The year was 2009 and Apple had just changed the in Appstore policy to allow Free applications to offer in app purchases.
You see up until this point, in-app purchasing was NOT allowed if your game or application was free. The idea being that it would be a mis-direct to consumers. This led to the first few early games as a service to make the currency purchases actually separate binaries someone had to buy. So.. if you wanted 100 gold coins for your kingdom builder game, you’d need to buy the $9.99 version of that game, install it and then go back to the original “free” version.
This was some of my first taste of seeing what Live Service games could offer.
I hated it at first. Thought it was dumb. Overly complicated. I just wanted to pay $10 for a mobile game, play it and move on.
Then things changed rapidly and the evolution of how we built and ran games was dramatically altered almost overnight. The race to the bottom was fast.
Since those early days Live Games have had a love/hate relationship with most gamers, but how they’ve spoken with their wallets is extremely clear. Players spend an insane amount of time and money playing games that are setup as a service, and not a straight boxed product.
This article is not about that, but it sets the context.
To this day, 14 years later many, many teams and developers still have no clue how to build or run a game in this way.
Here are three things you are likely doing wrong:
1.You only have 1 team handling the entire pipeline.
The single biggest productivity hack we developed on The Simpsons Tapped Out was building out 3 separate pods that leapfrogged each other in development. This allowed pods to go through a Start-Up style mentality where they had to pitch big ideas, get feedback and ship all within 6 months to the senior leaders. This gave a cycle to the development, allowed for people to plan their lives/downtime and created a little bit of healthy internal competition between pods. This was not too dissimilar to how FIFA or Madden made their yearly release teams, but just at a much smaller scale.
We had previously built one giant monolithic pipeline where you had to be “on” all the time. This led to massive burnout, a lot of pressure on everyone and we lost some of the best up and coming talent to never having downtime.
The structure and systems we built out saved time, increased quality and in the end created much happier staff. Take a look at how your team and pipeline is structured. It’s likely not setup in a conducive way to handle long term content pipelines.
2. You don’t realize content is king.
Many games think that if they just build out a battle pass, slap in some currency on a progression path that players will care about it and shell out their money. I’ve seen so many battle passes, content pushes that are simply just currency, small trinkets, or useless items.
Building content is expensive, and trying to control your budget is always looming. However, if you don’t build out a proper content pipeline and find a way to feed that furnace your game will die.
When you’re building out your game, make sure you find what your players love, then build that over and over again. Games like Marvel Strike Force release a new character every 2 weeks like clockwork. Characters can be expensive to build from the design, kit creation, balancing, 3D modeling, licensing approval processes, story creation, content, testing, etc. However, without that constant drip of new shiny stuff they wouldn’t have been as successful as they are.
It seems simple, but build stuff your players want. Then give them more of it.
3. You haven’t created a balance that allows players to choose what they want to invest: Time or Money
So you’ve created this amazing live event that is going to last for a month. You perfectly balance the whole progression, players are finding they can engage at a slightly elevated level, but feel rewarded for doing so. However, at the end of the event, some players might have missed a day or two because of traveling, family issues, and life.
You now have a whole cohort of players that reached 95% completion rate, and you DONT offer a chance to pay to catch up and get that last little bit of time back from those missed days.
I’ve seen so many games that don’t properly let players buy time back in limited releases, or even provide efficient mechanics to allow users to pick their comfort level with either spending time or money. On one extreme you’ll have the college student who happens to have way more time to play then money, on the other hand you have the rich tech executive that can only play in his commute into San Francisco.
You are likely not finding the right way to balance those two extremes, letting people pick where they want to fall along that path. You’re leaving money and engagement on the table by not properly servicing both through content, offers, and mechanics.
Running a successful Live Service game is extremely hard work. However it is one of the most fulfilling things you can do as a game developer if you wrestle with it. No other game development medium lets you build something, release it, measure it, and do better the next time like LiveOps.