· 15 min read

Live Ops Strategies For Free To Play Games

Find out what exactly live game operations are, why they might be the secret to success for F2P games, and how to use the strategy in your own game.

Launching a new game is an undeniably exciting moment. After putting in the hard work, imagination, and effort that goes into a new title, you get to send it out into the world. But really, the work has barely begun, especially if you’re launching a free to play or F2P game that’s monetized based on ad revenue and/or in-game purchases.

Once a game is launched, you should be optimizing, adjusting, updating, and reporting your progress throughout your game’s lifespan or existence, working to improve player retention as well as increasing downloads, getting lapsed players to return, and increasing the number and length of player sessions. All these activities and events meant to increase player retention and maximize the value of a game’s user base can be referred to as live ops.

[bctt tweet=”What are live game operations and why may they be the secret to your F2P games’ success? @GameAnalytics discusses and provides strategies for your own live ops.” username=”GameAnalytics”]

Defining Live Ops for F2P Games

Live ops are new enhancements to game play that are not necessary for the overall functionality or playability of the game, like cosmetic enhancements, weekend events, a limited time offer, or a paid UA (user acquisition) campaign. Basically, these are changes made to the game after it goes live and ones that occur without changing the fundamental game code or playing experience.

These types of changes are especially important for F2P games since monetization starts after the player already downloads and begins engagement with the game. It all starts with the first time user experience, of course, but it’s extended with a solid live ops program. In fact, live ops might be the secret to success for F2P games.

What Live Ops Are Not

Updates to improve game play, optimize ad delivery, or anything done to keep the game up and running or functioning smoothly. These involve actually changing the source code of the game for things like a new functional item, a new crafting mechanic or a new viral mechanic, or a new tournament mode (to name a few examples). Ad ops or maintenance are somewhat sporadic tasks, while live ops is continuously running throughout the duration of a game’s life cycle.

However, live ops is definitely not a grind constantly churning new updates and other ways to keep users engaged – or at least it shouldn’t be! In fact, the linked article quoting James Hade of Space Ape games goes through a lot of the reasons why a live ops strategy is essential for a game’s success today.

Live Ops Requires The Hacker Mentality

But not in the illegal activity or criminal sense, of course, but in the get it done and make it work in the most efficient and creative way possible sense.

Hacker mentality

Basically, approach the customer retention problem like a hacker and think about what you can do without bugging the game’s core engineers, using the tools that you can along with insights from business intelligence, outside events, running special offers and promotions, app store or catalogue management, and user acquisition.

Ideally, you’d have a fully integrated live ops toolset to work with and be able to adjust some key game parameters; things like writing SQL or making changes to the database are at the other end of continuum when it comes to live ops, at least.

Why Live Ops Should Be Built Into Your Game’s Design

Live Ops should be built into your F2P game from the very beginning – in fact, it should be part of the game’s design. Everything should be flexible, taking into the account the ability to make small changes and iterations constantly – meaning on a weekly or monthly basis!

Many traditional game designs don’t necessarily support that kind of thing, but live ops are consistently part of the design of new, successful titles. And this is consistent with smaller game developers as well as industry leaders like EA, who seems to be banking on live ops in 2018 and beyond.

Business Intelligence And Live Ops

Business Intelligence and analytics is a key capability in the live ops toolbox. In fact, it might be the key capability that everything else depends on for the success of an F2P game.

But first, let’s define quality business intelligence. Good analytics are baked into the game itself and are part of the foundation of its process and lifestyle, never bolted on or reliant on flashy glamour metrics like DAU or ARPU. Days per month played or revenue per user or the various combinations of these types of metrics might look nice in presentations or spec sheets, but they don’t often translate into useful insights for a live ops team.

Key Metrics To Look At

Rather, the metrics that actually matter for live ops analytics are the ones that provide usable, actionable insights into player behavior. They are heavily tied to player behavior, insight generating, able to show changes over time, can be grouped into cohorts or segments of likeminded users or personas, and be somewhat open-ended in regards to the interpretation of their meaning.

Wheeling, dealing, limousine riding, jet flying…

Live Ops Events And Analytics

In addition, long term historical analytics can be especially useful for a live ops team. Comparing longer monthly or yearly segments versus day over day or even hourly metrics can be useful because it lets you see patterns in the data that can be tied to specific events, whether these occur in-game or in the real world or some combination of both.

The various types of events that you can construct to boost active users and playing time (and therefore revenue generation) range from the relatively simple fun ways to boost engagement like new cosmetics enhancements to the complex like cross-promotions with another game.

New content updates are also another event that can promote playing time, while adding new ways to monetize the game like additional ad products or new items to purchase in-game are also more tactical events that should be reviewed and tracked closely in analytics, both to measure initial success as well as to learn from later.

Building A Live Ops Events Calendar

The foundation of live ops event tracking starts with a calendar that includes actual KPIs as well as the KPIs projected for the future (need some ideas for what to track? We’ve got you covered with this list of mobile app metrics). Next, you can layer on the events that you’ve built already as well as the events and their corresponding mechanics that you’ve planned in the future, and track their progress alongside that of your KPIs.

For instance, tying a special event to user growth or retention rates and comparing the changes can show you how your live ops program is helping you meet your goals (or not, but then you can adjust your content strategies accordingly). This could be as simple as a calendar-driven that’s unlocked during particular holidays or times of the year, or something tied to game play like a reward for an achievement unlocked after the user has completed certain levels – with appropriate storylines or fictions that correspond to the time of the year, of course.

Layering in KPIs with your calendar also helps you craft purposeful and compelling analytics reports, which is always a useful ability.

What Types Of Events Could You Host?

Or what actually goes on the aforementioned calendar? Some great example include:

  • a gamified version of hide and seek where the users have to find a certain player or character (played by you or a member of your team),
  • a showcase of player outfits and weapon collections with prizes for the winner based on community votes (perhaps being included in a gallery of winners on the launch for a set period of time,
  • unlocking a new wardrobe, weaponry, or skill options,
  • getting extra points or extra treasure as a reward),
  • or even hosting a guild competition of sorts where guilds compete to complete a task and the winners get some sort of rare item or treasure awarded to all members.

There are plenty of other opportunities to host events in F2P games, of course – only your imagination is the limit. This is where creativity informed by data and analytics really pays off.

Seasonal events are a great way to bring players back into your game with new incentives and rewards

How Do You Monetize These Events?

Creating something special like a limited time event or special map or other useful tool or secret area that can only be accessed if a player is properly equipped (e.g. by purchasing a particular weapon or other necessary item), or perhaps a spender rewards week that results in gifts if a player purchases a particular amount, with gifts escalating based on the amounts spent. In gaming as in all things, big spenders get bigger rewards!

If you need a quick influx of cash, there are other ways to monetize that are a little…craftier. Pardon the pun! But a crafting event with certain catalyst materials on sale or a high value auction event that includes coveted capabilities like the ability to name or design certain elements in a game, or even lottery tickets for rare items can also bring in the value from users.

Building hype outside of the game also helps monetize by bringing in new users who need to gear up and level up, as does releasing rare loot or announcing a new level, world, dungeon, or similar user experience.

Live Ops And The Marketing Department

Speaking of marketing, cross-promoting or otherwise working with your game marketing’s department with exclusive content or special prices and/or items (think starter pack) for early adopters can definitely boost player activity and spend. Or perhaps live ops is the marketing department for smaller publishers, which is actually quite fitting. In which case most of the marketing budget goes towards long-term players, player retention, and possibly rejuvenuating lapsed users.

After all, making it required that certain new levels, areas, buildings, capabilities, etc. are unlocked by installing and running another game might be the ultimate marketing play, but there are also somewhat lower input ways to get players to spend that include simpler things like letting a player see a unique new building or area in the tech tree or map before they unlock it by purchasing a new item, and then by showing how each new building or area adds intriguing new characters.

Other Tactical Live Ops Strategies

Being able to make the most of live ops for F2P games in a tactical and cohesive way comes with understanding certain key insights before you even get started.

For instance, understanding player spend as it corresponds to their level (for instance, most players reach the highest spend rate after level 10) and knowing to set up targeted events that correspond with their spend level; for instance, a certain targeted event will result in multiplied experience points for a given week, which results in increased cohort revenue.

You can also take advantage of player distribution on older games or “empire builders” by creating competition for new players through leveling events that cut building times in half, offer extra points (doubled or tripled. This mitigates the problem of having too many players at higher levels who might not be spending as much by created competition from newer players. You can make things more interesting for players by making sure this type of event runs unpredictably in order to avoid creating expectations.

Live Ops And Promotions

Featured items, bundled items, discounted items, limited time promotions, instant offers, shuffle around object offers, and sending come back offers to lapsed players all tend to be effective promotions.

Basically, think special offers in ecommerce retail or actual brick and mortar stores – in fact, these in-game or live ops promotions are often a version of those concepts but adapted to in-game purchases. There’s also the possible option of creating a game within a game element like shuffle around object offers (think a matching game, shell game, or slot-machine style game of chance as a minor break from regular game play). Send come back offers with special items, discounts, or extra points available to lapsed but returning players can re-spark their enthusiasm as well.

Lapsed User Promotions Might Be The Killer App Of Live Ops

In fact, send back offers that rejuvenate a waning but once robust user base and cause them to boomerang back can be the best promotion a live ops team can execute since that means recapturing a former active user and building user retention rates.

Sending notifications that start with no benefits then escalate to small benefits and go on up from there, based on the days since the user last engaged. Re-engagement is a great way to take advantage of former users and make them into new active users.

The Tech That Makes It All Happen

There are definitely some key building blocks that make all these events and their associated live ops programs and corresponding KPI tracking happen. And so while the details of these activities are unique to each game and its developers, there are certain building blocks like business intelligence, localization, messaging, gifting/awarding, targeting and segmentation, and the ability change game variables that are the main pieces of the puzzle.

Promoting Events Inside And Outside Of The Game

There are nearly as many ways to promote your game events as there are events themselves. Interstitials, app store promotions, social media, on your website and gaming community websites (native and paid ad placements), in-game on the app launcher as a message of the day or on an in-game chat window, or in-game mail or standard email all work to spread the word.

This is where live ops needs to coordinate with any other marketing tactics being utilized.

Targeting Or Segmenting Your Event Audience

Your audience should be able act on all the actions offered by the game in their current location and player status. However, you might not offer the same items, loot, challenges, or other aspects of the player experience in each location, and accordingly being able to target to region is typically part of the live ops strategy.

What’s more, being able to segment various types of players and customize the game play for them is essentially part of live ops. Grouping players by persona, those who have reached different levels of the game, or even those who possess certain items or weapons and giving them a unique experience based on their segment can be what separates an average game from a successful one.

Daily Challenges are also a great way to create regular events that keep people playing without having to implement new updates into the core code

How Business Intelligence And Live Ops Events Challenge Scalability

In addition to all the marketing and business intelligence considerations, it is important to remember that live ops is all about scalability. Normally, game databases are about reads – many many reads – not writing, changing, or updating. However, live ops are all about the writes and performing plenty of them.

For example, using revenue-boosting tactics like localization often requires lots of live or real-time adjustments, since machine translation really isn’t good enough to be considered an option in most cases (yet). All the event messaging, offers, and promotions require rapid fire turnaround at times!

You’ll also likely need to be able to change things like the rates or amounts of extra points gained, update loot drop tables with new items and locations, moderate player energy recharge rates, and alter prices.

What Your Live Ops Tools Should Do For You

Your analytics should give you the tools and data that you need in order to analyze and track player behavior, providing you with the necessary insights to create different types of events that they will find appealing.

What’s more, your business intelligence tools should give you the ability to actually set up those events, along with messaging players, modifying game variables, create limited time offers, and gift items to players – along with anything else you might want to do (within reason, of course). Clearly, analytics are the heart and soul of a proper live ops program – and therefore the game itself.

Why Live Ops Is A Difference Maker For F2P Games

For the average F2P game, player downloads are only the beginning. Which means that live ops are all the more important, since that’s what maximizes player and retention, session length and/or depth, and more.