Developing long term players
Charles Star, David Ball, and James Drysdale recently tackled the issue of recruiting and retaining players in a series of articles. Thanks to them, the gears in my head started turning, all be it slowly.
There’s a fickle element to our quest to attract and retain players. People may join your game, but become too busy to post. They may realize your game is not quite what they’re looking for. Or they may realize they’re not odd enough to partake of our hobby!
Still, if you follow the advise my fellow authors provided in their articles, you’ll raise the odds and have a more than fair chance of attracting and retaining players.
The challenge I want to address is the next step – once you have someone who has joined your game and has become a steady contributor, how do you make him or her a core player that contributes to your game at a high level for months, if not years, to come?
Easy. Just stay the course and hope for the best!
Well, in some ways, I suppose. The same disclaimer about fickleness concerning recruiting and retention applies to the larger question of who sticks with your game for the long haul and who doesn’t. We all know it’s hard to recruit and retain players. We all know it’s rarer still to find that gem who sticks with your game for the long haul.
Yet, just like with player recruiting and retention, there’s plenty you can do to increase your odds of success.
Keeping communication channels open is key. I would try my best to regularly talk to my players. I would ask generally how they were doing, if they were busy in real life, if they felt like they could take on more roles or needed to step back a bit, if they had any questions or concerns, if they had any ideas for the game, etc. I would ask what they liked about the game and their role and what they didn’t. I would ask if they had any ideas for future missions. I would ask specific questions about recent adventures – if they thought something worked or not – and ask them to think hypothetically – if x had happened instead of y, how do they think their character would have responded, etc.
What all of this did is it allowed me to avoid having to ask blatant questions. Too often, I find, a game host forges ahead, assuming everything is fine. Only when a problem explodes – two players won’t cooperate, a player goes off on a tangent and can’t be reigned in, a key player keeps on insisting they will post but never does, etc – does the game host step off of their perch and start to talk to their players and ask questions. By this point, it’s often too late.
By engaging in regular, every day sort of banter, I found it encouraged people to talk to me. Players would just naturally tell me about problems or issues that I usually was not aware of, or suggest ideas to improve the game that I had never considered.
Communication, though, is not a one-way street. The host has to convey expectations and provide feedback. A lot of this occurs on the day to day level – praising a player for a good post, nudging a person to post more, pointing out areas they could flush out further in a future post, etc. But the big picture is also important – having a clear website, developing a concise guide for the game, and sending out regular updates to the crew are all vital.
Observation is of equal importance. Sometimes a player won’t want to tell you something. But more often, a player simply won’t be aware of an issue or concern, or have the vocabulary to express it. As a host, it helps to keep records of your players and tease out data on when they post, how often, how many words they write, etc. It also helps to keep an eye out for who they like to collaborate with, what they like to write about, etc.
Through observation you can discover patterns and trends. You’ll see who works best with who. You’ll notice that certain people write more words for an action scene then they do with a character interaction scene, or vice versa. You’ll see if people are becoming more active, or are starting to pull back by writing less or taking longer to write.
3. Positive Action
Once a player has communicated, or once you’ve observed a pattern among your players, it’s incumbent upon you as the host to take positive action.
If a player mentions they’re experiencing friction with another player, than the host has to understand the issue and facilitate a positive resolution. If you notice a player likes going on away missions, or they that when they’re assigned to engineering their word counts drop, it’s incumbent upon the host to feed that player more things they enjoy in the storyline. If a player mention’s something intriguing about their character, or has an idea for a new mission, the host should work with the player to develop that idea. Depending on the skill and experience of the player, perhaps the host can give the player carte blanche authority to proceed, or perhaps the host has to break it into smaller chunks for the player to move forward.
Helping your players avoid burnout is the greatest positive action you can take to develop long-term players. When talking to your players, it’s important to remind them you’re appreciative of the time they dedicate to your game, and it’s ok if they need to step back or take a break at some point. If you notice a player’s output declining, or if they mention they have a stretch of exams coming up, are going on vacation, etc, work with the player to reduce their load.
A play-by-post online role-playing game is, by definition, a collaborative process. The voice of the host cannot be the only voice that is heard. An inflexible host will never develop the kind of commitment needed to develop long-term players. I’ve always had a rule of thumb about this – if you have a grand script that you’ve flushed out to such an extent you could pitch it for a TV show or movie, it probably won’t make for a good game. I’ve found the best stories I’ve been a part of were the ones where I had no idea what would happen next. I would just throw out a general premise and let my players take it where they wanted. We would each bounce off the other and develop a story through a process that was akin to jazz.
To reach this level of spontaneity in a story requires work behind the scenes. The host will have to communicate with and observe his or her players, and constantly nudge people forward, encouraging them to explore that thought a bit further, to think of a new angle, and to try something different. In the end, each player must feel they are in a safe space to be creative. The game must be as much their voice as it is yours.
When a player does go a bit beyond, they must be encouraged and rewarded. The response from the host should never be, “Sorry, you can’t do that. That’s not the direction I had mind.” In the event trying something new does not work out for a player or does not fit in with the story, it is best to be positive – express appreciation for the effort, politely discuss how it doesn’t work, and set the path for the player to try again.
It also helps for the host to set an example. Mix things up, and your players will know they can as well. I liked to work gags into my stories – and with it being Thanksgiving in America, having a flock of wild turkeys run through main engineering would spice things up, and open possibilities as everyone worked to contain the birds and figure out how they got there. I also liked to find ways to give others opportunities. For example, introducing a story element that took me away from the ship, giving someone else the opportunity to play captain.
Given the fickle nature of humans and our hobby, there’s no guarantee that people will rise and become dedicated, long-term players with your game. Yet, if you give these items a try, you will create a climate conducive to long-term success.
And if anyone does introduce a flock of wild turkeys into their game in the next few days, I would love to hear about it.