Rovio's User Engagement Strategy Relies on Live Ops

April, 21 2017

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A few weeks back we published an article on why live-ops are such a core part of modern mobile games. In essence, live-ops are a way of keeping your game fresh way past the expected boom and bust cycle familiar to mobile games.

All the biggest developers are now integrating live-ops into their products. But if you google exactly how they go about it, you won't find much. I spoke with Wilhelm Taht, Executive Vice President of Games at Rovio, about the way the Angry Birds behemoth has adopted the live-ops model.

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RE: What are the first few steps that Rovio took towards implementing live-ops?

WT: In this industry, ultimately, we are competing for users' time. There are a million things people can do with their time. For them to choose your game as their hobby, you have to be damn good. Last year, on average, 700 iOS games were released every day. To win people's time, you have to go above and beyond being a simple commodity product. Live-ops are one of the ways of doing that.

Rovio were not the first to implement this but we were one of the first to have big success with it. The free to play mobile gaming industry looked very different back in 2009 [when Angry Birds was first released] and the idea of continually updating a game was, back then, a very new idea! When we pushed new levels, new packs, over and over that was the first big success for keeping a game fresh over a long time. 

That got us thinking about creating a pulse for players - something to keep them coming back and, more than that, to surprise them every time they came back.

That was when you realized that live-ops would be very important.

Exactly. We took the next step with Angry Birds Friends [a 2012 game built for Facebook] which was constructed around the logic of live operations. The core of that game is a tiered player vs player arena tournament structure that is supplemented by in-game events.

Everything is geared towards keeping users engaged with a pulse of competition and events. 2016 was Angry Birds Friends' best year so that shows you how well the pulse is working.

Is it important to build live-ops into the process from the design phase, as you did with Angry Birds Friends?

Well, it's important to say that there is no one-size-fits-all when it comes to this industry!

For Angry Birds Friends, we planned everything - including server and client side technical requirements - to incorporate live-ops. The game is really all about live-ops so that made sense, rather than wasting time trying to rebuild the technical side after the game was launched. But that isn't true for every game.

Would you say that live-ops are the future?

I wouldn't say they are the future - they are the now! If you look at all the most successful free-to-play games out there, all of them are using some form of live-ops. It's very hard in this industry to predict the future but I don't think we'll see many games coming out that don't have the technical requirements for live-ops built in from the beginning.

Games can't be released and abandoned anymore. We need to focus on creating a more meaningful, deeper connection with the fanbase and the community of players.

What kinds of users do you focus on? Is it a case of heavy users getting all the attention or do you plan engagement at every level?

Again, there is no simple answer.

With Angry Birds Friends we have to focus on every player because it is the basis of their experience. In other titles of ours certain live-ops features are clearly targeted to the more engaged players. Despite that, everybody engages at some level with the live-ops we run.

How do you measure success when it comes to live-ops?

Engagement. At the base of everything is how much and how frequently players open up the game and start playing. As said, we’re competing for players time. Live-ops are a way of securing people's time and attention so those figures are always affected. We've found that live-ops benefit long-term retention of users.

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That's surprising to me. Many people speak about live-ops as a cycle of events to creates short lives spikes in interest rather than as a way of keeping users around for a long time.

Our point of view is that the more engaging the content is, the better it is for your business. Live-ops are a way of making your game more engaging and, therefore, it gives you a better chance for engaging users in the long run, eventually making an impact on your business.

Within Rovio, who is responsible for live-ops? Is there a specific team? Do you outsource?

Generally speaking, the team responsible for creating the game then follows it through all the different phases of its lifecycle. It's about asking team members to tackle the long term with their craft. I'm not sure that would be the best approach for everybody, but it's important to us.

How successful has live-ops been?

The key example is Angry Birds 2.

We changed the foundation of that game as we went along. It started with a great release but it wasn't in the right state for any UA or performance marketing push. So we spent a lot of time and energy updating and updating and updating, creating new ways to engage players, until finally it was performing really, really well.

[Angry Birds 2] is almost two years old but its best ever day was just last week - that is proof that live-ops is effective.

Even so, there is a lot of potential still left in the game and we have grand ambitions for future updates, involving more rigorous live events in the game.

Are live-ops only for big developers like Rovio?

I don't think there is a lower bound for live-ops, it all depends on the scope. Could a solo developer put out Angry Birds Friends and run all its live-ops? Probably not. But could they clone, let’s say, Flappy Bird and run events on it? I think so. As long as the resources and capacity mirrors the scope, it is possible.
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