When development teams think of their live content plans they think of big feature roadmaps, how they will respond to community feedback, and maybe A/B testing driven iteration. Often, live events, or temporary content, isn’t a high priority if it makes it into the plans at all. Many games are not set up to allow frequent, light-weight, temporary content and on paper, things like holidays, tournaments, and time-limited collections seem like extras, fluff. But I think live events don’t get enough respect or enough serious design attention from most teams. While the content may be bite-sized, the impact of a well-designed live events strategy is significant for engagement, community sentiment, and monetization. I’ve had the opportunity to both create and analyze a lot of live events, some very successful and some total duds. Over the years, I’ve learned some lessons that seem to apply across genres and platforms. Like many design topics, I find it’s useful to start with the why…
Why Do Live Events?
If you ask most developers that use live events in their games why they put so much time and energy into their temporary content, most will have the same answer; retention. Developers believe that if they can provide a steady content treadmill players will login more often, play longer, and spend more. Certainly the desire to increase retention is the primary motivator for game developers to include live events, but focusing on what we as developers want rarely leads to the best results. We must understand why players enjoy live events to deliver the best, more successful live events.
There are three primary things live events do for players…
Connect Back to Core Gameplay
Live events offer a great way for players to connect back to core gameplay by offering a new context for gameplay or by highlighting modes or parts of your game some players may have missed. Live events can often give players a reason to revisit content or gameplay loops they have already moved through during normal game progression, without making the player feel they are back tracking. This connection back to core gameplay can help keep your game fresh without introducing new mechanics and can remind players what is intrinsically enjoyable about your game.
Provide Shared History
Live events allow your community to experience the passage of time and develop shared history. Shared history, the ability for people to reflect upon or discuss events, is a vital part of community development. People need common events to provide anchors for discussion and bonding over shared experiences. Your players should be able to tell stories to each other about the time X happened in the game or speculate about what might be different in this year’s Halloween event versus last years. Games that are static can struggle to build active communities because they are not continually developing shared history.
Deliver Short Term Rewards
Having long term goals can be great for player engagement but the more time a player puts into your game, the longer the gap between meaningful reward moments often becomes. And even if reward moments in your core progression continue to come frequently, those moments lose their impact on players as their baseline is reset and rewards become expected. Live events can break up the reward loop with relatively-easy to achieve goals and rewards. Rewards that can be achieved in a single session or two can help keep players motivated as they continue to work toward more long term, intrinsic rewards designed into your core progression.
Live Events Strategy
So, If we can deliver live events that do a great job of satisfying players’ needs for connection to core gameplay, shared history, and short term rewards, then our live events can reward us with increased retention. However, there is more to live events than just good design. Without good live events process and strategy even great live events won’t do much to keep players engaged.
Predictable and Surprising
The most important thing to remember about effective live events strategy is your live events must be predictable and surprising. Predictable in that players need to know they can count on you to deliver on a consistent schedule. And surprising in that the particulars of your live event content should be novel and varied. The most successful live event strategy delivers events on a set schedule without fail but keeps the player interested by delivering something slightly different with each update.
Consistency really is key to live events. If you want your players to treat your game as more than just consumed media, they need to know they can count on you to deliver. Ritual and routine are big parts of hobbies and long term engagement with any form of entertainment. Pick a schedule you can commit to and then really prioritize hitting your ship dates. In my experience, shipping on a consistent schedule has been more important for long term retention than details of exactly what content is delivered with every update. Teams that want to make the most out of live events, do best with production processes that prioritize shipping dates and are flexible about content. Think of your live updates as trains; one arrives at the station every X days. Build your live events to be modular and independent so that they can board the next train no matter which train that happens to be.
Of course, keeping your live events fresh and interesting is also important. Simply setting an automated schedule of rotating events will lose players’ interest quickly and lead to players focusing on optimization strategies instead of enjoying the experience. There are always limits on functional variety in games and depending on how many verbs your game has, you may hit the limit of how much different gameplay you can offer very quickly. For this reason, live events rely on context and setup for most of their variety. Leaning on real-world events like holidays is a popular strategy but don’t be afraid to develop your own context based on your community or the world of your game. The goal is to keep the context fresh while delivering live events that offer straightforward challenges and rewards.
Goals and Results
The other important element to a successful live events strategy is setting goals and measuring results. Like most things in LiveOps, it can be hard to stay focused on a content plan if you don’t know what success looks like or whether you are achieving it. Set a goal for every live event you release and then critically examine whether you met that goal once the event is over. It is vitally important that the goals and criteria for measuring success are set before the event is released. This both helps align the team on purpose and expectations for the event and prevents bias from overwhelming your later assessment making your learnings less useful. These goals do not need to be business outcomes (such as spending, login numbers, etc.) although they are easier to track and measure. You goals may be community sentiment related, or simply to surprise and delight, as long as you can make an honest assessment of how well the event met the goal once it is complete the process will be valuable.
Live Event Types
While much of the necessary surprise of live events comes from context, solid functional design determines an events ability to fulfil its purpose and meet its goals. Most live events fall into one of five event types, each with their own strengths and best practices. These types are simple and will be familiar to most designers. Entire papers could be written about the ins and outs of design for each of these types. Below is just a basic taxonomy to get started.
Description: These events reward players for logging into the game. Often simple and straightforward, the primary objective for players is to login and get rewards. While many mobile games use login rewards as a core feature instead of an event, login rewards can have greater impact when used as an event. Login rewards are inherently extrinsic rewards and as such, they lose their effectiveness quickly. Offering them only sometimes in association with a special occasion or other context can allow them to be effective over and over again without players becoming numb to them.
Purpose: To encourage login consistency to help develop login routine and to entice back lapsed players.
Best Practices: Adding a little more effort than simply logging in can make these events more impactful. For instance, you may have a login event which asks players to visit every region of your world each day or complete one match each day. Goals should be simple but encourage the player to do more than login and then log back out. Additionally, adding a small amount of progression, such as an escalating reward each day of the event, can make these events feel more exciting.
Description: These events offer up an alternative mode of play or rule set for a limited time. These can be anything from different win conditions to new gameplay. Game mode events are a great way to try out new features in your live game without too much commitment or to make available gameplay that you know won’t have long term appeal but is fun for a while.
Purpose: To entice back lapsed players, prevent churn, and elicit feedback on potential core game ideas.
Best Practices: The key to game mode events to offer content that is different but not too different. Novelty is fun and will keep people engaged but adding gameplay that is too far removed from your core gameplay, even temporarily, can alienate your players. Players of a loot based first person shooter might not be interested in precision platforming challenges, and making your next update all about them might give your players the wrong idea about the direction of the game. Even if your game mode events are resonating with your players, make sure to always be very clear about how long a game mode will be available. Players can easily mistake a game mode event for a new, permanent addition to the game. Avoid disappointment by over communicating.
Description: The term drop event comes from RPGs where the events usually constitute changes to loot tables for enemies, but drop events can be used in any genre to mean temporary changes to rewards for existing content. These are some of the easiest events to implement as they usually don’t involve adding new gameplay content, just adjusting rewards. Drop events can be temporary increase to existing rewards (think double experience points weekends) or they can the addition of an entirely new reward to what is usually received.
Purpose: To increase playtime, prevent churn, and add short term rewards.
Best Practices: Be generous. The benefit of these events being short term is they allow us to be generous with rewards while capping the impact to a game’s reward balance. Of course, be careful of rewards that can be earned in an infinite loop, but provided proper due diligence is done, these events should be about players getting more. Messaging is also very important for these types of events as reward adjustments can be missed by players even if they are generous. Make sure players know what is happening, what to expect, and that they can feel the difference in their normal play.
Description: Most people are familiar with the concept of tournaments; a series of contests in which a player’s performance is judged relative to others. Tournaments in games are usually organized and scheduled with players opting in to participate. Participation and results may be an automated part of your game or they may happen through a separate website or in person event. There are a variety of tournament types and rules but all are time limited and involve some type of results.
Purpose: To increase play time, prevent churn, and provide a shared community event.
Best Practices: Tournaments are usually thought of as primarily targeted at high skill players looking for high even competition. However, tournaments can have a broad appeal when designed to be more inclusive and easier to engage with. Consider how you might make tournaments fun for average players by using ladder structures or offering rewards for more than just the most wins. Also consider using tournament event structure for gameplay that is not entirely skill based. Progression based gameplay or even gameplay with random elements can be fun bases for tournaments as long as you present them with the appropriate amount of seriousness.
Description: These events provide players with a goal or challenge that must be completed within the event time frame. Often there is a series of goals with an increasing reward depending on how many of the challenges the player can complete. Goals can be individual or cumulative with the entire community working toward something to get a shared reward.
Purpose: To increase play time, increase logins, and encourage social engagement.
Best Practices: Working together on goal events is more impactful than goals that are isolated to an individual player. This type of event is best at producing social engagement through shared goals and shared effort. Even if you keep the event focused on individual goals, be generous with your rewards. You want this to feel like an event, not simply more achievement content. And finally, be careful with public tracking of goal progress. It can be hard to predict how long it will take players to reach goals especially if you have shared community goals, if it ends up taking the players 1 hour to complete something you thought would take them 1 week, you may not want to have that broadcasted automatically.
The Fun Never Stops
Live events remain one of the best methods of keeping a live game feeling fresh and relevant to players. Additionally, the process of setting goals, designing content, then measuring the effectiveness of that content is core to LiveOps iteration Live events allow development teams to complete that core loop with small-scale, temporary content on a regular basis making them good for players and good for developers.
Thanks for reading! I spend most of my time thinking about what makes live games tick. Sometimes I talk to other developers about their experience with live games on a podcast called The Art of LiveOps.