The Art of LiveOps

Mobile Game Doctor: Dave Rohrl

October 17, 2019 James Gwertzman and Crystin Cox Season 1 Episode 6
The Art of LiveOps
Mobile Game Doctor: Dave Rohrl
Show Notes Transcript

Today we are joined by Dave Rohrl, who has over 25 years of experience in the games industry and currently runs a small mobile game consultancy called Mobile Game Doctor. Fun fact: Dave was the inspiration for “Crazy Dave” in Plants Vs. Zombies!

In today’s episode we will learn about the rise in the adoption of a LiveOps mindset in game studios as well hear his thoughts on the biggest challenges and most common mistakes developers make when adopting this mindset.

MGD is currently taking on new clients for consulting on game design, live ops, marketing, and UA. Learn more at aka.ms/mobilegamedoctor. 

Support the show (http://microsoftgamestack.com)

Speaker 1:

Hello. I'm James Grossman . I'm Kristin Cox . Welcome to the art of live ops podcast. I've been making games for 16 years as a designer and a game director focused on live ops. I founded PlayFab five years ago because I saw a huge gap in the kinds of access to live ops technologies game studios needed to be successful. We've put this podcast together because a lot of the information on how to do live ops effectively just isn't out there. There's way more information about how to optimize your graphics pipeline or how to put together effective game design than there is on how to do effective live ops and since it's pretty tough to go around yourself and just find everyone that does live ops and ask them questions, we did it for you. We've picked together a list of some of the top practitioners in the industry, folks who we think are really pushing the boundaries and doing some cutting edge work and we interview a different one every week and ask them about their experiences running live games, doing live ops and even having live ops disasters. Trademarks are the best. That's where you really learn how to do things effectively. So tune in. We have another interview for you today.

Speaker 2:

[inaudible]

Speaker 1:

who are we talking to you today? All right, so today is Dave role and I've known Dave for a long time, Dave and overlap to PopCap games and little known fact that Dave role is actually the inspiration for crazy day from plants versus zombies. Oh true story.

Speaker 3:

I've been in the game industry for just over 25 years now. Done a combination of game design, production and studio leadership.

Speaker 1:

So anyway, Dave now is a, is that a lot of experience doing mobile games and free to play games early in the live off space.

Speaker 3:

And for the last five years I've been running a small mobile free to play consulting company called mobile game doctor

Speaker 1:

where he works with different game studios, helping them figure out things like monetization, live ops design, how to use data effectively. So I love her . A lot of really good sort of broad live ops stories to tell and experience from working with a lot of different clients. Yeah, let's dive right in.

Speaker 4:

[inaudible] .

Speaker 3:

So we help out with all kinds of game design, right from kind of taking over part or all of the games designed to mentoring designers to just providing evaluation and feedback. Uh , we're very focused on free to play mobile games. Uh , that's our bread and butter. So we have a great senior team that works with companies all over the world. I have an associate , uh , over in India for three months. Right now we're just in the process of kicking off some projects with Israeli and Spanish companies . So we're here, there and everywhere. Um, but at the moment I'm here, which is cool. It's going to be here.

Speaker 1:

Yeah, thanks for coming. So you have been doing live ops for a long time.

Speaker 3:

Yeah, I've been in games overall for about 25 years, but really been working with games as a service for about the last decade. I started it a Zynga in early 2009. I actually started working in online games in 2000 , uh , when I was building web games at Pogo. Uh , and then later PC download games at PopCap where I worked with James previously. Um, but really we would take those games and we would run them through development and internal playtests and usability. We do a teeny bit of metrics watching during the beta. Sometimes if we fell like it and then we pushed them out the door and we would hope that players would love them and buy them and give us money and allow us to pay our rent. Right . Um, and then in 2009 when I started working on the Facebook platform at Zynga, that really opened my eyes to a whole different way of looking at building and designing and running games. Um, and it was not an easy transition having been in sort of ship and you're done product for 15 years. I like to tell people that I had a headache for my first year of working in free to play games. Right. Um , almost continuously. Um, it was a steep learning curve, but I really fascinating more right? Cause it does , uh , so much for you as a designer and as a product owner, right? And business owner and so much for the player when you're looking at free to play. Um, you know, I can't speak for anyone else, but I have a big old stack of, you know, various generations of console games that I like to use as coasters, right ? Cause there's just no play value there and each one took 50 bucks out of my pocket. I played it for five minutes and went, nah, nah. You know , that's, that's not what I'm looking for. Um , so free to play really removes that barrier for the customer. Right? Sampling is free. You can see if you enjoy the game and evaluated , see if this stuff you want to pay for is worthwhile and interesting to you before you make any of those purchase decisions. That's great for the consumer. Um, for me as a designer, as a business owner, as a product manager, I get to actually really know and see and listen to both qualitatively and quantitatively what players love about my game, what they want more of, what they want, less of, what's impacting their quality of life. And I get to really shape that product over time for its audience, right? Make it as perfect a fit as humanly possible.

Speaker 1:

So a lot of other developers are going through what you went through now almost 10 years ago, right? The, there's a big rise in the adoption of what we would say is at least like some live ops techniques or live off mindset amongst all kinds of games, whether they're mobile or or premium or console or where the platform is. So if you could give those developers advice, what would be the thing that you would tell them?

Speaker 3:

So I think there's a really important philosophical, we'll transition you need to go through on the, on the design side, almost a mindset shift. So a lot of the time working in box product, really, I spent a lot of time thinking about, look, what is my vision? How do I please my immediate managers, right? The studio had the executives at the company, how do I make the game right for me? And this tiny little coterie of people, right? Because it's my baby, it's my thing, right? As you go into more localized service mode, it really, really becomes entirely about delighting the players. Really beginning to share that ownership. Let me stress share. Not relinquish that ownership because what all players want is more chocolate for free, right? Right. And , uh, ultimately you should probably charge for some of the chocolates so that you can have money and pay rent and those things, right? Um, but players who love the core of what you're doing and are interested in the kind of game you're building can be really, really great partners in shaping it, but only if you're willing to listen to them, to look at what they're doing, to communicate, to be transparent and you know, to respond to them in meaningful ways. And that's a really different skillset than a lot of packaged goods designers have built up over time. But again, one of the great things that sort of accrues to you when you do this , um, we used to measure game lifetimes and hours , right? So you'd go out, you'd pick up a console game and you'd say, I'm going to spend 50 bucks and I'm going to have 20 hours of fun with this game, or 60 hours if I'm with this game and I can sort of price it out that way. Now we really measure player lifetimes in months and years, right? We're looking to build hobbies that become part of people's lives. Um, we can take that relationship with the player and extended by being smart, not only about what game do we build upfront , but how do we adapt it after it's out there. How do we create a regular flow of content and features that keeps the game feeling fresh, keeps the players from dropping off, keeps them from feeling like they've reached an end point. Um, and you know, you can own people for years in that way. I've been playing her stone pretty much daily for five years. Right. And I may stop at some point, but the, it may be because I'm dead.

Speaker 1:

Yeah. Yeah. So right now you're also working with a lot of young designers. I imagine at mobile game doctor, a lot of designers will probably have various levels of experience on a lot of different games. What do you see as some of the biggest challenges for developers where they have to sort of confront the world of data specifically? Right . The world of actually working with data. So, so

Speaker 3:

I think one the missteps I see from a lot of the designers we work with is they don't know how to think about what data to collect, right ? Right. So there's a tendency to kind of either over collect and track everything and have these massive data warehouses full of events that never get looked at, right? Or to kind of under collect and say, well, as a designer I care about whether the game is balanced and whether a faction X is being used over faction Y and so on. And ignore the other things that shaped the business. Things like whatever rates of tutorial completion are there specific, you know, levels that are triggering drop off and so on. Right . Um, so really the , the hard thing about data, and this is something I saw a lot at Playdom where we had a great BI organization who were good at pushing back on product owners and just the right way is when we'd ask them to collect trunks of data, they would say a look, what is going to be actionable, actionable about this? Uh, what decisions are you gonna make on the basis of this? What are you going to change? Right? So that's really the question you have to ask yourself about data is look, what are the things I might want to change or modify or alter and how do I structure my data collection in a way that's gonna allow me to have visibility into the right stuff and make the right changes?

Speaker 5:

Well, so one of the challenges I think a lot of games have in enabling live ops is actually on the tool side, you know, and trying to actually build and manage these games at scale. What , uh, when you're advising, you know, the game students you work with, what are the sort of key tools, you know, they like what are the elements of kind of , uh , a live off stack that you advise studios to add ? And instead of what order , like we only had like three tools, what would be the , the key building blocks?

Speaker 3:

Yeah. So , uh , I think one of the things that I really advocate very strongly as a top layer right is you need a good well thought out set of highly visual, easy to read and interpret dashboards, right? That the whole team can sort of gather around , um, either with a consensus on what's important or was separate views for what's important for each individual team member. Um, but good visualization of that data is actually super important in terms of making it quickly actionable rather than, you know, forcing everyone to dig in and write their own fresh set of SQL queries. So really, you know , smart visualization that makes it easy for people to construct dashboards quickly that give them the data they need. Is it really high priority for me? Um, you can get amazing, amazing results out of segmentation, right? Um, to be honest, sometimes what those segments are and what the meaningful differentiators are, vary quite a bit from product to product, but at least being able to sort of think about who are my big spenders, who are my grinders? Right? Being really easily able to pull that out of data and serve those customers differently. Right. And give them a version of the game that's going to really meet their needs is really, really important. Right. Um, and then you know, in terms of the, the third piece I think just sort of efficiency, you know, there is a lot of data you can be tracking in a game. You can generate hundreds or thousands of events in a player session, right? So just thinking about ways that you can cost effectively. Gather the data you need, warehouse it, access when you need it, make it, perform it, make it efficient, make it cheap so that it's not kind of a drag on your development resources. Right. And hopefully not a drag on your operating budget.

Speaker 5:

Yeah. So you guys have the game doctor, I'm curious actually when you get brought in, a lot of times I'm guessing it's because your patients are ill, you know, you've got games that need, need, fixing, need, need healing and what are the common patterns of other could have common mistakes you see that you kind of get called in more often than not to, to deal with. So

Speaker 3:

there are a variety of different blind spots, right? I think , um, one of the things that I see , uh , two of the things that I see, 18 other things , um, some of the key things that I tend to see a lot, number one are developers that are not valuing retention highly enough, right? Um, and doing things like aggressively monetizing D zero and D one players to try and compensate for low retention. Um, which ultimately is just not a very viable longterm strategy. Um, if people aren't coming back to your game at a good clip, if you know, in a, a sort of casual or relatively like mid-core game, you're not getting at least 50 player, 50% of your players back the day after they install. You really need to be looking at that game pretty hard. No matter you know, what game you're building. If after 30 days you're not getting close to 10% of players sticking around, you need to look at what you're doing pretty hard. Um, in general, players have more of a propensity to pay once they have a trust relationship with the game and the developer and they really understand the value proposition of all the things you can offer them. And that's really not easy to do on the first day. Um, so I see a lot of developers that go down that path making mistakes of either providing, say starter packs that are way too valuable. Right ? Right. And negate the need for future purposes purchases or are not nearly valuable enough. So the players learn to distrust, you know, the value of what they're being sold. Um, so I think, you know, that's a big issue for a lot of I see is not focusing enough on getting their proper retention curve in place before addressing other issues. Yeah .

Speaker 1:

So one last question.

Speaker 3:

The other thing that I see a lot of folks not paying enough attention to is kind of attribution. Looking carefully at what are your traffic sources? How might that be impacting your outcomes? Doing things like geographic segmentation or segmentation by hardware type a , it may be that you're actually kind of doing okay with your target customers, but you're actually spending money to acquire a lot of folks that are just not going to be great customers for you and you know, are highly unlikely to be based on who they are. So being really smart about watching your attribution and where you spend your acquisition budget. Super important. Yeah.

Speaker 1:

So one last question cause this is everyone loves to hear these. Do you have a live gave disasters story that you can share with us?

Speaker 3:

Oh my gosh. You know , um, I remember a little five alarm fire when I worked on Zynga poker where , uh, I can't even remember what the feature was, but we had built some kind of quality of life feature for players. And , uh, the, the fellow who was running the poker team at that time said, look, this makes the game better. Everyone's gonna love it. Let's not split test it. We'll just roll it out right in the trunk code. And you know, the forums lit up like the Vegas strip, right. Concurrence concurrent users started plunging and uh, nameless executives came streaming down the stairs screaming at the top of their lungs. What the hell is going on with poker? Uh, and this leads to another common mistake I see developers making, which is really undervaluing split testing. Yeah . Right. Um, where you can, and you know, I don't think every single thing needs to be split tested, but it's probably pretty prudent to, you know, at least get some real quantitative read on , uh , whether what you're doing is working unless you like executives streaming down the stairs screaming at the top of they were , which I do not

Speaker 1:

good intention. Right. Like really paid attention to what you're doing at that point is good tests of people's monitoring of the, you know, the dashboard . Right . You know, like real time executive alerting.

Speaker 3:

Absolutely. If you're wondering if the people upstairs were staring at the dashboards all day, yes.

Speaker 1:

I'm going as your dev ops like you find out real fast.

Speaker 3:

Yeah . I had that once I played him where we deployed some code. I can't remember if it went out to 100% and just, you know , uh , we weren't even running a concurrent graph on that particular app at the DAU graph. Right. On five minute intervals just started diving down to zero. We were like , I don't think people can log in. Nope. I will. Thank you very much for taking the time to chat with us. Hey, it's been a pleasure. Thanks so much for having me. Thank you. All right .

Speaker 2:

[inaudible]

Speaker 3:

thanks for listening to the art of live ops podcast. If you'd like to, you heard, remember to rate, review and subscribe so others can find us and visit playfab.com for more information on solutions for all your live ops needs. Thanks for tuning in.