At the beginning of 2023, at least one thing we know for sure: mobile gaming studios will have to run LiveOps with speed like never before. Monetization is getting increasingly more challenging, forcing developers to focus on content quality and personalization versus how efficient their user acquisition is (because, frankly speaking, there doesn’t seem to be any light at the end of the dark UA tunnel, at least this year).
Most developers think: “My game is ready to face challenges because it has a good in-game shop with various offers. Also, we have a couple of hardcoded special offers and run several seasonal events throughout the year, such as Christmas and Halloween. Our players seem to be happy.”
The idea of this article is to give you a competitive advantage over this common way of thinking. This year, the race will not be about whether or not your game uses LiveOps tactics but how well your studio’s infrastructure and team can support an infinite pipeline of tests and user-level game personalization.
We start the article by looking at the most up-to-date definition of LiveOps. Next, we will discuss the industry’s new challenges, how marketing teams will adapt, and eight essential elements your product team should integrate into your live operations strategy to ensure the studio’s success this year.
You’ve heard about live operations many times and may think you know everything about it. Yet when you try to define the term, it turns out to be vague and includes everything from in-game events and promotional sales to support and community work.
LiveOps strategies help games become living and evolving organisms versus the ‘create – release – start a new project’ approach. When you run a game as a service, the release date is the beginning of a new life. Like a new organism, your game is evolving, keeping players constantly coming back for more fun and new experiences.
Let’s define LiveOps the following way: they are changes and updates you bring into the game after the release date to engage your players, create long-term relationships with them, and improve the LTV of your game.
Here are some examples of what LiveOps can be:
✅ Adding a skimming pricing* strategy in your shop
✅ Adjusting the frequency of ads to various segments of players
✅ Decorating a game for St. Valentine’s Day and adding new festive skins
✅ Promoting your in-game tournament on social media, where your community gathers
❌ Bug fixes and app productivity optimization
*Skimming pricing is initially setting a relatively high price for an offer and subsequently lowering it over time.
The most common and proven combination for your LiveOps strategy is combining in-game events and promotional sales. Sales are usually coupled with events to create urgency to buy. You can make a time-limited Black Friday sale with huge discounts or start selling new winter skins around Christmas time as a part of your winter in-game season.
The LiveOps examples described in this section are just a few most common ones. In reality, these tactics are limited only by your imagination and resources (such as employees and tools). Although, I must mention that new technology for running no-code content updates and LiveOps makes these limitations less of an issue.
Due to these technological developments and market uncertainty, we will be viewing many new creative tactics coming up. Further in this article, we will touch upon ‘custom FTUE’ (first-time user experience) as an example of a new personalization tactic that helps marketers improve the retention of their campaigns.
What makes LiveOps so important today
On the one hand, LiveOps activities help games be attractive for new players with their high demands constructed by the dynamic market. On the other, it helps entertain and retain old loyal audiences, which is crucial today – here is why.
Games monetization has never been more challenging than today. Consumers are cutting their expenses everywhere, and games are not an exception. Games suffered a 16% drop in IAP in 2022. Ad monetization doesn’t look like a solid alternative to boost revenue either. It continually shows a negative trend in most countries, forcing studios that heavily relied on ads (hello, hypercasual) to reconsider their strategy and turn towards LiveOps.
The latest Sensor Tower’s gaming report indicates that Live Ops is a primary monetization and retention element of top-grossing games that help them maintain long-term player engagement and spending. The world’s top 10 mobile games in 2022 supported their titles through this approach.
Let’s not forget about one more challenge studios have to deal with: the state of UA is broken. In response to declining IAP and ad revenue, marketing budgets are shrinking – while CPI, on average, continues to grow. Studios start looking into the potential of organic installs and retention tactics because monetizing a loyal player is often cheaper than acquiring a new one.
According to a recent Unity gaming report, user acquisition is the most challenging part of game operations.
Along this line, Eric Seufert predicts that in 2023 “user-level personalization will create a competitive advantage and overtake user acquisition in terms of resourcing and internal studio infrastructure.” Game studios will have to compete on the quality and personalization of experiences rather than on how to attract more players.
It doesn’t mean that paid user acquisition is dead, but rather that new practices will be adopted by marketers. The idea of custom FTUE (first-time user experience) for new players can become a defining one in the future. Let’s look at it in more detail.
A new concept of custom FTUE to change the marketers’ game
Nowadays, stores allow you to make a lot of custom pages with different presentations of the game, advertising sources allow you to bring people not to the default page but to custom ones. The next logical step is to give a personalized experience for new players inside the game – let’s call it a ‘custom first-time user experience’.
It’s time for marketers to remember that they are not just lead generators. Product and marketing teams must work hand in hand from the earliest stages of a product. Because at the end of the day, they will need to put different users on different roads throughout a game.
Imagine if players from your creative or campaign could be automatically directed to one of the multiple-game scenarios that is the best fit for them. For example, players can be welcomed by a character they saw in a creative or rewarded with bonus diamonds they were promised to get in your campaign.
We are witnessing how the market pushes studios to explore new creative tactics to beat the competition and stay afloat. LiveOps provides a broad ground to solve this problem since it is all about creativity and action that keeps your players entertained and your LTV high (win-win!).
The 8 pillars of effective LiveOps strategy
Now from market trends and concepts down to more practical implementation. Let’s look at several essential elements a LiveOps strategy should be built on to ensure your studio can stand this year’s competition. It’s a good list of points if you start planning your strategy from scratch or need revision.
A system to store and manage the game balance
An example of game balance storage and editor.
Your game certainly has many items that players can buy, consume, win, find, wear, you name it. You may as well have other components in your game, such as quests, tutorial parts, dialogues, etc. One of the most common ways to run LiveOps is by updating this content. You can add new weapons/boosters/skins or change their qualities, experiment with pricing, or delete items that are unpopular among players from your shop.
This means you need a system to store and manage game content in a convenient way. Usual spreadsheets will work fine initially, but you will quickly notice how they slow down your workflow, lack flexibility, and make it almost impossible to navigate hundreds or thousands of items. Besides, spreadsheets entail lots of risks related to human error – app crashes and broken game logic will be your companions when you scale LiveOps and launch several updates per week.
To handle game content efficiently, you need to develop a professional game balance interface that doesn’t lag from the tone of content and provides straightforward navigation and data validation. Ideally, it should also be seamlessly connected to remote configs – the next essential component of your tech stack.
Remote config is a technology that helps developers change the appearance or functionality of their games remotely (without requiring users to download an app update).
How it works in most cases: a game designer updates game balance data in spreadsheets and brings these spreadsheets to programmers. Programmers do a bit of magic with JSON – and voila – changes to the game are made without releasing a new app version.
While JSON is definitely the most popular format to work with a remote config, it will not give you a competitive advantage. There are solutions on the market that allow you to change the game without coding, thus reducing the workload of programmers.
Imagine that your game designers can have complete power to turn the handles of the game economy and conduct events and sales remotely – this is the workflow to think about when operating your game live this year.
To increase your game LTV, you need to treat each user differently. Of course, it doesn’t make sense to target each user and create millions of unique content pieces and offers. That’s where segmentation comes in handy. It’s easier to group users into segments based on criteria (for example, think about RFM segmentation) and then target these segments.
You may want to offer a discount for paying players that haven’t purchased anything in the last month to activate them. Or it could be a good idea to reward whales with free exclusive skins to work on whales’ retention. It’s up to you to develop ideas, but make sure your tools are flexible enough to support your segmentation needs.
Besides classic RFM/monetization segmentation, some studios are experimenting with segmentation based on ad-watching activity. A typical scenario we’ve learned from our clients: developers are taking old players that have watched ads hundred times but have never made a purchase and offering them a 70-90% discount. Thus, they are increasing the paying share and moving their monetization from ads to IAPs, which is the economic transition we will be viewing this year in the context of a negative eCPM trend.
We’ve already mentioned special offers a few times in this article because it is an essential element of LiveOps activities that aim to improve monetization. Unlike LiveOps retention and engagement tactics, sales results are easily measurable and immediate. You create a special offer in the in-game shop, players make purchases, and you evaluate the sales metrics.
There are different types of special offers: first-purchase bonuses, limited-time offers, chain deals, gifts, daily bonuses, etc. There is no universal formula on which offers always work best. Offers may vary even among games of the same genre, so you must conduct many experiments to find combinations of offer types and their placement that works for your game. This is why hardcoding offers in the game or using JSON does not look like a sustainable solution, if you are planning scale your LiveOps and do a lot of experiments.
An example of chain deals in Homescapes. You need to buy two offers for real money to unlock a free reward.
When you have a new idea for your game – you can’t wait to try it and are 100% sure of its success. But before releasing any change for the entire audience, don’t forget to test it. Be that a new onboarding, a special offer, custom pricing, or an in-game challenge – don’t rush and compare its performance with a control group of players playing the game’s old version.
Think in the direction of no-code A/B testing, where you can select segments of players and change their game experience remotely, as well as change it back quickly in case the test hasn’t shown desired metrics (which is a very common situation you need to be ready for). You should be able to switch different versions of your game on and off like there is a lightning-fast remote control in your hands.
When it comes to Live Operations, data is king. When developers launch a new special offer or event, they must analyze the results to determine its effectiveness. Analytics provides insights into how many players participated, how much revenue was generated, and whether the offer or event was profitable. Don’t forget about the ‘hangover’ effect usually present after the sales are finished.
In addition to analyzing the results of special offers and events, analytics is critical in conducting A/B testing. By analyzing the data generated during A/B testing, developers can decide which version to release to players to grow target metrics. According to many developers, A/B test correct analytics is actually the most challenging and time-consuming part of LiveOps.
Events are great for refreshing your game, increasing the engagement of loyal players, and attracting new ones. In search for inspiration, you can look around for real-life holidays (such as Easter, Christmas, and Halloween), major world events (for example, sports championships, iconic concerts, and movie releases) or create your own events, such as seasonal challenges and tournaments among your players.
A good example is Call of Duty Season 10: World Class, released around the time of the FIFA World Cup 2022. During this in-game event, players were allowed to play as football legends Neymar Jr, Lionel Messi, and Paul Pogba. The soccer stars did not come for free – to unlock them, players had to pull their lucky draw using the premium currency.
Call of Duty: Season 10 World Class
When planning your events, keeping a calendar is the way to go. Again, you can adapt spreadsheets for this purpose or (a preferred option) synchronize your calendar with a remote config and A/B testing platforms to immediately reflect new events and changes in your calendar. This will save you a lot of time that otherwise would go on keeping your spreadsheet calendar constantly updated.
An example of what an event calendar can look like.
Messaging is another effective way to keep your players engaged, combat churn, and potentially improve monetization. You can announce new challenges and events, share your studio’s news, make special offers, conduct surveys, or send gifts to players that haven’t been active for X days. The most popular game outreach channels are in-app messages, push notifications and emails.
Personalization is a key trend in messaging for LiveOps, as it allows you to tailor your messages to individual players’ preferences and interests, resulting in higher engagement and conversion rates. Additionally, using data analysis and segmentation, you can target specific groups of players and improve your messaging strategy.
Royal Match’s push notifications strategy is quite intense!
Community and support teams play a crucial role in LiveOps by serving as bridges between your product and players. These teams are responsible for communicating updates, organizing surveys, gathering feedback, and creating a solid community that people want to be a part of.
When you launch a new tournament, your community manager is the one to promote it on social media and explain its rules to players. When you’ve launched a new challenge that your players dislike, support managers that process store reviews are the first to notice the problem and raise the alarm.
It’s important to remember that the human aspect of the game is just as important as the technical aspect, and that’s why community and support teams are essential to the success of a live game.
As game monetization is getting more challenging in 2023, LiveOps strategies will be crucial for standing the competition for LTV.
However, the key to success will not simply be in offering special deals and events to players but in the ability of your studio to adapt and personalize content quickly. Personalization will become the primary competitive advantage in the market, surpassing other strategies in terms of resources and internal studio infrastructure.
Is your studio ready to enter the 2023 LiveOps challenge?