When developers shut down a game, they "poison the ocean" for committed players, according to Playdom's senior game designer, Greg Costikyan.
Speaking at Casual Connect in San Francisco today, Costikyan warned developers against shutting down games because of its impact on the player base, in particular "whales" — an industry term that refers to players who spend the most money in free-to-play games.
According to Costikyan, when a game shuts down because a developer feels it is no longer financially viable, the most dedicated players can feel betrayed because not only have they invested their money into the game, they've also invested their time and have an emotional attachment to it. He said that on average, less than five percent of players will see a message announcing a game's imminent closure and proceed to click through to play a different game within the developer's portfolio.
"Your highest spenders are the least likely to convert [to another game], and some will never play again."
"Your highest spenders are the least likely to convert [to another game], and some will never play again," Costikyan said. "Transitioning from one game to another is really difficult because they're emotionally attached. When you shut down a game, you poison the ocean."
The problem is worse when a game involves virtual goods, because players who have spent hundreds, even thousands of dollars on in-game items lose everything they bought.
Costikyan's advice to developers is to keep games running, even if it means active development is no longer taking place. He said the main cost of games isn't bandwidth and servers, but salaries. So rather than shut down games completely it is preferable to move staff onto other projects and leave the game running.
"Without new content, the game will decline, but your whales can come back and see their content," he said. "Online games die only when you kill them. By nature, they will live forever so long as there are players who love them. Be willing to suffer a small net drain to keep your whales alive — don't kill them, let them swim away and live to pay another day."
He added that many developers aren't generous enough with their players, and it is worth considering reimbursing players in some way if a game must be shut down, whether it be giving them hard currency or virtual currency for another game.
"Treat your players with love, not contempt," he said. "It's only common sense."