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LiveOps Essentials Part 1: The Content

Mike Moran

Written by Mike Moran on February 03, 2021, LinkedIn

17 minute read

Table of contents

    liveops-essentials-part1-header

    This is part one of a three-part series where we’ll go hands on with the essentials of liveops. I’ll show you the fundamentals and walk you through the exact ways different studios find success with liveops. 

    First up? The content and events you need. 

    Ready? Let’s jump in.

    Here’s the thing: LiveOps have been happening for some time. We just haven’t been talking about it a lot. 

    The engagement tactics we’re familiar with today -- in-game competitions, holiday-centric cosmetic changes, player vs. player challenges -- are the same tactics that games have been using for years. The only difference? More proactive scheduling. And a hell of a lot more strategizing.

    If you’ve been wondering how to take the principles of player engagement and level them up -- how to excite, surprise, and sustain your community through a set of concrete actions -- then you’ve come to the right place. Because that’s exactly what I’m here to tell you.

    Our industry is crowded. Only the smartest, most prepared games will prevail. 

    This rundown is here to give you the staples, the thinking prompts, and the actionable steps you need to be one of them. 

    Today, I’m breaking down the foundation of every successful LiveOps strategy: its content.

    What it is, how to use it, what it can do for your game -- it’s all on the table for you to read, digest, and truly understand. Because once you have understanding, results are quick to follow. 

    Let’s get learning.

     

    Meet Your Content

    The fuel behind your LiveOps strategy -- regardless of your game characteristics, audience, and overall intentions -- is your content. What do I mean by content?

    Simple: the events, tactics, and features you’re using to spice up the game for your players. 

    I’m going to break down your options, and then I’ll show you how to take them and make them distinctly impactful for your game. 

    Let’s get into it.

    An Introduction to Events

    In the world of games, the possibilities for configuring events are just about endless. They can be as uncomplicated as a cosmetic change -- where all characters are adorned in Christmas apparel for 24 hours, for instance -- or as involved as a massive server-wide challenge, or even a crossover challenge with another game. 

    The beauty of events is that however you approach them, they’re up to you. And that means that you can -- and should -- customize your events for your game’s specific needs.

    Because at the end of the day, the success of your event will come down to how well it understands, and speaks to its audience. So while you can plan events based on event frameworks, timespans, or features, every decision you make should be based on what you know about your playerbase.

    In other words: you need to have an impeccable read on the people you’re looking to engage before you take any steps to plan or execute an event.

    What excites them? What motivates them? What drives them to choose your game over the next guy’s?

    The more you understand their likes and behaviors, the better equipped you’ll be to plan the right game. 

    You with me? This is key. 🔑

    Nice. 

    Let’s keep going and check out some of your options…

    The Six Event Types

    The first box you’re going to want to fill out when planning an event is its format. Who will it serve? Who will they be competing against? How will it be made exciting -- and alluring? Let’s look at what each type of event entails:

    #1 — Individual Events: 

    About as straightforward as it sounds, individual events make each player the hero, giving them a new way to interact with the game without requiring that they coordinate with anyone else to do it. That means it’s the individual player competing against the game whenever it’s convenient for them, and any prizes (or glory) they receive will be for them and them alone.

    Examples of individual events:
    Special missions, individual tournaments, and leaderboards. 

    --

    #2 —Group vs. Group Events:

    Here’s where the coordination comes in. Group vs. group events pit groups of players against each other, with every player on the winning group’s side receiving the reward. (And, of course, glory.) In order for this event type to work logistically speaking, all players need to be active at the same time -- which takes more marketing initiative from your end. But that effort tends to pay off, because nothing fuels engagement like cooperative competition.

    Examples of group vs. group events: 
    Guild wars, alliance leaderboards, boss raids, and group tournaments.  

    --

    #3 —Faction-Wide Events:

    Think of it like your coworkers’ last team-building event -- faction-wide events enable players of the same faction to work together, cheer each other on, and be part of the same mission. By arranging them against one common opponent or challenge, next-level bonding is brought about naturally. Each player is left with a deep sense of camaraderie -- and an even greater desire to win (for their team).

    Examples of faction-wide events:
    New group-oriented missions (like battles or challenges), or point-driven frameworks -- i.e. if they get to 10,000 points in 15 minutes, they win the top reward.

    --

    #4 —Server-Wide Events:

    As likely the biggest event undertaking on the market, server-wide events operate within a specific timespan, encouraging all players -- yes, all players -- to try to accomplish a certain goal. Their incentive? Unlocking a game feature or reward that’s only obtainable through participation. This type of event builds community, camaraderie, and urgency without even trying -- because there’s something truly igniting about knowing people across the globe are after the same thing you are. At the exact same time.

    Examples of server-wide events:
    Special missions, races to unlock a new character or feature, and massive leaderboard challenges.

    --

    #5 —League Events:

    As the name suggests, league events divide your players (or player groups) into leagues, offering an event only to the players inside each league. There can be one event for each league running concurrently, and the events can include the same challenge, the same features, and the same time-frame -- but where they’ll differ is in who’s competing. And that means that each event should have its own leaderboard -- and its own reward.

    Examples of league events:
    Scoreboard challenges for individual players within a specific league, group vs. group events within a specific league, and league vs. league events.

     

    #6 —PVP Events:

    Utilized by games of every genre and intensity, PvP (or person vs. person) events offer an extremely customizable way to engage your playerbase -- because how you choose to run the event is completely up to you. Maybe you go the asynchronous PvP route and give your players an AI character to play against whenever they decide to engage. The events are short, there’s not much on the line, and your audience doesn’t feel obligated to exert more energy than they want to.

    Or maybe you go in the other direction. Maybe you plan synchronous PvP events, where your players are up against other players in real-time -- so if they lose, they’re losing to another person. The stakes are higher. The intensity is greater. And your players are required to focus, try, and desire the glory harder than they would’ve in an asynchronous event. The variability potential with PvP events -- as you can see for yourself -- is huge.

    Examples of asynchronous:
    PvP events include playing a match, fighting in battle, or competing in a challenge against an AI-generated character (or a real player, just not at the same time).

    Examples of synchronous:
    PvP events include matches, battles, or challenges that pit two real-life players against each other at the same time, where the winner receives some sort of reward (and glory).

    But there’s always room for creativity. With asynchronous PvP events, for example, your players can compete against each other without needing to coordinate their play; in Board Kings, players are able to steal other players’ coins without those players needing to be active. Obviously, this works to motivate players to keep coming back to the game -- so they can catch up on what they’ve missed.

    Creativity in synchronous PvP events can look like round robins, where players compete against another player for a set time period or challenge, and then move onto a different player. Another option? Giving players the chance to form a pair with their friend, and then competing in 2x2 events -- where the best pair wins.

    The Different Types of Event Frameworks

    Okay, so you’ve figured out who’s competing against who, and who has access to the event itself. Now it’s time to determine the framework for how your players will engage with it. 

    How will success be measured? How will the winner(s) be decided? Will there be any new rules for players to learn in place?

    The good news is, there are a few staple frameworks that most events operate inside of. And the better news is: I'll try to outline them for you below.

    #1 — Totalizers 📈

    Where players earn points (or another event-specific resource) by playing the game in a new way, for a limited amount of time. Maybe that means they’re granted entry to a new course for racing, a new realm for their battle against the supernatural, or a new weapon to use in a sniper challenge -- the point is, the totalizer doesn’t start until they’re in that new space (or with that new item).

    And when they are, that’s when the totalizer -- or the point counter -- starts accumulating points. The more they win in that specific event, the more points they earn.

    Real-game example:
    In Transformers: Earth Wars, players earn points by going into battle -- and the higher they climb, the more alluring the prizes become. 

    #2 —Prestiging Totalizers 😎

    Jumping off of the ‘totalizer’ concept, prestiging totalizers are events that enable players to earn the maximum number of points -- or reach the highest level -- available in the challenge, and then reset their standing so they can re-enter from scratch. With every reset, they get a cosmetic token, so they (and everyone around them) are able to identify their prowess.

    The prestiging totalizer was first seen in Call of Duty: Modern Warfare, and it’s since carried some weighty traction in our industry. Games have been adopting it because its framework actually shifts the players’ focus from just completing the challenge to completing the challenge the maximum number of times.

    Here’s why that’s significant: without the ability to prestige, a totalizer must be challenging enough to make it difficult for even the best players to reach the end -- and earn the top reward. But with the ability to prestige, the totalizer can be made shorter and easier, making it more accessible (and appealing) to the weaker players/groups in your playerbase.


    Real-game example:
    In Transformers: Earth Wars, there are extremely short totalizers that can be completed up to 60 times. And here’s where it gets brilliant: as the top reward, players are most likely to receive a gacha crystal… but there’s still a small chance they could earn a new character instead. The more times they prestige an event, the more likely they are to earn that new character. So even the weaker players are motivated to keep at it. 


    #3 — Scored Leaderboards 🏆

    One of the most common frameworks for any game event is the scored leaderboard. Leaderboards have featured heavily throughout the history of games, but when they’re made temporary (and event-specific), they incite even more engagement from players. And they lend themselves to a pretty straightforward foundation: as players move through the event, their progress is tracked on the temporary leaderboard -- and at the end of the event, rewards are distributed based on that leaderboard standing.

    Typically, rewards are divvied up by tiers -- and determining those tiers is a balancing act in itself. On the one hand, you have to make sure players care about landing in the top tiers; on the other hand, you have to include enough tightly-packed, meaningful tiers below, so all players are motivated to fight until the very end.

    Here’s an example tier layout for an event with hundreds of participants:

      • Tiers 1 - 5: Top Reward
      • Tiers 6 - 25: Great Reward
      • Tiers 26 - 80: Good Reward
      • Tiers 81 - 150 and 151 - 250: Mediocre Reward
      • Tiers 251 - 400 and 400+: Token of Appreciation

    Of course, that layout can scale up or down depending on your event’s audience size. The most important thing to remember is that there should be a balance between wanting the top reward and sustaining playership for those who aren’t strong enough to attain it. 

     

    #4 —Knockouts 🥊

    Also known as elimination events, this framework gives players a limited number of lives (or attempts) to complete the challenge or set the high score before getting eliminated. In order to sustain engagement (and increase momentum) throughout the event, the rational approach is to make the challenge more and more difficult, the further the players progress.

    By making it easier to stay alive in the beginning, all players will feel motivated to engage -- and as things get incrementally more difficult, your best players will still feel engaged while your beginner players will feel incentivized to harvest their skills for future events. Best practice for ensuring balance here is to use current winning streaks or scores to match players against each other, so stronger players feel persistently challenged and weaker players don’t feel persistently hopeless.

    It’s also important to note: with the knockout framework, we’re looking at a quicker event -- since players will be getting eliminated rather than remaining engaged from start to finish. If you wanted to reduce that timespan even further, instating caps on wins or prizes ensures your playerbase will be in and out quickly, no matter how dexterious they are. 

    While shorter events like this are often given a warm welcome by players who are used to grinding longer for prizes, it does make selling during the event more difficult. We’ll get into monetization in more detail later, but one simple fix to make knockouts more profitable is to charge for re-entry -- for players that get eliminated early and want a way back in.

    It’s also important to note: by nature, knockouts will have a shorter lifespan -- which can be even further shortened by putting a cap on wins or prizes. While shorter events like this are often given a warm welcome by players who are used to grinding for prizes, it does make selling consumables during the event more difficult.

    We’ll get into monetization in more detail later, but one simple fix to make knockouts more profitable is to charge for re-entry -- for players that get eliminated early and want a way back in.

    Real-game example:
    in Clash Royale, knockout challenges work on an opt-in basis -- allowing players to decide if they want to partake in the elimination event, with their participation having no effect (other than prizes earned) on their normal gameplay.

     

    So: those are the basics. But by no means does picking one framework mean that you’re barred from using others -- even for the same event. These staples are not mutually exclusive, and because of that, you’re able to -- and encouraged to -- mold your events into something fresh.

    Because the point, after all, is to excite your audience

    So excite them with something new.

    Event Mechanics

    You’ve gotten a good look at the possibilities for event types and event frameworks. Now, it’s time to examine the elements -- the details -- that’ll help each and every one of your events stand out, compel players to engage, and keep them coming back for more.


    First thing’s first: the rewards.

    The most enticing element of any event are the rewards. This is what brings your players in. Offer them something small, boring, or inconsequential, and the likelihood that they’ll join the event is relatively low. But offer them something rare? Something meaningful? Something that comes with glory? Well, that’s a whole different story. 

    Here are some game favorites:

    • Medals
    • Trophies
    • Special Items
    • Novel Perks
    • Characters
    • Costumes
    • Vanity Content

    Based on your game -- namely what it has at its disposal, and what its audience seems to care about -- you should be able to figure out which rewards will achieve the highest impact. And where there’s impact, there’s incentive. But in order to milk the rewards you choose for all they’re worth, it’s not just enough to have them (and dole them out). You need to give them away strategically.

    What does that look like in practice? We’re glad you asked.

    Start Slow:

    Huge rewards are great, but do you know what makes them even greater? Anticipation. That means that your events should always be starting slow -- offer cheap rewards first, and as the event progresses, slowly unveil the bigger guns. (I go into more detail about the psychology of starting slow here)

    Start slow with in game rewards and events | UserWise

    Why this works: players are only ever happy when they’re accepting up. So while hooking players with massive rewards right at the beginning might seem like a good idea, in reality it forces you into a dangerous system where you’re constantly trying to impress them with bigger incentives. Both in your current event and in all events down the road.

    See, players have an incredibly strong memory when it comes to remembering how they’ve been rewarded, so rather than frustrate them (and lose their loyalty) by arduously bringing your reward types back down to reasonable heights, the best tactic is always to start small. Grow bigger throughout the event -- and from event to event -- so you can reward the players that stick around for their patience in meaningful ways. 

     

    "Players are only ever happy when they’re accepting up. So while hooking players with massive rewards right at the beginning might seem like a good idea, in reality it forces you into an ever-inflating pattern that’s nothing short of dangerous."

     

    Theme Up

    It can be natural to want to impress your players by offering them everything you can think of -- but the best way to approach event rewards is to do it systematically, with an outlook of resounding patience. Since you’ll be planning more than one event -- hopefully, a lot more -- you’re going to need ways to make every event feel fresh. That means that giving one event everything you’ve got sets you up for difficulty in a few weeks’ time. Especially if that first event got your players’ expectations running high.

    So, in order to avoid that pitfall, the smartest LiveOps events have themes. One theme per event allows you to focus on one vector (in terms of content), making the rewards that fall under its umbrella the top objective.

    Why this works: by not overrunning your event with 10 different types of content, you’re giving your players a clear understanding of why they’re there, what they’re working towards, and what your events will be like in the future. That abates confusion, emphasizes focus, and ultimately leads to better engagement than a free-for-all of unrelated rewards would.

    Here’s an example: a 4-star crystal event involves players focusing their efforts on acquiring precious crystal rewards at the top of the totalizer. Or, as another example: a triple xp event, where the main driver of engagement is the extra Experience Points -- and the event rewards are intentionally insignificant. (See? Even with themes, there’s room to get creative. And have fun.)

     

    Always Appreciate Effort

    While all players who participate in the event should feel valued, it’s important to make sure that your top players -- the players who take the highest standings in your monthly or quarterly showdowns -- are given the recognition they deserve.

    That doesn’t mean that you need to give the winners their own reward tier; it’s fine to keep the top 5 participants as the recipients of the best rewards. But in order to differentiate those players from each other (and give the lower end of the 5 reason to work harder next time), you should be giving the top one or two players something special: an exclusive cosmetic item or a place in the virtual hall of fame, for instance.

    Why this works: the truth is, the players at the top rarely want another resource or a better piece of content.

    What they do want -- the thing that excites them the absolute most -- is the one thing that no-one else can get. Recognition. They want to be recognized as the best of the best, and they want that recognition to last beyond the event. Plus, in addition to satisfying your winners, you’ll also be motivating your losers: when they see the type of glory that’s on the table, they’ll be eager to return (and do better) next time.

    An example? The in-game hall of fame in Transformers: Earth Wars is a simple, space-efficient newsfeed that’s still highly effective. It’s motivating, it’s energizing, and it breeds a profound (but healthy) dose of competition.

    Making Events Matter

    If creating an event that excites, engages, and retains players was easy, every game would be doing it. And there would be way less turnover than we know there to be. So, while the event type, framework, and mechanics are crucial elements of your event planning -- they’re not the only elements. 

    And if you really want to set your LiveOps events apart, here are the three other elements -- each packing a big punch -- that I’d implore you to consider:

    Balance:

    With LiveOps as a whole, maintaining a delicate balance between fresh and familiar will be your #1 objective. And your biggest challenge. On the one hand, your players are coming to your game because they like it at its core: the premise, the characters, the play itself -- that’s what attracted them, and that’s what’s fueling their return back. But, on the other hand, people are demanding creatures; give us the same thing over and over again, and we get bored. We move onto something new -- something fresh.

    With your events, you need to find middle ground. It’s not enough to just release new levels that are more of the same or new opponents with physical tweaks but the same abilities -- you’ve got to diversify further. You’ve got to provide enough exciting, unexpected value so that your players can’t wait to experience it.

    So how do you do that? By introducing new characters, new environments, and new abilities -- that operate within the familiar set-up of the game. So, if you have a battle-based game where players typically fight against aliens, consider events that happen on a new planet, against a new form of alien (with different abilities), or that equip them with special space-suits -- so they can fight and fly at the same time.

    If you’re looking for some ideas for smaller (but still effective) freshening tweaks, I’ve got you covered: simple changes like decking characters, environments, or rewards out in holiday-themed costumes/items/designs is a fun way to make an event feel new without as much legwork.

    AND in some cases, that type of tiny tweak has led to major increases (see: 30%) in week-over-week returns.

    Audience Segmentation:

    Like we said at the beginning -- the most effective events are the events that speak directly to their audience-base. With that logic fueling us, we can deduce that being able to create events that aren’t just targeted to your players as a whole, but to specific subsets of your players, is even more meaningful. Like, a lot more meaningful. And that’s where audience segmentation comes in.


    --

    Quick shameless plug: Everything we are doing here at UserWise is built around targeting individual players at its core. Each player will play at their own pace and with their own motivations. Everything needs to revolve around that. 

    Okay, I'm done. :)

    --

     

    Audience segmentation gives you the power to divide your players up by where they’re located, how they behave, and what their history with the game has been.

    What does that look like in practice? Think about it like this: a Europe-based player who’s spent hundreds of dollars on your game and partaken in tons of events (and done moderately well) will be motivated and engaged by different things than an India-based player who’s just joined and has yet to spend a dime.

    Audience segmentation for better mobile game engagement | UserWise

    Being able to excite through different tactics -- for the same game -- is a brilliant (and crucial) capability when it comes to competing today.

    Here are some actionable ways to adopt the tactic: come Christmas, don’t create Christmas-themed events for players in every region. Segment your players by their location, and only offer the Christmas-themed excitement to those who actually celebrate (or are likely to celebrate) this holiday.

    Here's a quick snippet from Sophie Vo on Cognitive diversity and how important it is. All of your player are unique. Remember that.

    Listen to Sophie Vo's full episode here


    Another tip? Get even more precise with smaller, region-specific holiday events. Take Brazil’s Independence Day, for example -- you can push out a message that says “Happy Independence Day, Enjoy This Free Gift of 1000 Coins!” to your Brazil-based players, allowing them to feel seen, understood, and valued. Because nothing fosters connection (and retention) like personalized value.

    Deliver region specific offers to your game's players | UserWise

    Monetization:

    For the third element, we’re looking at monetization -- or how you’re actually going to turn a profit from the LiveOps events you run. So, how do you earn revenue without making players feel like the point of the event is to take their money?

    With some smart planning -- and a whole lot of creativity.

    One great way to monetize your events is by tying their content to the items for sale.

    Here’s what I mean: if you’re creating a special environment for a mission or competition event -- like a new racecourse, a new battlefield, or a new terrain -- then consider requiring a new ability or piece of equipment for entry.

    Maybe the new racecourse needs a special car tire, the new battlefield stops normal weaponry from working, or the new terrain is underwater -- and players won’t be able to breathe without a special helmet. Of course, all of these items will be available for purchase before the event -- so all players can participate if they’d like.

    If that’s too involved for your event needs, don’t fret -- there are some much simpler, and much quicker, monetization strategies available to you:

      • Buy-Backs: As we mentioned earlier, these re-entry tickets allow players who’ve been knocked out of events early to rejoin the competition -- for a small cost. You can put a cap on how many buy-backs are allowed, or you can allow for endless re-entry (and charge more for every additional ticket). Whatever makes the most sense for your event is what you should do.
      • Event-Only Currency: Just like the points earned in events usually don’t affect the overall gameplay (or point history) of a player, you can design an in-event currency that doesn’t affect their regular in-game wealth too. So, if players buy currency for specific items/abilities in the event, that currency won’t be transferable to outside gameplay -- just like their general game currency won’t be admissible in this event-specific situation.
      • Limited-Time Offers: A favorite of many games, these offers -- for items, abilities, characters, or anything else -- are made available during, and only during, the event. Not only does this apply urgency, but when it’s offered against a backdrop of utility -- where players can clearly see how making the purchase will help them succeed in the event -- it drives a major response.
      • Holiday-Themed Items, Bundles, & Packages: When you have holiday-themed events, it only makes sense that you have holiday-themed offers to go along with them. Whether it’s a themed costume or weapon that matches the themed cosmetic changes in the game or a package of items/abilities/boosts with a holiday-themed bonus inside, the options are endless. And with your players in the holiday spirit, they’ll want to buy in.
      • Unique Design Offers: While offering the same old tangible items, abilities, characters, and boosts is great, it’s also great to know that you have other options. Options like offering your players the chance to design, name, or make a significant decision about a new environment, character, or thing in the game itself. For a price, of course. We already know that players love glory -- and the glory of being able to point to a new racecourse or mountain or enemy and say, I named that, is second to none. 

    And the final thing for you to remember is that, with monetization, you never want to discount what you can add value to. Instead of offering your game currency for a 20% discount during an event, offer it for regular price -- and throw in a meaningful item, ability, or boost with purchase.

    That makes your players feel like they swiped a deal without you depreciating your own currency -- or earnings. (A win-win in our books.)

    In Conclusion…

    When you create the right events for your players, giving them the challenges, rewards, and competition/camaraderie balance they’re excited to see, then results will follow.

    Guaranteed. 

    It’s not about offering the most outrageous or complex competitions, and it’s not about offering the most expensive rewards. It’s not about switching up the features of your game to better align with whatever’s new and hot on the market, and it’s not about offering crazy discounts that do little but detract value from your currency.

    Having the right content is about using your unique game components -- what it is, who it attracts, and how it’s different -- to manifest fresh experiences. And I promise, when you take the insight, steps, and tips & tricks outlined above to heart, that’s exactly what you’ll do.

    So nail down the right content. But then make absolute certain that you have the right cadence to go with it.

    OH and speaking of cadence - I'm coming out with a Part II that will talk about this specifically. I'm hoping to show you how to do just that. 

    Please stay tuned and reach out on linkedin. Just say "hi".


     

    Oh, also - we started a community where game creators can learn and openly chat about what it's like to create and maintain a successful game. 

    We'd love to have you join. It's a private request access only community, so try not to tell too many people please. 🤫

    Join the private community for game creators | UserWise Academy