Beyond amazing character design, compelling narratives, and the presence of dragons, there is one thing that all MMOs depend upon for success: player loyalty. Without returning subscribers, a loving community, or folks dropping a few dimes in the cash shop now and again, MMOs simply wouldn't be a feasible way for a games studio to do business. Smart development teams have player retention departments tasked specifically with tracking and analyzing the rise and fall of player allegiances and finding ways to leverage loyalty is becoming an increasingly important aspect of the creation process.

Even the non-gaming world is getting in on the fray. Back in November, researchers at the University at Buffalo School of Management published a study tracing the roots of player loyalties in a variety of MMO environments. The study outlined the mentalities of MMO gamers and the things that successfully encouraged them to keep coming back for more looting, more grinding, and more /hugging. Most importantly, the study declared that an MMO that increases loyalty by just 5% can increase profits by 25-95%.

We sat down with Dr. Lawrence Sanders, co-author of the study, to dive a little deeper into the researchers' methods, results, and plans for future MMO investigation.

Massively: The loyalty study begins by citing some of the existing research into MMOs, noting that previous forays have focused primarily on the addictive nature of games or the social opportunities they provide. This research acts as something of a foundation from which your study can launch, having established some basic facts about MMOs and the people who play them. For instance, previous studies have shown MMOs to have a wide range of appeal (ages 11-68) and a strong pull (22 hours per week recorded on average). They also show that that the habits of men and women in MMOs are quite similar, with female players showing no distinctive play differences. Were there any big surprises in your study when compared to what was already on the books?

Dr. Lawrence Sanders: I think the results are generally what we expected. It's also not surprising that female respondents did not exhibit a significant difference in playing time and other factors. They are gamers and are attracted to games. Our study was exploratory; we need to expand our study to other game genres and other cultures and try to include more complete and inclusive samples.

We are also involved in research on virtual worlds. We are using the virtual worlds moniker to attract interest, funding, and researchers to study games. MMORPG game developers will play an important role in the creation of virtual worlds.

World of Tanks
One of the main conclusions drawn by the study is that MMOs that offer players greater ownership of their characters and the game world via customization and that player-created/controlled structures and situations tend to fare higher on the loyalty scale. Essentially, games allowing players greater control over the minutia of their character's lives and the world around them are doing a better job of creating a positive environment for encouraging loyalty. With that in mind, how do you see non-persistent world MMOs and non-character-driven titles like World of Tanks creating this type of psychological ownership?

The tank is the avatar in World of Tanks. In making efforts to control their tanks, gamers can have strong feelings of psychological ownership toward the tanks. The tank is a manifestation of the individual's persona. It is our assertion that if players can effectively manage the attributes of their character (the tank) and control their environment (battle proficiency) by having some level of success in achieving goals and fighting the enemy, the player will have greater feelings of ownership.

A player who can control a game can exhibit strong psychological ownership, and this in turn leads to e-loyalty as players become locked-in to the MMORPG. The effort improves the tank's attributes, and coupled with the success of the tanks in battle, leads to strong feelings of psychological ownership toward the tanks. I know many people who have strong feelings of psychological ownership toward their cars and phones. I did a little poll in class the other day and was surprised to see how many people sleep with their phones next to them. This is an interesting twist to the psychological ownership concept.

One thing you mentioned (and something we found particularly compelling about the study) is the subject of cognitive lock-in. Can you explain this to our readers and perhaps explain how MMO developers can leverage it to their advantage?

People become locked-in to products, services, and even MMORPG games because of switching costs. It takes time, money, and psychological effort to switch to new products and services. These switching costs represent the effort required to reach the same level of comfort with a new product as the customer had with an old product. For example, there is a definite learning curve related to using the new station guide and the digital video recording device when you switch cable providers.

In terms of MMORPG games, the nature of psychological switching costs can be traced to past use of the game. The player has learned how to control his or her character and has thus become attached to the avatar and the interface and how to control the game. Cognitive or psychological lock-in is related to commitment to the game. Our paper suggests that MMO developers need to understand antecedent factors related to lock-in. As addressed in our study, those factors are control and interaction.

MMO fans will be quick to note that your study relies on a relatively small sample size and on games that are a bit older (RuneScape, Lineage, etc.). The study was also conducted in Korea, which has an infamous culture of gaming much different from the one that exists in the West. Since the MMO genre evolves at a breakneck pace and is more popular now than ever, does your team have plans to revisit the study with a larger sample size or more modern titles?

We would like to expand our study and examine modern titles. We are also interested in cross-cultural studies. The key is to locate funding for this research and to attract doctoral students to pursue this type of research. We do expect that Western gamers' commitment behavior to MMORPG games would be more related to psychological ownership than to social identity compared to Eastern gamers. Asian populations typically score higher on collectivism scales.

The study focused on guilds and the communities that revolve around them as the basis for research. Would you expect similar results from a survey conducted with non-guilded players?

We expect the same results. However, that is an empirical question requiring more studies involving data collection.

World of Warcraft
One of the fastest-growing trends in MMOs is that of "convenience" gaming. For instance, in World of Warcraft, you no longer have to rely on your reputation and hours of scanning chat to find a raid group and participate; you can simply log in, click a button, and be instantly teleported to complete the encounter with a few strangers. Are MMO-makers risking loyalty for the sake of convenience by reducing a player's social identity for the sake of convenience?

Not sure about this. One of my expert gaming friends said casual gamers may like it, whereas some individuals that enjoy more difficult tasks may not. This is an example of an area that needs more study.

PlanetSide 2
Your study recommends skill-based over class-based systems, positing that loyalty increases when players feel they have a fair shot at defeating any opponent they happen upon instead of being locked into a "paper, rock, scissors" archetype. However, the data in the study show the top seven games in terms of market share use class-based systems. What are your thoughts on this?

This is tough and needs more study. Our gamer expert says that there has to be some differentiation between classes, but not too much so as to make certain classes irrelevant.

Do you see an opportunity for loyalty building in external tools? For example, I can manage my EVE Online characters from my tablet or my phone. Is it a smart play on the part of CCP (the game's developer) to allow for such apps?

If the tool gives gamers control and provides interaction with other players, it might lead to greater levels of commitment. We think that a tool that acts as a bot and does not require monitoring is probably not a good idea.

Players being able to influence their environment, via building and destroying structures or controlling territory, is listed as a potential strength in terms of loyalty. What features do you think work best here for MMO developers?

Minecraft is currently one of the most successful games. It allows the player to control and build, and there is no lore. The players create the lore by building and creating the environment. The graphics are so-so, but each player is in essence creator of his or her world.

The Secret World
Which would be more valuable to an MMO provider: millions of curious gamers or a few hundred thousand loyal fans? How do you see free-to-play changing this part of the conversation?

We could conceive of scenarios where both could be profitable. Free-to-play should really be labeled free-but-really-not-intended-to-be-free. The game designers have become somewhat successful at getting consumers to try the game, but they are constantly looking at ways to get gamers to engage in micro-payments. Some are successful and others are not. This question will require additional study and exploration. There will be companies that experiment with the freemium model, with the many subscribers model and the fewer subscribers model. And the market will ultimately show us the way. This problem is difficult to model and developers will show the way as they experiment and subsequently succeed or fail.

We'd like to thank Dr. Sanders for his time, and he'd like to thank the people who helped bring his study to bear: Junghoon Moon, PhD, who is in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences at Seoul National University; Edward Garrity, PhD, who is in the Department of Information Systems at Canisius College; Md. Dulal Hossain, PhD, who is a senior engineer at the Institute of Computer Science, Atomic Energy Research Establishment at the Bangladesh Atomic Energy Commission; and Sooran Jo, who is a researcher on the business data mining team at Daum Communications.

When readers want the scoop on a launch or a patch (or even a brewing fiasco), Massively goes right to the source to interview the developers themselves. Be they John Smedley or Chris Roberts or anyone in between, we ask the devs the hard questions. Of course, whether they tell us the truth or not is up to them!

This article was originally published on Massively.
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