The game operator s toolkit: The essentials and beyond

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1 The game operator s toolkit: The essentials and beyond

2 I. Summary Live games don t just need great game operations strategies, they need great tools. In this paper you will learn about the key tools for game operations, plus commonly used additional ones. Compare the pros and cons of building vs. buying and consult our checklist to make sure you have the right tools. II. A tale of two game operators Meet Grace and Gary, game operators at rival studios. Gary runs game operations for The Cheerful Unicorn, a multiplayer shooter for ios, while Grace works on The Very Sad Penguin, a match-3 for Android. A month after launch, they each get the same request from their managers: Our business guys say we re below our targets. Can you get our whales to spend 30% more? Grace knows that the first step is to identify the whales, the small group of high-spending players that can account for more than half of total revenue. She writes a few SQL queries and persuades the one engineer with access to The Very Sad Penguin database to run them. The results show that highspending penguins buy a lot of hats, so Grace decides the way to increase revenue is to create fancier hats with higher prices. She goes to the game s producer and gets a promise that the developers will add more hats in the next game update, scheduled for 6 weeks later. A week after getting the initial request, Grace tells her manager that she has a plan to improve their whale revenue, but it will take 6 weeks and 20 hours of dev time. Over at The Cheerful Unicorn, Gary opens up his game operations dashboard, clicks on the high-spending players segment, and discovers that unicorns also like buying hats. He then looks at what events immediately precede these purchases and discovers that the overwhelming majority of them occur just before a Cheerful Parade level, when players have the opportunity to show off their unicorns. He goes into his store catalog and uploads a new set of items for purchase: sashes and ribbons in multiple colors. He prices them at a 1.5x ratio to the hats, and creates a special message promoting the new items that automatically gets sent to all high-spending players when they are about to reach a Cheerful Parade level. Two hours after receiving the initial request, Gary s his manager that he s started implementing his plan to improve whale revenue, and he should have results within a day or two. Grace spends her spring bothering the producer and the developers of her game, to make sure that the new fancy hats are in the next release. Gary goes to Hawaii for a week. The difference here is not that Grace is bad at her job and Gary is good at his; it s that Gary has the better toolset. All the data he needs to run his game is at his fingertips, and he can make changes to the game without needing engineering resources. 2015, PlayFab, Inc. 2

3 III. The four essentials To understand what tools game operators need, start with the basic needs of any live game: metrics, messaging, awards, and adjustment mechanisms. In other words, game operators need to know what s going on in their games, they need a way to communicate with and award items to their players, and they need a way to modify their games after they go live. Game operators usually find a way to hack a solution together even if their tools are terrible (or nonexistent), but having good tools can make a world of difference, as the comparisons below show. 1. Metrics Live games depend on being able to measure everything that players do. Basic metrics include information on when players have logged in, how long they played, and what they purchased. No dedicated tools: SQL queries against the database can generate much of this information, but it must be then processed and compared with previous data to be of any use. Game operators often need to get a developer s help or permission to run the queries often multiple times. Basic tools: Standard metrics are logged and published to an interface that a game operator can access independently. Game operators can see basic data about their players, but there are no segments (subsets of players based on criteria such as locale or average spend). Great tools: In addition to standard metrics, players are automatically placed into various segments and cohorts (subsets of players based on behavior and time, such as day of first login). Game operators can instantly pull up data for each of these groups, as well as create new groups based on behaviors or other characteristics. They can also run custom queries across the player database. 2. Messaging Whether it s to announce a sale, apologize for a recent issue, or promote an upcoming special event, game operators need a way to communicate with their players, both in game and out of it. Push notifications in particular are a great tool for persuading players to take certain actions. No dedicated tools: Game operators might have been consulted before launch about the text for a few preplanned in-game messages ( Congratulations on your new dragon! ) but they have no ability to add new messages without a game update. They can use Facebook, Twitter or community forums to communicate with their players, but they know that those avenues won t reach all (or even most) of them. Basic tools: An in-game messaging system lets game operators write and send new messages to promote upcoming events and sales, but all messages go out to everyone playing the game at the same time. They can also send to their players, but without the ability to track subsequent behavior, they don t know if the actually worked. 2015, PlayFab, Inc. 3

4 Great tools: Push and in-game notifications can be tailored to different segments or even individual players, based on specific actions they take in the game. They can also be sent via or other social networking information that players have entered, and both in-game and out-of-game messages are tracked so that game operators can see what percent are read or opened. Operators can also track actions taken after the messages were sent, to see if they had the desired impact. 3. Awards Both game operators and customer service people need a way to award items to individual players. This can be to make up for a problem with a player s account, or to take notice of special accomplishments within the game. Customer service also typically needs a way to debit items from a player account in cases of infraction, or payment problems. No dedicated tools: Again, game operators might set up preplanned awards ( You ve reached level 10, have a bedazzled trilby! ) but they won t have the ability to make changes after launch if it turns out players are doing interesting things unexpected by the developers. They might be able to award special social media banners, but nothing within the game. Customer service is out of luck entirely. Basic tools: Game operators and customer service can award and debit items to individual players, but it must be done manually. This can be very time-consuming for the customer service team. Great tools: Awards can be gifted according to player segment, not just individually. A game operator can also create new awards, such as a bundle of items not previously available for sale together. Customer service can take group actions as well, such as by refunding the money for everyone who purchased a particular item within a particular time period. Player actions after receiving awards can also be tracked and evaluated. 4. Adjustment mechanisms The ability to modify a game after launch is one of the main things that distinguish live games from their packaged predecessors. Complex additions, such as new levels or modes, do require developer time. But there s a range of simple changes that game operators can make to adjust their games post-launch, and good tools let them do that without taking up valuable engineering time. No dedicated tools: Without self-serve tools, game operators great ideas wind up on the same roadmap as every other update to the game, and often lose prioritization battles with engineering. Basic tools: Game operators can change prices in a catalog in order to run sales, and may be able to set time limits for them so that they don t have to manually change each price back and forth. Great tools: New content, such as fancy unicorn ribbons, can be uploaded to the game without having to go through a developer or a release cycle. Special stores can be created to market a set of content with new pricing to a particular segment or cohort of players. 2015, PlayFab, Inc. 4

5 IV. Other tools: The 4 As and beyond Beyond the essentials, game operators can now take advantage of a dizzying array of add-on services. The next four to consider are attribution, a/b testing, analytics, and ad optimization. Attribution In-game metrics can show player activity, but not where those players came from. User acquisition services such as Kochava, Tune, and AppsFlyer connect to games and tag individual players according to how they came to the game. This lets you see whether marketing dollars are being spent appropriately, and whether higher value players are coming more from one source (Facebook ads, for example) than another (display ads on a game portal). A/B testing Remember Gary s plan to sell lots of sashes and ribbons to the whales of The Cheerful Unicorn go? What if that didn t work as well as he planned? Even with good game operations tools, trying different variations of offers one after the other takes time. With an A/B testing service such as Swrve or LeanPlum he could have created two or three simultaneous promotions and seen which was the most successful. A/B testing is also useful for messaging (which rate us screen gets the highest response?), awards (how high a value does a particular prize have to be to get the desired action from a player segment?), and pretty much everything else a game operator does. Ad optimization While some free-to-play games rely entirely on in-app purchasing (IAP) for revenue, in-game ads remain a vital revenue source for many. Companies such as Supersonic, Chartboost, Emergent Payments (formerly Live Gamer) and Tapjoy offer a variety of ad types and targeting services. They also take care of meeting various platform and locale-specific regulations for advertising. Analytics Analytics is what happens when metrics are combined with analysis. Average revenue per user (ARPU) is a metric; noticing that a particular player cohort has a 30% lower ARPU than average is a type of analytics. Analyzing the behavior of that cohort to figure out why its ARPU is lower is even more useful for the game operator and the best analytics platforms let them perform this kind of business intelligence. Because games include so many events and time-based behaviors, analytics platforms must be capable of handling millions of variables and thousands of queries. Game operators will quickly go beyond the standard dashboards and want to create their own, with questions particular to their games, or to particular segments within their games. Attribution, A/B testing and Ad network services all typically include at least some analytic features, and the tide is turning in the other direction as well. DeltaDNA, one of the biggest game-specific analytics services, now offers ad optimization as well. 2015, PlayFab, Inc. 5

6 Other game operations services The list of specialized services that add value to games goes on: Customer service platforms can automate and reduce the cost of dealing with player problems. Community services can set up forums and events that sync with your game. Localization services offer an entry into new markets without hiring a whole new team in a different country. Content filtering services can ensure a safe and age-appropriate experience for games aimed at younger players. If game operators can think of it, there s probably already a service ready to help. V. The benefits of a backend Grace meets Gary for coffee. She s still waiting for more fancy hats to be added to The Very Sad Penguin, and is amazed when Gary describes how quickly he was able to respond to the same issue in his own game. I don t understand, she says, how did you get your producer to OK all those resources to build tools just for game operations? I didn t, Gary tells her, they re all connected through our backend. Game backends are the secret to low-cost game operations because they reduce SDK conflicts and take advantage of resources already built into the game. If a game s backend is already logging every player action and event, this creates a data stream that can be used for analytics, to send push notifications, or to measure A/B test results. A backend also lets game operators track players across multiple platforms, so that when a valuable player on ios starts playing on Facebook, they can use the information they already know about him to give him tailored content or promotions. The core benefits of a game backend security and flexibility are also helpful to game operators. Authenticated login and receipt validation cut down on player cheating, which helps keep an in-game economy from becoming unbalanced. And having the flexibility to make changes to the game without requiring a new release and certification means that game operators can experiment with new ideas much more freely. 2015, PlayFab, Inc. 6

7 VI. The build vs. buy dilemma Grace returns to work, fired up with the need to get a backend for her game. She knows her first task will be convincing the studio that it won t be as much work as they think, because they don t need to build the backend in-house. After all, she tells her manager, it s not like we build our game engine from scratch these days, either. Some studios do still build their own, of course, but there s now a host of services available to game developers at low cost. Studios looking to buy can go with a complete backend platform or cobble together multiple SDKs that offer individual services. There are pros and cons to each approach. Pros Cons Build your own Resources needed: At least 1 backend engineer At least 1 operations engineer Server hosting costs Complete flexibility as to what tools are built Customized for a particular game Most expensive option Employee turnover could put game at risk Can t test game with backend until late in development process Ongoing updates required to stay competitive Assemble from multiple SDKs Resources needed: Engineering time to integrate and update all required SDKs Choose from a variety of services and companies Cheaper than building your own system Start working with new services as soon as they re integrated Increased risk of code conflicts from multiple SDKs If any service disappears, need to find replacement SDKs updates add to roadmap uncertainty because an engineer may need to be taken off another feature to quickly make a fix. Use a complete backend platform Resources needed: Engineering time to integrate and update one centralized SDK Start working with a complete set of backend services immediately. Cheaper than building your own system Backend provider responsible for all updates Requires significant trust in the backend provider: Is it scalable, reliable, & proven? If the game becomes a huge hit, can the backend service handle the volume? 2015, PlayFab, Inc. 7

8 VII. Game operations tools checklist Whatever solutions you re considering, remember the four essentials all game operators need: Metrics, messaging, awards, and adjustment mechanisms. Make sure the tools you build or buy let you do what you really need to do to make your game a success. As with any software decision, make a checklist of your actual needs and compare them to what the platform is offering. Still not sure where to start? Here s seven basic things that any solution should be able to handle: Can you analyze player behavior? Can you send push notifications or other messages to your players? Can you grant items to players? Can you modify game variables? Can you run different types of in-game events? Can you create limited time offers? Can you measure the impact of push notifications or promotions on player behavior? PlayFab offers the most complete set of backend services to build, launch, and grow live games, including player accounts, catalog management, analytics, leaderboards, multiplayer, in-game messaging, content management and more. PlayFab s tools are cross-platform and designed to be used by mobile, PC and console developers. Learn more at:

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