Mobile wellness apps topped 1.2 billion downloads last year, while leading meditation app Calm alone generated $118.2 million in revenue, according to data from Sensor Tower. This may lead some to believe that the digital wellbeing market is essentially solved, but a new startup, Lumi Interactive, thinks the opposite is true. The Melbourne-based, women-led company has identified an under-explored niche in the mobile market that involves translating offline self-care activities into games to reduce our collective stress and anxiety.
While most mobile games focus on competing between users or achieving a goal, the startup’s next title, Kinder World’s the main purpose is to help users relax. It achieves this through short, snack-sized sessions where it asks players to take care of virtual houseplants by taking care of themselves in the real world.
In the game, players are encouraged to perform simple acts of kindness – like practicing daily gratitude, for example – to improve their own well-being and that of the wider game community. The game features a variety of non-stressful activities, such as watering houseplants, interacting with nearby animals, and decorating a cozy room with plants, among others.
In some ways, it’s reminiscent of how many of us spent months playing creatively at the height of the pandemic, engaged with games like Animal Crossing, the popular Nintendo game whose no-pressure environment has helped many relax and pass the time under Covid-19 lockdowns. In Animal Crossing, players designed indoor and outdoor spaces, bought outfits and home accessories, planted flowers, and chatted with animal friends.
It turns out the pandemic also played a big role in founding Lumi Interactive, the company told TechCrunch.
“At the end of 2020, we were a small team of three, exhausted by the pandemic and a difficult year for the company”, explains the co-founder and CEO of Lumi Interactive. Laurent Clinnick. “We decided to take two weeks to refresh ourselves with a game jam to do something totally new, and mental well-being was at the heart of our concerns. We had also all become closer to nature during Melbourne’s harsh lockdowns and wanted to explore why indoor plants have become part of a self-care routine for so many people we know,” she says.
This raised the question of whether indoor plant care could be brought into the digital world, and so the team prototyped Kinder World.
“There was a spark of something special after just two weeks, and the concept was tested very strongly right away with our target audience,” says Clinnick.
Clinnick and Lumi Interactive co-founder Christina Chen had a background in gaming before founding their new company and had known each other for nearly a decade. Clinnick first entered the gaming industry as a marketing consultant for games like Crossy Road, co-founded a boutique game marketing agency, and then moved into direct game development. Chen, meanwhile, had a technical background that saw her work on payments at Xbox Live and later as a senior producer at PopCap in Shanghai, before co-founding game publisher Surprise Attack (now known as Fellow Traveller’s name).
The duo had bonded over their mutual love for data, underserved gaming communities, and the new opportunities they thought were still on the horizon for mobile games, Clinnick says.
As the team explored the idea of a more collaborative, self-care-focused title, they discovered that many of today’s consumers were dissatisfied with mainstream wellness apps.
“When we surveyed users — specifically Gen Z women, Millennials, and non-binary people — we found that 97% had abandoned apps like Headspace and Calm, citing that they “had the felt like they were working “or that they had become another thing they could fail at,” Clinnick says. “Instead, they often have fragmented relaxation hobbies such as games, houseplants, Squishmallow collecting, crafts, and ASMR. It was mostly distraction activities that helped their short-term anxiety, but didn’t help them develop important long-term resilience skills,” she says.
Lumi Interactive responded to these comments by ensuring that their game was designed in such a way that you couldn’t fail no matter how you played. For example, all in-game activities are optional, and virtual houseplants will never die.
“We consciously made these choices to prevent players from feeling overloaded,” says Clinnick.
Faithful to a strategy of co-development of the game with its community, the startup turned to TikTok to test out various elements, like game design, art style, and to find out what interests their users.
Now a full-time and growing team of 12, Lumi Interactive closed $6.75 million in seed funding in March in a round led by a16z – which it officially announced this week. Other investors include 1Up Ventures, Galileo Ventures, Eric Seufert’s Heracles Capital and Double Loop Games co-founder and CEO Emily Greer.
The startup uses the funds grow the team so that he can further develop the larger concept he calls “crowd healing,” informed by Lumi Interactive’s full-time wellness researcher, Dr. Hannah Gunderman, Ph.D.. The company thinks the idea – which refers to sharing kindness with others through self-care style gameplay – could become a new gaming category.
Lumi Interactive, of course, isn’t the first to come up with games that aren’t goal-driven. There are games that are interactive stories or graphic novels or other standalone projects, but they often require the player to play through the experience to come to a conclusion. Kinder World, meanwhile, would be something gamers would come back to whenever they needed to unwind, which is why the company is considering a subscription offering, in addition to the standard in-app purchases. It is also exploring online and offline experiences with physical items that could unlock certain in-game benefits or activities.
Kinder World is currently in alpha testing on iOS and Android and is aiming for a full release later in 2022.