Source: Creative Vector Gears

In the traditional free-to-play (F2P) space, live-ops has become a key component in keeping games fresh and engaging. What live-ops represents can be quite varied — from being a simple special offer event to a full-on monthly season battle pass. Therefore, it makes sense that these live-ops events have also started to pop up in blockchain games.

For the most part, the same live-ops strategies and tactics used in F2P also work for play-to-earn / blockchain games but with slightly different twists. The main differences are in regards to the areas that are specifically unique to blockchain gaming, namely around NFT trading/selling and tokens. We’re going to take a deeper look into three recent live-ops events used in blockchain gaming. We’ll start with a basic NFT project with simple events and end with a full-on, month-long metaverse game event with deep in-game and social tie-ins.

The first case study is Curry Brand Basketball Headz, a plain NFT project that involves giveaway events and mixing NFTs in order to create a new one to be used in a future gaming metaverse.

The second case study is Town Crush, a casual blockchain match-3 game which recently ran June Mayhem, a community prize pool event with membership requirements and NFT sales that contributed to the prize pool.

The last case study is The Sandbox and its Alpha Season 2 which was a full-on, in-game, month-long event involving a completion token reward, plus a community booster pool with daily new content, raffle tickets, social giveaways, and a sophisticated quest system giving anyone the opportunity to eventually earn.

For a TL;DR, here’s a quick summary of the live-ops events used in the blockchain games/projects we’re covering today:

Source: Naavik Research

Case Study #1: Basketball Headz

Source: Curry Brand

The metaverse represents an enormous opportunity, and major brands are taking note. Under Armour is no exception, jumping into the metaverse space along with other sneaker brands like Nike and Adidas, which have done their own sneaker drops. What’s unique about Under Armour’s approach is the marketing under its Curry Brand with major partnerships across various gaming and blockchain companies. Its tagline illustrates the following ambition: “The Curry Brand is unifying basketball and positive communities across the Metaverse.”

The Curry Brand’s new project, Basketball Headz, recently used a number of live-ops tactics — from giveaways tied to live TV events to the collection of various NFTs in order to mint unique avatars — to drive interest and traction. Basketball Headz is billed as “a limited-edition 3D generative NFT project that unifies multiple communities to mix and match your favorite NFT traits.” Even though it’s not technically a game, it still has lessons to learn from.

Live-Ops Giveaways: NBA Championships + NF3 + Serums

Even though the so-called metaverse part of Basketball Headz is not ready yet, this doesn’t prevent the project from running various live-ops events. In the typical F2P space, live-ops usually comes in at much later stage after a game’s launch, but in the blockchain space game assets (like NFTs) can be released ahead of the game, even before a single line of game code has been written.

Basketball Headz did a social media giveaway, which is standard procedure for any blockchain game project. What was unique about its approach, though, is it leveraged live TV to inform the giveaway. The project gave away new basketball NFTs, cleverly named “NF3,” representing a Stephen Curry 3-point basket. NF3 Basketball NFTs were given away for free whenever Stephen Curry scored a 3-pointer during the NBA Championships on live TV.

Source: Curry Brand

Basketball Headz would organize “watch” parties on its Discord, and every time Stephen Curry scored a 3-pointer, would-be hopefuls would go to the website and race to claim a free NF3. Only the first ten fans were able to claim one. Many times there would be hundreds if not thousands of fans flooding the website, a testament to the viral reach of this live TV giveaway approach.

Another interesting thing the team did was reward current Genesis Curry Flow (GCF) holders (the first project that Curry Brand did) with not only a free NF3 but also a free serum, which is used for minting new NFTs (as discussed below). This is where NFT ownership is unique to blockchain — even though the first project of GCF was completed, the NFT still had future utility. Rewarding Genesis Curry Flow holders is an interesting aspect of digital ownership where previous NFT assets can still have continued value long after the initial mint.

Source: Curry Brand

The ultimate prize is a Basketball Headz NFT, a virtual avatar bobble-head figurine. To create one, you need a NF3 and then you mix up one to three serums. Combining NFTs is not something new, but Basketball Headz took it a step further by incorporating several community partners like CyberKongz, HAPE, Chibi Dinos, and Smilesss, each with its own serum. These additional partners are critical in expanding the reach and virality of the minting event by tapping into many more communities beyond just the Curry Brand base. Additionally, combining up to three serums and having six different varieties allowed for many possible combinations, encouraging players to mint more than just one Basketball Headz.

Final Shot

If you didn’t get a chance to win a free NF3, the NF3 and serums could be purchased. The NF3 giveaway is a clever “foot in the door” tactic, as a NF3 on its own cannot create a Basketball Headz, so anyone winning a NF3 will need to purchase at least one serum.

Source: Curry Brand

Key Stats from Basketball Headz:

  • NF3: 0.08 Eth mint price
  • Serum: 0.027 Eth mint price
  • Lowest mint for a Basketball Headz: 0.107 Eth (1 NF3 + 1 Serum)
  • 1.3k NF3 Available
  • 1k Basketball Headz Minted
  • 76% of possible Basketball Headz Minted (1 NF3 = 1 possible Basketball Headz)
  • Basketball Headz Average floor of 0.05 Eth (time of writing)

Major takeaways:

  • Even without a game or virtual world ready, live-ops events can still be run.
  • Conducting giveaways tied to live TV events is an effective way to build community, especially for sports-related or show-related products.
  • Giving away partial ingredients to build the final product can be an effective upsell technique.
  • Incorporating various community partners builds reach beyond the core base.

Although a collection of 1,000 NFTs may seem fairly small compared to the “golden age” when multiple 10,000 NFT collections were selling out in a day, the results are not bad. Close to 80% of the possible Basketball Headz have been minted, and the remaining ones will likely get minted as more of the roadmap gets executed.

On the surface, Basketball Headz seems to be a standard NFT “metaverse” collection, but it has done well to level up some standard live-ops events with giveaways from live TV, cleverly only giving away part of the set needed to mint an avatar, and incorporating several community brands across the space — some of the techniques that are worth considering by other projects, even in games.

Case Study #2: Town Crush (Match-3)

Town Crush is a match-3 title that is a companion to the main flagship game, Town Star by Gala Games. What makes it rather unique is that the entire game is powered by Gala’s own blockchain called GYRI. Essentially, the blockchain is the backend database. This creates interesting opportunities where moves can be logged and verified, possibly identifying cheaters.

The other interesting aspect is the use of NFTs. For a typical match-3 game, there are consumable power-ups that can be purchased via the in-game currency, which are usually bought via in-app purchases. Town Crush is no different, where both lives and their “bombs” (affectionately called eggscutioners) can be purchased using the in-game currency, Stars. What’s different is that an Egg Storage NFT can be bought, which grants the holder two extra eggscutioners per level with the ability to replenish with every play.

Live Event - $400,000 Prize Pool

Gala holds an annual May Mayhem event where there are various activities and prizes across its games. This year boasted $4M in prizes across Town Star and Spider Tanks. Town Crush was originally scheduled to participate, but after a couple false starts it was delayed. So in June it came back with a $400,000 prize pool for players who could reach level 12 during the week-long event.

Of course, there was a catch: not only did players need to reach level 12, but they also had to be a Gala Gold member. The Town Crush June Mayhem live-ops event not only increased engagement but was also cleverly designed to drive its Gala Gold membership, a one-time fee of $50 (purchased in GALA).

Source: Town Crush

Match-3 with NFTs

There were two purchasable items with interesting twists that helped boost the prize pool size. The first one was the Egg Storage NFT, which has dual utility: in the main Town Star game, it was a 40-egg storage unit, but in Town Crush it provided 2 extra bombs per level. The Egg Storage was priced around $200 payable only in TOWN (a nice currency sink). To sweeten sales, there was an added bonus that every Egg Storage NFT sold would increase the prize pool by $50.

The second item to purchase was a bag of Stars (limited quantities), which is the in-game currency for Town Crush. This was priced at $25 for 25,000 Stars, also only purchasable in TOWN.

The cost breakdown of Town Crush in-game items was:

  • Bag o’ Stars (25k) — $25 or $.001 per Star
  • Extra Life (1x) — 500 Stars or $.50 per Life
  • Extra Eggsecutioner/Bomb (1x) — 2,500 Stars or $2.50 per Eggsecutioner
  • Per Bag — 50 Lives or 10 Eggsecutioner equivalents
Source: Town Crush

The game was F2P, and players start with 2 free eggsecutioners (consumables) and 5 lives, which regenerate 1 per 5 minutes like in most typical match-3 games. Given the game only featured 12 levels in total — and reaching the top qualified for the prize pool — the event was designed to be challenging. Even the most seasoned match-3 players had difficulty finishing all levels, and not using any power-ups was nearly impossible. Many levels required extra help, which pushed players to grind the lower levels to earn Stars (100 per win) in order to purchase bombs and extra lives. So to grind out one Eggsecutioner (bomb) required a player to win 25 times. For those not having the patience to do that, the Bag o’ Stars was their savior, or alternatively purchasing an Egg Storage NFT for a more permanent boost, both purchases sinking TOWN coins.

Till The Cows Come Home

Of course, no event exists without its issues, and whenever there are financial incentives, the temptation to cheat is much higher, and Town Crush is no exception. There were discussions about players creating multiple accounts and transferring NFTs to give extra boosts. This will always be a concern for any type of earning-based competition; even though “it’s visible on the blockchain,” weeding out cheaters is still super difficult and a continual challenge for all blockchain games.

Town Crush Gameplay. Source: Town Crush

Key Stats from Town Crush’s June Mayhem:

  • 5,643 total players were able to qualify for the prize pool.
  • The final prize pool was $421,500.
  • There was a $75 in GALA payout to each winner.
  • 430 Egg Storage NFTs were sold (or $86k in sales).
  • Over 1.6M matches were played.
  • 200k Eggsecutioners were used.

Major takeaways:

  • Running a time-limited prize pool event can be an effective way to drive engagement and user acquisition.
  • A community prize pool limits the final payout and maintains economy sustainability while encouraging broad participation.
  • Having NFT sales also contribute to the prize pool gives an added incentive to buyers knowing they will be increasing the ultimate payout.
  • Having NFTs interoperable among different games adds more value and utility for the players.
  • The traditional IAP tactics of power-ups and extra lives still apply to drive sales.

The June Mayhem is likely to be short-term negative in regards to costs, although successful player acquisition and engagement build longer-term positive effects. The newly acquired players who upgraded to Gold are now “locked” into the ecosystem and can be targeted for future upsells that will pay long-term dividends. The use of prize pools with required membership and usage of NFT sales to increase the pool are worthy considerations to incorporate in any live-ops event for a blockchain game.

Case Study #3: The Sandbox - Alpha Season 2

Source: The Sandbox

One of the most notable blockchain games / virtual worlds is The Sandbox, majorly owned by Animoca Brands. The Sandbox is a voxel open creator world similar to Minecraft and Roblox but built on the blockchain with the notion of digital items and virtual land ownership.

The Sandbox recently completed its Alpha Season 2 live-ops event which featured over 35 new experiences and 200 quests. It ran for about a month and had a number of big improvements over Season 1. Major changes include Mac support, increasing the number of experiences and quests, upping the prize pool, and adding a community reward booster.

Source: The Sandbox

Raffle Tickets: Access To All

Most importantly, The Sandbox made Season 2 open to all, playable for free by anyone with various ways to earn rewards. For example, getting to level 5 by completing all 200 quests (plus owning an Alpha Season 2 Pass) netted 1,000 SAND. Another way to earn SAND was to complete the season 100% for a piece of the community booster, a shared prize pool.

The Alpha Season 2 Pass was purchasable on the marketplace, which around the time was a little less than the value of the 1,000 SAND that could be earned. However, players could win a pass via a raffle ticket, and each player could earn up to 500 raffle tickets. There were over seven different ways, all designed to encourage desirable player behavior from completing quests to staking to owning a Snoop Dogg NFT. The raffle system made the event very accessible for the average player, giving them a multitude of chances to possibly earn SAND even while playing for free.

Source: The Sandbox

Community Booster

The community booster was another live-ops activity. It incentivized players — including brand new ones — to stake SAND in order to increase the max payout. Staking helped SAND as it reduced circulating supply. The social pressure was also effective, because the more the community would stake, the higher the payout would be. The Community Booster really plays into the popular crypto slang of WAGMI (We're All Going to Make It), encouraging all of the community to participate together. The final payout of the community booster was 95 SAND. So a non-playing player could still earn by just completing 100% of Alpha Season 2.

Source: The Sandbox

Daily Social Contests

Another effective live-ops technique was social media giveaways. This is pretty standard for most blockchain games, but the twist here was requiring a particular task to be accomplished inside The Sandbox. This not only forced players to actually play, but it also offered a glimpse of Alpha Season 2 to other would-be players. An example would be taking a money bath in Snoop's mansion and sharing the screenshot. In other words, the daily giveaways encouraged gameplay and virality with a chance to win an Alpha Season 2 Pass.

Source: The Sandbox

Rewarding Previous Supporters

Another key thing The Sandbox did was reward past participants. All Alpha Season 1 holders received a special shield NFT they could equip to their avatars as a flex. The special NFT reward is a small gesture, but it goes far in making early supporters feel special, as well as encouraging them to play the new season.

Source: The Sandbox

Completing Quests to Win

In order to be eligible for the final reward, players had to complete 200 quests (along with holding an Alpha Season 2 Pass). Many of these quests involved exploring the different experiences and collecting items. Others were obstacle-type courses to complete or beat within a particular timeframe.

To encourage regular gameplay, The Sandbox also released the experiences as a drip throughout the event. This meant players on day one could not complete everything but would need to return. However, players that entered later could still catch up. This deliberate pacing of new content encouraged longer-term gameplay of the event.

Source: The Sandbox

Season Finale

The Sandbox Alpha Season 2 ran for about a month and was one of the most sophisticated live-ops events of any blockchain game to date.

Key stats from The Sandbox Alpha Season 2:

  • 325k Players Participated
  • 16.5M Quests Completed
  • 1.1M Hours Played
  • 10K Alpha Passes Distributed
  • 9M SAND Rewarded

Major takeaways:

  • The game was free for anyone to play, and a raffle ticket system to possibly earn made it accessible and enticing for all players.
  • Various ways to earn raffle tickets via playing, owning, social giveaways, and staking gave players a choice and more chances to earn.
  • Major brand celebrity tie-ins helped hype up the event and increase its reach, with both Snoop Dogg and the famous NFT collection World of Women participating.
  • Pacing out the event encouraged players to come back each day for fresh new content and challenges.
  • Importantly, the team controlled the reward limit; the final reward was limited only to Alpha Season 2 Pass holders, which was a fixed supply. Making it an NFT allowed players to trade with a royalty fee attached. The community chest was also fixed, and the payout percentage was tied to community participation. In both cases, this limited the total SAND payout for the event, which helped sustain the economy.

The Sandbox is not only one of the biggest blockchain game / virtual world projects out there, but the sophistication, variety, and depth of their various live-ops activities in the Alpha Season 2 event serves as a good blueprint for others looking to layer live-ops events into their games.

Final Thoughts

Live-ops have been critical to the success of most F2P games. This is no different for blockchain games, and in some ways it’s even more crucial for their success as building a loyal community is even more important in the blockchain space. Even projects that currently lack a game can benefit from live-ops as in the case of Curry Brand Basketball Headz. In the case of Town Crush, a juicy prize pool can help usher in a whole new set of users that typically may not be attracted to blockchain gaming but like the idea of a casual match-3 game with the chance of winning a part of a prize pool.

Finally, for large game / virtual world projects like The Sandbox, an in-depth, month-long event can engage existing and new players with the chance that anyone, including non-paying players, can possibly earn. As the industry grows and matures, more — and more sophisticated — live-ops events are surely to come, and they will likely continue to tap into the unique aspects of blockchains while incorporating deep community and social involvement that is so critical for blockchain gaming’s success.

A big thanks to Lawrence Hsieh for writing this essay. If Naavik can be of help as you build or fund games, please reach out.

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