay. Of course, most players who think and feel that way don’t read, post on or write MMO blogs.

    • Another fair point. There’s a big difference between the raiding endgame (< 20%) and generic pug/heroics endgame (X%), but it is indeed debatable about whether they can compare to the numbers of people who are neither at or care about endgame anything.

      I have to wonder though, how players like yourself would rate on a scale of retention, if at all. If you can leave at a drop of a hat with no regrets, well, does it even make sense for designers to put effort in crafting content for you? They have to be on the mark 100% of the time, whereas someone else who would feel guilty about leaving their guild in the middle of Firelands might stick around long enough for the next patch to potentially "fix it." Then again, I suppose the content itself would be totally different since you are unlikely to be raiding as opposed to leveling alts, etc.

      Hmm.

      • Content should be crafted where it has the greatest return on investment. That means triage: content is not aimed at people who are almost certainly going to leave regardless of what they’re given, or who are almost certainly going to stay no matter what, but at the people who are teetering.

        Cruelly, a rational MMO maker should snub their most loyal customers to some extent, simply because they are loyal.

  5. I agree with Azuriel that “Fun-ness” is complex but in my experience Social aspects of the game were critical to retention. I kept playing WoW for months after the fun of gameplay was beginning to dry up because I was committed to my guild and I couldn’t imagine not hanging out with my friends in Vent every day. Having tried SWTOR over Christmas break I have enjoyed the gameplay including PVP and space combat, enjoyed the story, but I honestly have almost entirely skipped all the group PvE. The heroic 4 quests are generally more trouble than they are worth to get the group together, and on my server its hard to even get groups together for flashpoints. Of course, its still early. Perhaps when more people hit the level cap and actual endgame begins to become serious the social aspect will take off a little more. So far, it hasn’t even factored into my play experience in SWTOR.

  6. In my own experience this social dimension is very important. Like Azuriel I kept playing WoW months after it became unfun (Cataclysm) because of friends. Now I’m playing SWTOR, which has achieved something no other game has before – it has attracted my friends from WoW (including several close RL friends) plus also the majority of my LoTRO guild as well.

    Who knows whether it will retain players long term, but the social dimension is important, I hope Bioware take heed of that and offer improved guild features (such as the rumoured guild capital ships).

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