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User Research: How social interaction influences players in MMORPGs

Games have strong interaction with all the users. How to retain players is a problem we want to explore more?

When doing game user research, how to analyze the churn of players and how to retain them for a long time is one of our very important concerns. Whether we analyze the problem from the perspective of market demand, product flow, or product content, what we want to understand is how to better improve user experience and how to better make users "stay "in. Games have strong interaction with all the users. How to retain players is a problem we want to explore more?

 

We may often hear people asking "why Fantasy Westward Journey has continued to attract a large number of players for so many years?", "why the Ghost is enduring?". Stickiness, best memories, fun, story are answers we often hear. In daily work, user researchers often gets connected with many games in their demos, beta testing, or upon their release, and we usually analyze the loss and retention of players from various dimensions, including core gameplay, plot content, combat experience, social system, and tutorial guidance.

In addition to these immediate analyses at the executive level, there are also many studies and discussions in terms of academic, and some systematic theories have been built to analyze player retention and to think about the reasons behind player churn and retention. This time, we will take a systematic look at MMORPRG (massively multiplayer online role-playing game) to see how the elements in the game affect player retention.

 

Many studies have argued that game products are inherently constraining, i.e., there are many natural constraints that would make players stop playing the game. However, that the constraints can be weakened if players use strategies in the game, or if the design of the game product facilitates players to utilize these strategies. They call the former "game constraints" and the latter "negotiative strategies".

1. Game constraints affect player retain

We take game constraints as barriers that MMORPG players perceive/experience in the game that prevent them from having fun or continuing to participate in the game. Game constraints can be divided into 3 types:

(1) interpersonal constraints. For example, players lack of social interaction with other players in the game, lacks of company of others during the game, etc.

(2) Constraints for personal reasons. It usually refers to players' assessment of the game's fun and playability, i.e., they think the game is not fun enough, interesting enough, or challenging enough, etc.

(3) Structural constraints. This refers to external factors other than personal reasons, and usually refers to the high cost of time and money required to play the game. If these three constraints are present in the game, players can easily quit this game.

 

2. Negotiative strategies weaken the influences of game constraints

If players adopt some negotiation strategies proactively or when guided by certain game design, they can resist or compensate for the impact of game constraints and get their retention intentions improved. Strategies are cognitive and behavioral, and the former refers to making players believe that even with these constraints existence this game is still worth playing, whilst the latter refers to adjusting players' behavior to make them adapt to these constraints, such as strengthening time management, building in-game socialization, etc. Specifically, these strategies can be divided into four types:

(1) interpersonal strategies: building social networks inside and outside the game, meeting friends who play the game together, etc.;

(2) time strategies: adjusting the time players need to invest in the game or strengthening players' time management to make players have more time to play the game;

(3) economic strategies: saving money, using some methods to help players reduce their expenses in-game;

(4) cognitive strategies: improving Players' recognition of the importance of the game, that the game is worth playing.

 

3. Influences of social interaction

(1)What negotiation strategies are most likely to retain players?

Among the 4 strategies we mentioned above, MMORPG players prioritize and most often use the interpersonal strategy, i.e., the social network built inside and outside the game will maximize the retention intention of players.

The influence of the above 4 strategies on player retention are: interpersonal > time strategy > cognitive strategy > economic strategy. In other words, players are most likely to stay in the game because of having friends outside the game for common discussions, in-game group building, etc. For example, when we are playing the game Ghost, if we got no team, neither any of our friends in real life to discuss with us, it is difficult for us to even form a party to complete the daily task. Over time, we are likely to quit the game.

On the contrary, if we are involved in a guild in this game, or meet an interesting friend, that is, when we have established a close social connection within the game, we are likely to look forward to log in every day to hang out with in-game friends, to help friends play dungeons.

Therefore, for MMORPGs, the design of social interaction is a very important factor affecting player retention, and settings such as guilds, neighbors, and love relationships are all negotiation strategies we are talking about. This is the underlying reason why we have to focus on these playstyles when we do MMORPG player research.

(2) What factors influence players' use of negotiation strategies?

We have just mentioned that the application of interpersonal interaction strategy can promote player retention, and it precisely shows that social interaction has a great impact on MMORPG players. However, there are many other factors besides interpersonal interaction that influence players' use of negotiation strategies and social interaction is the most influential factor. The motivation to play MMORPGs affects players' use of negotiation strategies, which in turn affects retention intentions in-game. The reasons that drive players to play MMORPGs can be divided into 3 types:

(a) immersion motivation - players get immersive experiences from their activities in MMORPGs;

(b) achievement motivation - the motivation to gain abilities, status, and mastery in the game

(c) social motivation - the motivation to interact and build relationships with other players in the game.

Among the above three motivations, the one that has the greatest impact on players' use of negotiation strategies is social motivation, especially on interpersonal strategies. When we did research on churn players in the past, many MMORPG players would say that they had joined a guild and met many friends when they played the game before, and they also established SNS groups, online chatting channels. They just came back to continue playing the game because of a word from a friend even they quit the game for a while and this happened very often. The motivation for players to interact with other players in the game will drive their application of all negotiation strategies, especially interpersonal strategies.

 

(3) Why social motivation and interpersonal strategies can retain players?

The answer is the accumulation of in-game social capital. MMORPGs are like a small society, where the game builds a large social network for players, and players do all their online social behavior within this network structure. A very important reason why players stay to make friends in the game or have intimate social interactions in the game is that the social network and social behaviors in MMORPGs allow players to accumulate social capital, i.e., player-to-player connections. Capital is easy to understand, and we can take it as the resources we have. When we have more resources, we naturally tend to stay and utilize them. "psychological capital", which refers to the positive psychological resources we have, makes us more capable of creating value and making ourselves happy. And "social capital" refers to that a person’s access to certain resources because of a certain position in the social structure.

                                                     Marrige scene in 《the Ghost》

Specifically, these connections are divided into two types: one is a weak connection but a large social network, and the other is a strong intimate connection but a relatively small social network. Both types of social capital accumulation can increase players' willingness to stay in the game, with larger social connections proving to have a higher impact in some games. For example, the daily quests in game need players to team up to complete, and we also discuss game content with our friends in our daily lives.

Completing guild quests in 《the Ghost》

In general, MMORPG is a game category with strong social interactions, from quest design to character growth system and its economic system, which requires players to acquire resources through social interactions in game. From some of the current research, social interaction factors and interactions with other players are important influences on whether players can use negotiated strategies to resist game constraints and keep staying in the game. Even though some of the existing findings are debatable due to sampling and time constraints, and may not be applicable to a specific MMORPG, they provide us with some directions to think about more: how to optimize social networks and structures within MMORPGs to improve player retention; and how to focus on social interactions in games when analyzing the causes of player attrition. These are the issues we can focus on more when doing game user research.

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