We speak to developers about how they engage audiences with titles that evolve over time.
Only a few weeks ago, Sony committed to releasing ten live service games by March 2026 – just four short years away – whilst other major publishers such as EA, Ubisoft, and Square Enix have all identified player recurring investments such as season passes, battle passes, and microtransactions – all synonymous with live service games, of course – as key contributors to their bottom lines.
In such a crowded market, what's it like to be part of a live service team that needs to constantly iterate to keep its players engaged? How do studios adapt to changing audiences, technological advances, and the difficult dance of balancing the needs of casual players with long-time dedicated ones still opening their doors for newcomers who may have missed years of story expansions? We talk to two developers right at the heart of games-as-a-service to discover more about the realities of live service gaming.
For Rebecca Ford – live operations and community director at Digital Extremes, the studio behind fan-favourite shooter Warframe – the best thing about developing a live service game is not just its passionate community, but also how quickly the team can iterate and share new ideas with them.
"A strong sense of community and purpose are some of the greatest things about running a live service game," Ford says. She's been at Digital Extremes since Warframe was launched, having joined as an intern back in 2011. Now responsible for the day-to-day critical response and planning in support of all live services for Warframe – or "identifying what’s on fire and what needs to be deployed in the game and when", she says – Ford says that her role is unique in the sense that she works with "both the development team directly while also overseeing all of Warframe’s community efforts.”
"There’s also much smaller timelines between idea and release, meaning you aren’t sitting for three to four years wondering if your title will be enjoyed. You get short bursts of rapid feedback and then are able to use that feedback while creating the next big thing for the game."
Abbie Heppe, director of live service at Media Molecule and its hugely successful and inspiring Dreams, agrees – particularly about the speed at which the team can implement fixes and deploy new ideas.
"The same thing that makes live service demanding and hard – fewer lulls in development, always-releasing, constant player feedback – is the same thing that can be rewarding," she says. "You get the euphoria of releasing something more and when your live service is going well, you’re seeing the impact of your work on the community and the positive response that generates.
Heppe describes Dreams as a platform "where people can play games made by hobbyist creators". Launched "as a bit of a hybrid" – a boxed product with "live service elements" like an early access period, consistent improvements/updates and in-game events – Heppe says Dreams' unusual positioning as a user-generated content platform has given it a "variety of additional challenges including curation, moderation, and backwards compatibility", as well as having to support "two often different audiences: creators and players.”
Consequently, had the team – which has since doubled in size and been on a "transitional journey", moving away from traditional boxed-product launches – known what it knows now, it may have launched Dreams very differently.
"We launched without a formal live service team and still had trappings of boxed product mentality," she admits now. "It’s taken time, hiring, and some big shifts in how we approach development to get where we are now. But it’s easy to look back and say that, it’s another thing in practice to fundamentally shift a studio into a new way of working. In that respect, we’ve made great progress and have been really supported by Media Molecule leadership and Sony in that journey, but there are still things to learn and areas to grow."
Digital Extremes’ Ford takes a different perspective. While she admits she used to “wax poetic about what we could have done differently,” today she says that developers need to learn from mistakes.
"While there isn’t anything specific I’d say we would do differently, there are always lessons to be learned and things we might tweak in the future based on how players responded the first time around," she suggests.
Prior to Warframe, Digital Extremes primarily worked with other developers, having partnered with Epic Games on Unreal Tournament, as well as supporting the development of both BioShock and BioShock 2, including the latter’s multiplayer component. Warframe was devised back in 2012 as a "save the company effort" according to Ford. Yet despite being told they would fail, Ford says the team now provides consistent support, constant updates, attention to community, and fair monetisation, adding that the ability to manoeuvre and react quickly has seen the game thrive for more than nine years.
"You won’t find another game like Warframe out there – it’s weird, it’s wild, and it’s full of intrigue and boasts one of the most incredibly positive communities you’ll find in online gaming," Ford says.
But after running for so long, how does any live service game – let alone one almost a decade old – tempt back lapsed players whilst still catering to the demands of its current ones?
"People were interested in your game in the first place for a reason – recognising what that might have originally been versus where that game has evolved to is important," Ford tells us, before acknowledging: "Genre creep can alienate the original community."
Heppe admits that every type of game "is going to have their own version of this [issue]", but says that for a platform like Dreams, it's "a challenge we address for both players and creators separately.”
"Sales, events, ECRM [electronic customer relationship management], content drops, seasons, responding to player feedback – all of these are part of a puzzle of retaining and winning back players," she explains. "The longer a player remains lapsed the more likely they are to stay lapsed, so we need shorter-term smaller activations as well as big ‘moments’ we can use to win back or acquire new users. It requires thinking strategically about analytics, resource and support."
And as for new players? Ford acknowledges that this, too, is an "extremely challenging" balance.
"Balancing the demands of veteran players and newcomers is not always easy – in fact, it can be extremely challenging. The older the game gets, the older the veteran players get and the harder it becomes to delight and please them when they’ve ‘seen it all’ – but veteran players are the rock and heart of success."
For Dreams, however, it's about balancing tutorials and building a player's confidence and "literacy.” As part of this, the Dreams team looks at analytics, user testing, and even player surveys to "develop plans accordingly.” Consequently, Heppe says it's important that anyone looking to enter the live service space takes time to "educate yourself [and] go in prepared.”
"There is good information out there on best practices but you’ll also have to work hard to make it sustainable, and hopefully enjoyable, for your team," she advises. "Anyone who runs a live service game has the responsibility to make it sustainable for the team.
"Always-on is tricky, the game doesn’t take weekends off, but developers need to. The deadlines are tighter and more frequent, [and] it requires a lot of active engagement. Certainly, anyone who has worked in community is aware of how all-encompassing it can feel when you’re actively engaged with your player base – especially if they’re unhappy – and how important it is to set boundaries and find downtime so you can be your best self."
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