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What our players have taught us

Sometimes, when you got an online game already in the market, you may think that you're done with it. Turns out, the players always want change and perhaps sometimes they can see things we missed. How to balance what they have in mind, and what we have?

Firstly, I'll introduce myself. I’m Nemo Ma and I’m the leader of a group of online developers. Our main work is a Browser based MUD called “Hunger Games” (Battle Royale, “大逃杀” in Original Chinese Version), written in PHP, featuring elements and gameplay based on the original novels. In the game, players need to search for items and equipment, battle with other players and NPCs, trying to be the only one alive. The game first began development back in 2009, building from a CGI web script acquired from a Japanese blog website. After a year of beta testing, it’s released to the public in December 2010 and is in production since then. During the 6 years of its life, the game has been updated thousands of times and with several dozens of big updates and enhancements. Formerly a Chinese only game, recently in 2015, we have decided to refactor our code base and push the game to the much wider foreign audience. In order to do that, an English beta has been put online. Also, a user research was done on both Chinese and Foreign players in order to learn more about our players, and how we’ll achieve a greater success with the game.

Research Methods

To properly analyze the players of the game, we decided on 3 different approaches that revolve around the player of the game. Then, some additional data was gathered from within the game’s development group as well, the 3 approaches we took are:

● We gathered and analyzed prior data generated via a tracker, and compare it with the game’s update logs to analyze what the player reacts to different milestones of the game.

● We set up surveys and posted them on the front page of the game and have players answer that survey, hoping to find useful information regarding the game’s general direction, including its usability and other factors that may cause players to leave and stay.

● We called in some players from both player groups and observed them playing one session of the game, and interviewed them about their experience with the game.

As of the writing of this article, we’ve finished data analysis based on the website tracker and player interviews. The survey is still ongoing since we decided that more data can greatly help us more about our player base.

From the results of data analysis, interviews and survey answers, we came up with some findings. While some of them are quite common and has already been predicted by our team, such like the importance of advertisements, the other findings came up as more surprising. And has surely given us much insight on our players, and by extension, the next steps of our game.

Findings

Advertisement for your game is important, even if you’re not planning to

And is getting more important over the years.

Yes, I know this topic has been talked for such long time and there are even entire subjects on the matter. However, our team is still surprised by the differences of numbers before and after the advertisement. Note that our game does not really have advertisement in its common form since we have no plans to earn from the game (i.e the game is and always will be free to play so we earn nothing from advertisements). However, while our game is advertised by other video websites and gaming portals in 2015, we still noticed a huge spike compared to the usual players on the tracker.

The game was put on those websites by one of our faithful players, who somehow secured several front page advertisement slots for the game in May 2015, causing the biggest player spike in the history of the game. For comparison, here is the data from Early 2014 when a similar event happened (It got featured in the same gaming portal for two months starting from December 2013).

While one can notice a spike already in 2014, with the same time and coverage, you can see the result in 2015 is far more apparent compared from 2014. As I’ve said earlier, we’re not surprised that advertisement turns out to be important. However, what we are surprised for is that it seems the power of advertisement seems to be more apparent over the times. To quote one of our programmer’s words for it: “I think those people should have already outgrown that front page recommendation trend.” This may be caused by the following reasons:

  • The website we advertise on is getting bigger over time, thus bringing more viewers to that website.
  • The base of potential players is getting bigger due to generally there are more people on-line in 2015 than in 2013, especially in China.
  • Compared from 2013, our game also has its fair share of updates and is looking more refined. The players may not notice the refactoring of the code, but we have already updated other aspects of the game so there is still a notable difference in presentation while maintaining the core gameplay.
  • While better, experienced gamers would base their preference to a not familiar game on reviews and other player interaction, to most of the casual players, a simple picture with an eye-grabbing title still works wonders. As a matter of fact, we did notice more and more casual players are staying for our game over the years, supporting this theory.
    • In a sense, it’s not like people aren’t outgrown advertisements, it’s more like casual players are increasing thus are more attracted to it.

All of the above reasons may be responsible for the increased effectiveness of advertisement campaigns. However I still need to point this out: Your game won’t be successful based on the advertisement alone – our game is constantly updating and evolving, most of the time while there are no traditional advertisement campaigns, the game is advertised through players and we still have an average of 8000~10000 new players per month. It’s just that advertisements can bring the number up even greater. In other words, you game won’t magically be better just because you have better advertisement techniques.

Your priorities often won’t be what player may think

Also, they would have huge differences.

Our game is a browser and text-based game and plays in the spirit of early MUDs. Players need to read the text on the screen, select options, then read more text while their current status is represented with text and numbers. It’s worked for a very long time since the early 90s, and is still working now.

Of course, if this game nowadays is still a glorified text MUD, then there won’t be that many players – We take great steps to modernize the game while introducing aspects from popular RPG games and Roguelike games as well. To the point that some seasoned players compare our game to Dark Souls, only in this game other players are also piling on you. It’s part of the charm of our game. (And I also have numbers to back that claim up)

However, our team is surprised that one offhand enhancement back in the early days has become a definite factor of a player staying.

Artwork, in a text-based MUD.

Originally, artwork is but one small aspect of the game. While there are NPC and player avatars, they are small, 64*64 images, and lacks personality. One of the first enhancements we did for the game in Late 2011 is to enhance the artwork – Making the avatars slightly bigger, and replace them with “anime archetypes”, anime-styled generic characters that may resemble some of the well-known characters, together creating our original characters to act as bosses of the game. While this change was done offhand since it didn’t require much work on the artist’s part. The team noticed more player staying compared to the earlier statistics on the tracker. While it may be a coincidence since the first artwork changed happened in the early stage of the game development, in 2015, the same artist went back and refreshed all her artwork to fit more with the anime standards today, while replacing all player avatars to unique characters together with making the avatar even bigger. The result? A 20000 spike of staying players.

Remember earlier in the article, I talked about an average of 8000 to 10000 new player per month in the usual running? Well, when we rolled out those artwork refreshes in autumn 2015, due to the after effect of advertising done in summer, there are around 30000 new players when we rolled out this new art. Then, 20000 new players staying means two-thirds of our new players at that time stayed if just for the art. That’s a really big number.

The interesting point in all of this is that the players themselves didn’t seem to capture that either.

In the survey question, we asked the players about what motivated them to keep playing the game, and only 10% of the players admitted they’re in it for the artwork. However, more than 80% of the players answered the questions about the artwork in the later part of the survey (and can be skippable). Meaning even though fewer players may admit that artwork is a key factor of the game, they are still interested in it.

The same may apply to other factors of a video game. By utilizing various user research methods, we may get an idea of what the player wants, and find out that those wants or needs are often far off from what we as game developers may think. The artwork is not a key factor in the text-based game (unless that’s a visual novel, but that’s a different story) however our players are still excited about it. Before you label one of your planned features as not important, it may be a good idea to ask your players first. Also, make sure you can get their true answer – sometimes even the player don’t know what they really want. Try multiple research methods and wording your questions carefully.

(A better way is to implement them anyways and have your players voice their opinions to decide which features to keep. However, it could be a daunting task and won’t be very effective on most occasions. There’s a reason why proper user research is important)

Nowadays, you can’t expect players to learn

Yes, I know it’s daunting, but it’s the truth.

Guess what a most asked feature of our game is.

The Tutorial.

No, our game doesn't lack help. In fact, true to classic MUD faction, we got a help manual that totals in around thirty pages of information. There are also a walkthrough for the game that’s highly detailed and can answer most of the questions regarding the game.

Yet, players still demands a tutorial.

Not only does the player want a tutorial, they want it the most straightforward way possible.

Not only does the player want guidelines, telling them what to do first and what to do next, they also want to start separately from other players. Even in MMORPGs while there is some sort of newcomer area, you’re playing with your fellow new players. However, since in this game the other players may also pile up on each other, new players instead wishes for a separate instance where they can slowly be shown the ropes.

I need to point out that given how fast our normal gameplay goes, there are next to impossible to give a new player all the time they want. This is also one part of the reason why traditional MUD games flopped due to there are more games that feature a friendly tutorial. As we have discussed earlier, there are more casual players wanting to play our game, or any games on the market to be precise. This also contributes to the tutorial reliant mentality.

The interesting thing is that in the long life of this game, the need of a tutorial only greatly increased very recently in these two years, our core gameplay has not greatly changed since the game started, so essentially the problem here is that new players are more likely needing a tutorial for getting the hang of a new game.

To put it more sincerely, I have no other comments on the matter. The increase of casual players and their “invasion” to the formerly hardcore gaming genres are a trend that we must not ignore. At the time of writing, I’m programming a separate instance of the game as a Tutorial mode with guidelines and a fixed scenario. Though to keep in line with the traditional way of thinking I’ll make the tutorial optional. While most of the members of my team agree that a tutorial won’t be our top concern, the players will say something different regarding this matter.

Conclusions

No matter what happens to your player base, focus on what’s important.

The above findings may not be a good news to some developers out there due to that for them the surge of casual players aren’t exactly a good thing. More work time needs to be put in for them when those times could be clearly used on introducing new mechanics and enhancing the dynamics of the game.

However, do note that casual players are still players and there are no reasons to blame the game’s status just because the players don’t know how to play your game. Instead, focus on your game, made changes or additions when necessary (in my opinion, additions are mostly better than changes due to you don’t want to lose your existing player base over the newer player base whom may not be as loyal, but additions are almost always time-consuming so it’s your call). As long as your game has decent quality, the player will found your game, as my experience with Hunger Games could tell you. 

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