Álvaro Rico, design director at Digital Legends: “A good live ops strategy can save a game that starts out on the wrong foot”

September 25, 2018

Despite being born in a poor neighborhood in Malaga where everyone had conventional jobs of which plenty were available, Álvaro Rico was never really convinced that he wanted to be a taxi driver, carpenter or security guard. “I met someone who had so much enthusiasm for his job that it didn’t even seem like he was working”, he says, the perfect excuse to try to lead a ‘musician’s life’ and find his true vocation. 

That’s what first led him to work as a graphic designer and later make the jump to the world of videogames. Since then he has worked on games like Evil Gear (his first title), Respawnables and Afterpulse, and for studios like Pyro and Digital Legends.

This broad experience has made him one of the leading national authorities on the implementation of live ops strategies, which is why we couldn’t miss the opportunity to ask him a few questions during his stay as a mentor at the F2P Campus in Vitoria-Gasteiz.

F2P Campus (F): Why choose free-to-play as a business model?

Álvaro Rico (A): Free-to-play, right now, the advantage it has over other business models is the actual results that it’s giving. When you look at the lists of games that make the most revenue or the lists of the most popular games, there’s always a free-to-play in first place. Obviously there are exceptions but free-to-play has wiped out everything else. 

Then when you look beyond the numbers and the rankings you can understand why. With the competition that there is nowadays, this model allows you to access games more quickly, with much less friction for the user. 

What’s more, the free-to-play mechanics that have been incorporated into games have become much more sophisticated, and have ended up really giving the user the occasion to pay much more money that they would in a similar game with a pre-defined payment. In a €60 game, that is the maximum that the user is going to pay, whereas in free-to-play the amount might be much more. 

In this sense, the advantages of using this business model are obvious. 

Álvaro Rico InterviewF: Games like Fortnite, which in the beginning didn’t include the battle royale mode that has made it famous, are an example of how a live ops strategy can save a title. Do you think it’s a unique case, or is it a strategy which can be applied to other games?

A: It’s not a unique case, it happens quite a lot. There have been a lot of cases of games that have improved their KPIs a lot over time. The use of analytics tools has helped a lot because they’re, shall we say, partly to blame for these things happening. 

There are people who release the game and, well, it works how it works, it gives me the revenue it gives me, and I have certain users. Then someone comes and starts looking at the statistics and says, ‘It turns out the retention on day 7 goes down a lot compared to industry standards. Maybe we should play the game in-depth and see what’s happening’. Then you analyze that and it turns out that there’s a problem with the tutorial, that there’s a really big difficulty barrier… And with a couple of changes you look again at the statistics and suddenly it’s going better. There are more players, there’s more revenue…

What I’ve just told you is pretty common, although cases as extreme as the Fortnite one are the least common. There are a lot of games that have started out on the wrong foot, so to speak, and have later recovered. It’s a matter of analyzing the game and fixing it based on the data. 

F: What are the most common mistakes when implementing a live ops strategy?

A: One of the mistakes that I regularly come across is people making too many assumptions instead of checking against hard data. Sometimes it’s better to try something even if it’s not totally polished and see what happens before dedicating more time to it than necessary. 

A very common mistake that new teams make is thinking it’s very important to polish a game a lot, especially from the perspective of production values or graphics. They think that if something goes wrong it’s because of that and sometimes it has nothing to do with it. For example, the interface of Minecraft is really bad and that hasn’t stopped it from being a success. 

Great importance is given to this visual polishing and that tends to harm the live ops, because constant polishing takes up a lot of time that you could be dedicating to adding events and new content that really are going to improve your revenue. 

Álvaro Rico InterviewF: It’s common to see live ops in card games or shooters; is it a strategy that can be extended to other genres or are there any in which it won’t work?

A: I’ve seen it in all kinds of genres. It’s true that there are types of game where it seems to fit better or it’s more natural. For example, in a basketball game it might seem difficult to implement a seasonal event like Halloween, especially if you can’t change the players’ kit, but you always find something. 

Also, by doing events you can try out a lot of ideas, some crazier than others. If they work well, you keep them, and say that that was your vision for the game; and if they go badly you get rid of them without anyone throwing up their hands in horror, because it was something limited. 

So I would say that, yes, in any game you can include events, do crazy things…There are just some genres that make things easier than others. 

F: If all the games out there have no ending, and all of them want you to dedicate a lot of time to them, is there room for more in the market?

A: When you make a new game you always have to struggle with the environment you’re in, and do it with the tools that you have. In other words, let’s say that the games market is like an animal ecosystem. There’s a range of animals; each one has its territory, they fight for the same resources, etc. In the end each animal finds its skills in order to establish a position. 

Zebras, for example, move in a herd and thanks to their stripes it’s difficult to follow them for a long time while running behind them because they cause dizziness. Lions on the other hand have other skills like stalking, speed, and their claws. We could say that the lion is really lucky compared to the zebra, but in fact each survives in its own way. 

In the world of games, the same happens. We can look with mistrust at all the big studios that barely leave room for the new ones, but if you want to go up against them you have to find your own skills. 

Oddly enough, in big teams and studios there are also a lot of limitations. They can’t make certain decisions just like that. Making a small change in Candy Crush might drastically change King’s course, whereas in a small company it wouldn’t be so significant. 

A small studio is like a gazelle: if it sees the opportunity it can get there first. Whereas a big studio is like an elephant: it’s really difficult for it to turn and get somewhere but when it does, it crushes everything.

Álvaro Rico InterviewF: What advice would you give to someone starting out in the industry?

A: Among the people who are starting out there’s a lot of vocation, people who want to create their own world and tell their story, and that can blind you a little. You have to bear in mind that, at the end of the day, you have to be sure whether you want to do it professionally and start a business, or if you really want to do it as a hobby. These are two very different attitudes and goals. 

These days with words like ‘indie’ and so on, it’s not very clear exactly what we’re talking about, and it’s sometimes confusing. Be very clear with yourself and with your team. If you want to make a living you have to take things more seriously, be professional… That doesn’t mean you have to forget your most creative or visceral side. 

It’s not the same thing wanting to be a footballer and play in the first division, or wanting to have a kick-around at the weekend with your friends.

Many thanks to Álvaro Rico for coming to Vitoria-Gasteiz to answer our questions and advise the F2P Campus teams.

Until next time!