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Understanding LiveOps
A variety of boards, some promotional and others information, engage an audience of gamers

Welcome to the LiveOps Academy blog series where we explore the art and science of LiveOps in video games. We’re kicking things off with a two-part introduction to LiveOps. Look for part two, “Running LiveOps,” in the coming weeks.

Why LiveOps Matters

The games industry has recently experienced explosive growth. In 2018, an estimated 2 billion gamers generated over 130 billion in revenue thanks to the rise of ubiquitous connectivity. Just how we got here can be broken into two chapters: Games as a Product, and Games as a Service.

Games as a Product

It all began with games as singular objects to be created, distributed, and consumed. This chapter of the games industry was dominated by premium, in-home experiences. Players needed dedicated hardware, an expensive piece of software or cartridge, and many hours set aside to focus solely on gaming. The business of games was also tightly linked with retail. The need for shelf space and the pressures of retail sales cycles necessitated a focus on advertising campaigns leading up to hotly anticipated game launches. Players and developers were strangers, with no Reddit tantrums or Twitter smear campaigns. This was the atmosphere when I entered the industry, and although I was already working on online games by the early 2000’s, we had very little contact with players outside of snail mail. For those working on console or non-connected PC games, the distance between themselves and the people playing their games was even greater.  

As access to high-speed internet expanded and online culture emerged, games changed, and we entered a new chapter: Games as a Service.

Games as a Service

Here, a new kind of game made its way into the mainstream: a game as an ongoing service. As games began to focus on player acquisition and funnels instead of retail cycles and ad buys, social and mobile games were in the best position to take full advantage of digital distribution. Developers started to form direct, transactional relationships with their players. But as social media exploded, communication between developers and players became more common, more frequent, and more emotionally-charged.

Now the Games as a Service chapter is ending, and we’re in the midst of changes so massive they deserve their own chapter. LiveOps.

LiveOps: An Approach for the New Era of Games

This is where things get wild. This experimental approach to game development has been practiced only by a handful of developers, but it’s becoming a vital tool for all games. LiveOps techniques have been around for decades and are at the heart of many of the world’s most profitable games. Consider the top grossing games world-wide in 2018 and 2019.

80% of crossover of top games from 2018 to 2019

Many of these games have been operating for years and are able to stay at the top of the revenue charts thanks to effective LiveOps techniques that focus on design and process for continual engagement. LiveOps is a powerful approach to game development that is vastly different to Games as Product, and although many Games as a Service use LiveOps to some extent, this approach is poised to be even more effective in the Games as Community era.

What is LiveOps?

It’s a portmanteau of Live Operations. “Live” refers to any game that is not static and has some element of connectivity. This doesn’t have to be a multiplayer or competitive game, just any game which is engineered and designed with inevitable change in mind. “Operations” means to take care of something over time. In reference to games, this implies actively managing a game over time. Operations can also refer to processes used to deliver the game. But that is just a definition, let’s look more closely at what LiveOps really means for game development.

LiveOps is a way of thinking about players

LiveOps calls on us to think of our players as a community. A complex group of people who come and go, have an evolving relationship with the game, and an evolving relationship with each other. Because LiveOps games build relationships with players over time, they have to consider long-tail motivations like the desire for new skills, deeper relationships, and more autonomy. Since players might play a LiveOps game for years, games must consider how they will fit into their players’ lives well beyond a singular entertainment experience.

LiveOps is an approach to design and game direction

LiveOps is a player-centric approach to game design, but it’s also a philosophy. Games as Product tend to be very developer-centric; they seek to deliver a developer’s story, a developer’s point of view, or a developer’s crafted experience. LiveOps games are different. These games are primarily focused on what the player wants, how to deliver opportunities to the player, and satisfying player needs. Not to say that LiveOps games lack design vision, they almost need it even more, as navigating the gap between what players say they want and what actually pleases them is an endless challenge. The LiveOps approach skews more toward satisfaction (how the player feels after playing) and away from attraction (how excited the player is before they play).

LiveOps is an experimentation-focused process

LiveOps isn’t just a philosophy. It’s also a powerful iterative approach to game development. Because we see our players as an ever-changing community, and our design is player centric, LiveOps games are never really done. We have to keep experimenting with and evolving the game to please our community. LiveOps achieves this through frequent game updates that test hypotheses about player behavior and evaluate the results with data. This necessitates the ability to push content and other changes frequently; LiveOps games are often architected as modular, independent features that can be iterated on without fear of dependencies. LiveOps games also usually store large amounts of content data on servers instead of in client apps so they can be changed without the need to distribute new client versions.

The Future is LiveOps

I have spent the majority of my 16 years in the industry working on live games and have found the LiveOps approach to development invaluable in creating games that retain and engage communities for many years. As more and more game developers shift focus to live games with hopes of developing longer relationships with their player communities, I hope these techniques will become more and more common and better understood. While there will always be games that have little need for LiveOps, I believe all game developers could benefit from understanding LiveOps. No matter what your level of need for LiveOps, hopefully we can all agree on the value of LiveOps and its increasingly important role in modern game development.

Thank you for reading!

Azure PlayFab is a complete backend platform of live games. Visit PlayFab.com to learn more about how to implement LiveOps into your game.

Looking for even more solutions? PlayFab is a part of Microsoft Game Stack which offers the tools and services indie game developers need to build, manage, and share their passion with their audience of gamers around the world.


ii. Global Gaming Market Report 2018 - Newzoo
iii. I am ignoring the coin-op era of games in this history. Coin-op games rose, flourished, and declined largely independent from the current course of the industry. Certainly, there are influences that survive today but they have little bearing on the topic, so I left them out.
iv. Most LiveOps techniques were perfected during the operation of MUD’s in the 1980s and 1990s, and many have origins in multi-session table-top gaming techniques practiced even earlier.
v. Superdata
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