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Let It Go – A Modest Proposal

I gave this presentation as part of a series of microtalks for the Austin IGDA chapter in 2014. Just found it and realized I never posted it here, so enjoy!

I am here to propose a simple heresy for online game developers.
But first, some background.
Online games are really profitable.
They’re not as trendy as they were a few years ago, and there have been some very high profile failures, but still they are very, very profitable.
They are that way for one simple reason – people pay to continue playing.
Sometimes through subscriptions, more often lately through free to play, which means micro transactions, which means the guy killing you with a sword made out of sentient radioactive meat paid for your being there to be killed. With a glowing meat sword.
But when you have people paying every month for the privilege of killing other people with intelligent scimitars made of ham, you no longer have the luxury of making a great game and handing it to someone, and saying “Here. I give this, the boon of my efforts, to you.”
Instead, you have a customer, and a customer who has a monthly expectation of things that you deliver in return for his money, or his being so kind as to be killed by a wealthy patron that gives you, the developer, money for his giant sword of meat.
And one key problem is that online games tend to be a closed loop. After the initial explosion of NEW! SHINY!…
…it’s really hard, and really expensive, to find new customers to replace the ones you lose. And you will lose customers. You’ll lose a lot of customers.
Some people won’t want to ever give you money, simply because telling the Internet your credit card number is not always a good idea.
Some people simply won’t like your game at all and stop playing.
On one game I worked on, our metrics determined that some customers purchased the game in a store (this was how you bought games back in the dark ages), set up an account to play the game, installed it, logged in at least once, got to the character creation screen…
…and said… NOPE. And never got any further. Ever.
But getting new customers to replace the ones you lose is expensive. So the key directive for live teams in online games becomes retention. The prevailing wisdom is that retention is the most cost-effective way of keeping a healthy customer base. Don’t lose people! Keep them as long as possible!
But here’s the thing. People play online games for years. YEARS. There are people still playing Ultima Online that were when it launched.
They have been playing the same game for over 15 years.
Someone played the same game of Civilization II for 10 years and it turned into a, and I quote, a “hellish nightmare of suffering and devastation, where the polar ice caps have melted more than 20 years due to global warming, dozens of nuclear wars have rendered much of the world uninhabitable, and endless warfare makes it impossible to rebuild”.
And that was after 10 years. People have been playing UO for 15.
And after you play a game for years, you get tired of it. That’s normal. That’s expected. You have gotten a lot of return for your investment.  You’ve conquered the commanding heights of the game (because it’s assured that you do, because the secret of success of online games is that it is a simple trade of investment in time for tangible reward). And… you’re done.
And it’s hard for some people to admit that they’re done, after years and years, and it’s even more hard for online game developers to admit that, hey, maybe it’s OK to let people go. Because when people don’t want to admit that they’re done, they’re BITTER.
They grief other players in the game out of boredom, because they’ve DONE everything else.
They’ve gone through all your content, and you can’t make more because most of the team got laid off in cutbacks last year.
They post angry articles on your message board, because they KNOW they know the game better than the developers do. And they usually do. Lord knows they’ve spent more time in the game.
What makes them so bitter is that they WANT to keep playing. They want the game to last forever. They aren’t there for the game any more, though they most of the time won’t want to admit it, or even really know how.
They’re there for the social connections that they’ve made, the raid nights and the guild chat and the time when they all met at a bar in Chicago…

…and did you know RolfSlaughter and AngerManagementIssues got engaged last month after Rolf found out Anger was actually a twenty something young woman that time on voice chat last year?

If you can’t keep them playing and happy, you are responsible for a failed marriage. Well, most likely several thousand but still.
Remember, people are still playing UO 15 years later. They do it because they still enjoy it. Because at this point it’s no longer the developer’s experience, it’s their experience.  It’s the simple joy of the friendships they’ve made, the social compact they’ve formed, the fun that comes from when you buy a cat $100 worth of toys and she plays with the box instead.
It’s OK if the cat plays with the box. It’s OK if players find their own fun.
And they really resent it when that fun train leaves the station, almost always because the guild broke up over the four other guys who had a crush on AngerManagementIssues…
…and when that stops the player is left with the actual game that they got bored with two years ago.
And they’re not happy. But they’re paying you for that actual game. That they don’t really want, any more.
At this point, this is where we tend to fail our customers. We don’t have a GAME OVER screen, because why would we? We like money!
We don’t have an exit strategy for when people are simply done playing. We don’t know how to let people go. We have made vague stabs at trying to increase retention through making guilds attractive, and all that does is make it so guilds have a reason to invite thousands of members and make them useless as social compacts.
We really don’t understand the whole cats playing with a box thing.
We’re used to telling stories and making really nifty experiences, and we aren’t comfortable with stepping back and saying “we’re done. And maybe at this point you’re done, too.”
But at this point I would ask, why are you really here.
Are you here to just make a lot of money? (There are easier ways)
Or are you here because game development is one of the most unique forms of crafting entertainment that exists, and because you want to share that entertainment, that joy, with people.
My simple heresy that I would like to propose for online game development is this: we should be comfortable with customers leaving. For the right reasons, not because we messed up a patch and destroyed all their characters, but because they’ve played the game, they’ve had fun, and they’re done, and ready for our next game.
We have to let people go.
It’s OK to let them go.