On November 28th, Space Ape Games hosted an event showcasing live ops tools and best practices at its London studio.
But with more than 150 games industry attendees - dozens of whom flew in from overseas - it was the kind of event that would not have seemed out of place in Helsinki.
“We share a lot of investor DNA with Supercell and Rovio,” Space Ape COO Simon Hade tells PocketGamer.biz after the event.
“Take a look at what the Finns are doing and it's pretty hard to trace the ROI of any given event. But the more you do this stuff, and if enough people do it, it's really beneficial.”
Judging by the number of attendees at the event, there's a real appetite among mobile game developers to learn more about live ops.
And indeed, it's now unarguably part and parcel of the mobile games industry.
Full of life
Space Ape is very aware of this, as it continues to run three live games of varying ages - Samurai Siege (2013), Rival Kingdoms (2015) and Transformers: Earth Wars (June 2016) - to great success.
However, some developers are not even off the starting blocks with live ops yet. And it's these people, as well as developers looking to optimise their existing live operations, that Space Ape is keen to help.
“There's a fear, certainly among people who have a live game and have run some sales, that they're just cannibalising revenue,” explains Hade.
You can never have zero cannibalisation, but you can measure it and quantify it.Simon Hade
“You see revenue spike, but then people only buy when you're running a sale. But the point is, a) that's not live ops, and b) there are ways to mitigate that.
“You can never have zero cannibalisation, but you can measure it and quantify it… you can see that there's maybe 10% cannibalisation, but 50% incremental revenue.”
Part of the team
Space Ape believes that a major part of getting live ops right - and understanding its true utility - stems from appropriate integration within the team.
“We don't really have a live ops team, more a live ops role,” says Live Operations Manager Andrew Munden.
“And that role is part of the product team… we all work together in what we're going to make.”
This means that live ops is a key consideration from the very beginning of any project at Space Ape, rather than launching games simply to be farmed out to a separate department.
The London studio is also equipped with its own live ops tools that accommodate this style of working, as it demonstrated live on stage at the event.
“To make a feature that has a live ops tool, we make sure we can adjust that tool from essentially a website,” explains Munden.
“So rather than needing to update the client or server, we can tweak some changes in the website and send a small text packet to the players and they will receive those updates.”
It's a system that doesn't touch a line of code, constructing new elements from pre-existing building blocks within the game.
The result, says Hade, is that a team who “wouldn't call themselves live ops guys” are able to handle a mature live game like Samurai Siege without any need for hand-holding.
And more crucially, it means that as few as 14 people are able to handle live ops on both Samurai Siege and Rival Kingdoms, which generate enough revenue alone to keep the studio profitable.
A further 20 take care of the more intensive Transformers: Earth Wars, while the majority of frontline development resource is now on new projects.
From strength to strength
But despite the launch of Transformers: Earth Wars and the small teams running them, Rival Kingdoms and Samurai Siege continue excel long after launch.
Rival Kingdoms is making significantly more than it was six months ago.Simon Hade
Rival Kingdoms, originally launched in May 2015, has just recorded its sixth consecutive month of revenue growth.
“The game is making significantly more than it was six months ago,” reflects Hade. “And Samurai Siege has been pretty flat for 12 months - which is very rare for a three-year-old game.”
Indeed, 10,000 new people per week are still discovering Samurai Siege organically, long after Space Ape stopped running paid UA on the title.
“A lot of developers in this situation will see the community moves to the new game and the old one dies,” Hade adds.
“But what we see is that the people who stick around love the game but stay for the community… and what makes the community interesting are the objectives set through events.”
A series of profitable events
In-game events have been incredibly important for Space Ape, with between 30% to 50% of the $70 million revenue generated by Samurai Siege, Rival Kingdoms and Transformers: Earth Wars driven by them.
Not only that, events are also a key part of why the studio's games have enjoyed such strong retention.
“The events drive the community and the community drives retention,” says Hade.
So what best practices for implementing in-game events can the studio recommend?
The first thing to consider, according to Munden, is the frequency and intensity of these events. Space Ape tends to run them on a weekly schedule, but varies the intensity to stop players burning out.
“We run events specifically designed to be low-fatigue,” Munden states. “If the sentiment is 'we're not getting enough', we'll increase [rewards] a little bit to try and react to that.
“We have to be the guiding force in that kind of balancing though, because for every event we run, some players say it's too hard and some say it's too easy. Some say too generous, some say too stingy.”
Another key point is to understand why your players care about events. Munden identifies three main groups:
- “The guys who want the prize”: people motivated by a specific reward, such as a Transformers: Earth Wars player who wants a digital version of the toy they owned as a child.
- Competitive element: “The top 20 Kingdoms [in Rival Kingdoms] are ultra competitive with one another. They would be happy to take no prize if they could just beat that one Kingdom they never seem to beat.”
- Social component: “Our most successful and engaging events are alliance events, where it's the whole alliance working to achieve a goal.”
However, this kind of insight is not applicable to all, and only comes through experience.
Gacha is a toolbox for you to make a much more interesting game.Simon Hade
“The first couple of events are always a shot in the dark,” warns Munden.
“You have to take the data after that, take the community feedback, and eventually find what satisfies your user base. Every game is different.”
Try your luck
With Transformers: Earth Wars, Space Ape embraced the gacha monetisation that is a staple of so many top grossers in Asia - and, increasingly, the West too.
However, Hade is quick to assert that gacha should not be seen as some kind of shortcut to free-to-play success.
“Generally, well-executed gacha correlates with a game that performs well commercially, but I don't think it's the gacha that's driving revenue,” he considers.
“What gacha is, is a toolbox for you to make a much more interesting game… [it means] no one person's experience is the same as another.
“There are plenty of examples of developers saying 'let's get rid of the shop and put a mystery box in there so we make more money!' It doesn't really work like that.”
Having built up a knowledge in running successful live ops and increasingly better understanding mobile game design, how is the studio approaching its next projects?
“There's a DNA that we have now around live ops, around community, around competitive and social gameplay - and around gacha - that we're very good at,” reflects Hade.
“When we come up with a title that plays to those strengths, that makes it further down the pipe.”
However, with the studio still actively experimenting within different genres and gameplay styles, it's showing that playing to these strengths needn't be an admission of predictability.