Guest post: Vostu’s insights on retention patterns in social vs. casual games

[Editor’s Note: The following article comes from Vostu co-founder and Chief Scientist Mario Schlosser and Chief Researcher Neil Molino. It compares retention patterns between Vostu’s city-building sim, MegaCity, and its recently-released real time soccer sim, Gol Mania.]

In Vostu’s experience, what makes a successful traditional social game (defined here as games with common social features like quests and gifting) is building a highly dedicated and engaged long-term userbase that plays up into very high levels in the game. Game play in high levels becomes complex and extremely social. (High-level users exchange a lot more gifts than low-level ones, for example.) These games lose a lot of users early on, but those who stay (at least in a good game) are there for long periods of time and are highly engaged with the game. And, hopefully, they’re paying users.

In contrast, casual games (defined here as games that are social but rely less heavily on traditional social features like quests and gifting) have a tougher time engaging a long-term audience. Gameplay in high levels tends to be the same straightforward, simple activity that it was in lower levels. That means it is harder to continuously engage users in casual games when they reach high levels. This game type does have its advantages, however, as it is easier for users to re-engage with a casual game after a lapse.

From our perspective, social games are soap operas while casual games are sitcoms. The retention characteristics for a traditional social game like MegaCity, our city-building simulation, are very different than those we see in a casual game like Gol Mania, our real-time soccer game. But some of these differences clearly point to opportunities for casual games to learn from social games and vice versa.

We’ll quantify a number of key differences between MegaCity and Gol Mania below. First, at a very basic level, we see the amount of minutes that users play per day shows a divergence between the two games. When we drill into this and break down the userbase of the two games by level, we see that this divergence really stems from the fact that (a) social games have a higher portion of high-level dedicated users and (b) these high-level dedicated users actually play longer each day than their analogous users in casual games. The chart below shows the percentage of users who play x minutes or less per day. “Social game” stands for Vostu’s MegaCity, and “Casual game” is Vostu’s Gol Mania. For example, in Gol Mania, 80 percent of users play 30 minutes or less per day, while in MegaCity, just 60 percent play 30 minutes or less per day.

In the graph below, we see that low-level users show very similar time played per day for both games. Note that it normally doesn’t make sense to compare levels across games, as level 10 in a poker game is bound to be different than level 10 in a cafe game. In our case, however, we can calculate our games’ level curves in a way that an average user levels up every 1-1.5 days regardless of which type of game they are playing. This is interesting: in a user’s early days, casual vs. social games don’t differ.

Mid-level users start to show differences in the duration of play per day:

This difference becomes even more extreme as we progress to very high levels. Hard-core users in MegaCity are highly engaged. A full 50 percent plays more than 30 minutes per day. That’s not the case for long-standing fans of Gol Mania, which are less engaged.

As we can see, the main difference between the two games in minutes played per day is that MegaCity enjoys a larger portion of high-level users and that these users play more minutes per day than those we find in Gol Mania.

Similarly, we see that as a whole, the games show a different distribution of their users’ “login intensity.” We define this term as the fraction of distinct days since registration that the user actually played the game. For example, if you played eight out of 10 days since you joined, your login intensity would be 80 percent.

The left skew for MegaCity is apparent. As a whole, its userbase logs in more frequently; in fact, nearly one in five MegaCity users has logged in more than 80 percent of the days since registering. We can attribute some of this behavior to the fact that MegaCity does a better job pulling users into higher levels. We can also say, however, that the game’s age plays a significant role, as MegaCity is old enough to have accumulated a lot of high level users whereas Gol Mania is comparatively young.

So we’ll look at login intensity by level below, across both games:

In terms of login intensity, casual and social games actually turn out to be pretty similar once you normalize correctly for game age, etc. While active users log into both games at about the same rate, they play casual games less intensely once they’re logged in, however. This behavior is very clearly a function of the fact that casual games are less social than social games.

The chart below illustrates the point. It shows the percentage of game sessions that started with the user entering the game through a “social” channel, like clicking on a news feed story or accepting a gift.

There are a number of powerful observations in this chart. First, casual games and social games work very similarly when it comes to viral acquisition. In early levels, users are about equally likely to enter the game because of some viral channel like a canvas app ticker story.

But social games exhibit a higher virality via in-game activity. At higher levels, users in a social game are a lot more likely to get back into the game because of some viral activity like an in-game gift request. This is because viral activities like exchanging gifts to build stuff are the bread-and-butter of the high level user experience. That type of gameplay also explains some of the differences we’ve seen in previous charts: viral mechanics like gifting lead to more intense engagement for higher levels in social games.

In contrast, there is no high-level gameplay loop at work in casual games. We’ve recently begun experimenting with this by adding more personalization to Gol Mania. For example, we introduced in-game “private rooms,” where users can directly challenge their friends to an immediate real-time match. In a period of a few days, roughly 7 percent of active users invite their friends to Gol Mania, whereas 17 percent of those users who enter a private room invite their friends to a match. So, there are ways of making casual game more social — and therefore more viral.

To us, this represents an opportunity for casual games. An important share of a social game’s everyday traffic is users who had left the game “waking up” from a lapse in daily play and returning. If casual games could recreate the viral “wake up call,” they could potentially enjoy an even larger audience of high level users.

That may be easier said than done, however, as social games naturally encourage users to return — or suffer consequences like withering crops or expired storyline quests. Here, casual games gain the upper hand as users suffer fewer consequences for a lapse in gameplay, meaning there’s less of a barrier to returning. The chart below is a bit complicated: it shows the probability that a user returns to the game after being gone, depending on how long the user has been away from the game. While it is true that the longer a user is away, the less likely they are to return (the lines both slope down), an extended break does not decrease the probability as rapidly in a casual game as in a social game:

In casual games, crops don’t wither, quests don’t expire and the gameplay is more or less the same as it was when the user left. No matter how long a user is gone, it’s just as easy to return to the game as it was when the user was playing daily. The effect is powerful. Casual games get a lot more out of waking-up users than social games.

Moreover, once a user wakes up in a casual game, they are more likely to play more frequently. We believe this is because a casual game feels new and more self-contained each time a user plays. The graph below shows the login intensity for users who wake up and return to a game:

Social and casual games need to learn from each other. Social games need to make it less burdensome for users to return: ease users back into the game instead of showing them the one hundred feature launches they missed while they were gone. Casual games need long-term investment opportunities for the user.

For Vostu, it makes sense to keep a portfolio of both social and casual games. Our casual games have a higher chance of getting users back into our portfolio and also bridge the gap between big social game launches. We think of them as the sitcoms you flip to during the commercial breaks in your prime time soap opera. Having the soap opera, though, is necessary to really build a longer-term, engaged and paying audience.