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Content Treadmill and Player Retention


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(minor spoilers ahead for unlocks and quests )

This is all my personal opinion and feedback - take it with salt and make the game you want to make!

my Demographic

  • Bartle Preference: 40% Achiever, 30% Explorer, 25% Social, 5% Killer  
  • Survival Comps: 360hrs in ARK, 320hrs in No Mans Sky, 180hrs Rimworld, 300+hrs Minecraft
  • 25+hrs in Grounded (20hrs solo, 5hrs co-op)

Player Rention

Grounded has great initial retention for someone in my demo, but I'm already struggling to hit the play button after 5 days. Here's some thoughts on why:

  • After 5 days, I have what appears to be all the Tier 1 and 2 Armor and Weapons, including the Tier 3 Mint Mallot and bee armors.
    • The T3 Weapon appears to be towards the top of the scales for damage. Does this mean T3 is the highest gear there will be in the game?
  • I've done numerous Burgl quests to unlock science and crafting structures (even with having all my found science broken). I've upgraded Burgle with 2 chips, but still looking for more.
  • I've found at least 5 Scab visual upgrades and looking for more. 
  • I've built 3 main bases around the map of various sizes. 
  • I've killed and component scanned every creature I can find, although eggs won't spawn in my saved game.
  • I've explored the boundaries of the map - including the top of the hedge, most of the under construction areas and fallen out of the map several times.
  • I've tried alting as other characters, but can't see an immediate difference between them other than personality and VO.
  • The guided quests appear to be gated or incomplete. I've started We're not Alone but the way to progress is either unclear or unavailable.

While I don't consider myself a hardcore player, I have tried to progress as far in the game as possible and enjoy every type of progression possible, but I feel like what was previously an immense backyard has now become a very small playground.

What I've loved thus far:

  • Exploring the yard. The scale is so refreshing. Real life objects take on new meaning. the mundane has become the terrifying and alien. I love it because it feels fresh and grounded in realism.
  • Crafting is satisfying. Gathering components to analyze and then find uses for is brilliant fun. Any mundane object has the potential to be converted into some useful asset. This breaks the standard tropes of real-life objects requiring their real-life resources. Can you make a weapon out of Pollen? Oh, I bet you can. 
  • POIs - the Hedge, The Pesticide Haze, and Oak tree are all great. They add diversity and interest. I'm looking forward to the Picnic Bench, the Shed, and dare I say, the House? 
  • The Story is engaging. You've learned from Ark and No Man's Sky that starting without a story and trying to add it later isn't ideal. This game's USPs imho are the Scale and Story.

Over the weekend, I heard the great news that there's been a million downloads and content updates are coming monthly, starting end of Aug.

Here's why I'm concerned you're headed towards an insane content treadmill that won't solve the retention issues anytime soon.

The Content Treadmill

Grounded has built in some nice space to allow for additional POIs and Environments, and the rigs are generic enough to add numerous types of spiders, mites, crawlers, etc., but adding more space and mobs may not pay the best dividends when it comes to player retention unless it is coupled with more meaningful progression, either in story or tech.

Progression

  • Burgl: The robot clearly has space in his head rotunda for many more upgrade tapes, so it seems clear that the reward for exploration (physical and story based) will be additional recipe unlocks that require Science. Burgl unlocks range in usefulness, but having things cost 5k has kept me doing dailies for 3 days now, but once I get the last one... what then?
  • Combat Progression: The early access content feels balanced for Tier 2 gear/weapons. As soon as you pick up the T3 mace, it feels OP and as if all the big bugs aren't a bother anymore so long as you can get the jump on them. If the rest of the gear/weapons in T3 are similarly powered, then it feels like the Mobs are going to need to scale in difficulty to the player, but that leads to meaningless number progression where the mobs themselves don't actually change profile, just damage/health. If the intention is to add newer T3 mobs in the under construction areas, then i could see enough room to add T3 and T4 weapons. Yet that progression needs to be a lot harder to come by than 5 days of questing. This will require more complexity in crafting components, or more required use of speciality arrows/aoes/etc. But what happens after T4? This seems like it will require either specific boss fights, or expansion into more territory outside of the yard, which starts to get expensive to build. If you don't add T3 gear/mobs in August, then the 1 million downloads you had the first week will have little to come back for other than story, unless you have some other reward scheme up your sleeve. 
  • Story Progression: Adding more story is expensive. Unique POIs, new VO, scripted mobs, rewards. That said, after 1 week it appears there are at least a few lab locations which could introduce more story. However the time it takes to consume that content will get you maybe a week's worth of winback for lapsed players before they've consumed it all and await more. If you were planning to release this 1.0, it seems that you'll need a year or more's worth of Monthly Updates (not all of which would have story) before you could have something that feels like a "complete game". It will feel better than ARK's story by a mile, but not that much better than what No Man's Sky offers in terms of replay value and RNG replay. What makes the Story Work thus far is directing you to a new location that you haven't been yet. New story content will work wonders for new players coming in and looking for clearer directions on where to go next, but existing players will have already been there and in some wall hack cases, done that already. What feels good from a player perspective is to go someplace new, gather or fight something new, then use that info to help you with the next story bit. e.g. - Quest to get A) is guarded by Ladybugs that drop armor needed to complete Quest B). But that sort of linear storytelling is a treadmill that could never satisfy based on how quickly the backyard is consumed.  Games like No Man's Sky get away with minimal story by mixing linear story beats with procedural questing. Right now the procedural questing feels light it will eventually run out of places for me to plant markers and digress into kill x of the same thing (again). 

Monthly Updates

So, given all that - what would would the ideal Monthly Update provide to current players like myself as a meaningful step towards a more complete game?

  • More of the existing yard: There's a lot more space behind the "under construction" tape, and fleshing that out with some details and story would certainly add some weeks to the game, but it begins to become a content treadmill if we stick with the same assets/mobs.
  • Start planning for new environments and mobs: Maybe part of the team focusing on fleshing out the current yard space, while a subset begin prototyping the next yard so that at 6 months you have something other than more grass and spiders. Doesn't necessarily need new rigs, but scaling and skinning will only go so far. More variety in mobs is needed. Ark added oodles of dinos in their first few years. This should be the same thinking here.
  • Resource Sinks: While players are having a ton of fun creating lots of interesting bases and towns, for less creative solo players like myself, it would be ideal to have long term projects to donate resources to completing. Whether it is rebuilding the lab, creating the device to scale the tree, building a mechanic toy mech - whatever - just something to do with these 50 Weezil noses other than gas masks and smoothies. If you want to get REALLY creative, you can even tie timed exclusive projects to resource sinks so that during the month of October, I can build the scary thing to turn the tide on those wolf spiders! But please, use seasons as a fun environment - not as a way to put on hats and party favors - stick to your story and keep it focused. 
  • Better reasons to Co-Op: This sort of goes hand in hand with monster scaling, but there needs to be a more compelling reason to co-op other than it takes what was a little hard and makes it trivial. There's a definite balance to play here between keeping it hard for Solo and making it hard for Co-Op. As it stands now, I've got friends and family who want to play, but it feels less challenging to the point of not being that much fun to co-op. Yes we can carry more, yes we can finish fights faster, but once we have better gear and weapons, we need more bosses or difficult challenges to face. As of now, it feels like a convenient luxury that actually makes the game too trivial to be a survival game.
  • Remove the Save Button? I know there's too many bugs to do this yet, but please say that you're going to go the route of Ark and No Mans and get rid of that rewind button... it would make the game much more punishing like Ark, but maybe the game needs that? 

In summary, I think it boils down to this: Explore, Explore, Explore.... I can't say it enough... That to me - is the best USP. From my perspective, the future of this is the potential of opening up the world to mini-me. If the month ahead get me out of the yard and into the house or the parking lot or the park next door... then you've hooked me. I already dream of what it will be like to get out of this yard. That will require specific team resource planning to go heavy with LD and Assets and make more world. I don't care that much if it is the same mobs in different colors if I get to keep exploring the world I thought I knew, but now from a different perspective. Don't box yourselves in with Tiers of gear that don't scale into the rest of the world. If you aren't thinking this grand, and you're just focused on the yard, then I'll be sad and I'll worry about how you're going to keep it fresh next year. If you didn't plan this game as GAAS, then I'm bummed. 

Hopefully you did and you'll seriously start ramping up to get the content treadmill setup to be efficient and satisfying. The worst thing from my perspective would be to keep the team running but deliver content at such as low pace that the updates don't feel like they're expanding the game fast enough. Having something new to do every 4 weeks already feels like too long. I'm eager to see what you do next.
 

Edited by thehiredgun
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