Analyzing MMO User Management With The Chess Phase Model

The phases of chess are broadly applicable to many, if not most, games. Massively multiplayer online games (MMOs) are a little different because they are designed to be played forever. Therefore, it may seem odd to analyze them with a model that ends with checkmating for a win. The only way to “beat” an MMO is to quit playing, and this has profound implications for the MMO operation.

Chess Phase Model

A game of chess moves through the following phases.

  • Opening: Initial actions to start strong. Openings are documented and analyzed.
  • Board Development: Getting pieces into useful places to facilitate the rest of the game.
  • Midgame: The bulk of the game. Strategy and tactics come into play here.
  • Check: Threaten to end the game. Requires an immediate reaction.
  • Checkmate: Thoroughly end the game. No reaction can prolong the session.

There are also a few alternate end states.

  • Resignation: A player is free to quit at any time.
  • Draw: Players may agree to end the game without declaring a winner.
  • Stalemate: The game ends in a draw because one player has no valid moves.

MMO User Phases

Users of an MMO progress through phases that parallel those of a chess game.

  • Opening: Onboarding and starting the game.
  • Board Development: Learning the MMO and collecting core gear and abilities.
  • Midgame- The bulk of the game. Ideally, players would stick with the game forever.
  • Check: Threats that cause players to consider quitting.
  • Checkmate: Situations where the player actually quits.

There are also alternate end states.

  • Resignation: Circumstances may force a player to quit even if the MMO is enjoyable.
  • Draw: Some users get banned. They are a bad fit for the service.
  • Stalemate: Largely inactive players who have not quit, but who are not really playing.

Opening Phase

During the opening phase, a player jumps through all the hoops required to start the game. This includes things like the following.

  • downloading the game client
  • signing up for any required accounts
  • buying a starter pack
  • entering a referral code for a bonus
  • select a starting character class or faction
  • playing through the tutorial
  • taking initial actions when able to freely act

People write articles and make videos about the “best” way to start popular games, and many prospective players use them to make an educated start. If anything goes wrong during onboarding, players are likely to walk away forever. Instant checkmate.

Board Development Phase

Three main things happen during the board development phase. The player character fills out core gear and learns the fundamental abilities that will carry it through the rest of the game. The player learns how to play the game, and the character or faction they decided to start as. The player becomes habituated to having an alter ego in the MMO’s particular fantasy world. Players are still sensitive to bad experiences when they are warming up to a new MMO.

Midgame Phase

At this point, the player knows the basics of the game and what they decided to play. They have also consistently made time in their life to commit to the MMO. Active midgame players are the most likely to put up with problems because they are invested in the game and there are still things they want to do. Starting a new MMO is work and they are already set up here. The MMO operator’s goal is to keep players paying for the privilege to happily play midgame content for as long as possible, ideally forever.

Check Phase

A check is any situation that causes a player to consider quitting the game. Most players stick through most checks, but these are the situations where players are most likely to quit. Checks are unavoidable, but paying attention to them is important for user retention. Checks include things like the following.

  • Completing major milestones in game.
  • Playing through all content and running out of new things to do.
  • Poor management decisions and actions that upset the player base.
  • Changing the game to attract new users at the expense of existing players.
  • Changes to monetization strategy or price increases.
  • The latest hot MMO that is competing for users.

Like a check in chess, these kinds of situations require immediate reaction to retain users.

  • Milestone completion opens new and exciting opportunities.
  • Regular content releases and game systems that can be played endlessly.
  • Positively engaging with an unhappy player base.
  • Potentially roll back changes that land poorly and remain sensitive to existing players.
  • Timing in game campaigns to coincide with competitor’s releases to keep players engaged in your game.

Checkmate Phase

All players eventually quit the game for one reason or another. As an extreme example, nobody is immortal. When a player dies, that is an instant checkmate. Especially toxic community interaction? Checkmate. Change in life circumstances? Checkmate. Bored and want to do something else? Checkmate.


The chess phases are a simple model for reasoning about MMO user progression- opening, board development, midgame, check, and checkmate. Therefore, it can be used to easily reason about user and mental energy can be expended on hard problems and complex solutions.

No singles phase is more important than another. Players need to be onboarded. They need to learn the game and become habituated to playing it. They need to have content to play to remain invested and engaged in the experience. Situations will occur that make players unhappy and cause them to consider quitting. Finally, players will leave despite the developer’s best efforts to keep them engaged.