Striking a balance between engagement and appeasement can be tricky. Happily, Tim Nixon, Director of Online Experience at ThatGameCompany, has some very actionable advice to share on how to construct effective live events, how to acknowledge player feedback without becoming reactionary, and where to focus your energy.
Support the show (http://microsoftgamestack.com)
Striking a balance between engagement and appeasement can be tricky. Happily, Tim Nixon, Director of Online Experience at ThatGameCompany, has some very actionable advice to share on how to construct effective live events, how to acknowledge player feedback without becoming reactionary, and where to focus your energy.
Support the show (http://microsoftgamestack.com)
James Gwertzman (00:05):
Hello, I'm James Gwertzman.
Crystin Cox (00:06):
I'm Crystin Cox. Welcome to the Art of LiveOps podcast.
James Gwertzman (00:15):
Crystin Cox (00:16):
Hey, James. Thanks for joining me again.
James Gwertzman (00:19):
Yes, this is an unusual podcast because we're both home.
Crystin Cox (00:22):
Yeah, this is our first podcast recorded during the great lockdown. I think it's going to go well though. Today, we are going to be interviewing Tim Nixon.
Tim Nixon (00:33):
I helped build a new games company as part of a documentary filmmaking unit called Natural History in New Zealand. We made games for National Geographic and partnered with the World Wildlife Fund. We made our first game called Flutter, which is a game about exploring the rainforest as a butterfly. We were making that transition to mobile at the same time that mobile was just getting totally taken over by free-to-play. The entire ecosystem of mobile changed from your premium titles to free-to-play.
Tim Nixon (01:02):
We put those things together and partnered with a publisher called DNA and works to create the mobile version of Flutter. That combination was the right combination, which led to our first big success. From that point on, the company, which we called Runaway, was a great success. That was the start of a series of games, which will have this central core philosophy of teaching people a bit about the natural world, some light socialization elements in there as well.
James Gwertzman (01:28):
Let's see, he's working right now with that game company.
Crystin Cox (01:31):
Yes, he works at that game company now. He's actually been doing [inaudible 00:01:35]. He's only been at that game company for a couple of years but he has a long history of LiveOps sort of being at a studio in New Zealand that was sort of in the early wave of social and mobile gaming and did a lot of really interesting games out of that space.
James Gwertzman (01:53):
[inaudible 00:01:53] excited the idea that he's brought that experience from social mobile gaming to working with Jenova Chen and he's probably one of the premier kind of game designers out there at the cutting edge of sort of narrative. Hearing his experiences bringing sort of game LiveOps experiences, game of service models to a narrative structure will be really interesting, I think.
Crystin Cox (02:14):
Yeah, I think he's going to have a lot of really unique perspective and really cool experience. Let's dive into it and get to the interview.
James Gwertzman (02:26):
Tim Nixon (02:29):
That was the sort of an overview of my time with Runaway, the eight years there, and then I decided to move on from Runaway to sort of see a little bit more of the world and move on from New Zealand. I had known Jenova and Kellee from that game company for a while and was sort of starting to talk to Jenova more about what they were doing with their new game. I had a look at the early version of what would become Sky and started doing some consulting for them, helping with the economy side of things and actually understanding, "Okay, what is this going to look like as a life service product, what is going to incentivize people who would have played this for years to come as opposed to just the two hours that their previous games were traditionally played for."
Tim Nixon (03:21):
Those discussions sort of led to me doing some consulting for them while I was traveling and sort of one thing led to another and they invited me to move here to Santa Monica and join the team full time. That was two years ago. I joined that game company as the director of online experience. That is a very nebulous title but it really tries to capture all the things that were new for TGC's in terms of the online operation of the game. In my time there, I've worked to help build out like the community team, the customer support side of things, but mostly what I've spent my time on is designing and iterating on the economy, the seasonality, the live events, and just the experience of what it's like to be a player of Sky long term. That kind of brings us up to where we are today.
James Gwertzman (04:13):
I would love to go back to your experience when you first started working with DNA, because I would love to know what they came in with instead of, they sit you down and say, "Here is this Bible, go read this and come back to us." Did they say, "Here are the top 10 lessons we've learned." What sort of free-to-play wisdom did they impart and how did that shift the culture of your team then?
Tim Nixon (04:35):
The first thing that comes to mind is the director of third party at the time, Barry Dorf is when I met them at this hotel suite at GDC. As I was leaving the meeting and they'd sort of seen our stuff, and they liked it, obviously, and liked enough to really organize a follow up and they were quite excited about it. I walked out the corridor and he turns to me as I'm leaving, "This is to Vince. Vince is going to be the thing." I was just like, "Okay, cool, just take him on board. There's a lot of hype around but he was very particular about this. I was like, "Okay, all right, I got to go back and look at this."
Tim Nixon (05:17):
This was when events were not very common. They have been a non-thing in Japan and like in China and things for a long time, but really, events were very new for the west. I think our game was actually certainly one of the first casual games to incorporate events. This is six years ago. Suddenly, it was like our secret weapon in making the game a success. That's something which they definitely pushed us really hard to integrate into our design. They gave us a lot of best practice as far as how to do that.
Tim Nixon (05:56):
We were really lucky in I was able to sit in meetings where the team on various devilish games were looking at all of the stats like a live event that was actually happening. I was able to learn by osmosis, just like sit there and absorb their process and their attention to detail and the dedication they had to being very attentive to data and audience sentiment and just the heartbeat of the game. They was just massively inspiring because I got to take that back and sort of inject it into the culture of our team. Then, even though we're in different countries, we just sucked up so much of that best practice by observing and then applying that to our game.
James Gwertzman (06:46):
Yeah, I think that that's something that for me, since I did a lot of my early work in Korea, has always been interesting to me that we have had trouble replicating in the west, which is that kind of shared experience in learning were multiple teams who are working on maybe a wide variety of live games are coming together regularly and talking about their process and talking about their successes. Can you talk a little bit more about that kind of culture and how have you seen that madness in the west?
Tim Nixon (07:22):
Well, I think the best example of that is probably GDC. I feel like I just get this massive injection of inspiration and knowledge, like every GDC. It really is like my favorite, one of my two favorite weeks of the whole year. It was a total bummer.
James Gwertzman (07:40):
Christmas and GDC.
Tim Nixon (07:41):
Yeah. Well, actually Coachella and GDC. They're in pretty close proximity. Of course, both have been canceled this year but, yeah, I mean, the vibe there is incredible. You always feel like you're simultaneously putting your place. You see people that are just like totally blowing you out of the water in terms of your level of delivery and you've got like, "Oh, okay, I really need to step it up," but it also kind of just reminded me of your place in a positive sense and that you sort of you see the spectrum of everything has been created and that's a way of helping, like grounds you and what's important to you because you're reminded of there's so much stuff out there, you're like, I can't be derivative. I need to do something which is different. There are all these incredibly talented people. If my game is going to matter to anybody, it needs to have some distinct message to it.
Tim Nixon (08:41):
Yeah, I think GDC is probably the best example we have in the West. There's an openness about that community where there's, even forthcoming with all of their secret source and tools, nothing is really, there's no sacred cows. Everything is just laid out, which is fantastic and it keeps everybody on their toes.
James Gwertzman (09:02):
Well, for someone who's never had a chance to actually sit down and participate in one of those live events that have review sessions and look at the data and look at the analytics and make decisions, can you sort of paint the picture of what it actually looks like? I mean, help us imagine we're actually there sitting down in a room reviewing an event, what does it look like? What metrics are being reviewed? Walk us through that process.
Tim Nixon (09:23):
Okay, depending on how sophisticated your analytics department is, it's going to look either very pretty or very dirty and just like an Excel spreadsheet. The cool thing about Windows first meetings of DNA was that when it's happening in the moment, it's like, super dirty or super quick. The tools were pretty rudimentary.
Tim Nixon (09:48):
Really, especially because with the games that are newer, they didn't have these fancy dashboards and stuff working yet, sir. They just had this roar input which someone had just scrambled together into an Excel spreadsheet just to be like, "Okay, we're four days into the event. Completion rates on these challenges are X, Y, and Z percentage." They can see what their conversion rate is. It's just like the project managers sitting there scrolling through this thing, just thinking out loud with his team and being like, "Okay, who are we leaving behind? What players are not engaging with us? What can we be doing to make this clearer and better. Are there any actual tweaks that we want to make real time to make sure that and then other any, like, actual tweaks that we want to make real time to make sure that the right amount of people get over the finish line with this event or we monetize to the right level.
Tim Nixon (10:37):
I just thought that was fascinating to be so in the moment, right? Usually, the decisions we make about the changes we make to the game are felt in weeks down the road, if we're lucky, but more likely months down the road and this goes sitting here like jumping through the spreadsheet, making decisions that are going to be alive in the game that afternoon. That, I thought, was just like really inspiring.
James Gwertzman (11:07):
Just breaking that down then. The building blocks were analytics to help make decisions and some basic ones, that's in the spreadsheet, and the ability to make configuration changes and content changes and see them in near real time back into the game.
Tim Nixon (11:20):
Yes, yeah, that's crucial, much more important than it's looking pretty is just the ability for quick turnaround, being able to listen and whether that listening is the fan sentiment or just the pure data and getting that quickly and then acting on it.
Crystin Cox (11:40):
That had to have a big impact on the way you guys approach making your next games.
Tim Nixon (11:46):
Yeah, it is. I mean, the way that we approached our development in general just sort of changed so dramatically both through exposure to DNA and their best practice, but also just taking on some of the lessons that we learned from the previous games. It really was like a perfect storm.
Tim Nixon (12:07):
I remember another moment in [inaudible 00:12:12] development, which was really pivotal was that we just decided that the game was going to be one screen and because we were just looking at mobile and the things that were really working in DNA's portfolio and what people struggled with, with our previous games and like there was just too much stuff to understand, right? It was just like too many different the game modes or controls or ideas or concepts. By observing you the games and DNA that we're working really well, it was just this one very simple loops that players were just fascinated with playing over thousands and thousands of times over again.
Tim Nixon (12:54):
They'd become really great at making one two interactions. Just feel exceptionally good and to have like a crazy range of nuance and challenge to them and something which can scale up to being immediately understandable or somebody that looks at a screen. That was our challenge, right? The game is going to be on one screen. You might be able to pan it around like a little later on but just a layperson, it doesn't even necessarily play games is going to be able to look at this thing and get it. Then, within a couple of tips is going to understand the loop and is going to be either bought in or churned out.
Tim Nixon (13:34):
That, as a constraint, was very important. This is when I was sort of learning the constraints or probably one of the most important tools that we have as developers, right? Then, layering in that complexity of like, "Okay, this is our 32nd loop. Great. How we didn't add like the philosophy of limited time events in a meta game progression." Then, those sort of mechanics came more specifically from DNA.
James Gwertzman (14:06):
Well, how much with your with the... Events typically change the rules of the core loop. That's the whole point is they sort of make something different for some period of time, which gives you that freshness and that unique kind of engagement. How far do you let yourselves change that core loop of the course of your events? Was it relatively constrained or was it some very subtle shifts or were you making some pretty dramatic changes as you try different events?
Tim Nixon (14:28):
At the start, one of the beliefs that I still have is that it's really important for the events to be an extension of core gameplay. It needs to follow all the same rules, right? You shouldn't build a different game on top of your game and then call the event. It needs to be this like natural extension because if it feels too much of a sideline, then it's going to feel non-essential. It's either going to feel non-essential or it's going to feel like a distraction. It's really important that it integrates beautifully into that 32nd loop, even if it is just like it's subtle little twist.
Tim Nixon (15:07):
For example, the first event that we did, really, it was just as simple as a, there was a collection of butterflies that were only available for 10 days. There was a special flower that you could find in the environment, which you needed to collect, which helps you attract that species. It was just that simple. It was really, it was a time-limited tweak on an established mechanic. The benefit of that is that players coming into it immediately know what to do. You don't need to give them a rulebook. You don't need to explain anything complex to them. They already bought into the game. They already value collection of all these different species, you're just adding this one little complicating factor and they're in. They're playing and having a great time.
Tim Nixon (15:59):
Then, over time, though, you do want to keep things a little bit interesting. We added subtle little changes. We add in a new character, which was a source of the different resources and flowers that you could get but again, it was just like a little bit of added complexity on top of a fundamentally core system, which was always driven the same way.
Crystin Cox (16:22):
I think, what you just said there is incredibly helpful. It's that kind of direct. This is what it takes to make a great event. I'm struck because you were talking about getting into events relatively early, as far as the west's exposure to that kind of thinking but I think it's one of the things that, from my perspective, is still a very difficult thing for a lot of western developers to adopt. I'm curious to know why do you think that is. Why is it been so hard for us to pick up that practice that is so well developed in the east?
Tim Nixon (17:00):
I think it's got something to do with, how to put this, like the heritage design values, from the different markets. In China especially, online games free-to-play have been the norm for the entire industry's existence, right? Before online free-to-play games, there was just pirating and there it. Then, when online games came along, like the antipiracy measure, really was to adopt this free-to-play model. Right from the start, they had to rely on that and it just became a core part of the DNA of the studios and that business model, whereas in the west, we've had to make a transition. In the west, we started off as your this industry where... Well, actually I suppose we started off technically in the arcades were it was kind of a free-to-play this type thing.
James Gwertzman (17:57):
Tim Nixon (17:58):
We evolved more towards this model where it was an adventure game or a story as long as it had a start middle and end and we got really obsessed with this idea of a narrative arc and being like movies. I think a big part of the industry is still very fixated on that idea. It's not to say that obviously that beautiful or touching and incredible experiences have come from that but I think there's more for us to do than just tell a linear story. I'm not sure whether there's something culturally to do with the fact that movies are afforded like a sense of cultural gravity.
Tim Nixon (18:49):
If games are going to rise to the level of importance of movies, then we need to mimic them and that's the only real way to tell them a story or like to touch people is to go through this like three-act structure. I don't know. That's like probably a lot of navel-gazing and stuff but I think it's something to do with the people thinking that to have a respectful piece of art, then that needs to be this fixed story and I think there are a lot of great examples that show that that's not the case but I think most of the industry would still like to be focusing more on narrative-based games.
Tim Nixon (19:33):
Yeah, I don't know, I think we were lucky with Runaway that we got to witness a very different philosophy from the ground floor and weave that into our design from the beginning. I should point out as well that we failed the first time we tried this. The first time we tried to make a butterfly game, we were like, I was like thinking, "This is going to be an adventure game. You're going to fly as a butterfly through the forest. It's going to be really cool and you're going to meet all these different characters and it's going to be this epic adventure," and it just didn't work on the platform because we were kind of just a little bit ignorant of how people approach these sorts of games whether it's in a browser or on a phone.
Tim Nixon (20:20):
These platforms are, people are looking at them to fill in gaps of time, fill in gaps in time and connect with their friends. You need to be respectful of what headspace someone's in when they're approaching these devices. I think, again, DNA taught us lot and we were very humbled by our failures. We were, I suppose, really ready to absorb the lessons then. We were lucky in, as I say again, a perfect storm of both having the right mentors there and being humble enough to accept that influence.
James Gwertzman (20:59):
When you're laying out your events or designing events, what sorts of goals do you sit down with? Are they always the same or they change? For example, are some events more about pure engagement? Are they about reengaging lapsed players? Are they about monetization, specific monetization goals? Trying to advance your particular cohort forward to a particular new level of engagement? How do you think about goals of events? What are some example of goals look like?
Tim Nixon (21:26):
Sure, well, I can pull an example from that game company, actually, and talk a little bit about what we've done with the seasons there because we've tried to do them a little bit differently and that our goal has not just been revenue, although like they have been very meaningful for us in that respect as they are for most online games these days but the thing that we're really trying to do with the Seasons and Sky is to expand on the story and to make sure that each of the Seasons feels like it makes the world more Sky and it tells the player more about the characters and the backstory. It doesn't feel, again, this is sort of an extension of that idea that I mentioned before about not being like a bolt on added extra, but more feeling like a new chapter in the story.
Tim Nixon (22:20):
Our goals are very much to make sure that players are not just turning out to grind through in clicks and currency and get a new cosmetic, but we're hopefully training them or inspiring them to pay a little more attention to the subtle story elements that we hide in each of the quests so that they can unpick the background narrative of the world. Yeah, I think we're more focused on the feeling at TGC than we are necessarily on the specific metrics. That's not to say that we don't have dashboards where we're monitoring all this stuff very closely but, each season does have a particular theme.
Tim Nixon (23:06):
For example, the second season we built was called the Season of Gratitude. That had a central theme of gratitude running through the stories but also in the gameplay we added in these new gratitude shrines where players could come and answer these gratitude prompts and share with the players around them things that they were grateful for in life. We're trying to like thread and feeling story gameplay and advance, I suppose, like the philosophical ambition of the game as well as just making new stuff for people to buy.
Crystin Cox (23:40):
I think that's actually one of the things, to me, that's so interesting about your experience because you do come from more of an Indie space you that experience with DNA, but you do come from a more Indie space and so much these days, I think there's a narrative that Indie, especially when we talk about LiveOps focus games, is either your focus is to sort of build a loop to solve the problem of engagement and just sort of build loops that are more and more optimized or you're making a narrative focus game, right? You're making a small, Indie, premium, narrative game.
Crystin Cox (24:24):
I think that this space isn't really explored all that often, which is the space that your user occupy, which is no, we are a live service-focused game that has real intention, right? That has intentions that you might normally associate with more Indie or art-focused games. It would be interesting to hear you talk a little bit about your experience specifically as there has been this big explosion in service games in LiveOps but a lot of times the focus is really strongly on a very business-focused idea about what it means to go and do LiveOps or service games.
James Gwertzman (25:12):
I like to interject before you answer that, I think one of the things I'm especially interested in hearing is your experience in engaging with Jenova because Jenova is probably one of the kind of preeminent, narrative feeling, kind of game structure. To bring the person sort of helping introduce him to games, services and LiveOps, very interesting to hear that juxtaposition. The cultural shift and think of the cultural journey he had to go along, along with his team as you ramped up this new model, and I'm not surprised at all that together, you've come up with a model that sort of a new way, which is combining narrative with live service. I'm not surprised that that's what's come out of this collaboration.
Tim Nixon (25:51):
Yeah, sure. Well, I felt like I had to throw away a lot of my, what I called dispractice, when I came here to TGC because you're right, and a lot of the rules don't apply to TGC and they're really, over the years, have tried to push the envelope and prove that games can be more than just what we assume that they are and which had inspired me a lot in my career, early on when we were making Flutter, I was playing flower and just being so blown away by the optimism that that game sort of imbued in people that games could be more than just money making machines, but there could be art, there could be poetry, and they could have real emotion and that was hugely motivating for me and had an influence on my early work.
Tim Nixon (26:42):
I think Flutter wouldn't have had the heart that it has in which, I think, became a core part of its differentiator and the reason why it stood out had it not been for your Flower and Jenny. It's kind of a cool full circle moment then come back and for those games to be the sort of certain steps in the letter to me then being able to come back and help contribute to expanding TGCs operation out from just being a narrative, fixed storytelling style company into being a full LiveOps operation.
Tim Nixon (27:27):
The hardest thing, I think, has been trying to just shift the momentum away from like the way things were, because when a company has three games in a row under their belt where they're in a particular format and they've all done really well and they're like Game of the Year, critical darlings, it's very hard to even say that anything needs to change but the reality is that we're making a transition, still on our way to making it, away from a two-hour fixed narrative into a game that people ideally play for thousands of hours and are in really tight little loops.
Tim Nixon (28:17):
When I first got here, it was just a matter of like just doing my best to educate. I will just share experience and I would just do little presentations where I would just say, "Look, this is some of the best practice we used at Runway or that other teams are using around the world and these are the some of the things we need to think about when we're making the style of game. Yeah, absolutely these different mind sets clashed so many times. I'm really grateful for all of the times that I've needed to stick out for this new type of thinking because when my opinion gets challenged as not fitting with the values of the company or the long term aspirations, then I need to be really sure of why this idea is good and why it's relevant.
Tim Nixon (29:15):
I need to then relate it back to the core values and actually say, "Look, I'm not doing this purely just for us to make more money. I'm suggesting this design or this practice or whatever, because it's part of a good live product and our goal isn't just to suck money out of people and then kick them out the door. Our goal is to establish a bond with our audience and a trusting relationship over the course of years." [inaudible 00:29:47] different considerations you have to take into account when you're deciding what to spend your time on, what to spend your art resources on, what to just spend your game engineering resource on them.
Tim Nixon (30:05):
One of the key filters, I think, we're trying to adopt more and more is, is this thing that we're building going to be useful to as many of our players as possible for as long as possible to come at any stage in the game. Anytime you're making like a one off thing, whether that be a cinematic or a piece of artwork or even a piece of engineering, which is only for a very niche, specific part of the audience, that has to come under real critique. We need to make sure that our time is optimized so that those features is the content are relevant and useful for a long time to come for our plays.
James Gwertzman (30:46):
One theme we've hit on in previous episodes, is how the player is increasingly at the center of the design process. This notion of it's no longer I, the designer, I'm creating experience to you the player will consume. It's more like you the player kind of sitting with me on the same side of the table, we're almost co-designing together even though the player is not physically in the room. The designer is really trying to engage. Love to hear your thoughts on that concept, but also then how that played out within that game company?
Tim Nixon (31:14):
Sure, that's a really tough balance because not only do we want and I want to be just purely reactive to whatever the players' request but we're not going to be sure not to respond to the squeaky. That's probably one of the biggest challenges I'd say in LiveOps in general, is balancing all of these different inputs.
Tim Nixon (31:46):
As a product owner, you're sitting there and you're at the start of your sprint cycle and you're deciding what to do with your next two, four, six weeks, however long it is, and you're looking at the raw data that's coming in from your analytics, you're talking to the team and they're telling you all the things they want to fix with the game. You're listening to your social media channels. You've got your customer support team on your back about what bugs are going on. Then, you've got your own intuition to fit in there somewhere. It's like a real skill, like you're bordering on a full time job just to sit there and listen attentively and then make good judgment calls on what are those things you need to listen to and what things you kind of just need to respectfully put aside.
Crystin Cox (32:33):
Do you have any examples of times, I think we've all have examples of this video, examples of times when it really seemed like something was a big, big, big deal and you did kind of give in to that desire to act reactively and then things turned out very differently than you'd imagined.
Tim Nixon (32:56):
Yeah, okay. A good example is from early on in Flutters days, and I think it was when we're about a year and we had a lot of players complaining that the past events that we had run that they were not around for, had not come back and there was no way for them to access that content. They were like super vocal about this. You're sort of demanded in various levels of pleasant and unpleasant ways that we bring this event back. We thought about it for ages because obviously, as a team as well, we were concerned that there were, by that point, five or six events that we had run that was worked that were done, which was only ever going to be seen by this fraction of our audience that existed because our game was on a continual growth trajectory. I mean, after a year, we had way more players than we did at the start. It seemed like a waste.
Tim Nixon (34:02):
We consulted with the player-based and we even did like a poll. They're like, "Okay, if we were to bring back an event, which event would you want to bring back?" They voted for the one which was the first ever event predictably because those are the one that the least of them had seen. Then, we decided to bring that event back. We ran out again and it was an absolute disaster because it didn't monetize nearly as well. We had a really poor month because a lot of the players had actually still been around for it. It was just like the small minority that were very, very vocal because they wanted to get this stuff.
Tim Nixon (34:42):
In the place that did have that stuff back then also got really upset because they thought the integrity of the limited nature of those species had now been compromised and they didn't trust us anymore. It's like, "Oh, well, okay, well, if you're just going to bring these [Vince 00:34:59] back anytime you like, then, I'm just not really even going to bother finishing these things. That didn't go great. Fortunately-
James Gwertzman (35:12):
Tampered with scarcity.
Tim Nixon (35:13):
James Gwertzman (35:14):
You tampered with scarcity?
Tim Nixon (35:15):
James Gwertzman (35:16):
[crosstalk 00:35:16] scarce thing and you basically suddenly made it not so scarce.
Tim Nixon (35:19):
We did, we did. That was a bad call but there's a happy ending to the story because we came up with a solution that in the end actually did work. Instead of introducing whole other seasons back, after thinking about this for a while, we came up with a system called the Visiting Butterflies. We have just one of the species from the event, every few days, would choose one at random from the oldest pieces you hadn't collected, would visit your forest and you would be able to see that species, you'd be able to use its special ability, you'd be able to click the currency from Earth and just play with it for that whole day at no charge. Only free play, I could see it but then if you wanted to capture it, you could pay a premium to capture and add it to your collection.
Tim Nixon (36:10):
That worked really well because you're all the people that were free players, it was kind of didn't really feel like it was they were really missing out, they got to see that the species and everything. They didn't feel like they had to have it in their collection but the people that were willing to pay, were happy to do so in the end and monetize very, very well.
Tim Nixon (36:33):
It struck a very careful balance between giving access to that old content, but not making it feel like it was an actual reliable source of catching up. It would be possible to do but you'd have to play for months and months and months and months with this concept. What it did in the end was that it increased the value, the perceived value and fun of the events while they were happening because you're like, "Oh wow, over this 10 days, 14 days, however long it is, I get to click six of these things? Six of these super rare things? They're like cost tons of money. They come in and now I get to just like play for free and pursue these things." That worked out really well.
Crystin Cox (37:19):
Do you have any techniques you use now to try to specifically guard against that trouble of hearing a very vocal minority and only finding out... Because this is such a common thing I know I've experienced it. One group is upset about something. They want A and then you provide A and then the other group that was happy with the way it used to be but were silent because they were happy before are now unhappy. Now suddenly, you just traded Group A for Group B. Do you have any techniques you use now when you start to hear feedback to try to suss out? Is this something that is going to cause another problem down the road? Is this a vocal minority? How do you sort of vet that?
Tim Nixon (38:06):
Sure. I mean, it still gets us. It does. It's hard to say no to your very vocal set of players, especially when they are dedicated fans and they have been playing the game for hundreds of hours and you want to be able to respond to them. The instinct, of course, is to be like, I want to make all these fixes, whether it's a bug thing to all these people, especially your most loyal fans but I think the most important thing is just like taking a breath. Just like taking a breath and stepping back and just asking yourself, "Okay, numerically, how many people are affected by this," and then try and compare the influence of making that change where that time could be spent otherwise, and how you're best serving the player base as a whole.
Tim Nixon (39:04):
That can become a dialogue. There's no really empirical way to just say, "Yes, this is the right course of action over X over Y but I think sitting down and having a calm pause, we actually talk about all the different options that you have. Then, just as importantly, being communicative with the player-based about why you're making the change and what you do have the time to get through and why you've prioritized one thing over the other.
Tim Nixon (39:31):
I'm like a massive fan of candor. Candor with I'm super... Whenever I get the opportunity, just super urban, we'll get on a live stream app label, write a blog post, whatever we need to do and just be like 100% transparent about our design process and all the different things that we're trying to balance. The reason for that is that, I don't know, I just believe that honesty is the best policy for a start but just through experience of seeing that plays just respond well to that. If you say, "Guys, we want to fix this little thing, but we were really busy creating this new season or this other new feature, which is going to help thousands of more people better connect with their friends or something." They're like, "Oh, yeah, cool. I understand." That's it.
Tim Nixon (40:17):
It's just when players don't feel like they're being heard, that's frustrating for them. When they're sitting there going like, "You guys are lazy. You're like, "What have you been doing for the last few months?" We've told you about this a dozen times and they don't get acknowledged. That's the problem. The problem actually isn't that you're not immediately reacting to their concern. The problem is that it doesn't feel like you're listening. They feel like they've invested all of this time in your game and they deserve to be listened to, which they're absolutely right. I think starting there, you can't please everybody, but you can listen to everybody.
Crystin Cox (40:57):
Yeah, I think that's something that AAA has had a bit of a struggle with. As we start seeing LiveOps get adopted across the more traditional parts of the western game development culture is that ability to get out there and be in frequent communication and honest communication with the player base.
Tim Nixon (41:20):
Crystin Cox (41:21):
You know what? I think a lot of devs I talk to are honestly it's very nerve racking, right? The idea of getting out there and actually having to talk to players is a worry of like will this escalate into an endless sack of time? Will they really understand it? I guess, do you have any advice for devs that are going through that?
Tim Nixon (41:51):
I think like as with everything you learn by failing. It's all right for it to be scary. I hope that people will trust as well that there's just as much good that comes from engaging with your player base and you get so much positive feedback that it can be a massive source of inspiration.
Tim Nixon (42:19):
My main piece of advice, I think, when stepping out into this is try and be attentive to the fact that humans are very good at picking up on the negatives and ignoring the positives. For some reason, we're just hardwired to do this. You go into your performance review or something and you get nine pieces of great feedback then one thing we need to improve and you're just fixated on that thing, and lose sleep over at night. It's rewiring our brains to try and your take a compliment. That's probably one of the more important things we can do to our actual happiness and productivity. If you can apply that to your comment thread or reading your app store reviews or whatever and that's going to help you out a lot.
Tim Nixon (43:08):
Also, passing it on to your team, it's like really easy to just focus on, "Oh, God, we got a one star review. What does this person concerned about?" You respond to it right away and just be in reactive mode all the time just to complaints. Making a habit of being like, "We're going to celebrate our five star reviews and we're going to pin those your reviews up and we're going to share... At TGC, we're super lucky we get so many amazing fan letters and fan art. We have a big community in Japan and a few for whom this game has been very meaningful in their lives. We've had all those letters translated by our Japanese staff and read to the team and things and those are just such heartwarming moments and they give you so much juice to keep going. They remind you what is really important and why you're doing what you do. It's scary stuff, but just get in there, be prepared to fail and make sure that you take away all the positives as well as just fixating on the negatives.
James Gwertzman (44:22):
I think one thing I want to dig in more is this dichotomy between games and services and premium games. I think you're right early on, we saw these as two very different things, either you're doing premium or you're doing free-to-play and never the twain shall meet. You're now in this space where you're kind of mixing and matching a little bit. Do you think it's a choice or do you think there are applications from games and services that every game developer can be applying regardless of their business model? I mean, are there sort of... For example, I spend time at PopCap and casual games, and just having it's been several years focusing exclusively in super simple one click games, I think, improved how I think of hardcore games because I think there's lessons that every hardcore gamer designer can use for the casual game space. Is there a similar analog here?
Tim Nixon (45:10):
Yeah. It's interesting when you get into actual AAA paid games and the place of microtransactions in them, and I think actually that the core game and demographic that are very resistant to microtransactions, I mean, are kind of rightly resistant to them when they've already paid $60 for their game. I totally empathize with somebody that has saved up to pay a premium for this big game they've been looking forward to and then be like staring down the barrel of, "Oh, I like to get the full experience. I need to now buy this pack of gems or whatever."
Tim Nixon (45:53):
Personally, I feel the long term, your strategy will be more towards games embracing free-to-play right from the start, as opposed to because like the $60 price point, really in the grand scheme, the long term of a well done free-to-play game is just a barrier to entry. We've seen a few premium games like especially MMOs transition away from that upfront cost and then even away from the subscription model and then more just a purely free-to-play. I don't know. I'm not really aware of a hybrid model that has worked super well, so far. Even personally, as a consumer, I like to be able to just have a disc that I put in the machine and then that's it. Then, equally as a consumer, I am totally fine when I pick up my phone or even play a game on a switcher or download your Apex or whatever. I know what I'm in for and that's it. That's the key thing, expectations.
Tim Nixon (47:01):
There are a whole bunch of expectations which come along with the format that you're receiving the game on. Even like the pedigree of the developer, what the developers have given you before and when there's a mismatch and your expectations and reality, that's when people get upset. I think just knowing your audience and not trying to foist them or do things that are unfair but again, we're learning. This is changing under our feet all the time. I don't think people should be afraid to try stuff, but I do think that if you're considering free-to-play for your game, then go all in on that because I think there's enough case studies now to show that if you do it right, then it is a great business model.
James Gwertzman (48:01):
One more concern and maybe we'll ask you some of our favorite questions, which we ask everyone, which is a train wreck section of the show, but I want to go to community for a second. To what extent, one of our theories here that Crystin actually gets all the credit for is this notion of games. We're already kind of post services now in this game is community, this notion that if you're successful, the game really is a community of players who are continually engaging and it's way deeper than just having this ongoing service model. Do you think about that consciously and especially the game designer now with Sky? Do you think about it as a community? Is it different in any way when you're designing to be a community per se than maybe what you're doing with Flutter where perhaps is more but a more isolated experience?
Tim Nixon (48:45):
Absolutely. We have been trying to think of Sky more as like a social network than as a game. I think we've been varying levels of successful like with getting there. We're continuing to work harder on making it just like a fun place to hang out, as well as a cool game to play but one thing we've definitely found with the players who stay in the game long term is that really the game is like an excuse to hang out, in the same way that like pickup basketball or something, like the games fun, whatever, but it's cool if you're just bad at it. It doesn't really matter. It's about the people. It's not about the game.
Tim Nixon (49:33):
There's also an added layer of kind of fandom community interest with our stuff because there's a lore to unpick and discover. There's like this tribal knowledge to share and that's like with Animal Crossing coming out now you're like, it's a whole thing which everyone's getting exposed to in a whole another level.
Tim Nixon (49:58):
We are trying more and more to think about introducing mechanics that bring people together, give them good excuses to hang out to get to know each other better and ultimately, good social mechanics are the best retention tool by a long shot. If you build up a friend group in a game, then it's much more likely that you're going to come back for months and years to come. It just develops a real a place in your heart when you have good friends and reliable your teammates to go out with. I think it's the reason why our game has been successful. We're trying to emphasize that more in the future development.
Crystin Cox (50:48):
Okay, I think it is time for us to ask our favorite question. Can you share with us a LiveOps disaster from your experience, some experience that you've been through with a live game that has been a train wreck that you've learned from?
Tim Nixon (51:11):
Okay, well, I was actually going to use my story of the launching the old event, but I jumped the gun a little bit there. I'm just going to have to think of another one on the spot. There's been so many. It's hard to know where to start.
James Gwertzman (51:29):
Take note audience members, there's been so many. Don't feel bad when you have your own, "Oh, my God, the economy is tanking moment," because you're not alone.
Tim Nixon (51:38):
Yeah, well, I mean, okay. Economy ones are like you're very, very easy to find, because I think Steve Meretzky pointed out this classic failure as well and that you made a soft currency economy where you buy more generators of that soft currency and just like this loop that very quickly gets into a place where the soft currency is worth nothing and it's rolling. The number of digits won't fit on the screen anymore. I have a screenshot from some people that sent to me burned into my retinas, which is, yeah, I have the currency running off the side of the screen. Of course, this is one of the ways that we're supposed to incentivized monetization, but that was a good early lessons to where a hard currency is crucial but I'm actually kind of blanking on another good example just at the minute.
James Gwertzman (52:41):
I do love that visual of the soft currency digits, just overflowing the screen. I have definitely worked on games where we actually hit the big int number and we're unable to properly store or display any more currency to a player. I won't name names.
Tim Nixon (53:09):
Yeah, when I think about disasters, a lot of the things that come to mind actually are happy disasters in that we're up in the middle of the night, responding to server issues because Apple or Facebook have unknowingly given us some good promotion and then suddenly, there's this massive influx of players. We've had to deal with Sky at various points. This happens, obviously, not just from promotions, but for whatever random social reason on the internet that someone like a streamer catches on to your game.
Tim Nixon (53:48):
That's actually a very important thing for anybody that's interested in transitioning to LiveOps especially as a small team to take very seriously is having a proper alert system set up so that you are working up in the middle of the night if you need to be but also, there's another reason why those systems are important so that your engineers can step away from their slack or step away from their computer because early on in our time at Runaway, it became a real challenge for our engineers to like get good sleep or get good time away from work, because they felt so responsible for the system standing up.
Tim Nixon (54:30):
Before we had a good pager duty style notification system where it would actually physically call their cell phone or call their house when something was really bad. They just felt like they needed to be checking in all the time and that's really unhealthy. It's something which is very easy to get carried away with whether you're an engineer or a designer, economy designer, community support person, you feel the living nature of this game, just out there all the time.
Tim Nixon (55:03):
I mean, like, we've got hundreds of thousands of people playing the game today. It's very hard to disconnect yourself from that. When you have the solid tools that you can rely on, that you know are going to be able to get through to you on a harder line than just your email or a dashboard or something, then that gives you permission, I think, to step away and be like, "It's okay. The thing is stable. If it'll goes to heck then, they're going to be able to find me." That's probably one of the best pieces of advice I can give to sort of avoid engineering burnout and give people the opportunity to step away from the product.
Crystin Cox (55:53):
Yeah, I think that's a good one.
James Gwertzman (55:53):
Yeah, yeah. We have so many more questions. We should we need to bring you back for a future episode because I could just keep going, but I know we're getting close to our time here.
Tim Nixon (56:03):
Sure, I'd be happy to then.
Crystin Cox (56:05):
Yeah, no, this is really fantastic. Thank you so much for taking the time. We do like to keep him around an hour so that we don't burn people out but yeah, it would be maybe to have you back at some point. We'll start rolling back to [crosstalk 00:56:22].
James Gwertzman (56:21):
He just started talking about tools [crosstalk 00:56:24].
Crystin Cox (56:24):
Yeah, I know.
James Gwertzman (56:25):
Let's go with the tools and what a good tool could look like or.
Crystin Cox (56:26):
That one too is such a great, practical piece of advice, that a lot of times you don't think about on your small team, which is, "Hey, it really is important that you can get a phone call in the middle of the night to tell you the server is crashing." Otherwise, you really do end up with everybody sort of anxiously staring at a screen all day and all night.
Tim Nixon (56:49):
Yeah, yeah, yeah. It's a very bad habit to be in when you wake up in the middle of the night just open your phone and just like flick through just to see if anything's gone wrong. You definitely don't want to have that habit.
Crystin Cox (57:00):
No, it's hard to break, right? I mean, one of the first things you get into with live teams and I went through this at ArenaNet where we sort of transitioned to them to a real sort of live team mentality and going to that launch was, it's going to be a marathon and you can't treat it like a sprint because if you start treating it like a sprint, you're going to be sprinting until you fall over.
Tim Nixon (57:25):
Yeah. To be honest, I'm not really sure there's any way for any new team to avoid that. Just try as you might. There's just going to be... There's so much pressure with starting a new business model, selling a new game and things, there's going to be an intensity, but even just having that awareness that that is not going to be sustainable and you need to be moving yourself step by step towards a point where your whatever your level of engagement and work, you should be able to keep up with that indefinitely. That's a question that we've been asking our team more at TGC. It's like you're, "Okay, the amount that you're working right now, could you just do that forever?" Of course, a lot of them must be like, "No way." Well, it's like, "Okay, well, that's the start of a discussion." Then, we can just say, "What is it about this that we can fix?" There's lots of different stories about the ways that different teams have juggled those and maybe that's a discussion for another day.
Crystin Cox (58:24):
Yeah, thanks again.
Tim Nixon (58:26):
Sure. Yeah. Thanks for having me on. Cool.
Crystin Cox (58:28):
Tim Nixon (58:29):
All right. Thank you guys.
Crystin Cox (58:30):
Thank you very much.
James Gwertzman (58:31):
I hope to see you again.
Tim Nixon (58:31):
All right, stay safe. See you.
James Gwertzman (58:36):
Crystin Cox (58:38):
Thanks for listening to the Art of LiveOps podcast.
James Gwertzman (58:41):
If you liked what you heard, remember to rate, review and subscribe so others can find us.
Crystin Cox (58:46):
Visit playfab.com for more information on solutions for all your LiveOps needs.
James Gwertzman (58:51):
Thanks for tuning in.