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Last updated May 2020. 10 min read.

How to improve retention at every stage of the player lifecycle

Handy tips for how to manage the player experience, from Day 1 up to late-game churn. This article provides best practices, with additional tips on how to implement them using deltaDNA. 

Unity + deltaDNA logo

Unity's deltaDNA

What is deltaDNA?

Unity’s deltaDNA provides sophisticated player engagement tools for game-makers, powered by deep data analytics.

With cross-platform and rich data capability, this end-to-end solution enables publishers and developers to better understand different player behaviors and create personalized experiences, targeting individual players in real time. Anyone can get a fully-featured free trial of deltaDNA for 30 days here.

Introduction

The global Free-to-Play (F2P) market is 2 billion Monthly Average Users (MAU), incorporating almost every demographic imaginable. Sadly, it’s just not possible to find quick fixes that work for everything in such a range of players and games. What we can do, however, is look at the universals and turn them to our advantage.

Every player installs a game, plays it for a while, and eventually churns. At various points in that process, every player feels intrigued, confused, excited, bored, confident, and frustrated.

In this guide, you’ll learn how to foster the good feelings and avoid the bad at every stage of the player lifecycle. Certain problems are more prevalent at certain stages and they vary in complexity, but they all require some level of constant attention. Master the universals and your retention will skyrocket.

Day 1: The First-Time User Experience

Your players’ First Time User Experience (FTUE) is where your game needs to shine its brightest. The best games on the market all suffer their biggest losses on Day 1 and so do the worst. It’s universal.

The majority of your players won’t return after Session 1 so you NEED to surface the game’s best features right at the beginning and get people invested. Here’s how to onboard effectively in Session 1 and avoid common pitfalls of tutorials/first missions:

  • Signpost
    It’s almost impossible to play your own game from the player’s perspective because, as developers, you know every pixel inside out. What’s obvious to you will not be obvious to a true first-timer. If you want players to try a feature, make it unmissable with prompts and striking visuals.
  • Keep it simple
    It’s easy to overwhelm a first-time player by doing too much, all at once. Keep your instructions simple, your text concise, and don’t make tasks/clips/tutorials any longer than they have to be.
  • Keep it fun
    Avoid tutorials “on rails,” ensure that the player is always interacting, maintain a good pace throughout, and make failure impossible.
  • Guarantee return play
    Whether subtly (by surfacing exciting future content) or not so subtly (with explicit rewards offers), make sure your players have a good reason to return for a second session.

If a game isn’t fun, it’s not a good game. Some late-game players (that have goals and incentives to stay) will stick out a long cutscene or boring task, but newbies have no such loyalty. Day 1 is when your players are simultaneously at their most intrigued and most easily confused so perfecting that FTUE is absolutely essential.

Funnels are extremely useful when analyzing your FTUE and other specific processes. Hone in on specific issues and pinch points by seeing precisely where users are dropping off. Above is an example of a Mission Funnel in deltaDNA.

 

Segment management in the deltaDNA platform

Day 1-7: Hitting the difficulty sweet spot

After the tutorials players will begin to experience the game in modes that involve challenge, loss, failure, and frustration… or a lack thereof.

Game difficulty is the biggest mechanical cause of retention issues – too hard and players will give in; too easy and they will get bored. That said, erring on the side of ‘ease’ is the safer bet.

Getting the difficulty curve right is incredibly difficult, largely because no curve suits everyone. Here’s how to get around that:

  • Segment
    Use your analytics tools to split your players into groups of casual, midcore, and hardcore; novice, intermediate, and experts. You can then build strategies and adjust difficulty curves to keep different players interested, for longer.
  • Reward early
    Your players need to get a taste for victory before they sample bitter defeat. Ramp up the challenge - let them experience pressure and pinch points - but abject failure should not be an option in the early game. Ensure that there is always a silver lining!
  • Hook players with progression
    Very early on, the excitement of victory and novelty will be enough to keep players interested. In the main game, there needs to be a compelling personal reason to push through any tedium. Implementing some kind of progression or experience points system gives players a reason to grind when enjoyment isn’t quite enough. The sense of achievement associated with levelling up is a powerful thing.

Segments form the basis of all sophisticated engagement. By dividing your players into groups or segments of similar users, you can quickly hone in on very specific player types and analyze/engage them accordingly. Attribute players to appropriate skill segments and give them bespoke experiences through different level configurations, assets, and lives - to name but a few variables. The image above is of an example segment list in deltaDNA.

 

Day 7+: Keeping things interesting

As with anything, the honeymoon period can’t last and everything eventually turns into a grind. So, when your players are well-accustomed to all your shiny features and at risk of becoming bored, how do you keep them invested?

At this stage, you’re done with onboarding and handholding. You’re fully in the trenches with churn prevention and need your game mechanics to be totally optimized. Below are some best practices to help keep players around.

  • Monetization
    When players have become stuck or bored, surfacing content available only to spenders is a great way of reinvigorating their interest. Below are some useful tips for monetizing players with waning interest.
     

    • Items & assets:
      If players have completed 30 missions wearing overalls and wielding a baseball bat, some shiny armor and a magical sword can give their experience a serious shot in the arm. New cosmetics, powers, and weapons not only motivate players to continue, they also massively increase the replay value of content already experienced. Buying a spell on Day 10 could well motivate a player to go back and tackle something that bested them on Day 3.
    • Second Chances:
      Pinch points offer a good opportunity to introduce monetization in return for extra lives and second chances. If you allow players to consistently fail, with no path to redemption, they will inevitably churn through frustration.
    • New Content:
      Boredom is definitely not a positive, but it can spur players into action. Clearly signpost exclusive paid-for competitions, game modes, or missions. This gives players a way to access new content and delay abandonment in exchange for currency.

The easiest and most efficient way to reward/engage players according to behavior is to set up event-triggered campaigns. With these types of campaigns, you can schedule specific messages and engagements to follow certain player actions. For example, you could give a helpful asset to a player that has failed the same mission twice. At the other end of the spectrum, you might want to reward a player for having completed a particular task, as in the screenshot above.

  • Repetition, Repetition, Repetition
    If you can make returning to your game a habit for your players, they are more likely to stick around for long periods of time. Here’s how to do that:

    • Daily incentives:
      Daily tasks and bonuses prove excellent ways to keep players coming back again and again. Making the value of those rewards incrementally more valuable for each consecutive day played is also effective. If you want to get even more precise, explicitly attributing extra value to specific times and tasks will encourage your players to think carefully about returning at the right time.
    • Endgame:
      Games, if possible, should not have a defined endgame. Instead, provide your players with reasons to go back and replay old missions. Collection mechanics, social game modes, and challenges provide good vehicles for this kind of engagement. Check out this Engagement Guide for a more detailed breakdown.
    • Sessionization:
      You might think that players wanting (and being able) to play for hours on end is a good thing, but it’s not. If you don’t give players clear opportunities to temporarily leave the game, they could burn themselves out in one session and never return. Using clear signposting and an explicit reward structure, make it obvious when to stop playing and just as obvious when to return.
  • Rewards
    Rewards, both figurative and literal, are important tools in the developer’s armory.

    • Emphasize achievements:
      Victories and achievements should be made to feel as momentous as possible. Don’t be shy about overdoing it – make winning feel as significant as you can!
    • Foreshadow potential payoffs:
      Highlight the fact that there are rewards soon to be available, even if not immediately. Surfacing unlockables that are just slightly out of reach – due to insufficient currency or progression – is a very effective way of piquing players’ interest.
    • Award currency (sparingly):
      Virtual currency rewards are very powerful indeed – they can bolster engagement and ruin a game’s economy just as easily. If players get the impression that they can’t progress without monetizing, you’ll lose most of them instantly. A/B test your currency rewards to see what effect they have on your retention and In-App Purchase (IAP) figures, then roll out rewards at the sweet spot.

Sadly, all players will eventually churn. If you’ve done a good job up to that point, they will have generated decent revenue. If you haven’t, they won’t. If you have multiple games in your portfolio, you can even manage players through several titles. Check out the version available here for advice on how to cross-promote and extend player life cycles across entire portfolios.

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