The Importance of Player Retention

“How do I acquire new users?” We get asked this question on a daily basis.

It’s an important question, and especially for live-service games. Every video game needs new users, whether it’s a sandbox, RTS, or match 3. Without new users, games won’t reach revenue targets, new features won’t be generated, and ideas won’t reach their full potential.

But in 2023, it’s the wrong question. That’s because as we move into an era of data privacy, UA costs have skyrocketed. Dynamic ad targeting is a thing of the past, and the competitive landscape is more crowded than ever. There are over 1,400,000 games available between Apple and Google Play stores, 50,000 games on Steam, and thousands more will be released this year.

In this challenging environment, more game developers are coming to us with the same goal. They’re shifting their focus away from UA and towards something they think will be far more effective: long-term player retention.

“This year, retention is our new North Star KPI,” says Matt Palmer, Assistant Director of Development at the mobile gaming company Mobilityware. “UA costs have shot through the roof and it’s far more sustainable to create a profitable game that lasts by focusing on the players that you have and making sure they stay. We just can’t measure down to the user level on player acquisition like we used to, so keeping every players we get in the game is more crucial than ever.”

As we see it, player retention should be the top priority for studios in 2023. The reason is simple: UA costs will continue to rise. If you aren’t focused on retention, churn will eat away at your player base until there’s nothing left. It’s the classic leaky bucket scenario. As long as you can acquire new players as fast as the old ones churn, you’ll never notice the leak. But the second that acquisition ratio slips below 1:1, your bucket will leak until there’s nothing left.

Retention solves this problem. Not only does it slow churn, allowing your UA efforts to be more focused and effective, repeat customers are the most valuable. They spend more money, and organically expand your player base by word of mouth. In short, retention is the key to sustainable revenue in 2023 and beyond.

But prioritizing long-term player  retention isn’t an overnight shift. After all, what is retention at its core? Unlike UA, you can’t performance-market a game’s retention into existence. To achieve meaningful retention in gaming, you need to create a meaningful experience. An experience that your players will come back to and enjoy, time and time again.

Creating these meaningful experiences is a continuous process that requires effort and attention. It needs to function as a coherent journey, established by your marketing and FTUE, and reinforced through mechanics and gameplay. When you build these strong relationships with your players, that’s where the magic happens.

Impactful Player Retention Strategies

1. Personalize Your Player Experiences With Deep Levels of Understanding

In-game personalization is one of the most impactful ways to increase player retention. When your players feel like an experience is made just for them, they’re far more likely to return. But personalization means more than accessory skins and custom avatars. True personalization requires a deep understanding of your players — their complexities, culture, values, and emotions.

This means moving away from rigid player motivation models and surface-level demographics. Frankly, even gaming companies with incredibly precise player data, who know exactly when and where their players are churning, still struggle to understand why.

Using behavior data to “understand” your players is like trying to diagnose an illness with little information about the patient, and only a list of symptoms. Anyone who has ever used an internet search to figure out why they’re sick knows how confusing — and often terrifying — this experience can be. And even when you’re given a confident diagnosis… are you sure you want to trust it? It may give you some direction, but you’d never start taking medication because of it. So why would you make changes to your game based on this kind of incomplete data?

It’s only when you dig deeper that you can identify the full range of interconnected factors that shape your players’ behavior. Do they prioritize competition, or prefer team collaboration? Are they drawn to predictability, or do they crave the unknown? When you know your audience on this psychological level, then you can craft truly personalized experiences that resonate and facilitate long term retention.

2. Create a Player Journey for D180 and Beyond

For retention to truly take root, you need a well thought out player journey — one that will deliver value for D1, D7, D30, D180, and beyond. But in an industry where solid D1 retention tracks at around 45%, how can game developers justify looking much further than D30, let alone D180? The answer is simple: long-term retention requires long-term vision.

Think of it like a TV show. You sit down to watch a new series, and the first episode has you hooked. The premise is exciting, the characters are intriguing, the series has promise. But after two or three episodes, you can tell the creators don’t know where the show is going. They had a great idea for a pilot, but not a series. So, the show loses momentum, and ultimately loses you.

While D180 retention may seem like a lofty metric, successful games get there, and they don’t get there with sheer luck. They align their entire development process around creating an engaging experience that is meaningful and memorable.

Achieving this used to take endless rounds of prototyping, market testing, and guess work. Today, game studios can expedite this creation process significantly. By tapping directly into the psychology of their audiences, studios are equipped with a clear picture of what their players need and desire. They’re creating deeply engaging experiences in far less time, using Solsten’s insights as their cheat code.

When you understand who you are developing for on a deeply emotional level, you don’t have to guess. You can lay out a long-term vision that you know will resonate, and drive retention far beyond the standard player lifecycle.

How an Indie Studio Increased Player Retention by 230%

An indie studio used this approach when they set out to improve retention metrics for a new merge game. But they didn’t just want to boost retention — they also wanted to delight their players.

The game design was promising. Early testing showed strong D1 retention at 40%, but it was followed by a steep drop-off soon after. Clearly, there was a gap between the experience and what players were seeking.

As an indie studio, it was important to quickly boost retention numbers but they wanted to achieve this without getting caught up in endless prototyping cycles.

Using Solsten’s Navigator product, one of the things they discovered was that their prospective audience with the highest Solsten predicted LTV had high levels of openness, were interested in exploration based activities, and enjoyed moments of discovery built around learning. The team saw that they could keep familiar merge gameplay elements, and add new elements that would tap into these audience traits as well as other key traits of the most impactful group in their audience.

After adapting for its audience, the game saw staggering improvements in retention. D7 retention spiked by 230%, and improvements continued all the way to day 30 and beyond. Not only had the team made something inventive for their audience, but they’d also felt empowered to problem-solve creatively and pursue ideas in the most fruitful directions. They could blend Navigator’s insights to design to the highest LTV group in their entire market space with their own intuition to create things that would truly resonate with their players, and with their team.

If you want to understand what motivates gamers, what makes a game successful, and how to make your next game a breakthrough, connect with Solsten. When you know your audience, results will follow.