The world of games today is unlike anything we’ve ever seen.
Fast-moving. Boundary-pushing. Exploding with new features, new abilities, and new methods for keeping players engaged.
Do you feel like you are keeping up?
Is your game doing everything it can to carve out its place in the market? Is it pulling in new users, exciting them with new content, and holding onto them for longer than just a couple of game sessions? Is it growing its economy, fostering its community, and making things more and more personal for the people playing?
In other words: can you really and confidently say that your game has what it takes to compete?
The difference between a yes and no answer is simple. Deceivingly simple. Because it really all comes down to one strategy.
The key to nailing user engagement over the long-term. The secret weapon for higher retention, higher conversion, and a more sustainable bottom line. And -- let’s not forget -- the catalyst for launching the wildest era of games our industry has ever seen.
It’s creativity on overdrive. It’s invigoration on speed dial. And it’s personalization like your audience wouldn’t believe.
LiveOps is the strategy that’s powerful enough to get your game soaring sustainably. But you probably already knew that. I'm sure you’ve heard the name tossed around a time or two. But while the pros are talking about it, they’re not really explaining it.
Explaining things like: how do you actually get it working? When do you start orchestrating which processes? And how do you know -- really know -- if the techniques you have in place are as good as you think they are?
Hey, I said LiveOps was powerful -- I didn’t say it was straightforward. At least, it hasn’t been. I'm going to try and help guide you through it. And if you disagree or see better ways to approach things - message me on linkedin.
Because quite honestly, I write to more so I can learn than to teach others. So please, teach me something.
So sit yourself down, get a cold drink ready, and feast your eyes on the magnificence that is The How To Guide to LiveOps in 2021.
It’s 2021. We’re in the new era of games. So get to know LiveOps -- or don’t be mad at me when you get left behind.
I've thrown the name around and I’ve waxed poetic about the strength it has to offer, but now I'm going to break it down. In layman’s terms. So you can navigate its potential with a clear eye on what every building block inside it actually is.
Let’s get into it. In concrete language, LiveOps are the updates, enhancements, and new content you bring into your game -- in the hopes of giving your players the fresh nourishment they need to keep coming back to it.
What do updates, enhancements, and new content look like in practice? Think short-term events and cosmetic changes. Think new feature releases and new modes for playing. Think opportunities for personalized experiences.
Anything you can add to the mix that heightens the feeling of freshness without detracting from the core identity of the game. That’s what you’re aiming for here. But here’s what that doesn’t look like:
- Bug fixes
- Lag optimizations
- In-game economy tweaks
Essentially, anything that’s integral to the game’s overall functionality, and anything that requires you to change the source code or build new mechanics, isn’t LiveOps. So don’t call yourself a LiveOps King if all you’re doing is fixing and optimizing -- for this strategy to work, you need to have all of your creative thinking caps on deck, all of the time.
And you need to get innovative with it. You need to offer the unexpected and keep your players on their toes.
Think it sounds like too much work? Think you can skate by with minimal LiveOps effort on your to-do list? Think again -- because especially when it comes to F2P games, LiveOps is integral to your success. And not just your success today, but your staying power tomorrow.
It’s common sense: your business model has monetization happening after the download, so your users need to be around for long enough to be monetized. LiveOps works by keeping them coming back. It works by giving them fresh new ways to engage, by surprising them with doses of personalized excitement, and by making them feel like they’re a part of a real community.
In simple terms? Games that use LiveOps are the games that stay around. They’re the games that outperform the ones that were too lazy, too unconvinced, or too unmotivated to take on the new way of doing things. Need some sage wisdom direct from an industry expert to seal the deal? CEO of Space Ape Games Simon Hade identifies the capacity LiveOps has for transforming what’s possible for a game.
“It does not necessarily guarantee downloads,” he says.
“What it ensures is that if you get some traction with your game, you’re able to more safely and predictably turn that into a sustainable business.”
Odds are, you already have a game you’re betting on. You already believe in the unique potential it brings to the table. The question is, are you going to go all-in on an outdated model of operations? Or are you going to protect your future success by investing in a framework for sustainable -- and consistent -- growth?
I'm not here to make your calls for you. I'm just here to give you the breakdowns you need to make the right ones.
Let's talk about your prep work.
LiveOps: The Prep Work
Here’s what I know: when you give players a reason to stay loyal, they react the way you want them to. They stay loyal. They keep coming back to your game, engaged with both the familiarity of the core challenge and the sparks of freshness you provide to keep things interesting. I don’t mean to be dramatic, but maintaining that balance -- between familiarity and freshness -- is, from here on out, your life’s work.
Maintaining that balance -- between familiarity and freshness -- is, from here on out, your life’s work.
So yeah, in today’s world, players are ready to play the same game for years. But in order to get them coming back through birthdays, degrees, and milestones, you need to be offering them something special. Something personal.
And that ability to personalize, to engage, and to retain all comes down to how strong a handle you have on your LiveOps. And the strength of that handle? It comes down to how well you prep.
Here are the steps:
Step #1: Build the right LiveOps team.
If you want to guarantee that your LiveOps are hitting the notes you need them to be hitting, you need the right people for the job. And before you jump to conclusions -- no, that doesn’t mean the techiest people in the room. What it does mean is the most passionate ones. The people who live, love, and breathe games. The people who have inside insight into what’ll work well, gut instinct when it comes to trying out new things, and -- most importantly -- a player mentality.
Professionally, if you can find employees that have experience in customer support or community management roles, that’s a great background to narrow in on. As Space Ape’s Hade says,
“You really have to understand these aren’t numbers you’re working with, they’re people.”
Bringing staff on-board that have experience with people -- and specifically, dealing with the consumer mindset -- is how you’ll set yourself up to strike gold.
The biggest point?
Your LiveOps team shouldn’t look like what Hade calls a “sweatshop,” constantly focused on just getting new stuff out. You’re not aiming for quantity. You’re aiming for intentional, personal, and impactful quality. That’s why you want the people who care about people, and that’s why you want the people who care about games. You’re not going to hit the mark if you don’t go into things with a purposeful outlook. So, with that purpose in mind, let’s look at the core people every LiveOps team should include:
- Community Manager: Your go-to team member for all things community, this is the role that’s responsible for monitoring actions and behaviors inside of the game. From activating the schedule to fielding back reports on what’s happening and why, this person is as meticulous as they are critical in their thinking. And the more active they are with User Acquisition (UA) the better -- ideally, they’re scheduling UA ad campaigns so that they follow the same narrative lore progression that your events do. It’s simple: a holistic Community Manager is a strong Community Manager.
- Game Design Analyst: This is the role that requires diligence, detail-oriented stamina, and a whole lot of nerd love for analytics. Your Game Design Analyst will be looking at how every event went, which behaviors were seen when, and where there’s room for improvement. They should be examining promotions and monetization to figure out more than just how much was made -- the pros will be able to discern what’s working, why it’s working, and what the effects of it working (on gameplay economy and bottom line) are. No pressure.
- Producer: Flexibility, creativity, and a knack for problem solving are all required attributes here -- in the always-changing role of the Producer. On the one hand, your Producer will be deeply involved in the creation and maintenance of the schedule, brainstorming new ideas and thinking fast on their toes for new improvements. On the other hand, your Producer will also hold the responsibility of Coordination Wizard, bending over backwards to ensure all team members (on the LiveOps team and beyond) are doing exactly what they should be doing, exactly when they need to be doing it. That includes keeping track of the content, getting analytics in, and updating the schedule as necessary. Are you missing a hat? Don’t worry -- your Producer is wearing all of them.
The beauty of your LiveOps team is that all three of those key players will be working together to contribute to coding and to the art team -- with the overarching goal of pipeline creation. That means that your content pipeline will have the input it needs to be broken down into weekly releases, with one theme connecting them per month (or quarter).
In terms of development time, you’re looking at a three-way split between technical debt, usability issues, and features/aspirational things. And -- #ProTip -- you should always keep your Data Analyst separate from your LiveOps pods, so that there’s enough time (and focus) to achieve every critical element of pipeline success. That enables you to scale.
But remember: the amount of resources your game team needs doesn’t scale with revenue. Think of it like economies of scale -- once you have the right set-up in place, it holds steady as your impact grows.
Okay, phew -- that was a big one. But guess what? You made it. And now we’re moving right along to Step #2
Step #2: Having an eye on the big picture.
As you start figuring out the specifics of how you want your LiveOps to act, there are a couple of things you absolutely cannot let slip your fickle mind. The first? Your wide-lens framework. See, the LiveOps strategy isn’t just a one-and-done, and it certainly shouldn’t only be popping up when it’s convenient for you. In fact -- it should be present the whole time. And then some.
That’s right: effective LiveOps are LiveOps that run continuously throughout the lifespan of your game. Does that mean inundating your game with hundreds of new features/events/personalized experiences over a small expanse of time? No. It means tastefully allotting those exciting surprises at intervals -- regular enough that they sustain the engagement of older users, but not so regular that their effect wears off.
The second thing you should be focused on as you figure out your LiveOps is the core identity of your game. What’s it uniquely offering its users? What audience are you targeting? Knowing these key attributes will help you build LiveOps that are specifically successful to your game -- because the point of the strategy is to get personal. And if you’re just copying what the game down the street does, your players will notice. And roll their eyes right at you as they exit the app.
Setting up the right systems early. Every professional that knows the first thing about LiveOps knows that getting the right tools, processes, and systems in place at the very beginning is the smartest thing you can do. Because if you don’t, you’re risking things not working out the perfectly smooth way you want them to -- and having to bite the cost (time, money, or otherwise). As one real-life LiveOps Lead explains,
“There are a lot of design decisions you need to make with [LiveOps] in mind. If you’re designing a game and planning on live operations, you need to be really flexible.”
What does that mean in actuality? That the system you have in place needs to have the capacity to be molded with new tweaks, variations, and adjustments -- frequently. Andrew Munden, the LiveOps Lead I just quoted, puts that frequency at every two weeks. And the typical game design of decades past? They just don’t support that kind of malleability.
Then there are the human systems. “You also need to be mentally preparing your team for the cadence and reality of running a LiveOps game,” Munden says, pointing out that it’s “quite different from shipping a boxed product.” Since the effectiveness of LiveOps is judged by how the audience responds to it, the strategy needs to be constantly in-flux in order to meet its potential. That means the LiveOps team needs to be eager to adjust their schedule, come up with new ideas, and amend their previous processes whenever the audience reaction tells them they should. Successful LiveOps feeds on feedback -- and building systems that understand that early on can give your game the fire it needs to truly stand out.
The bottom line is that the prep work you do has a direct correlation to if -- and how well -- your LiveOps succeeds. Got it? Great, moving on.
I present you with the next key process point on our roster: The Calendar.
LiveOps: The Calendar
Welcome to the most glorious beacon of LiveOps organizational triumph. (It’s a mouthful, but I assure you -- it deserves each and every syllable.) Why? Because the LiveOps calendar, when done correctly, has the power to be the be all and end all of your LiveOps strategy.
It’s home to your plans. It’s shelter for your ideas. And it’s discipline for the procrastination that tries to throw your hard work off track.
But here’s the kicker: for all of its utility, its actual physicality is as low key as they come. Most LiveOps teams use Google Sheets as their calendar framework -- which makes things way easier than having to figure out some complex new system.
OH - real quick. Let me interrupt you to say... I dropped a few FREE Google spreadsheet templates that were made by the great Javier Barnes. You can grab them at the bottom of this article.
So, what goes into the beacon of organizational triumph/calendar? We thought you’d never ask:
- Major Real World Events: In order to give your team a clear understanding of what the weeks, months, and years ahead look like -- and a resulting basis for how your LiveOps should be set up -- you need to give them a bird’s eye view of time. That’s where the major real-world events on this calendar come in:
- Holidays. The clearest way to see the year at large, throwing well-known holidays into the calendar gives you a way to measure progress in intervals, plan for relevant in-game events, and project increases or decreases of user engagement based on what’s happening in a specific real-world time frame. (We’ll also note: if you’ve got a worldwide game, you’re going to want to add nuance here based on regional/cultural differences.)
- In-Game Affairs. Here’s where you start looking at the timeline -- the ebs and the flows -- of the game itself. What are its new storylines, and when are the biggest whoah story updates scheduled for release? What are the new features, and when are they hitting the game -- in what order? Having an eye on these game-specific events will help your team align LiveOps with new releases, themes, and surprises, capitalizing on the moments for all that they’re worth.
Examples to get your creative juices flowing:
- A specific time frame where players can earn extra points, rewards, or treasures for doing a familiar task.
- A specific time frame where players can unlock a new skill, clothing/accessory item, or weapon.
- A limited-time challenge where all players are invited to partake in new a task, with the winner earning a crazy spectacular prize (and maybe even getting their name in the gallery of winners).
- A limited-time guild challenge, where guilds compete to finish the task first -- with the winning guild (i.e. every player inside of it) earning a special prize.
You can even time things with local weather if you have the technological backing. This one is super clever:
Or even better, snow and rain makes people stay in doors, which will likely increase play session time.
Obviously, the specifics and capabilities of your special events will depend on your game, your audience, and your history with LiveOps. Repeating the same special events over and over again make them tired, so you’re going to want to switch things up and retain that engagement sparkle. By tracking your special events in the calendar, you’ll be better equipped to do just that. Boo-ya.
- Sale Dates for Premium Bundles/Content: If you’ve ever wanted one comprehensive place to find all of your past campaigns, pushes, and new releases -- then you’re probably going to be really freakin’ happy with Category C. Because Category C is bringing the power. And it’s power you’re going to want to behold.
Here’s how it works: every time you sell something special, or sell something in a special way, you make a note ofthat sale in the calendar. By including the specifics, you’re setting yourself up to better understand the performance of old sales (by analyzing the time-relevant metrics), better plan which new sales should happen when, and better avoid giving players back-to-back sales that are too similar. Here are the kinds of sales you should track:
- Access to any other premium content
- Discounted in-game currency
- Important Notes on Game Economy Updates: To ensure a seamless play experience for all users -- regardless of whether they’ve been with the game for five minutes or five years -- you need to make sure you have a steady stream of game economy updates that are easy to track. So once again, the inimitable calendar steps up to the plate.
By giving you a stable place to input all changes to your game economy -- from increases or decreases in currency cost to new characters -- the calendar allows you to see which updates prompted which behavioral shifts. And that gives you the power to make way more informed decisions about future LiveOps.
The key is getting to know your players’ behavior intimately. By tracking even the slightest of updates and measuring the resulting shifts, you’re equipped to do that on a master level -- and reap the benefits that follow.
- Newsfeed Tracking: This is a less important, less required option -- but I wanted to throw everything onto the wall, giving you the chance to pick and choose what sticks. So: newsfeed tracking. This option has you jotting down which in-game news is live when, and for how long it’s live for.
The pros here are that you can see what news is affecting your players. Are there pieces of news that get them buying more, or playing longer? Are there pieces of news that cause them to exit the game soon after they see it? So from this angle, it’s useful stuff.
From the cons angle, I know that in-game news is not exactly quantifiable. And the allure of news is that it’s always something different -- ahem, new -- which means that learning that a piece of news had a positive effect doesn’t necessarily mean that doing the same thing again will cause it to repeat. Because people like freshness.
So, take it or leave it. Newsfeed tracking’s here for you -- but it’s not critical to your success. Not like the rest of the glorious calendar is, anyway.
LiveOps: The Planning
Now for the exciting stuff -- the planning. This is where your thoughts, ideas, and holy-smokes-this-is-going-to-cause-a-splash details start to feel real. Where your team can come together and brainstorm, schedule, and adjust, and where your game can truly start to grow into its potential.
You’re probably expecting some tips and tricks. And hey -- I hate to disappoint. So I won’t. :) Without further ado, my tips and tricks for flawless LiveOps planning:
- Plan ahead. This could not be more crucial -- if you have any hopes of delivering on your LiveOps goals, it all comes down to how well you’ve planned. How far ahead am I talking? Well, if you’re looking to launch your game in August, you should have your LiveOps squared away by July. Procrastinators don’t win here. But, that doesn’t mean that your plans are 100% set in stone; LiveOps aren’t stagnant, which means flexibility is key. Have an idea of where you’re going, but be able to implement changes as needed.
- Get on pace. The games that excel at LiveOps are the games that establish a realistic, steady, and predictable pace -- a cadence that their whole team feels comfortable with. Tasks in that cadence include the creating of in-app messaging and push notifications, the preparing of events, and the implementing of new bundles and content. And all of those things take time. Our pro tip? Use any spare resources, outsourcing, and quiet moments you have to get ahead with your LiveOps. Being a few months ahead with your game assets and a few weeks ahead with your game configurations enables you to have the one thing you’re always chasing -- that gosh-darn elusive peace of mind. So set the right pace, and then find the places to get ahead and safeguard those operations. Your team, your brain, and your stress levels will thank you for it.
- Be on the same page. Every person on your LiveOps team needs to be in agreement on planned operations, because this whole thing is a team sport. It’s like soccer -- you’re aiming for the same goal, so your actions need to be calculated and cooperative in order to pull it off. Specifically, that means getting in-sync with:
- Your LiveOps Minimum Viable Product (or MVP), which includes the content and events you need for the game’s launch -- essentially, the content you’ve reserved for the first several weeks of live operations.
- The LiveOps calendar (that should cover the first few months).
- The content production pipeline for the first few months of live operations.
- The LiveOps tools and improvements that are required for the first few months of operations.
Look -- I know those tips & tricks don’t sound that exciting. They’re not bold, they’re not sexy, and they don’t reek of adventure. But you know what?
I think they are going to help you reach success.
Success that keeps climbing at a steady pace, because it wasn’t thrown off course by rushed decisions or frazzled fixes. Success that was given the time it needed to grow steadily -- without anyone forcing it to do more, be better, or take a swing at the jackpot before it was ready.
And success that grew into its own not by cutting corners or aiming for infinity, but by having a backbone of planning, pacing, and cooperating holding it up. So yeah, it might not be overtly sexy today. But the results tomorrow, next month, next year?
Oh boy. Don’t get me started.
LiveOps: The Execution
This is it. The moment you’ve been waiting for. The moment where your hard work -- your ideas, your tracking, your planning -- is put to the test.
Cue the pump up music, because -- we’re at the execution.
And you better believe I’ve got some craftsmanlike techniques just for you.
Ready, set, let’s dive in:
It’s all about that cadence.
And I mean that absolutely -- hand-to-heart. When you’re pushing your LiveOps out into the world, you need to be doing it with purpose. With integrity. With logic that backs up your decisions and gives you something to measure. Because without that purpose, without that integrity and that logic, you’re just throwing things at the wall. (And if you remember from two sections up, that’s our move. Get your own.)
So how do you establish the right cadence for your releases? You get specific -- and then you monitor.
First, pick days of the week that perform the best with your audience. A Wednesday or Thursday typically works well, since it gives you a couple of days before the weekend to observe performance data -- and rectify what needs rectifying. But remember: every game is different. If your game is popular with the office crowd, maybe its top performance is a Monday. Pick your release days based on what you know -- don’t just follow the crowd. You’re better than that.
Second, reserve the day after your release as your ‘monitor data’ day. And yeah, I do mean a whole day. Your ‘monitor data’ day will give you the time you need to find, track, and react to any live issues -- but that doesn’t mean your issue-fixing is limited to that day. If you see an issue night-of -- or even day-of -- release, then it’s your job to hop to it.
Essentially what we’re saying is that a cadence for releasing your LiveOps is as important as a cadence for tracking/fixing those releases is. And when you stay on the same widely-understood route, going at the same widely-understood speed, your whole team operates more productively -- allowing the LiveOps to do better than it would if the whole thing were chaos.
Be ready for anything.
Okay but… do I really mean anything? You bet I do. Issues are a part of the job; even with the most expert planning, the most detailed scheduling, and the most experienced people on your team, you’re still going to run into problems.
The differentiator is how fast you can recover from them.
Our favorite way to minimize issues and maximize recovery speed? Creating an on-call team Google Calendar and assigning people to cover the game’s dashboards -- monitoring them for any problems and being at the ready to inform the right people if something comes up.
And you should absolutely be keeping your customer support team involved here too -- because odds are, they’ll hear of the problems faster than you can spot them on the dashboards. Like I said before, this is a team sport. You’re only as weak as your least observant teammate -- so get your glasses on and your attention focused.
Does it require dedication? Yeah. Does it require proactive thinking? Absolutely. Does it make the difference between a great service and a spotty one that players can tell doesn’t really care about their experience? One hundred percent it does.
The LiveOps Breakdown
Don’t worry, we’re not saying goodbye forever. We’re just saying goodbye for now.
We’ve given you everything we’ve got.
We talked about the fundamentals. We broke down the prep. We introduced the calendar (don't forget to grab your templates) and we talked about a little-known techniques for event-planning success. And then -- to top the whole shebang off -- we got talking about the execution.
The release cadence. The issue-recovery cadence. And the type of support you should have running at every moment of every LiveOps day.
I have another article coming soon that doesn’t just walk you around the fire of potential, showing off the sights and sparks -- it actually pulls you in. I'll get into the specifics of what the LiveOps essentials you need in your repertoire are.
We'll talk about the content. The cadence. The component parts.
So if you can handle the insight -- if you can take the heat of this fire head-on -- then come on down to our next article. Because it’ll expand your thinking and drive your game’s potential.
But only if you’re committed enough to let it.
Oh and as I promised, here are the templates.
Just a note....
I was reluctant to give out these sheets (at first). Why? Over here at UserWise we're working on something that we think is going to replace spreadsheets. We felt bad contributing to the liveops / spreadsheet culture. BUT until we release UserWise, we figured this might help. :)