Retention, engagement, monetization.

As video games become more difficult to successfully launch, and even more difficult to grow into a hit, these growth metrics are becoming harder than ever to achieve.

Video games aren’t like other digital products; they aren’t just there to help you check your credit score or touch up your photos.

They exist to fulfill a distinct purpose: fun. This purpose may manifest in infinite ways, but at the end of the day video games are there to provide enjoyment.

It’s easy to get caught up in the data and metrics, but let’s not forget why we started making games in the first place — to create something amazing that people will love playing.

This purpose gives game developers a massive advantage over other digital products.

It’s an advantage that can make building engagement in video games far more effective and beneficial, both for game developers and their players.

Why is it an advantage? It all comes down to human understanding, and why we engage with certain experiences.

What is Player Engagement?

Before we dive in, let’s give a quick definition of player engagement.

While retention measures whether someone continues to play your game for a set period of time — daily, weekly, or monthly — player engagement measures how active they’ve been during that time.

You can’t have retention without player engagement. But high retention rates can mask low player engagement rates.

If someone plays your game every day, but they only do it for a minute, that data won’t show up in your retention metrics. You’ll be going a mile wide, but only an inch deep.

On the other side of the coin, high player engagement is a strong predictor of high retention.

This is why it’s essential to take engagement rates into account when measuring game success.

How do you create engagement?

It’s simple — just give your players what they want and what they need.

Challenges of Driving Player Engagement in Game Development

Just kidding. Driving player engagement is clearly one of the most difficult challenges game developers currently face — especially as tens of thousands of new game experiences are released every year.

If it was simple, Stadia wouldn’t have folded, and we wouldn’t have seen a cascade of development cancellations and delays in the last few months from some of the best game developers out there.

The list of games scrapped in the first month of 2023 alone include Apex Legends Mobile, Battlefield Mobile, Crimesight, CrossfireX, Echo VR, Knockout City, and Rumbleverse.

Most recently, Arkane Studios (a Microsoft studio) released the highly anticipated Redfall after a lengthy delay. Despite the hype, the game is struggling post-launch. Players are criticizing the game’s graphics, AI, core gameplay, and lack of matchmaking. Not a fun position to find yourself in after almost five years of development.

Game studios are battling a host of issues at the moment, but we’ll say it: many of these high-profile cancellations were caused by studios relying on the data of the past to drive the engagement of the future.

Legacy Data Won’t Cut It

Almost all digital products rely on behavioral, transactional, demographic, and contextual data to drive engagement.

With this, they get a quantitative understanding of how people use their products.

But demographic and behavioral data is not indicative of who an audience is, and what people need to feel understood and affirmed.

After all, aren’t we so much more than our behaviors and demographics?

Upstream lies a world of human understanding that video game studios can use to their advantage.

When you understand people’s intrinsic needs, you can design games that create real and meaningful player engagement.

What do players feel like before entering your game? What motivates them to play your game? Do players want to relax? Be excited? Socialize? What are their values? What is their personality like?

Answering these human-centric questions is the key to achieving deep audience understanding, and it’s what the best developers are doing today.

How Do You Find the Answers?

Industries have tried. It hasn’t been easy.

You can buy in-depth studies on consumer behavior released by the likes of Forrester and Gartner. They’re lengthy, time intensive, expensive, and don’t comprehensively assess your target audience — especially on a psychological level.

You can use tools like SurveyMonkey or Qualtrics to take the pulse of your player base. They cost less, but you’re left to analyze large swaths of data that have only captured a specific moment in time. Building or hiring a team to perform this analysis is time consuming and expensive. With the average salary (US) of a UX researcher topping $125k, it’s financially challenging to build an in-house team to champion and own player centricity.

Clearing a Path Through These Obstacles

This is where Solsten comes in.

Our platform gives you access to the realtime psychological data of your actual and prospective players. Like going from black and white to full color, it lets you understand your audience on a level that’s never been possible.

This data goes far beyond behavioral, demographic, and transactional. It reflects the billions of data points that video games track that make them distinct from other digital products. And it makes creating player engagement based on your audience’s wants and needs remarkably straightforward.

Understanding an audience’s psychology reveals a new world of engagement opportunities. Rather than focusing on impermanent extrinsic motivators like points and prizes, knowing the stable intrinsic motivators behind people and their desires gives you the ability to understand what they really want — and the actionable insights to create it.

Learning about the psychological motivators among an audience, from status orientation and fearlessness to a sense of accomplishment or fear of losing, can inform and enrich every stage of the development process.

Take altruism, for example. Understanding this trait lets developers know if players would rather help each other, or be pitted against each other.

Creators are then empowered to put features in place that encourage teamwork and help others into their game, aligning with the players’ psychology. These features authentically fit the specific game, rather than being copied from a competitor’s game. By giving your players what they want and need in this way, engagement follows.

How to Drive Player Engagement Using Solsten

Orchestrate Highly Relevant Events

Knowing the traits of your most engaged personas allows you to create events that resonate with them and drive further engagement. One Solsten customer organized an event around three of the highest traits of their most engaged personas: collaboration, altruism, and eagerness to learn. They ensured that each persona had game elements in the event that spoke to their top motivators, which were not always shared.

During the event, players joined together with others and shared rewards when they achieved team-based goals, appealing to their collaborative competition style. This also satisfied their desire to learn new things. Players could unlock additional awards by giving badges to other players, satisfying their altruistic tendencies. The event resulted in a 15% spend increase and a 10% engagement uptick that lasted for a full two weeks, making it their best-performing event to date.

Acquire Optimal Users

Driving engagement requires attracting the right players to your game from the outset. If you’re targeting the wrong audience, not only will you see high CPIs and low ROAS, but engagement will decline rapidly. Unfortunately, many studios make assumptions about their ideal audience that are wildly different from reality.

Using Solsten’s platform, companies can discover the traits of their highest value personas and create ads that will resonate with them. One Solsten customer adopted this strategy and saw a 50% lower CPI, 20% more IAP revenue, and approximately 20% higher engagement on D7 players coming in through these optimized ads compared to prior creatives.

Design Audience-Specific Mechanics and Features

It’s easy to fall into stereotypes when it comes to audiences and game genres. But time and again, developers are surprised when their high-value player segments don’t match their assumptions. This has wide-ranging implications, especially when developing game mechanics and features.

For example, a cross-platform sandbox MMO was preparing to launch when they discovered that the most valuable players in the entire space were not the typical 25-35 year-old male, but actually highly competitive, highly social females. Fortunately, before going live, they were able to course correct and make sure that the game mechanics and features were inclusive of and resonating with the high-value player segment.

Personalize Offers Based on Player Traits

Personalization clearly has an impact on purchasing decisions, but personalizing based solely on behavior and demographics misses huge opportunities to keep your audience engaged.

For example, imagine you’re selling a new sword in your game. You can use Solsten’s API to personalize the offer. To a group that is high on dominance, the offer could say “buy this sword and crush your enemies.” But for a different group of altruistic players, the offer could say “buy this sword and help your friends.”

Getting to the core of what audience wants, and being able to provide a tailored approach, is critical to driving player engagement. When you have a clear picture of your audience’s core motivators, personality traits, aspirations, and more, you can turn those insights into deeply human-centric digital experiences.

Ready to learn more?