To say player personas have become an important game development tool is an understatement.
In the past you might have used personas to gain an advantage over your competition. Now, you use personas to increase the likelihood of your game being released.
Video game studios started to experiment with personas over 20 years ago. They were largely made up of demographic data such as age, gender, and geographic location. Game studios used this information to form fictional characters that represented typical segments of their audience.
One early example of this is the Bartle taxonomy of player types, created in 1996. This early form of gamer classification grouped players into four types — Achievers, Explorers, Socializers, and Killers — based on their in-game behaviors.
While the Bartle taxonomy was used by game developers to specify game features, its novelty far outlived its usefulness; there are a lot more than four types of humans on this planet.
Ten years later, studios started wondering two things: are personas worth the effort, and can they be incorporated to drive meaningful outcomes.
The jury is back on those questions. We now know that using the right personas can result in an ROI increase of up to 400%.
With their importance established, a number of sources offering many different types of personas have emerged.
In 2023, the question is no longer how to incorporate personas into your game development. It’s which kind of personas you should work with.
Picking the right one can deliver immense outcomes, but picking the wrong one puts you at a strategic disadvantage.
Player Personas Are Now Essential
It’s important to understand what sets the different types of personas apart. But first, one needs to understand why they’ve become an essential part of game design and development in the first place.
It all comes down to wanting to create a “good game.”
Of course, everyone wants to create a good game. But people have different ideas of what a good game is or should be. In game development, it’s the smallest misalignments that can send things off the rails. They build over time, and little feature creeps amount to late-stage crunch or disjointed strategies.
Here are some recent examples we’ve seen:
- Marketing campaigns that get high amounts of installs at low CPIs, but don’t actually acquire the ideal audience for your game from a revenue perspective.
- FTUEs that don’t seamlessly nurture the optimal players for their game into an expected first time user experience.
- An undefined strategy that leaves the team chasing competitors’ design ideas.
- Late-stage roadmap reworking based on what an executive now says is the game’s most important feature.
The way to avoid these issues is to take a truly player-centric approach to game development.
Taking a Player-Centric Approach
At Solsten, we treat player-centeredness as a framework — and a philosophy. What do your current or future players want? What will work for them? What will delight, inspire, entertain, and retain them?
Having detailed answers to these questions is the best way to get an entire studio — across functions and departments — in alignment.
But a player-first approach comes with its own set of challenges.
Teams may agree to focus on the player, but have a limited understanding of their target audience. There may be gaps in the available player information. And teams may have different assumptions about the target audience’s needs, preferences, and motivations. All this can lead to crossed wires.
This is where creating personas come into play. Personas give studios a tangible way to take a player-first approach.
What Are Player Personas?
Player personas represent segments of your current or future audience, based on research and data. They help teams design and market a game to meet customer needs, removing bias from decision making. This leads to faster and clearer decision making, using customer needs as the guiding star.
With personas, every team across your organization understands who will buy, play, and enjoy your game.
Decisions can be objectively made by separating personal opinions from the needs and desires of their target audiences.
This doesn’t mean people can’t apply their own expertise. It focuses their expertise on the things that matter to the player — and that impact the game’s commercial success.
Understanding Proto Personas
Some studios begin by creating proto personas. These are basic representations of a game’s target audience, constructed based on stakeholder assumptions. They’re a “best guess” at who your gaming audience is.
These personas can get a team moving quickly since they don’t involve research or data. Teams can start the design and development process promptly, without becoming bogged down with the intricacies of user behavior.
There is usefulness in proto personas, especially when the stakeholders have decades of industry experience under their belts.
However, they are a subjective tool. They may align teams, but can easily steer them in the wrong direction. Because of this lack of certainty, proto personas can wind up consuming a lot of time, and lead to a lot of false starts.
Understanding Demographic and Behavior-Based Personas
Many studios begin by building demographic and behavior-based personas out of their current player data.
There are a number of existing models this data can be applied to. These include Nick Yee’s quantic gamer types and GameRefinery’s gamer archetypes.
These personas include demographic variables like age, sex, location, and can be enriched with behavioral data. This information is seemingly robust, and can lead to some detailed personas.
But while these personas may appear thorough, they are famously skin deep. This viral graphic illustrates why:
What seems detailed on a first glance becomes meaningless once you go past the surface. And these personas can actually become dangerous to rely on. If you design for British royalty when your players are actually British metal heads, it can be a disaster.
But the dangers extend beyond that.
Demographics and extrinsic motivators change over time, and behaviors can change based on context. The way a player acts in one game is often completely different in another game.
For example, a player might be labeled a “completionist” in one game, but not be completing tasks in others. What’s behind this discrepancy in behavior? The reason is that labeling someone a “completionist” doesn’t get to the “why” behind their behavior. These players might be completing tasks in one game for an entirely different reason — because of the status that comes with climbing a leader board.
However, assuming all “completionists” also crave status would be a flawed conclusion to draw. Many high value users in audiences are equally low on status orientation.
The lesson here is that behaviors are an outcome, not a reason. They are good representations of the past and present, but don’t tell you what players will do or want in the future.
For large studios who can afford a user research team, this type of persona work can be enriched with focus groups and self-report surveys like the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator. Here, studios look at the pain points and expressed wants and needs of their target audience.
This sounds good in theory, but in practice these personas run into a formidable foe: human nature. What people say they want can vary dramatically from what they actually want, and people are famously bad at knowing what they actually need.
For example, we’ve consistently seen the largest self-reported pain point in the F2P space is: “not having to pay to win.” OK, how does that “want” help a studio design a better game that will drive ROI?
An audience may not want to spend money, but find out what they actually need, and you’ll be on the path to sustainable monetization.
At the end of the day, you’re left to guess how any of the features you implement will impact your KPIs, either positively or negatively.
This is why personas made off of behavioral models, existing motivation frameworks, and self-reported tools repeatedly lead to suboptimal outcomes.
The Best Gaming Studios Are Going Deeper
To create player personas, Solsten’s team of experts first gathers data through psychometric assessments that have gone through a rigorous validation and optimization process. This ensures that they accurately measure psychological traits, such as personality, values, motivations, and attitudes.
The assessments are carefully designed, populated with questions that are determined by using the latest research into personality and motivation.
Then, these questions are tested on different populations to gather extensive data. The data is analyzed and validated to ensure the assessments accurately measure the psychological traits they are intended to measure.
Finally, players are algorithmically clustered based on this analysis to create a number of personas, usually ranging from three to seven. This gives a statistical representation of your entire player base.
These personas go beyond baseline demographics and behaviors. They find the “why” behind a player’s goals and behaviors by unpacking over 300 scientifically stable traits.
Why Game Developers Are Turning to Solsten
Solsten’s platform provides a way to meet the rising experiential expectations of your players. Game studios can design what players need because they understand what they want.
Research teams are able to provide actionable insights at lightning speed, designers understand what features to prioritize, and games can reach market faster because the entire studio is aligned around who their players are.
Understanding a player’s “why” puts teams into perfect alignment throughout the whole development process. It near-guarantees your game will resonate with players and keep them coming back for more.
Unlock Potential With Scientifically Derived Player Personas
Using our foundational Traits platform, backed by scientific methodology and AI, we go far beyond demographics, interests, and behaviors.
We understand the deepest aspects of players’ psychology and cluster audience personas based on the enduring traits they have most in common. The personas are built on data that is packaged into digestible and actionable insights. They can also be updated in real time, living and breathing just like the players they are composed of.
Simply put, they apply scientific methodology to human understanding.
How does this look in practice? Let’s take another look at our two British dog lovers to see how their personas might expand if they incorporated psychology.
King Charles places a high value on generosity, feeling heard, and being reliable. He is motivated by his desire for independence, since he likes to work at his own pace. He’s also motivated by compensatory effort, and status orientation. He has an assertive yet impulsive personality. However, he also competes in order to maintain his self-esteem.
Ozzy, on the other hand, values creativity, transformation, and humor above all else. He is compelled by difficult tasks and finding new ways to complete them. Additionally, he is motivated by flow states and independence. While he is altruistic, he can also be fantastical. He primarily competes because it feels thrilling.
Now, imagine if you had this kind of information for your entire player base.
What can psychological insights like this unlock? Here are just a few examples:
- Designers can use them to craft the right game mechanics to improve retention and engagement.
- Product Management can use them to prioritize features and decrease time to market.
- Marketing can use them to craft the right message and ad creative to optimize conversion and ROAS.
- Leadership can use them as a framework for game feedback to their teams.
Whether you’re building a new game or evolving a live game, the actions you can take with live, scientifically derived, psychological personas are invaluable. Teams can align around the mission of player-centricity, with biases and assumptions removed. Decisions are made with confidence, guesswork is cut from the development process, and most importantly, games are made, released, and loved.