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[Gamesbriefers] Is there a good way to sunset a game?

By on May 6, 2013
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We have recently seen a swathe of online games shutting down from EA, Zynga and even Minimonos.

What do you think the impact of sunsetting games will be on consumer comfort with spending money on virtual goods. Is there a “good” way of shutting down? Is it an inevitability of online games, particularly in the free-to-play space, or is the elephant in the room that threatens consumer acceptance of this new way of playing games?



Oscar ClarkOscar Clark
Evangelist at Applifier

By curious coincidence I’ve just been writing about that for the introduction of my first book (thanks to the lovely people at Focal Press)

Essentially I see this as an inevitable consequence of the lifecycle of any product.

Decline is sadly inevitable for every product; even the guys at immortal products like Heinz Baked Beans have to occasionally throw in a few product extensions or ‘New Recipes’ to enliven their products. Most products aren’t immortal… remember Spangles?

The problem is that we never anticipate it ending, and rarely plan for it.

Its even worse for consumer of Virtual Worlds and Free-To-Play services because we have ‘invested’ in virtual assets which only exist in those worlds. If you are still enjoying the game, your items, etc then you are going to be very upset when it all gets closed down and you discover that you can’t (usually) get your money back.

But, if you have moved on from the game – as most people will have – there is (usually) no issue at all. Perhaps a slight sadness of an era gone by and a desire for there to be some virtual museum where you could go get all nostalgic once in a while; but knowing you would never actually get round to visiting and if you did you would probably be disappointed. But generally that’s all.

The only way forward for me is to plan in advance. Be give your players plenty of notice and give them something back in the other titles you have by way of a thank you. Be sensitive to the potential for mourning and nostalgia, but the hard economics is that products have a lifecycle and they die.

This is not new. Look at Earth and Beyond (which I still mourn – in a nostalgic kinda way) or Meridian 59?

Actually Meridian 59 is a really interesting case in point. Because the community has brought it back using an Open Source model. Perhaps that’s the way forward. Let your most fanatical players take over the running of the game. You might even be able to take a modest license fee if they become profitable.

Mark SorrellMark Sorrell Development Director at Hide & Seek

Too personal, perhaps, but I was sat this morning, trying to decide between the £13.99 and £34.99 gem pack in Clash of Clans. I went for the £13.99 one because, hey, you never know how long the game will last!

Considering how I (used to) happily throw £40 at a game I might never play, that seems pretty stupid, but it was a big factor in my decision.

I wonder if the solution isn’t as simple as time. As we become used to ‘content rental’ as the rule rather than the exception, these things might cease to be a worry. That said, given the ownership/loss aversion/endowment effect behavioural economics stuff happening in freemium games, perhaps not…

Ella-RomanosElla Romanos Founder of Remode Studio

It certainly seems to be an inevitability, nothing lasts forever…

So the question is, how do we ensure we implement a closure in a way that consumers are happy with, and even more importantly, without making consumers resent the whole service-based gaming model?

I agree with Oscar, it’s all about communication. Let your users know what your plans are, ensure they have time to get the value from the purchases they have made, and turn it into a positive by drawing those users into your new games by being generous and making them feel like they want to carry on playing your games!

Teut WeidemannTeut Weidemann Free-to-play supervisor at Ubisoft blue byte

It certainly seems to be an inevitability, nothing lasts forever…

So the question is, how do we ensure we implement a closure in a way that consumers are happy with, and even more importantly, without making consumers resent the whole service-based gaming model?

I agree with Oscar, it’s all about communication. Let your users know what your plans are, ensure they have time to get the value from the purchases they have made, and turn it into a positive by drawing those users into your new games by being generous and making them feel like they want to carry on playing your games!

pecorellaAnthony Pecorella Producer of Virtual Goods Games at Kongregate

Our perspective at Kongregate is perhaps slightly different as a platform rather than a developer, but in large part the concept is the same: you want your players to continue to play your other games after the takedown occurs. While it doesn’t happen too often with us, it’s important that we retain a strong relationship and trust with our players. In order to achieve this goal, we have a few rules and procedures in place whenever a developer comes to a point that they need to sunset a game with us:

  • We have a takedown form for developers to fill out that helps us collect some basic information (take down date, best contact information, an “Official Statement” that we can share if the developer isn’t very active with our community, etc.).
  • We give players plenty of notice. Our minimum requirement is 30 days to let players know about it. If for some reason that isn’t possible, we enforce a 30 day refund policy, so that any purchases made within 30 days of the actual closing date are refunded to the player. This sort of a buyer guarantee helps players feel more confident when making purchases in a game – they know they’ll get at least 30 days of enjoyment out of any spending in our games.
  • We help the developer to give information about the closing through the forums, chat alerts, and persistent messages on the game page. We don’t want anyone caught by surprise.
  • Once the game is closed, we’ll replace the game’s page with links to other games the players may enjoy. While this is more of a platform move, you of course would want to try to shift players over to other games of your own if you have multiple games on an existing platform.
  • For especially large games that affect substantial portions of our audience we will occasionally do a special compensation package for players. These packages are typically broken into 3 tiers, with the first including all players who played a fair amount (perhaps put 3+ hours into the game) as well as anyone who ever spent any amount money, the second including players who put substantial time into the game (20+ hours) as well as anyone who spent a non-trivial amount of money (perhaps $20+), and then a top tier of big spenders (minimum $100+, depending on the game’s metrics). These compensation packages tend to be generous (worth at least as much as the minimum spend within a tier) and are offered in 2 – 3 other games to give players some options. They can be in similar games from the same developer or other games in the same genre on our site. Managing a set of packages like this is very time consuming so we only do it for the biggest of games, but as a developer it would certainly make sense to provide some generous in-game incentives to your players to encourage them to move to another game in your library.
  • If a game’s forum is pretty active we will leave it up for at least a month, sometimes more if it stays active. The idea is to let players continue to correspond, perhaps organize guilds to move over to another game together, etc. It also lets them rant a bit, which can be a helpful step in the mourning process of losing a game.

Through all of this our goal is to put the customer first. It’s important to remember that your players have a close relationship with your game, and in many cases with other players in the game. Having a game taken down is like being told you can’t visit a good friend any more – it’s a sad time, and one in which you as the developer want to be caring and consoling to players.

This recent batch of shutdowns is only going to continue to raise awareness that games are temporary entities and in almost all cases will be shut down at some point. It is important that we as an industry treat our players with respect and care when this happens, lest we poison the water and generate distrust for our games and those of our peers.

Ben Cousins1Ben Cousins Head of European Game Studios at DeNA

Firstly a clarification – what EA and Zynga have done recently is shutting down a game. ‘Sunsetting’ is leaving the servers up with the game playable, but not doing any more development or content work on it.

I’m going to answer the questions assuming we are talking about ‘shutting down’, not ‘sunsetting’.

What do you think the impact of sunsetting games will be on consumer comfort with spending money on virtual goods?

A good company will shut down a game when the vast majority of users who have purchased virtual goods have already voluntarily exited the game, never to come back. The danger is of course if there are whales who are loyal to the game with lots of high-value gear still playing. My guess is that these would be few enough in number that you could manually start a conversation with them about moving them onto another title with a set of privileges or content to recognise their commitment to the shut down game.

Is there a “good” way of shutting down?

First you need to make sure the EULA is clear that the game could be shut down. Then I think it’s about communication and making sure when you make the decision that the userbase is given appropriate advanced notice. Many games don’t need to be shut down. With correct server architecture and management, you should be able to run very small userbases with very low fixed costs.

Is it an inevitability of online games, particularly in the free-to-play space, or is the elephant in the room that threatens consumer acceptance of this new way of playing games?

I only think it threatens consumer confidence if companies have been unable to ‘sunset’ a game with a large userbase due to high fixed costs. Hopefully, most companies in the future will be prepared better so they don’t have to shut down games with millions of users.

Melissa Clark-ReynoldsMelissa Clark-Reynolds Founder of Minimonos

Our view is nearer Kongregate’s than anyone else’s so far.

We have been grappling for a while with the move away from browser based flash virtual worlds (VWs). We don’t know of anyone really optimistic about this space. We realised we could build our community around apps and not just via a VW. The move to tablets by kids shows no sign of abating. We are closing the online VW side of our business, and hoping to use everything we have leant online (especially regarding engagement, micro transactions and retention) with other products.

We have had lots of tearful emails and tweets, blog comments and FB pms today. That hey are experiencing the loss of a community they have invested emotionally in, is the biggest message they are sending us. I have personally had emails and tweets linked in messages and so on from members of the community , all day (hence being late to notice this trail of emails).

The decision to close was well planned. Since we sell gift cards on the High St, we wanted them to be removed first. InComm were among the first to know, along with our staff. We delayed an announcement in order to give enough time to stop sales. Our website stopped taking any payments before the announcement was made (although cards and codes may be redeemed through to closure date). We have a series of events, including those for VIPs right up to the moment we close. We have given credits in our apps to our users and paying members.

I don’t believe this closure will have an impact on the confidence or otherwise people have in the model from a consumer point of view. For us, it’s the platform we have lost confidence in.

Treating our users with spect and love is core to who we are. The community will be getting a series of emails, blogs, tweets fb posts etc over the next month. This was the first one

harry holmwoodHarry Holmwood CEO at Marvelous AQL Europe

I think we’re going to see quite a lot of this happening in the near future. Some companies have enjoyed early successes with games or services, and then attempted to scale their businesses on the basis that those initial products were indicative of future ones. In fact, the newer games were generally bigger and more expensive to create and run than the earlier ones. When it transpired that the first games were actually outliers, and that surprise hits can’t necessarily be replicated that easily, they’re left with a load of games which don’t work financially, but which could have worked if only their running costs were lower.

This is a pattern that’s been replicated for the last couple of decades in the games business – company A has a big surprise hit, thinks they’ve worked out the secret, does it again bigger, better and over and over, and ends up slashing its workforce a year later.

Hopefully, out of this current cycle will come an increased focus on running costs and scalability, resulting in games, and teams, which don’t necessarily need 20 million DAUs to turn a profit. It’s quite possible that a game could carry on for years or decades, so long as its running cost is driven by its revenues, not the other way around. If a game’s popularity does wane, the ‘good’ way to shut it down is like the good way of shutting down a company – in an orderly, solvent fashion, leaving no bad tastes and no creditors.

This would be done by first closing the game to new customers, then giving existing ones plenty of notice to use up any virtual currency, and get as much value as they can out of the game as possible. As with directors trading insolvent companies, companies which run online games ‘close to the wire’ and leave customers hanging will soon lose credibility and find it difficult to rebuild those relationships in the future. Those who handle the tough times well, and treat their customers with respect will hopefully be able to transfer their brands, skills and customer bases to other, more profitable, enterprises in the future.

Oscar ClarkOscar Clark Evangelist at Applifier

I think Ben’s point about ‘Sunsetting’ rather than ‘shutting down’ is an important distinction. Shutting down a service is a finite moment which draws attention and undermines confidence. But the approach that Melissa has described seems well thought through and they have clearly worked hard to minimise the emotional and financial hit on those players – indeed from your email here you guys seems to be trying to turn its closure into a kind of celebration at its passing. Of course it will still affect some players negatively but all you can do is let them down gently.

Also perhaps its not a bad thing to remind players that these games are finite. Whilst I am certain that most players know this already and spend accordingly. I’m sure there are some who need a reminder that these things do pass. That might make them more cautious when spending large sums on games that are perhaps overly focused on revenue.

‘Games as a service’ is still evolving and players will evolve with us or without us – we can only hope to entertain them as long as they are with us (be that years or months) and hope they remember us positively.

As Tommy Cooper once said – Always Leave them laughing

andy payneAndy Payne MD at Mastertronic

Oscar’s Tommy Cooper reference is spot on.

Whilst not a service, the Flight Sim community have been both outraged and disappointed in equal measure because after 25 years Microsoft decided to stop all dev on Flight Simulator. That was not a sunset, rather it was oblivion. Had the community been managed and their expectations handled with some feeling and had the code set been given to them or those that were interested in taking it on and up, then MS would have had some great publicity and fans would be happy. But FS was never games as a service. MS are now avowed to develop only according to the GAS principles so I am sure they have thought about the inevitable exit position as well as the entrance.

It feels like we almost need a ‘living will’ approach, which may feel a bit maudlin, however it is inevitable that nothing lasts for ever so games devs should plan what the script will be.

Fans are the key in this world. Keep them onside and respect them as highly valued, paying customers and my experience (from our flight sim community) is that they will stick by you. Anything else and they really will flame you.

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Every week, we all ask our august panel of luminaries a burning question in the world of free-to-play and paymium game design. Or we ask a broader question on the future of the industry. We’re not going to announce who is a GAMESbriefer. You’ll just have to read the posts to see who is saying what to whom. We have CEOs and consultants, men and women, Brits, Germans, Americans, indies, company people and much more besides.
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  • I ran Meridian 59 for several years, starting at 3DO and eventually starting my own company to run it. I left 3DO before they shut down the game, so I didn’t give advice on that. More recently, I shut down the company running Meridian 59 but gave rights to the game to some of the original programmers. (They decided to open source the game.)

    I think the important thing to remember is that there’s a community of users in your online game. They’ve invested a lot into the game, and they want you to take that commitment seriously. Communication is absolutely key, but realize that some people will never accept that you can’t run something at a loss for their entertainment. But, respecting the community as a whole is first and foremost.

    -Brian ‘Psychochild’ Green

  • Sik

    I’m surprised nobody mentions the idea of making the end part of the core experience (as stupid as it sounds). Of course this won’t work well for all games, but if you can have a plot (even if just an excuse plot), you can make it such that the end of lifecycle matches the end of said plot. Then the shut down won’t be seen as just a business decision, but rather as a crucial moment of the game. Loyal players may even go as far as staying around just to be there when it happens.

    As a bonus it easily gives room for the developers to give the game an “epic” ending (within budget constrains, of course) rather than throwing it away like they didn’t care 😛