Games also need black boxes, to find out why players are quitting. Using this information to identify problems and improve the game can help make sure that subsequent players don't quit for the same reasons, and even help bring lapsed players back.
I'll be using a level-based subscription MMO such as WoW as an example for this series, but every online game should have a black box. Differences in genres and gameplay should only make slight changes in the type of data gathered and analyzed, and I'll leave modifications as an exercise for the reader.
Why your game needs a black boxIt's easy to see how a game that charges subscriber fees needs a black box, but any game with an online multiplayer element benefits greatly from a large, happy player base. The best way to have lots of players is to never lose any, even if you only gain them slowly.To keep from losing players, you'll have to identify problems early and correct them before it's too late. The best way to find and correct subtle problems is through data mining and analysis.
Many of the problems that a black box can reveal should really be obvious to any good designer in advance, so having a black box is not a substitute for thorough design beforehand or anticipating consequences. They are particularly useful, though, for revealing subtle trends and problems with systems that look good on paper or during limited playtesting, but start to break down after hundreds of hours of gameplay.
Identifying at-risk playersThe first thing we'll need to do is figure out which players are likely to quit soon. Since subscription-based MMOs charge in advance for playtime, players often check out or decide to quit a long time before their cancellation will actually show up on the books. This is a good thing, because our black box system will allow us to see why they're unhappy and to hopefully correct those problems before they quit. There's no need to wait for these players to officially quit before figuring out what went wrong, so we'll try to identify which players seem most likely to be quitting soon before it actually happens.
Depending on the type of game you're running, you could simply define a variable for how long it's acceptible to go without logging into the game before a player enters the at-risk category. You will also probably want to check for a minimum playsession time, because a player who logs in every 2 days but only stays for 10 minutes probably isn't very happy either.
If your game has classes or other meaningful differentiators between characters, and you're worried about certain character types becoming abandoned more than others, a variant of this type of system could be used to see why particular characters are being abandoned. For this example, I'll just focus on players who are abandoning the game entirely, but it should be easy to see how the system could be modified to examine character abandonment as well.
There are likely to be several factors that can help predict character abandonment, but for this example I'll stick to time since logout as the main signifier of at-risk players.
Next, we'll examine the kind of data the black box will need to mine, and then start to look at what these data will be able to say about why players are quitting.