Understanding Live Ops for Video Games

The way we play video games has undergone a massive shift in recent years. No longer are games static, one-time experiences that we play through and then put away. Instead, games have become ongoing services, with developers providing regular updates, new content releases, and ongoing support long after the initial release.

As a result, Live Ops has become an essential aspect of game development, allowing developers to create games that can adapt and evolve over time to meet the changing needs and preferences of players and encourages loyalty so developers can monetize their games more effectively.

In this article, we’ll explore the importance of Live Ops and how it works, as well as some industry trends and best practices.

What is Live Ops?

Before we get into the weeds, let’s nail down exactly what we mean by Live Ops. One of the main issues with Live Ops is that getting a solid definition of it can be difficult.

This is because it is both a fluffy game design philosophy and a crunchy practical way of making and maintaining a successful game.

Because of this dichotomy, it’s often expressed either in long think pieces about how the games industry is evolving or tech-focused documents about how to build and manage a successful game.

In its purest form, Live Ops is the process of adding new content, features, events, or activities to a game after it has been released. The critical element is that these changes don’t require a new game version to be released.

In practice, Live Ops combines tasks, including analytics, metrics tracking, customer service, and support, game balancing, monetization, promotions, marketing, and community management.

The end goal of Live Ops is increased player retention and monetization. This is achieved by understanding the players and their needs, developing content that meets them, and providing timely updates that create an enjoyable experience for each player.

Live Ops also involves anticipating what changes or new features might be needed to keep players engaged in the game. Companies need to be proactive about collecting data and understanding how players play the game and what works and what doesn’t.

With this information, companies can develop better strategies to keep players engaged and create content tailored to their needs.

Live Ops’s success depends on game developers’ ability to identify trends in usage patterns, respond quickly to changes in the gaming landscape, and create content that will keep players interested over time.

The goal is to consistently provide new experiences for existing players and attract new ones.

History of Live Ops

To further understand the applicability and importance of Live Ops to the current gaming industry, it is crucial to understand the history of Live Ops.

The physical media dominated the initial phase of video game development that it was created on: cartridges, CDs, and disks. This allowed game developers to create a single product with all of the features they wanted at once.

As you might expect, this Game as a Product process was very designer-centric, focusing on the stories they wanted to tell and the game mechanics they wanted to build.

However, it did not allow for much post-launch engagement or retention of players as the product was static and could not be adjusted after launch.

The next era of video game development saw a shift towards digital downloads, which allowed developers to update their games post-launch with patches and DLC content.

This gave developers more control over the user experience, allowing them to make changes and tweaks to optimize gameplay.

The development and penetration of high-speed internet and smartphones provided the technological underpinning for the next step in game development: Live Ops.

From Game as a Product to Game as a Service

While pinning down the inciting event for the paradigm shift from traditional video game development to Live Ops is difficult, many point to the rise in popularity of persistent world RPGs like World of Warcraft and the massive success of free-to-play titles like FarmVille and Candy Crush Saga as some of the first successful Live Ops games.

What set these games apart is that mechanics and storylines were malleable and could be adjusted and updated over time to give players a continuous experience.

This new development model allowed developers to cultivate deeper relationships with their users by providing ongoing content updates, events, rewards, and more.

Additionally, there wasn’t a defined ‘end-point’ to the game, as there were many prior titles where you completed the story once and moved on to something else. Live Ops enables developers to keep their players engaged with new content, stories, and experiences as they progress through the game.

Live Ops also provided a continuous revenue stream for companies since they allowed users to purchase in-game items or currency that enhanced their gameplay or allowed for a subscription or battle pass-style model. This could be further monetized with in-app purchases, microtransactions, and advertising opportunities.

The success of platforms like Steam has thoroughly underlined the online and digital nature of modern gaming.

As a result, companies can now rely on live operations to provide an evergreen revenue stream and establish meaningful relationships with their players.

The benefits of live ops for developers and players

Benefits for the developer

As you might expect, developers benefit significantly from Live Ops, with benefits including:

Increased revenue and engagement

Revenue generation has always been a goal for developers, and Live Ops can help them achieve this. With the ability to plan and react to player behavior and trends, developers can identify which content will be most successful, resulting in increased engagement and revenue.

Additional monetization opportunities

Live Ops allows developers to add additional content and features that can be monetized, such as in-game purchases. This enables developers to generate more income from their game by allowing players to make additional purchases.

Improved development process

Live Ops allows for ongoing feedback from players, which developers can use to refine their game or develop new content. This helps developers to create better experiences and minimize the risk of releasing broken games or buggy updates.

Increased player retention

Live Ops also enables developers to keep their players engaged with the game over a more extended period. This can be achieved through continuous updates, events, challenges, and rewards that keep players returning for more.

Ability to quickly respond to user feedback

By incorporating Live Ops into their development process, developers can quickly respond to user feedback and implement changes more rapidly. This helps create a better gaming experience for players and makes it easier for developers to keep up with the latest trends in the industry.

Higher-quality content at a lower cost of production

Implementing Live Ops allows developers to create higher-quality content at a fraction of the cost. This can be achieved by utilizing existing assets and leveraging the power of an engaged community to help generate ideas for new content.

A more engaged community

Live Ops encourage players to stay connected and engaged with the game, as they constantly receive new content and updates. This keeps them playing longer and makes them more likely to recommend the game to others.

Benefits for the players

Players also benefit from Live Ops, as it adds:

A richer gaming experience with new content and updates

Continuously updated challenges, rewards, and events represent a richer and more dynamic gaming experience for the player. This extends the life of the game and keeps players engaged.

More options and customization to tailor the game to their preferences

As we mentioned, the previous Games as a Product approach was wholly based on the developer’s viewpoint. Live Ops, however, places the players’ needs and preferences at the center of attention. This means that developers can create a game that can be adapted over time to suit different player needs.

Opportunities for collaboration within communities and social networking

Live Ops creates a platform where players can connect and collaborate to find solutions or strategies. This opens up an entirely new aspect of gaming where players can share their experiences, ideas, and tips. Developers can also use this collaborative environment to create more engaging content based on feedback from their players.

Improved customer service and support from developers closely monitoring their game

Instead of players being disconnected from developers and unable to ask questions or provide feedback, Live Ops allows developers to contact their players constantly. This enables them to quickly address any issues or problems and ensure the game runs smoothly.

Developers can also use this as an opportunity to further engage with their players by providing special events, giving updates on development progress, or listening to feedback on improving the game.

Incentives to return to the game and explore new content

Player retention is a critical part of successful Live Ops. Developers can ensure players will remain engaged and explore new content by providing incentives to return to the game. This could include rewards, discounts or promotional codes, or seasonal events that require players to complete specific tasks to receive a reward.

More opportunities to engage with the game in a meaningful way

All of the above benefits make Live Ops games more engaging and enjoyable for players. While at the same time, it provides developers with a way to produce the revenue they need to stay afloat and continue to improve the game.

How do you implement live ops into your game?

Now that we’ve given you a decent idea of what Live Ops is and the benefits it can offer both developers and players, let’s look at how to implement it into your game.

Let’s cover the basics.

The foremost step to successful Live Ops is setting up the system that will allow for frequent updates and changes as needed. This includes developing an effective strategy for tracking user data, such as in-game activity, purchases, rank progression, etc.

This data can be used to inform decisions regarding content updates/changes, as well as create a more personalized experience tailored to individual players.

Another critical component of Live Ops is building an analytics system that can draw insights from the data collected and provide meaningful feedback in real-time or near real-time. This will enable developers to make informed decisions on how to serve their audience best and continuously improve the game.

Lastly, Live Ops requires a strong marketing plan to reach target audiences with the right messaging at the right time. This includes targeted campaigns, social media outreach, A/B testing, etc., that can help optimize marketing efforts and maximize engagement.

Examples of successful live ops

As with every new project, it’s also essential to look at competitor success stories, so let’s take a look at some of the most successful Live Ops examples.

  • PUBG – PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds (PUBG) is a battle royale game that has been immensely successful due to its Live Ops strategy. This includes regular content updates, seasonal events and rewards, limited-time modes and items, free passes, in-game tournaments, and more.
  • Fortnite – Epic Games’ Fortnite has been one of the most successful Live Ops games, offering seasonal events and rewards, limited-time items, game and map modifications, in-game tournaments, and regular content updates.
  • GTA V – Grand Theft Auto V (GTA V) is another example of a famous live ops success story. Rockstar Games has engaged players with multiple online modes and missions, frequent updates, new rewards and items, in-game events and challenges, and more.
  • Minecraft – Minecraft has flourished as a live ops game for such a simple game. Mojang Studios keep players engaged by releasing consistent updates and content, limited-time events and rewards, in-game tournaments and challenges, exclusive items and skins, free passes for adventure maps, minigames, and more.

What these games share in common is that they’re a great example of what live ops can do for a game. Live ops are about keeping players engaged with the game and creating an exciting experience that keeps them returning.

It takes planning, dedication, and creativity, but when done right, it can be highly effective in driving revenue and increasing user engagement.

Challenges when implementing live ops

Understanding Player Lifecycle

Another facet to live ops is understanding the lifecycle of a player. It’s important to know when and how users enter and leave their gaming experience and any actions taken in between.

Analytics tools can help break down user behavior. In contrast, metrics such as daily active users (DAU), monthly active users (MAU), or lifetime value (LTV) can paint a clearer picture of the user’s journey.

By understanding each stage of the player lifecycle, companies can identify areas of opportunity or improvement to make their games more successful. This might involve designing content specifically for returning players or incentivizing first-time players.

Cost and time

Cost and time are the primary challenges to implementing live ops in video games. Live ops require a dedicated team of game developers, writers, artists, designers, and other staff members. This additional staff can be costly for smaller groups or independent developers.

Additionally, it takes time to plan content updates and events that keep players interested in the game. This time constraint can be difficult to manage when developers are trying to create new content and features.

There are a host of issues to overcome under the banners of cost and time, such as planning out content, creating assets, validating ideas, and changing the game on an ongoing basis.

Thankfully, there are resources for assisting in critical aspects of Live Ops development, such as balancing progression design, testing your retention mechanics, and difficulty balancing.

However, the solution to these issues always comes back to additional resources and time. If you can budget and schedule effectively, you can successfully run a long-term live ops strategy.

Considerations and few best practices

Live Ops and GaaS have been around long enough for best practices to be developed and documented. Here are a few tips for game developers to keep in mind for running successful Live Ops:

  • Plan ahead – Know your goals and plan how you’ll get there before you start. Creating campaigns on the fly can be difficult, as tracking progress without planning things out first is hard.
  • Be creative – Live ops isn’t just about in-game events. It’s also about creating a community engagement and giving players something to look forward to that keeps them playing. Think of unique ways to engage your players.
  • Monitor analytics – Analytics is an invaluable tool for understanding how well your live ops campaigns perform and what players respond to. Use the data to your advantage, and make sure you’re constantly tweaking and optimizing your campaigns.
  • Listen to feedback – One of the critical components of creating successful live ops is understanding what players want from your game. Ensure you listen to their feedback, both in-game and by soliciting feedback through surveys or focus groups. Ensure you’re continuously iterating on the content and features that players request to keep them returning.

Going Live with your Game

Live Ops represents a significant commitment from game developers. It takes planning, testing, and fine-tuning to get your live ops campaign up and running. However, the benefits for players and developers are significant once in place.

Illustration: Midjourney, “Collage about the history of video games in pixel art style”