We speak to developers about how they keep their games fresh and their audiences engaged over the months and years after launch.
Developing a game is a significant undertaking, but for many developers the creative process doesn’t stop there.
A huge host of games companies use community management and live ops to keep their audiences engaged and attract new players. Done well, these activities can keep a single game or franchise profitable, or even propel it toward greater success than at initial launch.
“In this ever-changing, fast-paced world, it is not enough anymore to just deliver a game and that’s it,” says Stefan Walter, product head for Forge of Empires at InnoGames. “People want to dive into it, experience it for a longer time and create something on their own. Having a one-time content delivery, like we used to have back in the day with a boxed game, just isn’t enough anymore. 24/7 excitement is the level of entertainment expected these days.”
What does ‘live ops’ mean?
But these activities, and the machinations behind them, remain mostly behind the scenes: not so clear to the eye of the average player. So what does live ops entail?
“Live ops consists of a few things in my honest opinion: first, [making sure] there is exciting new stuff on a regular basis, something that brings the players back and offers other reasons to come back and check out the game,” says Walter. “It’s like a new episode of a series of your choice. For us, that means seasonal events, ages and in general everything that drives the player forward to improve their city.”
Next, he says, is technical quality – a crucial aspect of maintenance for a mobile title such as Forge of Empires.
“We have a very high internal standard and allocate significant resources to maintain top notch technical quality – be it the pure bug count or the size of the app, the download times for the updates or the loading times of any module within the game. Tech cannot be done just once, but needs frequent care as well.”
A huge part of the Forge of Empires strategy hones in on a ‘players come first’ mentality, with the company focusing on feedback, monitoring all systems, reading app-reviews, doing A/B tests, observing the competition and doing user tests.
“Validation of happiness is key for us,” Walter explains. “While the practice itself didn’t really change, the tools we have in 2020 are much better for it than those we had in 2012.”
He adds that the crux of an effective live ops strategy marries entertainment with business goals and technical necessities: “In the end, nothing works without the other. Doing only fancy things in-game but ignoring tech works for a few months maybe before users churn, because the app is getting too slow, big or inconvenient to use. Doing it the other way around brings the same result. There isn’t something like the most important – it’s the mix of it all that makes a successful game or service.”
Live ops is a fast-changing field, and includes a set of operations that needs to be integrated into games’ overall lifecycles.
“I’ve only really been involved in the live operations cycle for about a year and half
now,” says Kieran Taylor, associate producer on live ops for F1 2020 at, Kieran Taylor, “but even in that time I can see how things have progressed, both as a developer and a gamer.
“It used to be that a game would be released, there would be a typical patch cycle period and then support would fall off – particularly true for annual franchises. There has been a shift to support titles longer and I feel like we’ve embraced that well here. We’ve created a dedicated team whose sole focus is on the current title and that means that we aren’t pulling resources from other areas of the business. This also means we don’t need to schedule work around other critical points of development.”
And its benefits move beyond player engagement at Codemasters, with live ops contributing to expanding and optimising the game itself.
“It’s not only about what the game currently has to offer but actually expanding on its feature set and making quality of life improvements that maybe wouldn’t make it previously,” continues Taylor. “This has really been the big benefit of how live ops has changed over the years, as it brings more content to games that people love.”
The importance of community management
While technical updates and captivating new content are a huge part of managing a game post-release, it can be easy to overlook gaming’s vast array of community managers. The people who build up and nurture a game’s audience behind the scenes.
“I believe that one of the most important emotions and ‘vibes’ that an individual in a community should feel is that they belong to something big and that they are being listened to,” says Michal Napora, owner of video games marketing agency 32-33. Napora’s gaming credits include Dying Light, The Sinking City and Blair Witch.
“Community work is a two-way communication – you won’t build a community if the leader doesn’t listen. So talk with the people that follow you, see what they like, dislike, and hear their opinions. They can be a fountain of knowledge for post-release content.
“The funny thing is, as a developer, you might paint an image in your head as to what players will be doing with your game... [But] once the game is out and in players’ hands, you might be surprised by the things that they do with it.
“You might have a survival game and you might bet your whole life savings that the survival mechanics is what players will enjoy doing the most. However, after release, you might realise that in fact it’s the crafting and selling of goods that they enjoy the most. And soon, they might start begging you for more things to craft and sell. I’ve seen this happen to a few games that I worked on, and listening to the community gave us so many new ideas for content and directions. We gave people what they wanted, and that gave us better comments, reviews, opinions of our game and studio, and was overall a better experience for everyone involved.”
Napora urges games developers to listen to what their community says, because “There’s gold in there,” and also, to plan the message they want to communicate – because that’s a topic in and of itself. But why is creating an engaged community so important for games right now?
“Well, there are two sides to it,” says Napora. “One is the whole ‘social media is everywhere, and you have to be on it to win it.’ Social media can turn your community into one heck of a promotional tool. Going viral, well, everyone loves that – and ‘spicy tweets.’
“However, the other side of it is that if you don’t have a community, or you don’t engage with your fans, people will go somewhere else. There are so many great games with great communities out there. Gamers are spoiled for choice. So if you don’t engage and make people feel that they are being listened to, that they are part of something bigger, and that they matter, they will go somewhere else that will fill that void.”
The rise of influencer marketing and social media messaging
Even without these elements, a community is a surprising boon for a games developer.
“Your community will be your word-of-mouth channels. They will also be the first ones to share your trailers and other promotional material,” Napora explains. “They can be the ones that spread the word about you. And if you ask really nicely, they can also leave positive reviews of your game on Steam, PlayStation, Xbox Store. They can be the catalyst of any fire that you want to start.”
And yet, actually engaging a community is easier said than done. How exactly can games developers acquire a strong following?
“Honesty, transparency and most definitely being genuine,” says Kevin Tihon, community manager for Nimble Giant Entertainment. “Players will quickly notice if it's just a facade you put up for metrics or sales. The vast majority is in this industry because we truly love video games as a medium and we are just excited as everyone else about upcoming events, video game launches and so on. We're just like anyone else in our playerbases and truly love gaming, so there never should be a ‘them vs us’ mentality or game developers being put on a pedestal.”
Furthermore, with the likes of Twitch and YouTube propelling some games to instant success, developers have more folks to appeal to than their communities. In the case of Nimble Giant Entertainment, rapper Snoop Dogg playing its game SOS on his Twitch channel garnered an audience of over 80,000.
“I think one of the biggest impacts, which probably comes to no surprise, was being involved with influencer relationships,” says Tihon. “The amount of hours watched spread across all the big streaming platforms is mind-blowing and some titles have seen massive success thanks to the extra eyes on their projects – next to being just brilliant games to begin with.”
He continues: “The biggest example for that currently is Among Us, which is breaking record numbers and winning awards two years after its initial release. Connecting with content creators and making sure they themselves and their communities are taken care of and being appreciated rather than just ‘another face on the product’ is a very humbling and exciting activity that I truly enjoy, be it through special reward codes, cosmetics that involve their branding or just being active in their communities and streams and being approachable.”
How are live ops and community management evolving?
Clearly, live ops and the ways in which games developers engage with their communities has changed under the advent of social media, video streaming and other immediate and far-spread ways we consume content. But what do the developers see as its future?
“Games need to offer more and more user-specific elements. Not only at launch, but also after. Every player wants to feel home within their game. Every player has their own way of exploring the game and building up their own user journey,” says InnoGames’ Stefan Walter.
“Games can only be successful by delivering such a complex system and offering updates on all elements over its lifetime. The future? Well, being even closer to all players out there and offering games, or any other form of entertainment, that allow for individualised consumption.”
Codemasters’ Kieran Taylor, however, believes that the future is in content: It can only ever be good for both players and studios to have more content make its way into the game. For the players, you get more of what you love, expand their immersion and gameplay experience and feel valued by the creators. For the studios it means continued growth in the current user base, data to analyse and help inform a myriad of decisions in both the current and future titles.”
He also cites the season pass route, as adopted in games like Fortnite, as a successful way to engage and reward users.
Meanwhile, on the community management front, Nimble Giant’s Kevin Tihon hopes to see more transparency on the side of developers to keep the flow of conversation going. Besides that, he also wants more genuine support for inclusivity.
“I hope we as an industry will strive even further for inclusivity and uplift all marginalised voices,” he concludes. “And stop just changing our profile pictures to the flavour of the month and then simply move on with life.”
According to 32-33’s Michal Napora, the future of any game ultimately relies on where its community takes it.
“Once your game is out, and players have it in their hands, the imagination is gone and reality sets in. They are experiencing your product, they are moulding it in their hands. So now the communication is different, and depending on the launch, it can go in different directions,” he says.
“This is the moment you collect feedback and you listen to what people are saying. There might be some issues that seem to repeat, and suggestions that get a lot of community support. Listen to what people are saying, as this will help you figure out in which direction you should head next.”