Balancing Live Service Games

Balancing live service games is the constant act of making trade-offs. From aiming to increase player satisfaction, innovating and pushing the boundaries of the game to maintaining a sustainable workflow for development teams, with a promise of regular releases there’s an underlying desire for improvement.

However, improvements made to a game come in many forms and shapes. Knowing what to optimize for at each stage of the game lifecycle is sometimes not obvious, especially when “everything” needs to be attended to, and that should have happened preferably yesterday.

To promote sanity for developers, players, and stakeholders this article builds on my experience from the trenches working on live games for more than 5 years.

Live service games

Live service games, or games-as-a-service (GaaS), are designed to be continually updated with new content, features, and events to keep players engaged. Unlike traditional games -released as premium complete products-, live service games continue to develop post-launch, offering players new reasons to return regularly.

This model regained popularity in the mid of 2010’s with titles like “Angry Birds 2,” as Freemium “F2P – Free to play” models became more ubiquitous because of distribution channels like AppStore and Google Play Store.

If a game doesn’t make its money upfront, the barrier for entry and acquiring new players is generally lower, after all, they can play for free. This means that developers need to spend more effort convincing players to enhance their experience by spending money in-game. emphasizes the importance of keeping the game fresh and engaging.

Market Trends and Growth

The live service model has seen significant growth, becoming especially popular during 2020 – 2022, with many successful games continuously adding new content to retain their player base, and even traditional premium franchises like The Sims or Battlefield (published by EA) doubling down on this strategy. However, 2023 and 2024 have been particularly challenging, with several high-profile live service games facing closures and delays. This trend raises questions about the sustainability and long-term viability of the model. Some players have become especially critical of perceived exploitative lock-in mechanics like Battle Passes.

“I’ve (…) gotten really tired of trying to keep up with all of the live-service games I have attachments to, especially if I have multiple battlepasses to finish.”

, Stella Chung IGN

Other sources:

What do players want?

Anyone who ever worked on a live game can attest to the cyclical frustration of the community. Like the sun rising every day, even overwhelmingly loved live games will hit a point where the amount of novelty, innovation, and quality falls short of expectations. Great communities tend to be very understanding of the developers’ plight to keep shipping new features.

In an ideal world, tech debt doesn’t accumulate, there are always resources to allocate where most needed, and there aren’t other factors like server costs, personal costs, or marketing, to muddle priorities.

The Importance of Player Feedback

Developers genuinely want to optimize and maximize player enjoyment. That is what motivated most developers to develop games in the first place. therefore, understanding player desires is paramount. Gathering and analyzing player feedback helps developers tailor content and updates to meet player expectations. There are various types of players, each with different preferences and gaming habits. Catering to these diverse needs requires a nuanced approach.

One aspect often forgotten in live games is how the audience evolves with the game lifecycle, and how to relearn and ensure that we keep in touch with the community. This is one of the reasons why roles as community managers went from a typical entry-level job in the industry to one where maturity and experience are highly prized.

Good community managers are the voice of the player in the product team.

Types of Players and Their Preferences

If the community manager is the voice, often it pays to have a User Experience Researcher (UXR) come in and be “the brains” and systematizing types of players, their preferences, and challenges.

Players can be categorized into different taxonomies, such as casual players, hardcore gamers, and social players. Each group has unique preferences, and understanding these can guide marketing strategies and development decisions. There are several off-the-shelf models like Quantic Foundry Gamer Motivation Profile that look into players motivations, but there are also frameworks to categorize spending behavior.

While the community manager is primarily a tactical permanent role in the product team, the UXR is most effectively used strategically at key moments. Bigger studios often have the resources to keep these specialists on permanently, but small and medium teams/studios should contract these resources periodically. For smaller teams often some team members with some UXR education pick up the slack of this missing expertise. However, it’s difficult to juggle both hats (UXR and game design for example), when that person is “too close”. When are the best times to bring in external expertise:

  • During the first stages of prototyping/vertical slicing, potentially to involve in player testing
  • Helping define audience and personas (Which can support forecasting and calculating total addressable market)
  • Whenever priorities and user value are unclear and there’s a need to a better framework to understand who the player is and what the player wants
  • Periodically as support for marketing

It’s best to not confuse UXR with UXD (user experience designer), while these 2 might have some overlap sometimes! Rule of thumb: UXD will most likely provide you with mock-ups and contribute to product design and development, UXR will ideally not be doing any of the actual design. UXR conducts experiments, gathers information, and supports decision-making.

Managing Team Resources

Live Service Games are marathons, not sprints

Managing development teams in the context of live service games involves navigating budget constraints, talent acquisition, and retention challenges. It’s essential to approach the development cycle as a long, steadily paced effort rather than quick bursts of action and crunch. The longevity goal for a live game implies that the team’s workload is sustainable over the long term. If the workload is not sustainable over time, bigger problems will arise:

  • Technical debt will accumulate due to “quick and dirty” solutions
  • Low innovation and few great new features. Crunch is the enemy of creativity
  • Most team members lose touch with the game due to “not having time to play”
  • Senior talent will leave

Striking the Right Balance

Good is the enemy of perfect, here. Having any sort of balance in a game is a dynamic act of trying to move levers in and out of the game. At the end of the day, the right balance is spending the least amount of resources, while maximizing player engagement in a sustainable way for developers.

Photo by Mapbox on Unsplash. Illustrative image of Three developers around a laptop
Photo by Mapbox on Unsplash

Prioritization with Sustainability in Mind

Balancing player desires with team resources is an art. Prioritization is key, and a well-thought-out product roadmap can help manage this balance. Early planning and involving various departments like commerce, marketing, and community management can ensure that the live service aspect is not an afterthought but an integral part of the development process.

Keeping tabs on technical debt

Technical debt in software development is akin to entropy in a chaotic system: it inevitably increases over time if not managed properly. As new features are added and quick fixes are applied to meet immediate needs, the underlying codebase becomes increasingly complex and less maintainable. Teams that are working over capacity, with a crunch mindset are especially vulnerable to it.

Keeping technical debt manageable is best done proactively. Otherwise, over time production grinds to a halt, players get frustrated, and like any debt business stakeholders will pay for it with interest added. There should be an agreed percentage of the team development budget allocated to fight tech debt, documenting, and trying to actively improve production processes.

Building a LiveOps Roadmap

Creating a LiveOps roadmap involves both top-down and bottom-up approaches. The top-down approach aligns with the product vision and strategy, while the bottom-up approach leverages first-party data and player feedback to shape the roadmap. A hybrid model can often provide the best results, combining strategic goals with player-driven insights.

Maintaining Connection with the Community

Maintaining a strong connection with the community is crucial. Empathizing with players, playtesting user experiences, and empowering community managers to advocate for players are all best practices that can help keep the player base engaged and satisfied.


Internally playtesting the game, known as “dogfooding,” ensures that developers are intimately familiar with the player experience. This practice can help identify issues early and foster a deeper understanding of player needs.


Balancing the demands of live service games with the sustainability of development teams is a commitment to product excellence. And a never-ending effort, where more often than not things will go awry. By understanding the audience, planning for sustainability, honing processes, managing tech debt, and maintaining a strong connection with the player community, developers can create engaging and enduring live service games. The journey is challenging, but with the right strategies and commitment to improve, it’s possible to make players happy while keeping teams sane.

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