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Understanding games designed for retention

By on April 14, 2014
FlickrCC Jamie McCaffrey

From Deputy Editor Zoya Street

Read the latest posts in the retention games series:

Free-to-play games are designed differently. Unlike pay-up-front games, they’re not designed just to dazzle you for a short while and then fade away to nothing more than a memory. They’re not designed to consume from beginning to end over a weekend. At their best, they’re not even designed to force you to pay to progress or give up and leave.

A good free-to-play game is an anchoring point. No matter where you’re drifting in your day to day life, a free-to-play game is something that you can always come back to even if only for a moment.

This difference in use requires different design strategies. I’m going to call those strategies ‘retention games’: retention means that they are focused on encouraging a longer relationship between player and game rather than a rapid churn through. The term comes from the Pyramid model of game design.

Games are typically reviewed by people who are inconvenienced by the play patterns that most free-to-play games are designed for. If you’re accustomed to being able to play a game for hours upon hours without even a hint of regret — because it’s required for your job — then it’s jarring to find your progress delayed for up to a day at a time. Not to mention extremely frustrating, since it’s getting in the way of your work. Reviewers have different needs to ordinary players.

That said, games with a more thoughtfully crafted narrative to justify the retention mechanic are received far more positively in critical crowds. Extrasolar was nominated in the IGF awards, despite being a game that pushes the player away and asks them to wait for hours at a time to progress, because the wait is justified by the storytelling. ‘Retention’ is a cold word, but really it’s about stories and emotional connections.

I’m trying to get to grips with what makes a good retention game. How do designers see their own retention mechanics? What makes a retention mechanic successful? What does a good retention mechanic feel like? To see what I’ve learned so far, read the latest posts in the retention games series.

About Zoya Street

I’m responsible for all written content on the site. As a freelance journalist and historian, I write widely on how game design and development have changed in the past, how they will change in the future, and how that relates to society and culture as a whole. I’m working on a crowdfunded book about the Dreamcast, in which I treat three of the game-worlds it hosted as historical places. I also write at and The Borderhouse.