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Live Events in Free-to-Play
Live Events are one of the pillars of the Live Games Trinity that turns up the voltage in your game. This article explores some of the…
Live Events are one of the pillars of the Live Games Trinity that turns up the voltage in your game. This article explores some of the practices you can use to tune your events for success.
There aren’t that many “best practices” because each game and each audience is different — but there are a number of methods that have worked in other f2p games that you can observe and experiment with.
If you need to understand more about why events work, I have an article on free-to-play economics that gives a high-level overview and the economic principles of scarcity.
You don’t need to do all of the suggestions here — but the ideas ought to give you some additional ways of thinking about your event systems.
Practice Agile Live Event Management
Agile development is built around a build->measure->learn loop. By monitoring each event you’ll learn powerful insights about who engages in events, what rewards players find motivating, the pacing and structure of rewards, the difficulty level, etc.
Be prepared to use these observations to improve your game on a regular basis. Since live events will become a regular part of operating your game, they become one of the major ways you’ll learn how to improve results over time.
Each of the following suggestions should be thought of with respect to this agile thinking; each feature is something you can try, learn from, and then decide whether to keep, eliminate or optimize.
Experiment with Event Cadence
You’ll need to experiment to figure out what the right cadence is for your game and your audience.
You can overlap events that operate concurrently; this is similar to how quest and mission systems frequently contain a mix of short, medium and longer-term goals that overlap with each other to create a consistent rhythm of opportunity, action and reaction to engage the player.
You can also experiment with events of different duration and intensity to discover what your audience prefers.
The goal is to engage your players, but not to fatigue them or distract them from engaging deeply with the most important features.
Make it Easy to Discover Events
The simplest way for people to discover events is to surface it within the contexts they already play in. Use it as an opportunity to preview why they’d want to participate.
The most common place is a splash screen when people are returning to the game. The other is in your shop, where you ought to be selling items relevant to the event.
Similarly, you can preview upcoming events to let players know what’s next in the schedule.
Feature Events within Questing Systems
Events work best when they become part of the habits players already have. To do this, you’ll want to make sure that you don’t simply surface events — but create added incentives elsewhere in the game to invite them into the event system. Examples include:
A quest journal that players work through, in which they’re directed to different parts of the game system in exchange for rewards.
A daily mission system in which players repeat certain tasks each day; the benefit is giving players a set of work to do that becomes a daily habit. This can include enticing them to participate in whatever event is running.
Achievement systems that typically track whether you’ve done something challenging N times. This could include playing in an event N times, or ranking at a certain level N times.Structure Live Events around something players do already
If players are actively engaged with the core game loop, then they’ll be most likely to engage with an event that contains something familiar. For example, in a fighting game built around levels, you could create a special event where you advance through a map with levels that will exist only for as long as the event. Rewards for the event could be something like progress towards unlocking a character with special abilities that’s desirable to players.
In this example, the character with special abilities could be extra-helpful in the current meta of the game beyond the event; if there are a lot of creatures to defeat that require fire damage, then getting a character with a great fire attack will be extra-interesting to people. Alternatively, you could foreshadow that fire damage will be helpful in the upcoming events and build an expectation of high value (which you’ll need to be careful to deliver on).
Use Live Events to fill Retention Gaps
Identify where players are falling off in your game by looking at how retention varies over time — but also what features people are engaging with over that course of time.
You may find that players are less likely to churn if they access certain features early enough (e.g., social features that generate greater stickiness with friends). In other cases, you may find that a feature is actually driving away a player if introduced too early — and your time is better-spent lengthening the content experience in an earlier feature before you deepen the engagement elsewhere.
Because events can provide a daily or weekly rhythm to your game, they can be strong retention features (which is the best way to generate long-term revenue). Events can also plug holes in the retention curve when other features can’t, and they’re often easier to swap into different parts of the timeline of game experiences than other features.
Pro tip: Don’t think of live events as purely an “elder game” feature. The best events are able to simultaneously give newer players a taste for what to expect from the game, while being deeply engaging for elder players.
Use Live Events to Introduce New Features
Not everything needs to be structured around the familiar. If you have a new minigame, a new resource, a new set of maps — a live event can be an excellent way to introduce players to this part of the game. However, do be careful about who you surface events built around this content to; newer players who are still learning the game can be confused if this sort of content is surfaced prematurely.
Use Dual-Incentive Reward Systems
There are two main reward types for participating in an event:
Ranked Rewards, in which you get better rewards relative to how you compared to other players.
Threshold Rewards, which are earned for achieving enough points for your event. In these, it doesn’t matter how the player compares to other players; if they do the work, they earn the reward.
The important point here is that these are not mutually exclusive systems. Many players will enjoy the threshold reward system who might be alienated by the competition of a ranked system. By having both, you can appeal to different player motivations.
Another trick-of-the-trade on ranked reward systems: cohort people into competitive groups of 100 or 1,000. Then have people compete within that cohort, rather than huge leaderboards of all the players. Being the millionth-ranked player feels too hard to achieve significant rank (which means players won’t engage).
Where to place rewards at both point thresholds and at certain ranks is a bit of an art. Pay close attention and learn from each event you run, and then tweak the reward structure accordingly. That said, I’ve found that most successful games:
Make some sort of threshold reward almost immediately available, the next reward only slightly harder than that, and then scale-up both reward quality and reward effort as the player gets deeper into the event.
Make some sort of ranked reward available for participating at relatively low levels of rank (e.g., at the 50% percentile) and the very best rewards at levels that will be more aspirational for most players.
Leaderboards with Real Time Feedback
Real-time feedback on how leaderboards are evolving relative to the player create much more engagement than requiring people to refresh things to see where they stand.
Likewise, giving feedback through celebration-moments for earning rewards, reaching ranks, etc. is critical to driving continuous involvement in the event.
Leverage Social Groups to Drive Participation
If you design events so that players groups (clans, guilds, alliances, etc.) compete with other groups, then you can tap into some powerful motivations:
Intrinsic: people enjoy hanging out with their friends. And peer pressure is a powerful force .
Extrinsic: give a guild currency (redeemable for special items from a guild shop) or other guild-specific reward for participating or ranking towards the top. Guilds will often establish norms that incentive people to participate in the event (and very hardcore guilds may not even allow people to remain members if they skip events).
Use Live Events to Reveal Story
Storytelling and cliffhangers are some of the most compelling experiences for players. Revealing more story through your event, concluding events with cliffhangers that bridge to the next episode, or highlighting dimensions of a character’s background are all powerful techniques.
Pro tip: while some people appreciate story, some don’t and are only interested in the rewards. They’ll tap through any storytelling elements. Don’t let this bother you — appealing to different player types is part of the art of event design. However, do pay attention to whether there’s a segment that’s engaged by it — if nobody seems to care, that ought to tell you something.
License Tie-Ins with Episodes
Several of the games I’ve operated were based on popular television shows like Star Trek and Game of Thrones. An effective strategy we employed was creating themed events based on the most recent episodes, drawing upon characters, items and storylines they had just seen.
If you do this, consider the following:
Create a virtuous cycle with media episodes. Media owners ought to see games as a reengagement vehicle as well — not simply a source of royalties. Strong partnerships with media partners generate virtuous cycles in which an episode provokes interest in returning to the game, which in turn holds the player’s interest until the next episode, continuing for as long as both coexist. Use mutual media channels to remind players of what’s happening in the broader community (including mentions of events that are being run in the game in the social channels available to your licensing partner).
Keep it timely — the faster you get your event up following the episode, the better. You want the story to be fresh in the player’s mind. This also forms an expectation that after they’ve seen an episode, they can expect an awesome event in the game.
Avoid spoilers. It’s usually safe to use characters or show an item in your event (in the same way that you catch glimpses of things in an episode trailer) but be very careful about spoilers. Not everyone will see an episode before playing the event. If you do want to reveal story through the game, make sure players come to expect it.
Events with Celebrities
There are two main categories of celebrities that you can build events around:
Players who are famous within the community of people already playing your game. This could be previous tournament winners, esports stars, or community leaders.
Celebrities who are famous for something outside of the game. Fortnite built a live music event with Travis Scott that brought in over 40 million viewers. The YouTube video has been subsequently viewed over 150 million times, and during the event is drove an increase of over 400K new signups per day.
To capitalize in the personality, make sure you work out an arrangement where they leverage their online and social channels to pull in new players.
Your events should be localized to the languages your game is made available in. You’ll want to structure your content schema and processes to make it easy to author the language variants so that you can maintain a regular rhythm of events.
Experiment with Regionalized and Culture-specific events
This is the next step beyond localization: holidays and regional personalities can be compelling motivators for players to return to your game.
Make sure that the events designers have firsthand knowledge and familiarity with the regions you’re building content for, so that you have sufficient empathy with the audiences you’re targeting.
Although you may be targeting specific regions, you’ll most likely find that players outside of the region will want the opportunity to participate as well — so be very cautious about excluding anyone, lest you court player backlash.
Experiment with Leveraging Events in Advertising
If you utilize paid customer acquisition, experiment with using your event content within ads.
Like any other variable (like the ad creative, copy, etc.) you may find this is helpful for optimizing your campaigns.
If you’re the type of game where much of the fun comes from the events you’re running, you may find that this helps optimize for lower-cost / higher-value customer acquisition. Note that you’ll want to try several variations (the type of event, the type of story or content) just as you would with any other experimentable advertising variable.
Getting Featured with Events
Events can also be a good way to evoke the interest of the store managers at Apple and Google, and can increase your likelihood of featuring. On Steam, you can take advantage of the ability to broadcast a notification that events are starting to your players.
Featuring no longer generates the huge influx of installs that it once did — but any organic installs are usually good, and are especially helpful to smaller studios who aren’t yet doing paid acquisition at scale.
Experiment with Event-specific Notifications
Push notifications to your players can produce significant reengagement. Since events are always evolving, they’re also an ideal context to try variations in notifications that you can monitor to improve overall results. Experiment with different copy, different pacing, and different reentry points.
Integrate Merchandising with Events
Whenever possible, offer items and bundles for sale in your in-game stores that relate to the event. This can be as simple as story-based items that are evocative of the event’s theme — or could be items that are extra-helpful during the event (e.g., a fire-damage character in an event where enemies take extra damage from fire; people who are lacking characters of that type will be motivated to optimize their collection.
Another technique is to offer items for sale that are part of the rewards for the event, or a currency towards acquiring the item for sale. For example, in a game that requires a certain quantity of shards to unlock a powerful character (or additional upgrades of that character), you could give away enough shards to unlock at the highest rankings of the event; but other players will get partial credit towards unlocking which may motivate them to purchase additional shards to complete the unlock.
I’ll return to effective merchandising in a future article, since it is another of the key pillars of the Live Games Trinity.
Monetize via Event Ticketing
High-monetizing events usually have some form of ticketing or energy that limits how frequently the event can be repeated.
You’ll usually want to give everyone a chance to participate by giving away some tickets when the event starts, but require additional iterations to require a real-money purchase (a good place to put a purchase is just short of a threshold reward that players could earn by continuing).
Integrate with Seasons or Battle Passes
Events can be a compelling way to bring players into a Battle Pass system. By accruing points or rewards that span multiple events over longer periods of time, players earn “potential rewards” that they give up by not buying the Battle Pass.
Conclusion & More Reading
Live Events are a way for you to get the Live Games Trinity generating engagement and superior results for your audience.
When coupled with a strong agile development methodology, they allow you to measure, learn and improve how your game works on a regular basis.
What do you think, and what did I miss? Let me know in the comments!
Game Economics, Part 3: Free-to-Play provides a good summary of concepts like economic voltage, key metrics, scarcity and a high-level description of the Live Games Trinity.
A bunch of the ideas included in this article were refined and augmented through a great discussion on free-to-play within the Game Industry club on Clubhouse. Thanks to Maria Golcz, Ziv Kitaro, Romeo Misao and Paul Stephanouk for offering feedback and ideas.