Games are made for people, but often game development decisions are made by instinct or intuition; both at a high level of what types of games are created and within the details of game play, mechanics, and styling. Creative directors, producers, and designers learn from their past and become skilled at producing hit games. But it’s not optimal.
Game development, especially mobile, has taken great strides towards the lean startup methodology - build → measure → learn. As readers of the book might recall, a great many examples from the Lean Startup were taken from Eric Ries and his team’s experience building Second Life where they brought users in and learned from their interactions. Asking what a user wants is difficult because people often don’t actually know what they want. When we go through the build → measure → learn cycle, we’re shortcutting to what users want based on their actions. What we lose in the process (or still don’t fully obtain), are the reasons why users do what they do. We can, however, sometimes intuit the reasons through pattern recognition and after the fact review - hindsight 20/20.
Better serving users (in gaming, the players) is at the heart of what we’re always trying to do. To accomplish this, we need to understand them. This user understanding is rooted in psychology; how does someone feel, think, and behave. What are they motivated by? What culture and values do they have? These are the questions that get at truly understanding a person. They are deep and the answers are not always well defined, nor are they binary or always constant. For example, why does someone workout? Is it because they want to look good for their partner or potential mates, have a higher self worth, or stay healthy and ensure longevity? Probably all three and other reasons to varying degrees over time. It’s fuzzy, and therefore hard to measure, track, and scale.
But just like understanding user behavior and analytics has been largely “solved” and outsourced today through tools like Tableau, Looker, Mixpanel, or GameAnalytics, what if this could be done for user psychology? This is the problem that Solsten is solving. Solsten helps game studios better understand their players through clinical grade psychological assessments. A subset of players take these questionnaires and the Solsten algorithm creates custom segmented persona buckets with actionable insights that help companies resonate with their audiences on the deepest level (data is always anonymized across personas).
You can try one of their surveys here. The genius of the system is that Solsten also offers an API to collect player actions within games; from this Solsten extrapolate the psychological buckets across the entire player base of a given game. From this base understanding of users from a psychological level, Solsten can help game studios (and other businesses in the future) better understand which users will enjoy their games or products, which users to go after, what type of games to create for specific audiences, what changes to make in games to better serve players, as well as real-time customizations for different buckets of players. If you can better understand your users, you can better serve them. Improving your game with Solsten leads to better user acquisition, better retention, and ultimately better monetization. One of their customers characterizes Solsten as "helping smart people not make stupid decisions." He described the issue of people wanting to create what they are passionate about and making subjective decisions, and how Solsten helps battle this with user research and ensures they approach game design from a player first perspective.
We first met Joe Schaeppi and Bastian Bergmann in May of 2020 through our good friends at Supernode Global but really started digging into the work they are doing in October and November of that year. Joe is a clinical psychologist and has spent the majority of his career in user experience design across a variety of industries including video games. Bastian previously ran a venture studio and started his career as a consultant at BCG. Joe and Bastian are longtime friends and run Solsten together in an incredibly fluid way. Their passion and commitment has helped them put together a strong team; including Lynn (Marx) Bergmann (Senior Data Scientist) and Alex Pliutau (Engineering Lead) who I had the pleasure of meeting, Jonna Koivisto (Gaming Research Scientist), and many others.
We invested in Solsten late last year, but are just announcing our involvement after the recent rebrand to Solsten (launched at Slush!). We’re excited to support them alongside our friends at Supernode Global, Inventure, Sisu Game Ventures, GFR, Bascom Ventures, among others. Here’s to helping companies build better products for their users!