Quick Guide to Live-Ops in Free-to-Play Games

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Live-ops is still a fairly new discipline in the operation of free-to-play games but it is becoming increasingly common. Odds are it will soon be required for all F2P games as titles that employ live-ops outperform those that don’t. Live-ops can contribute a 30% increase in revenues.

In a world where players will play a game for years, it is imperative that a game can keep a player’s interest over the long haul. Live-ops is an efficient way to do that. It keeps things fresh for older users, increases the life of old content, and keeps players engaged in between new features.

What is Live-Ops?

Live-ops is anything that changes the game after it goes live without having to release a new version of the game.

I contributed to live-ops for a social casino game and the pillars of our live-ops were: sales, challenges, random rewards, and temporary changes to game variables. All of these things are data-driven so they didn’t require a new version of the game.

The various things that one can do will depend on the individual game and the variables that were designed to be changed without an app update. Live-ops generally will not change the game in a fundamental way. It will provide a twist or new perspective on existing features to keep things interesting.

Promotions, Challenges, and Holidays

The simplest live-ops tactic is to run a special sale for a holiday. There should generally be some flexibility to the in-app-purchase system for a F2P game if sales are already run or products can be tailored to the individual player. Using that system to create special limited-time offers during a holiday or for any other reason is a quick way to test the waters.

Challenges are also simple and lightweight. They are like limited-time achievements. For a social slots game, an easy challenge is for players to get 3 big wins in a certain slot machine and then award the player their biggest of the big wins when the challenge is over. Such seemingly mundane challenges can be spiced up by choosing slot machines that are thematically aligned with a holiday or current event.

Holidays offer a lot of flexibility to do interesting things and provides set dates to plan for. Holidays do not just suddenly appear so it provides time to properly plan out a live-ops strategy.

One of the first hugely successful live-ops event we did was for Easter. We rolled out an Easter Bunny random award to select slot machines as Easter approached. This promotion was basically a random event each time you spun a participating slot machine. We added messaging to participating slot machines so players who wanted to see the Easter Bunny would know to play those games. We also added a twist to our bunny-themed slot machine and made it available to all players. Everything was tied together with themed sales, messaging, and imagery.

The Easter promotion was a significant boost to revenue that resulted in greater than 30% week-over-week improvements.

Best Practices and Pitfalls

A F2P game should try to keep live-ops in mind during development so that entire systems do not need to be retooled to support data-driven updates. Speaking of tools, good tools is helpful in allowing less technical individuals to effectively contribute to live-ops.

Some of the more complex promotions may require a dedicated live-ops engineer but many things do not and tools will open up the pool of people able to work on live-ops. One of the things we did not do early on was create these tools so live-ops took more engineering resources than necessary.

The revenue boost from successful events, promotions, challenges, and sales can become addictive. One should remember that every event or promotion is not necessarily going to be equally successful and chasing those revenue spikes can lead to missing the forest for the trees. It is hard to see a 30% increase in revenue and not want to do more of it but the rest of the game should not be neglected because live-ops relies and builds on the base game.

A solid base game will allow for more interesting and effective live-ops. One thing we lost sight of was the overall well being of the game as we saw how successful live-ops was and it ultimately handicapped what we could do for live-ops. Remember that live-ops is for keeping a game fresh and utilizing the same live-ops tactics over and over will have diminishing returns.

Use analytics data to help make live-ops decisions. Data can show where the game is weak and how it can be improved. We had a collection of slot machines designed for people who like the thrill of betting huge amounts and potentially seeing massive wins. The data showed that these machines did not get a lot of user participation but we did not want to change the concept of requiring huge bets. We ran a limited time promo that lowered all the bets but still kept them higher than normal games. That promotion was very successful and basically opened up content to players who were not willing to blow all their coins on a single roll of the dice.

Live-ops is a nascent discipline but the biggest games are adopting them fast. Clash of Clans added events to their December 2016 update and has been running different events and promotions ever since. Social casino games have been doing this for much longer and many games have employed variants of live-ops without calling it live-ops for years. Live-ops will become more sophisticated going forward as it is designed into games from day one. The biggest differentiator will be the creativity of those dreaming up events, promotions, and challenges with the tools and systems specific to their games.

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