Live Games: How to Prepare for the Long Run

“Alright folks, this is it! The Gold Master disk has been sent by mail to the manufacturer an hour ago! This isn’t the time to remember a bug you forgot to fix! Congrats everyone, now let’s have a drink, it’s out!”

When I started in the industry, times were simpler: the moment your disk was burnt and the final build sent, this was out of your hands. The disk would make its way straight to the factory, printed in dozens of mill… thousands of copies (simpler times I told you), and then right to the shelves ready to be purchased and played. Bugs that weren’t fixed would become canon, and memes years later, dominant strategies would find their way on the cover of the latest paper magazine issues under titles like “The easiest way to beat X explained!”, and once players had their fill of the game, they would just move on to the newest hot release and share the now discarded game with their friends.

But this was before. Our constant technological advancements opened doors nobody could have dreamed of at that time: doors that would be blasted open by Capitalism, because this is what businesses do. See, when a player drops your game to start another one, this is a lost customer (or a potentially lapsing one based on your optimism), a customer you spent months (and bags of money) convincing to spend their pocket money to give a chance to your game. This is closing all possibilities for extra monetization, for brand devotion, for easy content that would just build on the insane work that was released beforehand, for milking whatever could be milked. This is a big loss, and worse: a loss to other games from your competitors! And this isn’t acceptable.

“Hey, you aren’t that old!” you’d tell me (thank you! I’m not indeed!), “During your time you could already ship Expansions”. True. And this was helping for sure. But an Expansion still requires a consequent amount of work and content if you want to package it again with a decent product value, and the more time you put into these Expansions, the more players are dropping: this is trying to stop a flood with duck tape. This doesn’t mean that it is not a valuable approach, as demonstrated by games like The Sims, Flight Simulator, or Cities: Skylines, games with extremely high replayability where content packs make total sense and is proving extremely profitable by offering a “menu” approach of their content: buying the entirety of Train Simulator 2020 and all its DLCs will total not less than 12k USD after all!

Fast forward to the last decade. Enters connected hardware, and the possibility to update the game, fix it, and release more content for it on the flight. This has been the revolution you are now way too familiar with, as all of you heard about “Live games” (you clicked on this article after all), “Game as a Service”, and even maybe “Game as a Platform”. The sky’s the limit! We now can better the game, tune it, polish it, and improve it forever in order to create the true masterpiece it was always meant to be! Nah, just kidding: we can now keep our players forever in our games, creating a deep bond with them inviting recurring purchases and IP loyalty, and as long as we can drip-feed them cheap content, the sink-cost fallacy will do the rest, until the next installment of the IP comes out and a final event funnels your players to the new shiny content. The future is bright!

“Damn man, you went dark real fast”. Well, it’s the internet, if I’m not sensationalistic a bit, nobody will read me. But the business desires are strong, and this is a reality that not only will stay but keep growing. The good news is that this can very much serve the games in the long run. By working not only FOR your players, but WITH your players, you now have the possibility to tackle every short-coming and oversight your game had at launch, as well as truly engage with your communities: The Division 2 is entering its fourth year, as a solid player base still, and is going to bring new game modes and content that keeps expanding the scope of the game for all, free of charge. Destiny 2 latest content drop, 5 years later, is diving always deeper into their amazing Lore. Rainbow 6: Siege, which had a rocky launch 7 years ago, is now played by millions of players and regarded as one of the best competitive shooters on the market. Fortnite is now less a game and more like the hot 3rd place (the social one, on top of work and home), hosting concerts and being not only trendy but trendsetters. There is a real opportunity for developers to keep adding love to their games without having to make (too many) sacrifices.

Now to the point of this article: being a “Live” game doesn’t have to be reserved for big studios as it’s often the case, and distributing platforms are making it easier every day to adjust, update, and submit new versions of your games. This is quite an opportunity, and it is worth considering it ahead of your launch. But where to start? How can we plan on the unplannable? How to know if this is worth it, and when to stop? To answer all of this, we’ll need to start with the harsh reality: what can we even afford?

Team/Studio Capabilities and Resources

Keeping a game alive for an extended period of time is an important risk, and not only for multiplayer games with server costs: every developer you keep on a game is a developer that can’t work for a future project, and worse: it’s a developer that needs to be paid, which further grows the original game’s budget (and even as a solo dev, your time is money). Any plan for content must then account for its return on investment: how will these extra efforts bring value to your studio/team? It can be short-term focused, like selling DLCs, or content packs and items inside the game, medium-term, hoping to bring more full game sales by showing your commitment to support the game and its players in the long run (and get coverage with it), or even long-term, hoping that the immediate loss will transform into trust and goodwill overtime outside the game, and towards your entire company (obviously for companies having/planning more than a single game).

You probably noticed that I approach this topic from a rational business perspective, and didn’t touch the obvious “How about making my game better, just because I love the game I made?” which is common in the indie scene. Well… This is really a question you’ll need to answer yourself, as every developer has a different relationship and goals with their game, as well the number of sacrifices they are willing to make for the art and craft.

Now, let’s say budget and profits/funding are covered, and you can confidently plan for the long run without risking the future of your studio, there are still two very important aspects to consider: your team capabilities, as well as your game capabilities.

Team-wise, this is pretty straightforward: you need to answer the question “What can we produce with our current team?”. And many teams fall into this pit. A new narrative arc will require writers, translators, and possibly a cinematic team. A new game mode will require game designers, a bunch of GPPs, UI designers, and possibly level designers and environment artists should the mode require a new zone. Even something as “simple” as extending an existing progression system will require balancing, UI work, exposition, and a whole bunch of other things to be packaged into a full proposition. Understanding what you CAN produce before even talking about what you SHOULD produce will help you tremendously.

Finally, the last aspect to consider is what you can produce using your game, which is another pitfall easy to fall into. It is very likely that at launch your game will have a consequent technical debt. It will be very efficient on some aspects (say adding new cards in a CCG, or new gears and areas in a hack ‘n slash) but terrible in others. Deciding to add an online coop feature to a solo game or a fresh feature for a game not having the technical structure for it may very much drive you under.

Alright, let’s take a step back. We now have a game that is slowly heading towards launch, we know there are clear opportunities for us in post-launch, and we precisely identified what budget we may have (or hope to get back), as well as the resources and tech capabilities we may play with. That’s a terrific start! Now what?

Now? We look at our players.

Players’ Targets, Motivations, and Consumption Specifics

The key KPIs that interest us here are the Players’ Retention and Engagement (Acquisition and Monetization are critical as well but fall outside of this article’s scope): keeping players excited, driven to play for extended amounts of time, and preventing them from dropping (reacquisition of a player is pricey). And to do that, we need to deeply understand our core targets.

Throwback to the article on Players’ Motivations, every player has very different desires from a game, motivations for playing, and consumption patterns: some are completionists, some are driven by the fame and pride of being able to show off their best gears and skills, some just want to socialize with friends, or really get to know what happens next in the story… And some just want a quick play session to unwind at the end of the day. Understanding who the players of your game are, and what will make them stick to your game, is key. Without access to a dedicated marketing team, you can still approximate this: what kind of games are similar to yours? Can you study their community, can you ask yours? This is important as this will not only help you see what kind of content would engage your player base but also will help you approximate their consumption of your game and start to lay down your roadmap.

Remember that analytics built in your game will be invaluable, but only when your game goes Live obviously.

Let’s imagine that your game is roughly 40 hours long and that your average player will play 10 hours a week (your game structure can help set the play sessions duration). An easy calculation will show you that roughly a month after launch will be the perfect moment to drop some extra content: this will keep your most engaged players in the game at the moment they start extinguishing the current content, as well as encourage new players to join (possibly piggy-backing a price promotion for an extra push). Now if this content push is 10h long, then you can predict when it will be exhausted as well, and the cycle continues.

Now, I can hear you already: “Man, I’m not gonna push new content every damn week, this is insane!”. Well, first of all, I never said this would be easy! But also we can be smart about it.

Creating Content the Smart Way

You are completely right that pushing “high-cost / fast-consumption” content in your game every week is not sustainable. If it takes you 2 weeks to make a new cinematic that will last 20 seconds of playtime, you can’t possibly include one in every patch you make. But this would make for a terrific reward at the end of a season, as Fortnite demonstrated over and over again for the past years.

So, for 95% of our new content (playtime-wise), we are instead looking for a “low-cost / slow-consumption” type of content. And this can be summed up in one word: Replayability.

I am a firm believer that the only sustainable way to operate a Live game is to incorporate as much replayability in the content produced as possible. And there are quite a lot of ways to do so! The most common way you may rightfully think of is competitive gameplay: the moment other players create the challenges and constantly fresh situations, you are looking at a potentially infinite playtime, and this is why PvP games are so often Live games (or at least why they have it easier than others). Talking about user-generated content, UGC features can play an incredibly powerful role in your retention and engagement metrics as well, like modding or game creation and sharing like in Super Mario Maker 2 which currently displays 10M+ courses, and more than half a billion level played!

But these are far from the only ways. Destiny 2 and The Division 2 are two examples of games that, on one side, use RNG and loot tables to artificially increase players’ playtime, and on the other have long progression systems creating significant grind. The Binding of Isaac has created a solid replayability loop by adding new objects, bosses, and zones at a minimal cost and targeting end-game players in order to delay the need for new content drops. Many PvE games focused their Live plans on extremely demanding and difficult content to delay their burn rate, such as Raids. Advanced social features (guilds, clans, etc.) are commonly added post-launch to strengthen the multiplayer aspect of the game. And I’m sure you will find many more smart examples of content replayability!

Let’s look at a few examples of a year 1 roadmap from some AAA:

Rainbow 6: Siege, focused on a solid stream of content, reinforcing their core loop (more operators, more maps). This is smart as the pipeline to create such content is probably extremely solid at launch and should diminish the risks associated with it. Now, this example is a great one to talk about an aspect that we haven’t touched on until now: start preparing your post-launch plans before going Live! Shipping 2 new operators (models, abilities, animations, UI, balancing, etc.) a new map (LD, dressing, balancing, etc.), and new game modes, all that in 3 months, is insanely hard. Also, your entire team will spend the first months after Launch fixing bugs, patching crashes, and doing emergency balancing passes. So consider saving a few bits of content pre-launch to be pushed in the months after!

Hood: Outlaws & Legends highlighted this with a quite smart plan: they also went for a 3 months per big update approach, but the risks are minimized. The new map and new game mode arrive in the game very fast after the Launch, which is great to build engagement and their player base. Being such big chunks of work, those were probably secured months before and kept warm for the first “red months” of the game’s exploitation. After this first update, each subsequent one focuses on 1 big improvement (a new character, a new system), and reuses existing systems and cheap content for the rest of the update (events, new cosmetics).

Destiny 2 (basing myself on the leaked pre-launch roadmap on purpose), focused on end-game content pretty fast (in-line with the motivations and consumption of their player base). They pushed a new raid every 3 months (the first one being probably created beforehand) but took a long 6-months break before shipping their first big Expansion which allows them to have a very strong content push. This imposes of course to have enough content already in order to keep players from dropping in the meantime: quite a risk.

As you can see, most of this content has been built on the existing game, making smart reuse of their systems, assets, and strengths. And many players may think that this is somehow lazy, or protective, as seen on social media after any update. But the reality? Exploiting a Live game is going to push your team to its limits.

The Trenches of a Live Game

Let’s take a typical example: you would like to prepare for the first year of your Live game. This year will be composed of 4 big updates, or “beats”, one every 3 months, each of them bringing consequent changes to the game (a new game mode, a new progression system, a new category of gears or modifiers to freshen up the gameplay, etc.). Included in the delivery of the patch will also be a multitude of “cheap” fillers to delay the big content over time and keep the players reconnecting from one week to another throughout these 3 months: a twist on an existing game mode, special promotions, increased drop rates on some items, special events, etc.

Seems reasonable, and in line with what the industry is doing already as seen before! Now let’s break these 3 months into real deadlines: you will have 2 weeks to dive into analytics, surveys, community feedback, and backlogs in order to decide on the content of the update and prototype a few ideas in order to isolate the final update’s scope. Then, you will have 6 weeks of development: this is extremely short and doesn’t leave space for any significant step-back. You then will have 2 weeks of tuning, debugging, and polishing, and the final 2 weeks will be saved for first parties’ submissions and various approvals to go Live. This, of course, does not account for the various tuning, balancing, and various bug fixing that should be done on the existing content already.

Not only there is no room for errors, but once you finally ship an update, it is already time to start preparing the next one… And this, every 3 months, for years should you have a successful game and keep committing to it.

But not everything is grim! Working on a Live game is extremely exhilarating. First of all, things move fast: there are no second thoughts, no doubting, you are constantly shipping content. After years of long development cycles, this is freeing! Second: you are working with your players: through analytics (don’t forget to work on implementing them during development, they will be extremely precious!), community boards, streaming services, direct contact… You are not working in the dark anymore, but are constantly revising plans in order to adapt best to how your game is evolving.

I’ve spent amazing nights in various War Rooms, with beers and cold pizza, checking curves and KPIs, watching streamers, and dreaming of what the game could become, and would do it all over again as long as I have the energy to do so.

Conclusion, Roadmap, and Flexibility

Considering your game as a long ongoing product-service can have terrific advantages in some cases. They can support your studio for years of steady incomes, grow your player base and game visibility, and legitimately be the most fun you’ll have working on a game, and I’d highly suggest to at least ask yourself this question before launching one. Your plans will of course be more humble than the ones I have discussed in this article, but they will be a powerful tool alongside the more classical ones (sequels, expansions, one-shot).

Should you ever want to try and ride the Live path (or simply consider some forms of post-launch exploitation), and to conclude this article, here are my few pieces of advice summed up:

  • Start Early: shifting mindset is difficult, and a post-launch game needs to be carefully prepared before Launch.
  • Prepare the first content drop before Launch: your first months will be hell polishing the game and discovering unplanned issues. Do not expect much development work to happen during them.
  • Know your budget, your team, and your game capabilities: by carefully looking inwards, accessible and realistic plans will appear and you will avoid falling for easy pits.
  • Focus on replayability: low-production, high-playtime content is key to buying yourself time to bring the next update to life while containing your game’s players’ drain.
  • Study your players’ motivations and consumption habits: each game has its own targets, each of them with different desires and expectations from the games they play. Knowing them will help you build a solid Live plan and roadmap.
  • Study Analytics: once your game is Live, qualitative data (Reddit posts, selected community, etc.) won’t be enough to make big decisions. You will need quantitative data (your game’s analytics) as well as the people to analyze them.
  • Stick close to your players: learn to let go (reasonably) of your creative vision, and accept that your game’s future will now also be shaped by your players. Team-work!
  • Be flexible: as your game will live, its context will evolve (new games on the market, different demographics entering your game, etc.). Try and stay flexible for change, both in terms of tech and creativity.
  • Brace yourself: this is going to be tough, and the rhythm will be vastly different than the one you had before Launch. But this doesn’t mean you can’t…
  • Enjoy the ride! These will be very exciting times. Make the best of it!

To continue on the topic: Six common mistakes when moving to live-service games and free-to-play

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