What are other retention and conversion (free to play to paying to spender) strategies in MMOs?

I know some like promotions, social viral, content generation, intentional imbalance, perks and community management.


5 Answers 5


Clever economic manipulation.

Say you've got two people playing the game. Frank has a lot of money (he's a millionaire in real life) but not a lot of time ingame. He wants to get some really awesome and expensive equipment and go kill Starfuries (they are the best thing to kill) but he has no interest in grinding ingame to gradually get the gear he wants. He does not care, in any sense, about the $15/mo monthly fee for your game. He will probably forget to unsubscribe because he cares so little.

Bob, on the other hand, is a highschool student. He has no money and absolute tons of free time. Huge amounts of it. He's managed to get his mom to pay for a few months of subscription, but that won't last forever.

So here's what you do. You make an ingame item, a "Hunter's License". A Hunter's License can be traded on the auction house ingame. It can be redeemed for a month of subscripton time, and it can be purchased out-of-game for $15, it just shows up on your character.

Frank buys a pile of Hunter's Licenses and sells them on the Auction House. Bob spends a few days farming money and buys his Hunter's License for the month. Everyone wins:

  • Frank wins because he doesn't have to do the grinding he finds so boring.
  • Bob wins because he gets to play the game for free.
  • You win because you're getting Frank's money (which you would have gotten anyway) and Bob's money (which you wouldn't have gotten otherwise.) Additionally, you haven't mucked with the ingame economy - you haven't spawned any powerful items, you haven't started "selling gold", you're just letting people trade gametime around.

This has been used very successfully with both Eve Online's PLEXes. A variant micropayment system, using ingame tradable items as necessary reagents for almost every production and trade, can be seen with Puzzle Pirates' Doubloons. Another variant can be seen with Kingdom of Loathing, which sells powerful unique items (kind of iffy) that, again, can be traded on the auction house (suddenly makes them far less iffy, because you don't need out-of-game money to get your edge.)

Remember: every person who spends PLEXes and Doubloons is giving you money, even if they personally never gave you any money. Trading is a good thing! Let the economy help you!

  • 1
    \$\begingroup\$ This is a good answer. And it does make sense. \$\endgroup\$
    – Wight
    Aug 19, 2010 at 8:46
  • \$\begingroup\$ Note this was used for years on EVE before PLEXes, it was just more cumbersome, but still encouraged and supported by the publisher. (They also charge slightly more cash per play time, so they actually get more money for brokering the transaction.) Also, you might not have gotten Frank's money anyway: he might've become frustrated and quit. \$\endgroup\$
    – Roger Pate
    Oct 6, 2010 at 6:33
  • \$\begingroup\$ Only problem is that in-game currency can now be purchased for real-life money. This has an impact on the in-game economy much like it does with EVE Online. It also has an impact on game play experiences, where in EVE's case, means the risk is dramatically decreased because buying in-game currency is accessible and legal versus when PLEX did not exist. In addition, systems like these are available for money laundering. Believe it or not, you do risk a lot in systems like these versus others. \$\endgroup\$
    – Glen Swan
    Sep 25, 2014 at 22:22
  • \$\begingroup\$ Ran out of characters, but I would argue that the short-time gain is very good with systems like these. The long term gain is that you do provide sort of a god mode for characters who have cash to burn. That god mode actually reduces retention over time versus the other. \$\endgroup\$
    – Glen Swan
    Sep 25, 2014 at 22:25

Some recently popular ones

  1. Refer-a-friend. Generally you give bonuses to both the referrer and the referee.
  2. Social media broadcasts. More and more games will want to post stuff to Facebook and Twitter as basically free advertising. The new Warhammer 40k game is even rewarding players for this.
  3. Rich kid syndrome. Asian MMOs are notorious for this, putting pay items up that are clearly better than ones that can be earned within the game. Tread lightly here, western markets have been very hostile to this.
  4. Selling simplicity. Things like selling +%XP potions or pre-leveled characters for a game with a low level cap (think Guild Wars' PVP character system). This is generally better received than the above, but still hard to pitch.
  5. Veteran rewards. Pretty simple and every MMO I know of does it.
  6. Fast client download. The longer it takes to try your game, the lower the conversion rate is.
  7. Non-decimal currency. There is a reason that MS' Live points are 80 == $1.00. By keeping people's mental math off balance you can produce the illusion of lower prices.
  • \$\begingroup\$ Careful with refer-a-friend. Assuming open trading, it can become easy for a player to "refer" themselves with a second account, then trade everything to their primary, which defeats the purpose. \$\endgroup\$ Aug 19, 2010 at 16:04
  • \$\begingroup\$ Usually you only get the bonus if the new account spends money (in most games it is after their first month's subscription goes through), but I agree it can be harder to manage with a free-to-play game. \$\endgroup\$
    – coderanger
    Aug 19, 2010 at 17:03

This is a good question because it applies to all free to play games that are monetized with microtransactions. What you're basically asking is: “How do I get players to become engaged in a game after they download and once they're engaged, how do I get them to spend money?” How a developer addresses this question is key to whether their game succeeds or fails.

How people usually answer this question on forums like Stackexchange though is with randomly picked strategies that have SOMETIMES worked for SOME developers, which is incomplete. To answer this better it's best to look at this from the perspective of player's lifecycle through the game.

Generally a player's lifetime engagement with your game looks like this

  • Acquisition (ads, viral invites, press, etc.)
  • Early Retention (getting the user to decide to engage beyond the first few sessions)
  • Engagement & Long-term retention (once a user decides to play, how do you keep them doing so for as long as possible)
  • Monetization
  • Leaves game (usually called "churn")

So coming up with strategies for "retention and monetization" mean you maximize the numbers at each point in the above flow. Firstly, to do this, you want to come up with a way of measuring your performance at each step, which is usually done by measuring user behavior with gameplay events, which look something like the format below, and then analyzing it later to establish behavioral patterns

 "eventName":"specific event code – eg. gameStarted",
 "eventTimestamp":"yyyy-mm-dd hh:mm:ss.SSS",

Once developers collect this data, they can begin to analyze it by looking at any immediately visible trends that emerge. Once a large enough dataset has been gathered, developers will usually develop statistical modes to establish patterns in player behavior.

These statistical models seek to establish:

User Segments: Developers put players into different behavioral cohorts based on their play style. This is done so that individualized content and features can be targeted towards individual user segments.

Unique value of each segment: Each player segment has a different value. Some will spend more money, some will be extremely viral & invite a lot of other users, some will serve to engage other users. Once players know the value of each segment, they can add new content and features to the game that maximize the value of each individual user segment.

Create custom KPIs relevant to their game's retention, engagement and monetization: Since games are all different, developers will define metrics that define success for their individual game so that they have custom measures of success at each phase of the player lifecycle. Examples might include:

  • Casino game: Number of free-to-paid conversions per blind level
  • Casual arcade game: Number of hard sessions on hard levels prior to paid conversion
  • Social combat game: Number of losses or wins before initial purchase

And so once this firm grounding in understanding users is established, we can take a look at the strategies developers use to maximize player retention, engagement, and monetization.

---- Monetization ----

What will work for any given game is different, but some free-to-paid conversion techniques that have seen success recently are:

Advancement pain points: Points in the game where users are interested in advancing but it is difficult to advance without buying premium items. Games that require "grinding" to advance use this a lot as do games that are level-based (multiple levels the user plays which get progressively harder)

Provide a competitive impulse: Many games that feature a competitive or P2P mechanic allow people to spend to get ahead of other players. (Personally, when I spend on mobile games, it's usually to better PWN other players.)

Play limitation: Users have limited plays or lives and have to wait a certain amount of time before playing again without paying for more tries. Games such as Family Feud 2 and Bejeweled Blitz employ this strategy as a primary monetization tactic.

Time-to-completion: Tasks that take certain amounts of time that can be sped up with premium currency. Many games that have a building mechanic often employ this tactic.

High-priced offers/Social distinction: Design expensive offers for players that allow major advantages or major distinction. This will give highly engaged players an incentive to convert to whale-level spending. Many game types offer this, but MMOs or social games with lots of direct player interaction can rely on this more.

You want to ensure you really know your player segments so that you can target individual play styles with content that they’ll be most likely to buy.


Some retention strategies used frequently by successful developers include:

Heavy immersion in enjoyable experiences: The game gets people into the most enjoyable core gameplay mechanics fast

Smart Tutorials: Tutorials recognize how much help a user needs and offers more if they do need more help, and less if they don't.

Predictive individualization: Ability via predictive behavioral modeling to determine what a user likes within the first 5 minutes of play and to customize the experience to maximize their involvement in gameplay mechanics and content they love. This strategy is hard to pull off because it requires statistical modeling.

Care Obligations: Creating timed tasks that users must come back to finish

Early Customization: The ability for players to customize their in-game avatars or possessions. Establishes an early sense of ownership

Early re-engagement notifications: Re-engagement push notifications, emails, and social network notifications

Eliminating Error: Error is ESPECIALLY damaging to early retention. In a player's first hours and minutes they are very skeptical of your game and error in this phase absolutely kills retention. So again, you'll really want to make sure you integrate a good QA process and a log management tool like Loggly to monitor error while the game is live. It seems like a no-brainer, but MANY MANY developers miss this point and end up losing the cash and time they invested into the game to easily manageable errors.


Dan Cook has a great blog post about this. His post is from the perspective of Flash games and not MMOs, but at the end of the day the principles are the same: you're offering something free to play, with some kind of premium content that is worth paying for, and trying to convert customers.



Here's an article about a talk in GDC Europe that also somewhat answers my question.


Not the best view though but is helpful anyways.


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