How to improve player retention: 15 tips

Updated
A headshot of Andruid, shaded blue.
By Andruid

Writer, roleplayer, storyteller, and nerd who tries to live by Bill and Ted wisdom, i.e. "Be excellent to each other." 

Table of Contents

    If you run a multiplayer text-based game, such as a multi-user dungeon (MUD), today’s post is for you. I’ll be outlining several things you can do to improve player retention in your game.

    Before I explain ways to improve player retention, however, I’ll first teach you how to calculate your current player retention rate.

    From there, you’ll be able to monitor player retention over time and implement a retention strategy.

    We have a ton of stuff to cover, so let’s get started!

    Defining player retention

    Before we dive into the strategies and tactics, let’s first take a look at what player retention is and why it matters.

    What is player retention

    What is player retention?

    Player retention is when players return to a game to keep playing it.

    For many games, retaining players is a primary goal: something game creators strive to increase through game design, events, marketing, updates, improvements, and other means.

    This is especially true for monetized games, which emphasize player retention in order to generate revenue, but it’s true for other types of games, as well.

    Why does player retention matter?

    Game monetization aside, player retention is an important indicator that can tell a game creator how well they’re doing with their game.

    Good player retention means the game is targeted at the right audience and is fun for that audience to play.

    After all, if it’s not fun for them, those players won’t come back.

    In multiplayer games, player retention is also important for populating the game world and signaling to other visitors that it’s worth playing.

    Not surprisingly, most articles on player retention focus on the money-making aspects: how to keep players coming back to spend, spend, spend. In-game currency, special customizations, exclusive content… whatever the reward, monetized games need to retain players in order to encourage those transactions and generate revenue.

    For most multiplayer text games, however, player retention usually isn’t about making money, it’s about survival in a hobbyist genre.

    In this context, what is good player retention, and how do you know if you’ve achieved it?

    Well, that’s something you’ll have to define for yourself, based on the kind of game you want to create and maintain.

    Let me explain.

    More is not always better

    When it comes to MUDs, even some roleplaying MUDs, a common thought is that “more is better.” More classes, more races, more areas, more skills, more spells, more players. More, more, more.

    Actually, the phrase “quality over quantity” applies just as much to a game’s playerbase as it does to other aspects of the game.

    More is not always better. Sometimes more is just, well… more.

    Before improving player retention, you need to think about the kind of players you want to retain and how your game will appeal to them.

    You’ll also need to think practically in terms of your capacity and goals. For some game admins, a smaller but highly-engaged playerbase might be ideal. Others might prefer a larger group of casual, low-maintenance players.

    A sticky note pinned to a corkboard and the text: Quality Matters!
    Player retention is about getting the right players (the ones who are a good fit) to keep playing your game.

    Some questions to ask yourself:

    • What kind of players do I want? (Think about things such as age range, maturity level, time commitment, etc.)
    • How often should they log into the game?
    • How much time should they spend logged in?
    • How engaged should they be while logged in?
    • Where will they come from?

    Your answers to these questions will help inform the metrics you’ll be tracking in the next section, as well as your retention strategy.

    How to track player retention

    Before you start improving player retention, you need to be able to track it. Otherwise, how will you know where your game currently stands? How will you be able to identify improvement?

    For that, you need some baseline data.

    A baseline is simply a starting point: it tells you where your game is at right now so that you have something to compare against as you make changes.

    Quote by Tamarindo pulled from the body of the post.

    Suggested data and metrics

    To calculate basic player retention, you’ll need to know:

    • Total number of players
    • Number of players still playing

    To report on the above, you’ll want to track the following for each player:

    • Date and time the player created an account or first logged in
    • Date and time the player last logged in

    If you’re using a popular codebase, you probably already have functions for the above. Easy peasy. These details are all you need to track player retention – not just for the life of your game but over specific periods of time, too.

    For mobile and free-to-play games, for example, Day-1 retention is an important benchmark. Day-1 retention is when someone returns to play your game the very next day. If a player doesn’t return on day 1, chances are they’re lost for good.

    Depending on your goals, however, you may also want to look at:

    • Amount of time the player spends logged in, which you can calculate from login/logout times
    • Amount of time they spend actively playing (not AFK or idling)

    I’ll talk more about this later on. For now, let’s look at player retention rates.

    What is the player retention rate?

    A game’s player retention rate is the percentage of players still playing the game at some point in time.

    Retention can be measured with respect to the game’s launch date, as well as each individual player’s start date.

    For example:

    • What percentage of players are still playing 1 month after the game was launched?
    • What percentage of players are still playing 90 days after they first created an account?

    These are both questions about Day-N retention. They ask about the number of players still playing after N days.

    For mobile games, the average Day-1 retention rate is less than 25%. Meaning, less than 1 out of every 4 people who try the game will play again the next day. By day 7, the retention rate is less than 6%.

    Monetized games are often concerned with retention rates right after launch because these metrics allow the studio to project their anticipated revenue based on a retention curve. These projections, in turn, can help them make informed decisions about whether to continue investing in the game, such as by spending money on advertising or spending time on game updates, content, etc.

    Graph showing an example retention curve that drops sharply after day 1 and peters off after that.
    Retention curves help game studios better understand how they’re losing players (and therefore revenue).

    For a multiplayer text game without a hard launch date, you probably won’t be as concerned with calculating retention rate with respect to launch, but you might still be interested in your game’s Day-N retention rates.

    How do you calculate player retention rate?

    To calculate the player retention rate, divide the number of players still playing by the total number of players who registered, then multiply the result by 100. This will give you the percentage of retained players:

    (# of active players / total # of players) * 100 = retention rate

    Calculating retention
    Overall player retention is quite easy to calculate, as long as you have the required data.

    Note that this formula requires that you track the total number of players who have created an account – or character, if you don’t use an account system.

    If you automatically wipe inactive characters or accounts (a feature in some codebases, such as CoffeeMUD), you may want to record that data going forward.

    You can also calculate player retention for specific cohorts.

    What is a player cohort?

    A cohort is a group of players who have something in common, such as the time at which they first started playing the game. This matters because players who start playing in January might have a different experience than those who start in July.

    For example:

    • Of the number of new players who created an account during the month of March, how many are still playing in September?
    • Of the number of new players who created an account in 2020, how many are still playing in 2023?

    Once you have the right data, you can ask all kinds of questions about how long players stick around, what times (of the day, week, month, or year) are busiest, and when your game usually sees the most new characters or accounts created.

    You could even look at retention across minutes rather than days.

    For example, in the mobile gaming industry, the first 10 minutes of play are crucial. If a player leaves the game within that timeframe, it’s very unlikely that they’ll return the next day.

    By tracking retention metrics for your own game, you can determine whether it follows this pattern and, if so, take steps to improve those first 10 minutes.

    What makes players leave?

    As you think about next steps, it’s important to keep in mind some reasons players might leave your game.

    A few examples I’ve seen over the years and across various styles of MUDs:

    • Not a good fit in terms of mechanics, setting/theme, or play requirements
    • Confusing help system or tutorial
    • Hard to find other players to play with
    • Other players are rude or abrasive
    • The community is toxic
    • Difficulty getting involved in storylines or plots

    While you can’t necessarily change a player’s preferences, there are things you can do to address most of the items on this list in some way or another.

    Knowing which of these issues is affecting your game may be tricky, but don’t worry – I’ll share some tips in my next post.

    Now that we’ve covered what player retention is and how to track it, let’s look at some ways to improve it!

    15 Ways to improve player retention

    It’s well known that engagement and retention are highly correlated. The more engaged your players, the more likely they are to return to your game.

    This means that improving player engagement is one of the most effective ways to improve player retention. And as we noted in the previous section, the first 10 minutes are probably pretty important.

    Thus, it should come as no surprise that most of the items in this list will focus on:

    1. making a good first impression
    2. keeping players engaged

    These two things should be part of your player retention strategy.

    What is a player retention strategy?

    Your player retention strategy is your plan to retain players. It will likely include a mixture of approaches, from fixing things that cause players to leave to engaging players to enticing them with new content or in-game rewards.

    If your game has been around a while, you’re likely already doing some things to try and retain players, which is great!

    Hopefully, this list will give you few new ideas to help refine your strategy:

    1. Make your game more accessible

    To retain more players, your game needs to be easy for beginners to access and understand, regardless of their ability, skill level, experience, or sight.

    If you’ve visited my blog before, you may have noticed that the topic of accessibility is a major focus of mine. That’s because text-based games are uniquely positioned to offer an amazing, imagination-driven experience for both sighted and non-sighted players.

    If your game isn’t accessible, you’re missing a huge opportunity and losing out on a core group of players and potential fans.

    Quote by Niamh pulled from the body of the post.
    Building a better MUD for screen reader users, April 17, 2022.

    For non-sighted players and players with partial sight, this does mean making your game screen reader-friendly. For sighted players, it means using text with good color contrast, for example.

    For everyone, it may mean doing things like reducing combat spam so that players don’t have to create custom gags or triggers in their client just to keep up with text that is too fast for either eyeballs or assistive technology to read.

    2. Create a community

    Communities are engines for player engagement. Whether you use Discord, forums, or in-game chat channels, it’s important to give players ways to connect with each other.

    Multiplayer text games are inherently social games, which is an advantage they have over most mobile games and many console games, too. Capitalize on that; create a community.

    Chat features give people ways to socialize during the downtime, ask questions, and get help from more experienced players.

    If you integrate your newbie channel with Discord, for example, you can open up your game’s helpline so that even players who can’t log in can still offer assistance remotely.

    You can also use chat channels and forums to advertise upcoming events and market your game. Marketing your game is important for attracting new players as well as enticing former players to return.

    3. Have a modern website and a web-based client

    Comparison between a simple play now button and a 5 step process on how to download, install, and configure a MUD client.
    Are you making it easy for players new to the genre to jump right in and play?

    A responsive, screen reader-friendly website is important for providing a good first impression, especially to people who are completely new to MUDs.

    It’s impossible to retain players who never try your game in the first place because your website behaves like it was built 23 years ago or because, in order to play, visitors need to download some special software they’ve never heard of before.

    So here’s my advice:

    • Make sure your website is responsive and accessible.
    • Add a “Play Now” button that takes visitors to a web-based client.
    • Turn your website and web-based client into a helpful newbie portal. Provide useful guides and instructions (you can also use these for SEO).
    • During character generation, offer players meaningful options but don’t overwhelm them. Give them the choice to try the game out with a quick preset/template.
    • Introduce players to more complex pieces of your game in baby steps.

    In other words: hook them, first.

    Intrigue visitors with your game’s artwork, story, unique world, or friendly community. Then help them level up to your game’s custom MUD client or super in-depth character generator.

    4. Build a kick-ass tutorial

    After initial character generation, the tutorial is your first real chance to wow and hook players. So let me ask you… does your game’s tutorial delight new players?

    • If your tutorial frustrates players, then you’re shooting yourself in the foot. You probably have very poor player retention, especially among people new to MUDs.
    • If your tutorial is merely a boring, sprawling newbie academy that reads like it was cobbled together by 3-5 different builders 15 years ago and is still unfinished… it’s time for a revamp.

    Either way, it’s a huge opportunity to improve player retention. Not just in guiding players through the ropes – but delighting them with a fun, low-pressure experience they may not get elsewhere in your game.

    Try to put yourself in new players’ shoes. Better yet: ask players for feedback about your tutorial. They’re likely to have some really good suggestions.

    5. Take feedback seriously

    Let’s be honest: you’re also going to get some bad feedback – or suggestions that just don’t fit your vision of the game. And that’s fine.

    I’m not here to tell you that you need to create a game everyone will appreciate. That’s never going to happen, and before anything else, it needs to be a game you appreciate. You’re the one doing the heavy lifting, after all.

    When it comes to player retention, however, it’s important to treat players fairly and with respect, no matter how much you dislike them or their feedback. Shitting on people’s ideas will win you zero fans and only create a toxic community.

    “As staff or a storyteller, it’s important to recognize that by the time a player comes to you with an idea or request, they’ve probably already put a lot of thought into it.

    A flat ‘no’ from staff can be more discouraging than one might think if it discards all their preparatory work, as can a confrontational attitude (making them build a case and argue with you) stemming from an assumption that players will always try to game the system or ‘win.’

    If you trust your players and work with them to fit their ideas into your world instead of shutting imperfect ideas down, they will be more inclined to protect the integrity of the game (refuse to metagame, etc.) and feel valued enough to continue contributing their creative energy.”

    – Amika, comic artist and MUD enthusiast

    And you do need to fix the bugs and typos you create, especially the really frustrating ones. If you don’t do this in a timely manner, you will lose even some of your most dedicated players.

    My advice is to set aside some time to focus specifically on fixing issues that frustrate players. If possible, recruit your pbase for help, and make sure they have clear instructions on how to report typos and bugs.

    6. Introduce weekly or monthly rewards

    A treasure chest full of jewelry and adorable kittens.
    Everyone loves special bonuses, gifts, and loyalty rewards.

    Give your players an additional reason to log in each week. It doesn’t have to be a big reward – a small one will do.

    The goal is simply to entice them to log in, because when they do log in, that’s when you’re going to tell them about the cool updates you recently made or the fun events coming up.

    You could also do a daily reward, but you may want to avoid a situation in which players feel punished or like they’re falling behind if they don’t log in every single day.

    Putting players’ health first, they might be better off if they didn’t log in every. single. day. They need time to focus on real life, too.

    7. Host regular events with fun prizes

    “When it comes to retention, players need Things To Do. Ideally, those things should encourage some kind of interaction or content creation that enriches the game and rewards people who are taking an active role. In RP games, this can take the form of staff-driven storytelling, tools to facilitate player-storytelling, and automated prompts or matchmaker systems.”

    – Crayon, roleplayer and former MU* staff

    Events, whether recurring or unique, are important for making any game feel active and alive. A game in which nothing interesting ever happens sounds like a boring game, indeed.

    Recurring events are nice because you can either:

    1. automate them via code, if they’re something that can be automated, or
    2. streamline the process of hosting them manually.

    Examples:

    1. Automated event: a floating island with special monsters and fun loot loads in a random spot every weekend.
    2. Manually hosted event: a storyrunner uses scripts and checklists to host a murder mystery party once a month.

    Whether your game is primarily hack-and-slash, RP-focused, or PvP, there’s a lot you can do with events. You just need to have the bandwidth or be willing to delegate event duties to another member of your admin team.

    8. Keep players updated

    If you’re a reclusive nerd like me, you probably don’t care much for social media. But the fact is, it can be an effective tool for not only attracting new players but keeping your playerbase updated, interested, and engaged.

    It’s not a bad idea to have at least one social media account. You could even use webhooks to automate some of your news and announcements.

    If you don’t have the bandwidth for social media, there’s also a lot you can do with Discord, such as the integrated newbie channel I mentioned earlier.

    9. Create a friendly, welcoming atmosphere

    Give new players a warm welcome when they join your game, and let them know you’re available if they need any help.

    This is one of the suggestions made by Petal in her tips for oldbies, but it applies equally well to any game – not just roleplaying MUDs.

    If you work full-time (as I do), you might not have the luxury of being able to greet everyone who logs in, and that’s okay – you can always say hi later.

    But by leading by example when you can, you’ll help encourage your regular players to welcome newbies in your place.

    Other options include:

    • occasionally giving out small gifts to players who greet/welcome newbies
    • creating a newbie guide program
    • assigning greeter roles or titles

    These are just the things I could think of off the top of my head; I’m sure there are other ways to incentivize your players, as well.

    10. Enhance your special sauce

    One of the main reasons players go on to create their own games is because they want to do something different. Pretty much every game out there, if it’s been in operation for a year or more, has special something to offer the MUD community.

    Whether it’s unique mechanics, engaging storylines, unusual areas, custom races/classes/skills, and so on, your game has something that makes it stand out.

    This is your game’s “special sauce.”

    Your special sauce is not only great marketing fodder but is probably a major reason why players try your game in the first place.

    So don’t let it get stale!

    “When it comes to roleplaying MU*s, it’s important to ensure your game’s theme is broad enough that it can support a number of unique concepts and views. Players need something to gain inspiration from and failing to provide that leaves things feeling two dimensional.”

    – Famine, Co-implementor of The Free Zone MU*

    Tweak your recipe from time to time: add to your unique areas, revisit your mechanics, re-balance things to account for changes, adjust your story arcs, etc. Then, market those changes and improvements. Doing so will keep players returning to check it out.

    11. Let users generate content

    Some of the most compelling and long-running MUDs out there offer some form of user-generated content (UGC).

    User-generated content in video games often refers to things like mods, maps, tools, and video walkthroughs created by players for other players.

    UGC helps players feel like they’re contributing something to the game or community, creates player investment, and allows them to express their creative side.

    Indeed, options for making a mark on the game world are very compelling to many players. One of the benefits of text is that there’s so much possibility. Text, while it has its own downsides, isn’t constrained in the same way as graphics. Take advantage of that.

    If your game allows players to craft unique items and then trade them, you already have a form of UGC. If players can build homes or establishments, that counts as UGC, too.

    What else could you be doing to encourage or enable players to generate content without sacrificing quality or control over aspects of your game?

    12. Make players part of the story

    Depending on the type of game you’re managing, whether an RPE, PvE, or PvP MUD, this will mean different things for you.

    The point is that players should generally be at the center of what happens.

    In roleplaying games (RPGs), player characters should be key to moving the story forward in some way, whether that’s through individual roles or through the group efforts of clans or factions.

    In PvE and PvP games, players should be at the center of things like seasonal tournaments, leaderboards, or threshold activities that move the overall plot or season forward. Similarly, you can focus on milestones for individual players or groups.

    Making players part of the story will require time and effort, so automate what you can and set deadlines for the rest.

    Don’t let your plots drag on without progress for too long – players will get frustrated and ultimately abandon the game if you let the story stagnate.

    And perhaps the most important tip: give yourself some time off between storylines. It’s really easy to get burnt out trying to create a fun experience for everyone else. Make sure you’re having fun, too.

    13. Thank your players for being awesome

    The words THANK YOU written in colorful block letters.
    Don’t forget to show your appreciation every now and then. Who knows – your players might even return the favor instead of taking your hard work for granted. 😉

    Reward and thank your players for choosing to spend time on your game. Everyone wants to be appreciated, so show appreciation from time to time.

    That’s it. There’s no rocket science here. It’s just about acknowledging that every person who chooses to play your game could be spending their time elsewhere.

    If players go above and beyond, such as by promoting your game via word of mouth or by helping newbies get settled in, consider sending them a personal thank you to let them know that their efforts were noticed and appreciated.

    14. Use video walkthroughs

    As text-based games, MUDs are notoriously but understandably devoid of video. Most MUD veterans seem to assume that no one outside the genre would be very interested in videos focused on a text-based game, but there are definitely some untapped opportunities here.

    For example, Tamarindo, the implementor of StickMUD, is currently working on a Mudlet plugin that will allow him to add a video component to his game’s user interface.

    “Player retention and growth are my top concerns,” he told me recently. “The objective is to accelerate the onboarding process for new players, cutting down the time required to get to the fun parts of the game. We want to reduce time spent in help files and get right to doing things.”

    Tamarindo also recognizes the importance of video content for hooking younger generations of new players, including non-sighted players. Video walkthroughs can and should include audio instructions or transcripts, as well.

    “We love text,” he said, “but augmenting the experience with some video and sound can’t hurt to reel in new audiences to MUDs.”

    15. Revamp your game’s help system

    Last but not least, make sure your game’s help system is as helpful as it can be.

    Help systems can be really frustrating for new players who can’t actually find the help they need. In many games, the files are out of date or disorganized, or there’s no easy way to search for a specific topic.

    Imagine showing up to class for a pop quiz but the instructor only barely glossed over the material and it’s not covered in any of the slides.

    Or imagine showing up to your first day on the job to find that your boss expects you to complete a process that isn’t documented in the handbook.

    Stressful situations like these happen all the time in real life. No one wants to deal with them while playing a new game. Games are supposed to be fun, not frustrating!

    If you’ve been managing the same game for a while, it’s probably hard for you to see the game and its help system the same way new players do. That’s why it’s important to get feedback from newbies when you can. I really can’t stress this enough.

    So there you have it: 15 ways to improve your game’s player retention, but why stop there? You know your game better than anyone else. What other ways can you think of to keep players coming back?

    Quote by Tamarindo on player retention: "Everything around mudding needs to be de-nerdified a little bit so we can bring in more people new to MUDs."

    Your player retention to-do list

    Okay! At this point, we’ve covered how to track and improve player retention, and you may have some new ideas to try out this year. What’s next?

    Well, you probably already have a to-do list or kanban board for your game, right? If player retention is important to you, it may be worth revisiting your list.

    For every item on it, ask yourself:

    1. Is completing this item or doing this task going to improve my game’s player retention, and if so, how?
    2. Is completing this item going to attract and retain the kind of players I want playing my game?

    Make sure you always have a few items at the top of your list that will help your game retain players. And not just any players but the kind of players you actually want playing your game.

    For example, if you’re not interested in PvP, do you really need to build a PvP system to appease the PvPers?

    Say you do build it, are you prepared to manage PvP conflict, fix PvP bugs, and deal with PvPers telling you what they want out of your game, when PvP was never really part of your vision in the first place?

    You want to attract and retain players who are going to be a good fit for the game you envision, whatever that may be. Otherwise, you’ll end up burning yourself out managing players who aren’t a good fit.

    That’s it for today on player retention, but stay tuned – the next post will take a deeper dive into the topics of player activity and engagement, data collection, and information security!