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April 20, 2021
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LiveOps Essentials Part 2: The Cadence

by Michael Moran on 03/08/21 10:50:00 am   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.

 
Mobile game liveops essentials article | UserWise

My last article on LiveOps walked you through the events, their components, and the strategies you need to create them intentionally. But cadence? Cadence looks at something a whole lot less concrete.

Don’t get me wrong — I have actionable steps, clear instructions, and quite a few tips coming your way. It’s just that, underneath all of those tidbits, there’s an ocean of malleability. The waves are swelling and crashing, the wind is changing speed and directions, and you — with a calm sense of confidence — are letting the variables guide you.

So with that image in mind, I’d like to introduce you to cadence. The thing that’ll decide when you implement which events, how you plan your overall strategy, and why you’re adjusting the way you’ll be adjusting.

And yes, there will be plenty of adjusting.

So first off, what is cadence? Cadence is essentially your rhythm and flow. Think of it as the musical notes that make a symphony. Your goal with cadence is to find the right musical notes to make your game (and your players) sing. ðŸÅ½¶

Cadence requires you to be easygoing, astute, and curious. It demands that you observe, ask questions, and learn. And in order for it to give you what you want it to give you, it absolutely needs you to be flexible.

In the land of cadence, there is no certainty. There is no promise, and there is no guarantee. There’s only your game, your events, and your audience. So watch it all very closely.

Proactive Design

With your LiveOps cadence, what you’re always looking to find is the perfect release schedule for the two things that comprise your LiveOps strategy: your game client and your content.

Your Game Client

The application that needs to be installed in order to make sure your players are experiencing the most up-to-date (and high-functioning) version of your game possible, the game client requires its own release schedule. How often will you issue new bug fixes? How frequently will you put out new content that requires tweaks in the client? These are the questions you need to be asking yourself — and before you pick a cadence, make sure you’ve done your research into what other games are doing.

Mobile game liveops essentials article | UserWise

Why is this cadence so integral? Because if you lag on updating your game client, not amending it often enough, the quality of the gameplay you’re offering will undoubtedly go downhill. Rampant bugs and unchanging content will leave your audience frustrated, annoyed, or bored. But, if you go update-crazy and force your players to update their apps too frequently, you might be looking down the barrel at frustration and annoyance all the same.

So what’s a game to do?

I don’t want to overrun you with the “B’ word, but I’m going to say it anyway: like all things LiveOps-related, you’re aiming for b-b-balance here. The right balance. Prioritizing gameplay quality and freshness while being mindful of not overwhelming your players with actions-required. It’s delicate to determine, but when you do?

Nothing short of magic.

Mobile game liveops essentials article | UserWise

Your Content

This one doesn’t require as much of an introduction since, if you followed instructions and took notes on Part I of this series, you’re already well acquainted. What I will say is this: where your game client needs to be installed with active updates, your content — that is, the fresh features, events, and tweaks that don’t require any tweaking in the client — can be delivered to your players through internet connection. Which means to have the latest content at their fingertips, all they need is wifi or cell signal.

Obviously, this gives you the freedom to release content on a more frequent basis, since it requires no intentional action from the players. This is your key to LiveOps: a steady stream of content that is waiting there for your players — ready to surprise them, excite them, and keep them coming back.

So, with all of that said, how often should you be releasing new content? How frequent is too frequent? What’s going on in the backend during every release?

I’ll give you two preliminary answers.

First, pinpointing the correct cadence for any game isn’t a one-and-done effort. You can’t possibly know what your audience wants, when they’ll want it again, and when they’ll be sick of getting it — because your audience doesn’t even have that information yet. So get ready to learn and grow together.

And second? The way you figure out the best cadence schedule for your content is by… implementing the wrong ones first. Try, fix, try, fix — this pattern will be your new best friend.

The Planning

So we know there will be trial and error, but how do you choose the right trial first? How do you know where to start, and how do you know what to take into account when?

The best jumping-off point is getting these factors nailed down:

Three aphorisms to live by

1. Know Thy Capabilities

Mobile game liveops essentials article | UserWise

First thing’s first — it’s one thing to dream up a crowded content calendar with a release cadence that’s bordering on insane, but it’s quite another to be able to actually implement it. Before you let your ambitious plans carry you up into space, you’ve got to make sure you have the support you need to execute.

Do you have the digital tools you need to create the content in the timespan you’ve allotted?

Do you have the horsepower for content production on top of everything else your game needs to function day-to-day?

Do you have the team members on standby the day after release to make sure all bugs are zapped before they become a real problem?

Before you get to drawing up your plans, make sure you know what you can do. That’ll give you a benchmark to start from — and it’ll show you where the gaps that you need to fill in are sitting pretty. And before you ask: no — I’m not saying you’re forever limited by the types of tools, the number of team members, or the amount of time you have. I’m saying you need to take stock of all of that first — and then, once you pinpoint your goals, figure out what needs to change to turn them into reality.

2. Know Thy Audience

Mobile game liveops essentials article | UserWise

The point of developing the perfect cadence isn’t to impress yourself or your team. It’s to impress your audience. And the only way you’ll ever be able to do that is by knowing your audience. How frequently are they playing? What are the other games fighting for their attention, and how often are they releasing their new content? Find out your audience’s expectations, find out their behaviors, and you’ll be closing in on what you need to be doing much faster.

But general expectations and general behaviors aren’t enough. Not really, anyway. If you want to truly carve out your place in the market, you’ve got to step it up. That means looking at which days of the week your audience engages the most, and planning your cadence around them. It means researching the most popular games in different regions and making sure your release cadence is offering your region-specific playerbase the same — if not more — excitement.

Some examples to ask yourself:

  • Do you know when your players get paid?
  • Do you have regional holidays on a calendar somewhere?
  • Do you consider bathroom break times?

The more details you have, the better positioned you’ll be to design a cadence that works. But, like we said: where there’s failure, there’s room to grow. A key way you’ll learn about what your audience desires is by giving them something and observing their reactions. We’ll get into analytics later on, but for now — mental-bookmark it. Observation leads to better execution. Always.

3. Know Thy Game

Mobile game liveops essentials article | UserWise

Just like when it comes to developing content, when it comes to developing your cadence — the strategy lies within. What does that mean? That your game — its framework, its reach, its distinctive traits — will help you dictate your release schedule. Or at the very least point it in a specific direction.

Let’s look at an example: if your game is oriented around skiing the slopes of the biggest mountains, you’ll likely want to tie your content schedule to the Winter Olympics, the X Games, and other notable winter sporting competitions. Not only does this approach make for ‘stickier’ marketing efforts, but it’ll also give you a great way to further connect your audience’s real-world lives to your game (and connect your community to each other).

Another example? The game Marvel Strikeforce planned its cadence with the releases of Marvel movies in mind, so they can cross-promote and lean into the momentum of an already-excited audience.

While holiday content (like Christmas & Easter) is always great, going the extra mile and finding unique places for your cadence to distinguish itself in a real-world context can lead to some pretty fantastic results. For the big guys and for the smaller ones.

You’re The Captain ⛵

The final tip for cadence design I’ll leave you with is this: you’re the captain. You’re the mastermind orchestrating the symphony, and you’re responsible for making sure you’re actively taking your audience’s needs into account. At every checkpoint.

In order to do that sufficiently, you must be mindful of two distinctly important variables:

Event Intensity

The degree of engagement (marked by effort) required by the players for any expanse of time, the intensity of your events needs to be carefully identified — and tracked. Throwing your audience 10 high intensity events consecutively has a high likelihood of being too much for the average player, while implementing 10 minimal-intensity events in a row can seem… lame. (And don’t underestimate the deterrent power of lameness.)

Examples of high-intensity events: long-lasting totalizers, grinding leaderboard challenges, and week-long tournaments, to name a few. Essentially, any content that requires the total, uninterrupted focus of a player — with a lot on the line. For that reason, group events tend to be more intense than individual events, because there’s more pressure on the individual players to do their part. And where there’s pressure, there’s intensity.

But remember: your players only have a finite amount of time, money, and stamina. If you push them too hard with too many high-intensity events, even your most dedicated fans can get exhausted — and turned off from the game altogether. But high-intensity events are still important to integrate into your cadence because they tend to lead to higher rates of engagement. So how do you balance the intensity of sequential games out? How do you make sure you’re exciting players without overwhelming them?

Player Burnout

The dire consequence of hitting your playerbase with too many demanding, high-intensity events, this is what you’re always looking to avoid. In order to hit the right balance I recommend ranking an event intensity on a scale of 1–10, where 1 is assigned to casual and relaxed individual events (where participation is seen as optional), and 10 represents group-based efforts with high levels of competition and peer-pressure.

With that ranking system in mind, you want to plan your cadence by strategizing the right sequence of events, based on intensity. By figuring out the pattern of your event intensity early on, you’ll be better equipped to intentionally craft the events’ designs — and make sure consecutive events are still fresh for your audience.

Here’s an example intensity curve we recommend as a starting point. It spans 10 weeks, with one event per week — and while it doesn’t give you the event details, it does let you know where each should fall on the intensity scale:

1–2–4–7–9–3–2–8–10–7

Mobile game liveops essentials article | UserWise

Notice that the sequence starts slow, building to higher-intensity events before decreasing back down. This modulation helps to keep events exciting for players, as they have enough time between higher-intensity challenges to recharge their energy — and actually miss the intenseness. Plus, this pattern leaves room for multiple event formats, so you can keep your content refreshing throughout the ten weeks.

Obviously, proactive design gives your LiveOps cadence the sturdy foundation it needs to be truly impactful. But once you have the design, what comes next?

Strategic Implementation

This is where your team has its time to shine. When it comes to the implementation of your LiveOps cadence, coordination is king. You have to be pushing towards the same goal in-sync, you have to be aware of what each and every moving part is up to, and you have to be able to rely on your teammates actually executing.

Because implementation is a team sport. And if things aren’t happening on time, to expected quality, or at all — then your whole LiveOps strategy may be out the window. And with the importance of LiveOps in today’s games model, that’s a situation you don’t want to have to deal with.

So: implementation. What sort of operations should be running? What sort of scheduling should you enact? What sort of problems should you be keeping an eye out for?

Let’s get your well-warranted curiosity some answers.

The Basics

Once you have the foresight of your design, implementing your cadence is a three-step process: Creating, Releasing, and Fixing.

1. Creating:

Your team produces all of the content needed for the planned event(s), transforming your plans into something real.

2. Releasing:

Based on an intentionally-designed release schedule, your team sends the content live — opening it up for players to engage.

3. Fixing:

Immediately after the content is released, your team is on standby — ready to fix any bug or disruption as soon as it comes up.

Because you’ve heeded my advice from earlier and not bit off more than you can chew as it relates to your design — namely, that you have the digital tools you need to be able to actually create what you’ve intended to create — the creation phase should be fairly straightforward.

What I will say is, make sure you’re keeping track of how long each task takes to complete. Not in theory, but in practice. And once you’ve created a couple of events, circle back and see if those times are accounted for in your future scheduling plans. Is your team finishing tasks quicker than planned? Slower? Is there room for tweaks? For increased productivity? Tracking this phase will enable you to streamline your backend processes — and improve them — without any sort of major complexity or expense.

Now onto the releasing. Drumroll please.

Assuming you’ve done your research into the behavior of your audience, you know when they’re engaging the most. Whether that’s at the beginning of the week at 10am or late at night on Fridays, your content releases should be oriented around their behavior. But they should also take backend logistics into account.

The popular method of orchestrating releases ensures that there’s a full day for finding and reacting to live issues immediately after. So, if you release your content on a Thursday, your day of fixing is the Friday.

Your Operations

Like with any team sport, LiveOps requires that all involved parties are motivated, dialed in, and purposeful with their actions. And that requires that their working environment is someplace they feel excited to be a part of.

Tips for making sure every member of your team is locked and loaded to give the release cadence’s implementation their all? Don’t worry — I’ve compiled my favorites right here.

Avoid unnecessary “crunches”

Crunches are, according to long-time game producer Grant Shonkwiller: “Working more than 40 hours for a maximum of two weeks — voluntarily.”

So, if a major release is coming up and the tasks are taking longer than expected to complete, or if there’s a major issue that’s surfaced and it requires all hands on deck to solve, then crunch time is likely going to happen.

But the key word in Shonkwiller’s definition is “voluntary.” The producer, who’s had stints at Epic, id Software, and Megatouch, is adamant about avoiding staff burnout — which tends to happen when crunches turn into a more constant ‘overworking’ scenario, and become the expectation rather than the exception.

Not only is forced overworking (or peer-pressured overworking) terrible for morale, but it also leads to sloppier work, decreased motivation to hit goals, and a much reduced ability to think big-picture. (If your team’s always stressed about hitting the next four tasks on their list, they don’t have the time to think critically about broader issues. It’s time to lessen their load — and consider hiring more support.)

So, to ensure morale runs high and critical thought runs rampant, try to mitigate frequent or long-lasting crunches. Let your people work for the amount of time they expected to be working, and encourage them to meet goals and prioritize their energy in equal parts.

Allocate time strategically

This is a twofold strategy. On the one hand, it ensures that the operations unfolding in-house are unfolding intentionally; instead of there being a free-for-all of tasks, your team is divided up into groups, with each group being responsible for a different set of tasks (and having different dates for turnaround).

By making sure you have different people hustling at different times — and everyone fully locked into their group’s responsibilities — you’re helping a constant state of productivity to flourish. While giving your team space to rest when their tasks are up.

On the other hand, you need to be determining your overall timelines strategically too. Planning tasks — in terms of releases and sprints — in advance is crucial to your team’s functioning, but planning them too far in advance can be detrimental. So what’s too far? Anything beyond 3 months.

Given what we know about LiveOps cadence strategies — namely, that they’re bound to change — you can’t possibly know what content you’ll need 90 days in the future. Nor can you know what changes in scheduling, people, or tools you’ll need to account for. So why waste your time trying? Time is your scarcest resource, so make sure that everything that takes it from you is worth the investment.

Enact the right positions

The key to getting your operational power harnessed is creating a system that only allows for success — and that comes down to determining the right jobs for your people. By pinpointing which roles will be responsible for which tasks early on, you’re streamlining focus and eradicating any sense of confusion or chaos.

I already mentioned dividing your team into groups with alternating sprint/rest schedules, but that’s just one example of configuring the right framework. You also need to think about splitting your people between being ‘support’ for the players interacting with your game and being responsible for putting out new content.

Support is its own battlefield. It’s a 24/7 gig because you’ll (hopefully) have players playing all around the world, at all hours of the day, which means you need to orchestrate the correct shift schedule for your support team. Having at least one person on-call at all times means that bugs, grievances, and issues can be handled as soon (or as close to soon) as they surface, which is what your retention rate relies on to stay solid.

And then there’s your content team: the people who are responsible for ensuring the requisite tasks are completed on time so your content release cadence can go off as planned. Splitting this team into groups allows for different groups to tackle different pieces of content with clarity, always hyper-aware of what they’re working on, what their deadlines are, and when they get to rest (or slow it down).

The key? 🔑 Empowering each group to be self-sufficient, so they can handle the tasks they're allocated without much outside help. That’ll streamline the operations and make sure you’re not experiencing lags from Group 2 needing to help Group 1 with something, throwing off your overall cadence as a result.

The bottom line? When you have faith in your framework, everything will flow.

Factor in time for improvement

LiveOps is a constant game of self-improvement, where the self in question is your operational team. So make sure that, at every checkpoint, you’re leaving room for discovery — and improvement.

Obviously, this means that you should be building in scheduled time for bugs and iteration — because that’s never time wasted. (And it’s going to require your people’s attention regardless of whether it’s been scheduled in.) But aside from leaving room for urgent fixes, you should also be leaving room for your team to improve their own capabilities.

Maybe that means you track the operational flow for a couple of sprints, and then examine where there’s space for better productivity. Is there a task that’s taking longer than it should be, and can you determine the reason why? Is there a tool on the market that can better help your team complete a task quickly, and does it make sense to invest?

Are the processes efficient? Are the tools working? Does everyone have the knowledge they need to be executing perfectly (or close to it)?

Ask for your team’s input. See the spots they’re identifying as less than ideal, or complicated, or frustrating, and pool your heads together to come up with creative solutions. By building in time for reflection, analysis, and change, you’re not just checking a task off a list — but you’re actually making the entire foundation of your operations more solid. And that’s better for your team, your game, and your community in the long term.

The more determined you are to implement your LiveOps strategically, and the more open you are to thinking critically about how it’s going, the better your results will be. Building the right foundation, sticking to the aims you’ve established, and creating an environment where your team is motivated to kill it every day is the only way for your cadence to work sustainably.

Because this isn’t just a sprint. LiveOps is a marathon, and it’ll continue for as long as your game does. So implement it the right way. And then, once you’ve done that, you’re ready for this…

Quick shameless plug: At UserWise we’re working hard to build a tool that saves you and your studio loads of time with a calendar tool, campaign builder, offer builder, smart segmenting, and analytics all tied into one view. Our hope: reduce errors and crunches at studios.

In Conclusion…

Pinpointing the right cadence for your game’s LiveOps isn’t a quick endeavor. It can’t be executed once and forgotten about, and it can’t be thought of as a one-size-fits-all formula.

Because your cadence — the cadence that will drive the biggest results for your game — won’t have existed ever before. It won’t be identical to any schedule used by games in the past, and it won’t work for any of them in the future. Hell, it likely won’t even work for your game in the future.

And that’s because your cadence is hyper-specific. To your game, to your audience, and to the market today. To your team, to your tools, and to your current capabilities.

Like I said at the beginning: this is an always-in-flux process. It’s based on your commitment to observe, analyze, and adjust — and if you do those three things again and again, you’ll be rewarded.

Stay tuned for part 3, where we’ll dive into setting KPIs, LiveOps adjustments, marketing, and so much more.

Until next time. 

This article was originally posted on the UserWise blog.

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Oh, also - we started a community where game creators can learn and openly chat about what it's like to create and maintain a successful game. 

We'd love to have you join. It's a private community, so try not to tell too many people please.

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