One of the core challenges of free-to-play (F2P) is how to on-board and engage players as quickly and easily as possible to ensure they will stick around.
And the statistics on early churn in F2P are brutal; most games will lose 20% of installs within two minutes from first launch and the typical return rate for subsequent first session play hovers around 50%.
To combat this, F2P games need to be designed with a thorough plan for how the first session will play out.
This should include not only a set of core on-boarding milestones for the player to complete, but also a natural end point where players are in the best possible state to return.
This leads to a simple question; how long should the first session be? One answer could be ‘as long as possible’, and this approach may work for core games, but for the vast majority of casual and midcore F2P games it is not reasonable to expect players to stick around for an hour or more in their first session.
With over 5,000 games in our deltaDNA platform we can look at the impact that first session length has on game performance. Overall, we find that most games have short first sessions; 90% of games have a median first session length of less than 20 minutes.
The correlation between Day 1 Retention and Average Session Time
The chart below shows the relationship between session time and day 1 retention for a sample of 275 comparable games selected from the deltaDNA platform, looking at data sets from October 2015 to February 2016.
The relationship between session time and day 1 retention
Unsurprisingly, the correlation between Day 1 Retention and Average Session Time is strong. The mean First Session Time across all games is nine minutes.
Games that have a longer first session than this average 31% Day 1 Retention. Those with an average First Session Time of less than nine minutes only manage 20% Day 1 Retention.
Similar trends exist for other important KPIs. The table below shows the split of game metrics for less than nine and greater than nine minute first sessions.
The split of game metrics by first session length
It is clear that ensuring the typical first session is between 10 to 20 minutes is vital to have any chance of F2P success.
Of course, the interpretation of these results is blurry – games probably do not have short sessions by design, but rather because of high churn rates (and hence the low overall KPIs).
However, it is interesting that the range of first sessions is so narrow, with 10 minutes making the difference between a success or flop.
From a game design perspective, the take-aways from this are two-fold.
Firstly, it is hard to get the typical player to complete more than 20 minutes of play in the first session, so front-loading the game with many options and game features is not necessary.
However, the second point is that those 20 minutes of content must be engaging and free from any frustration to ensure that players do hit that mark, and that they leave the game in a state that is conducive to them returning for a second session.