At PlayFab, we believe that LiveOps techniques are the single most important reason why great games connect with players over the long haul, and an effective LiveOps strategy can make the difference between success and failure for a modern game. LiveOps - the practice of making smart, data-driven and frequent changes to a game after its launch to keep players engaged - has transformed the way that games are developed and managed.
We’ve recently written a guide for anyone interested in learning more about LiveOps, whether you’re new to the subject, already a practitioner who wants to brush up on some aspects that you’re less familiar with, or an expert. Over the next few months, we’ll be excerpting highlights from this guide and featuring them on our blog.
The impact of LiveOps
Successful free-to-play (F2P) and traditional AAA game studios today recognize and embrace the idea that games have evolved into services that evolve and grow over time with new content, live events, and frequent updates. While games must still aim to provide fun and engaging experiences, the bar has been raised - to be successful over the long term, games need to also understand and segment their players, develop deep relationships, and understand and meet the needs of multiple player segments. This requires the ability to track and understand the data that players generate in your game - and to react in real-time, which in turn requires that your game run on services.
Collectively, these activities have come to be called “LiveOps”, and they are most important for the rapidly growing market of F2P games, where games are monetized through in-game purchases and advertisements as opposed to one-time up-front payments. Zynga was one of the first US companies to adopt LiveOps techniques, and as Frank Gibeau, CEO of Zynga, says, “growing our live services continues to be a top priority.” (1)
LiveOps has also made a dramatic impact on premium games, however, including console, PC and mobile. Notes Andrew Wilson, CEO of Electronic Arts, “our growing live services have fundamentally changed our business model, resulting in a more stable and predictable cash flow, all year round.” (2)
Companies that adopt a LiveOps mindset focus on making their games last longer - turning them into “forever franchises” - and find that this produces a far higher return on their development and marketing investment than traditional game development and marketing. For example, as of Q3 2017, live services represented roughly half of EA’s net bookings, and this number has been growing at 10-15% annually.
“We’ve applied our teams to developing compelling live services events, and this has fundamentally transformed our business model. Our live services continue to grow our profitability and enable us to generate cash all year round.”
- Blake Jorgensen (CFO, Electronic Arts) (3)
To see the impact that LiveOps can have on game longevity, look no further than the top 10 mobile charts for 2016 and 2017. Fully 70% of the games in the top 10 in 2017 were also in the charts in 2016 - and all of them are operated as services, with a strong emphasis on LiveOps.
“New releases now only represent a part of our business, which is now focused on long-term engagement with our player communities...Our players not only play for more hours at a time, but do so over a period of months or even years. We are thus able to offer them new experiences and content, thereby extending the lifetime of our games.”
- Yves Guillemot (CEO, Ubisoft) (4)
Implications of LiveOps
Planning for a LiveOps model has several important ramifications for your studio. With LiveOps, you can:
- Make changes to your game quickly, which provides a fast and clean way to address unforeseen problems that crop up after launch.
- Segment players and make targeted communications or offers appropriate for each segment to stimulate engagement and boost monetization.
- Run special in-game events to keep a game from getting stale, or attract players to come back and re-engage - often with dramatic impact.
- Collect and analyze game data to provide insight into how to tune and improve your game. Viewing performance in real-time can identify issues like a new update causing a spike in errors, or a mis-configuration causing an exploit that might permanently ruin your game’s economy if not quickly rolled back.
At a more strategic level, data - and specifically, real-time data - allows you to build games using a “lean” methodology. In a traditional waterfall-style process, a team typically develops a game for a year or more before getting feedback at launch or soft launch, at which point it’s generally too late to make significant changes.
A lean approach turns the timing on its head, allowing you to ship a game with significantly less content - and way earlier - than a waterfall approach, and lets the game then continue to change and grow after launch based on the data generated by real customers. This approach requires a significant shift in mindset, but the payoff can be significant - you can start realizing revenues sooner and know with confidence that you’re building a game that resonates with your players; course-correction is also far less expensive. But to succeed, you need the right tools - in particular, server-side configuration to build tests, and business intelligence and analytics to measure - so that you can build a build-measure-learn feedback loop.
The LiveOps approach is clearly gaining traction, and influencing how titles from F2P casual games to AAA titles build and run their games. Using LiveOps, games are launching faster, and are leveraging the flexibility of being run on services; they're using the data created by players to add new content and updates to the game and respond to issues in near real-time.
However, embracing LiveOps does have a real impact on how teams operate. Speaking of Rainbow Six Siege, team lead Noémi Rouleau noted that "in year two, we're releasing a new update to our game client almost every month, or every six weeks. We have brand new content we're releasing every three months. That's a very different rhythm" from boxed software. (5)
In our next installment, we'll dig into the LiveOps lifecycle, and what adopting LiveOps means at every stage of your game from development through plateau.
(1) ZYNGA – Q2 2017 QUARTERLY EARNINGS LETTER, August 2, 2017
(2) ELECTRONIC ARTS PREPARED COMMENTS FY18Q1, July 27, 2017
(5) "ADAPTING A AAA MINDSET TO LIVE OPS," GAMESINDUSTRY.BIZ, 12/8/2017