Audience-first game dev: from leading edge to center stage.
Releasing thousands of new titles every year, game designers are, most certainly, creative thinkers who constantly rethink norms and models. Which is why we aren’t surprised that a new trend toward “audience-first” game development is the new secret weapon top game developers are adding to their arsenal, mitigating many of the risks that come with audience-blind design (coming up with a cool idea, developing it for oneself or a specific demographic, then testing after.) The game design process has long been riddled with inefficiencies at best — and failed games at worst. But every single time, development costs end up being used as the research budget (and we all know how much a development team costs).
“When we say the gaming industry is ‘hit-driven,’ we actually mean ‘hit or miss,’” notes Joakim Achrén of Elitegame Developers in a recent webinar. Developers try coming up with their own ideas, then fleshing them out and extensively testing them to see if they work. “That often leads to big uncertainties,” Achrén says. Uncertainties, yes — and immense costs in terms of time and money.
In response, a movement has grown on the leading edge of game design: audience-first development has helped game companies up the odds that a game would resonate with the intended audience.
A demographic is not an audience.
It’s something we’ve long known here at Solsten: a game’s broad demographics, usually simplified to “audience age and gender,” are a pretty limited shorthand for the people that game is targeted to. It’s not uncommon that an entire genre, like Match 3, will have seemingly similar demographics.
However, according to our database, there’s a much richer picture than that. We have statistical representation of any genre at large — and we know that the users of the Match 3 genre as a whole average 45 years old and 65% female (as of April, 2023). But there’s more to know than that: within this demographic swath, there are five distinctly unique user groups. Each of these groups have distinct motivations, personalities, and characteristics that make them who they are, just like how there are specific things that make you, you.
On top of that, there are three distinctly unique major groups of millennial-aged Match 3 players, and one of these groups has a higher lifetime value (LTV) than any of the other groups, who tend to be a bit older. If we told you the top three traits of what makes that high LTV millennial group unique, it’d most definitely surprise you.
Defining the distinction.
Thought leaders like Mitchell Smallman of Pocket Burger Games are also helping delineate the important distinction between “demographic” and “audience.” There’s a significant difference — and those who design based on demographics alone are limiting themselves.
“I say you should think about your audience first. People say, ‘Ah cool, I’ve done that! I know our demographic!” says Smallman in a recent discussion with Elitegame Developers’ Achrén. But, Smallman says, those people are not only confusing the terms, but they’re also unnecessarily limiting their design vision.
“[Previously], you’d describe your game audience as genre, age, gender, and platform. And that’s how marketing works — and it’s a helpful way to work sometimes. But none of these categories are monoliths with universal behavior within them. So every time you say, ‘Hey, I’m going to add 18–24 year old women, you’re actually muddying the waters. You think you’re doing something specific, but you’re actually doing something quite broad and general. And if you treat it like something specific, you won’t do the best design.”
Not only are demographics only so useful, but they also shift and change over time. As people evolve and age, their interests, tastes, and needs evolve — as do trends and media offerings.
As a very specific example, we started working with a game that had approximately 2,000 DAU and now stands at over 2M DAU with over 30% D7 retention. How did this happen? Putting the audience first through deeply understanding them.
At a high level, the demographics of this game are on average 49 years old and 79% female. Once looking into the game, there are six distinct audience groups. When just looking at the men who play, there is a group of men who on average spend 7% more than the highest-grossing group of women, and happen to be highly collaborative and avoid competition — while the highest engaged group of women love dominant competition and are only somewhat collaborative.
This is yet another confirmation that, not only are demographics devoid of anything that has to do with who your audience is, they are dangerous and can lead to gender and age stereotypes that can lead game designers down the wrong pathways. Even more important to note: if you drill down into the audiences of other games that are similar to this game — which is in the Puzzle genre — no two games or ecosystems are alike. So it’s incredibly important to know what you don’t know — then set about finding out who your audiences really are.
To design audience-first, get to the core of who that audience is.
Since demographics alone don’t give game designers and developers a full picture of whom to target and build games for, it’s time to define what an audience really is — and open new possibilities for just how great and successful games can be.
The first task: get to the emotional core of what your audience is seeking and to do that, one must get to the core of who they are. Do they want to relax? Socialize? Compete? With whom? What are their values? Habits? Passions? What’s their personality like? What other kinds of games are resonating with them for these reasons?
For instance, says Smallman, “You could say, ‘We’re making a game for 22–24-year-old men who like strategy games.’ But that’s not nearly such a detailed picture of your audience as saying, ‘We’re gonna make this game for people who like Clash of Clans, people who have played Starcraft, but don’t have time anymore, but do have time to play on their phones, and don’t have the large amounts of disposable income to go and spend 60 bucks on a new Starcraft game on their phone.’”
He advocates that the best audience-first approach anticipates the real emotional promise that will resonate with your audience, what kinds of other games they like and why, what kinds of art styles they like, what devices they’re playing on, and more.
The truth is, Smallman is a big step ahead of those anchoring in demographics, but still now close to actually understanding his audience. To truly understand your audience, you have to be able to empathize with them. And until now even the smartest audience-first thinking has been based on just that — thinking. Because the technology didn’t yet exist to expand audience definition from educated guess to analytical certainty. So, we at Solsten worked hard to create the world’s first empathy engine that allows for true “audience-first design”.
Introducing Solsten Navigator: the game changer for game designers.
“True audience-first design starts with empathy. To gain empathy, we need to be able to put ourselves in our audience’s shoes. To put yourself in their shoes, you need an intimate understanding of what your prospective audience wants — what they value, what their personality is like, what bothers them, what lights them up, what resonates with them, and so on,” says Joe Schaeppi, CEO and co-founder of Solsten.
“We wanted that holy grail: the ability to dial the intended audience in so far that game design could almost naturally unfold from this initial understanding. So we built a true empathy engine and named it Navigator.”
Navigator redefines and reshapes the future of audience-first game development. It’s a superpower for game designers and developers who want to know what they’re making will be a surefire win. Because they’ll know precisely whom they’re designing for, right down to the deepest details — and engineer a game those exact people will love. We know that the number one reason games fail is that they miss the mark on their audiences. We believe that both players and game developers alike deserve better chances at building incredible experiences and we’re here to make that happen.
Navigator starts at the deepest level of player psychology and user privacy, developing AI-enabled, psychologically-based insights based on our database of players whose real-life identities are never connected to any of the information in our database. This allowed us to create something more than a valuable tool to build games around; it’s an audience-market intelligence platform. Designers don’t need a live title to use Navigator, so they can truly put audience understanding ahead of design. They can design, develop, and bring new games to market with a clear view of their ideal humans in sight — and also identify new strategic opportunities across genres. “It’s like I just was given a gold mine and now I’m digging for gold,” said one customer. With Navigator, it’s never been easier to build experiences that you know for a fact your intended audience will love.
When you can look deeper into your audience, you can:
- Validate your intuition (mechanics, theme, art, etc.)
- Know your marketability
- Understand your audience-market potential
- Compare your current games to the genre’s they’re in
- Launch faster — and do it with confidence
- Optimize your game’s overall market potential
With exceptionally detailed audience insights, you do more than develop successful games: you make the entire process more efficient, more accurate, and infinitely more cost-effective. Designers are empowered to do their absolute best work. One even said that using Solsten Navigator was a lot like going from painting with 3 colors and having to make the painting for 24-year-old dudes to having an entire color palette and being able to paint it for their best friend. This is positioning entire companies to thrive. The gaming industry as we know it can jump into a new era of better games.
To our fellow O.G. audience-first thinkers, we salute your foresight. And now, we’re here to up your ante with rock-solid, AI-powered, audience-centered insight that has both you and the player’s best interests in mind. You don’t have to rely on basic demographic metrics or a gut feeling that the business might shoot down anymore. Throw out the old idea of demographics-based design and have a tool that, as one game designer put it, actually validated his gut feeling to a point where ideas that may have never seen daylight in the past now did and others that he might have fought for he realized didn’t have to die a painful death after months of development. Powered by Navigator, your games will prove themselves.