Data on Player Life-Cycles

In an earlier article, I traced out a player life-cycle from open-ended survey data. In this data set, we'll fill in that framework with some quantitative data to get a better sense of what changes from stage to stage. The player life-cycle proposed has 5 stages:

1) Starting: The player has just started playing the game and everything is new and exciting.
2) Ramping Up: The player has learned the basics and is now busy progressing through the content (whether leveling or crafting). They have a sense of where they want to be and are heading for that goal.
3) Mastery: The player is at the higher-end of the game and is either well-situated in a guild and doing raids, or happily soloing high level quests, or competing in PvP content.
4) Burn Out: The player feels like they've done everything they can do in the game, or they are beginning to feel burned out from all the raid and social obligations from their guild. They wonder where all the fun went.
5) Casual / Recovery: The player has figured out a way to play the game without burning out. They may be doing intermittent raids, logging in casually to play with friends, casually leveling alts, etc.


When players were asked what stage they were currently in, the data found that the largest portion of players considered themselves to be playing at a Casual stage. What is not clear at the moment (and certainly something to explore in future research) is what proportion of these players at the Casual stage have recovered from the Burn Out stage and what proportion have jumped here from the Ramping Up stage (or any stage before Burn Out). Indeed, while there is a loose assumption of going from one stage to the next, it is likely that some players jump from Ramping Up to Burning Out (among other jumps).

While it may at first be surprising to see so many players classify themselves in the Casual stage, there are reasons this may be the case. From the player narratives in the earlier study, there was a sense of inevitability of burning out once ramping up had begun. Players seemed to inevitably hit a threshold where additional advancement required an effort that became more tedious than fun. Thus, in long-running MMOs like WoW, the majority of players who have been playing for more than 1 or 2 years must therefore have found a way to get off the grind path and still enjoy the game in a more casual play style.


While the gender differences were quite small, there was a bit more interesting variation across age groups. In the chart below, we see that younger players are most likely to be in the Burn Out stage. This is consistent with data we've seen elsewhere that younger players are more achievement-oriented and thus more likely to follow the grind path into the Burn Out stage. Overall though, it appears that gender and age differences were quit minimal.


I also asked players how long they had been currently playing their MMO in months. Below is a stacked chart that shows proportion of each stage across months played. One thing to keep in mind when reading this graph is that all the players who have quit are not part of these stacks. Thus, these aren't numbers about all players, but rather, the players who have not quit the game by the 5th or 7th or 12th month.

Until the 3rd month, most players are still in the Starting and Ramping Up phases (68% combined). By the 4th month, the majority of players are past the beginning stages (57% in Mastery + Burn Out + Casual). By the 7th month, no one considers themselves to be a total noobie in the game and over one-third of players consider themselves to be playing casually. At the one-year mark, we see the largest proportion of players at the Mastery stage. And by the 19th month mark, the majority of players (54%) are in the Casual stage.


Motivation scores across the Achievement, Social, and Immersion factors were also collected from players, so we can take a look at how motivations for playing change over time. First below is the chart of Achievement scores. Throughout the stages, men tend to be more achievement-oriented than women, but for both genders, achievement is most compelling during the Mastery and Burn Out stages. What's interesting about Achievement as a play motivation is that it may directly lead a player to the Burn Out stage (thus both a good and bad thing at the same time). As the chart also shows, players who make it to the Casual stage have let go of their strong Achievement drives. Or in other words, strong Achievement players in Burn Out stages tend to quit instead of stay, and thus the ones who remain in the game (in Casual stage) score lower on Achievement on average.

We see a somewhat similar pattern with the Social scores with some interesting differences. Both men and women actually start out not caring much about socializing. It is only starting from the Mastery stage that both genders care a more about social stuff in the game. Also at this point, there is suddenly a large gender difference in the Social motivation. In contrast with the Achievement motivation, the Social motivation remains somewhat important among players in the Casual stage. This is consistent with the saying that "People start for the game, but they stay for other players".


What's interesting about the Immersion scores are they are the exact opposite of what we've seen so far in the general pattern of Achievement and Social scores. Players start by caring a lot about being immersed in the game, but by the Mastery and Burn Out stages, they care a lot less about it, and this rebounds a bit in the Casual stage. We also see an interesting gender difference throughout. Women have more extreme feelings about Immersion than men. They like it more than men in the initial stages, but they also dislike it more during the Mastery and Burn Out stages.

Looking back over these three motivation factors, another interesting observation can be made. Both the Achievement and Immersion scores show a similar rebound curve. What is important during the initial and ending stages are not important during the middle stages. On the other hand, for the Social motivation, what becomes important in the middle stages remains important in the end stage.

While this set of data provides some information on player life-cycles, it also raises many other questions that are still unanswered. For example, as I noted early on, it's not clear how players get to the Casual stage. Is it truly an end stage after recovering from Burn Out? Or a stage that players can jump to from any other stage? There is also an issue of whether players at the Casual stage may get sucked back into the Mastery stage, and how the cyclical nature of the stages may play out. From a data perspective, the constant attrition of players over time may also distort our understanding of what is really happening by only looking at the players who stay. For example, do players in the Casual stage have low Achievement scores because they have actually changed or because strong Achievers have all quit the game by then?