Last year I spent some time writing a monthly column for Skotos called Lessons from the Live Team. (If you’re not familiar with Skotos, it’s a bit of an odd bird: a game developer/publisher that is perhaps best known for its extensive archive of articles on game development. There’s some really good stuff in there, including but not limited to the history of Skotos itself. You should check it out if you haven’t already.)
The column unfortunately fizzled out after nine months, although in many ways this blog is a direct inheritor. Now I don’t intend to crib too much from my old self, but there is one topic that I want to introduce before I go much further: the importance of understanding your audience. Audience is a bit of a hobby horse for me — you’ll see me rant about it often — so I want to start by covering the basics. And since I’m still satisfied with the original article on Skotos, I won’t belabor all the same points here. I’ll just sum up briefly and point you at the original.
So to sum up:
- Having a clear grasp of the people you believe will want to play your game — your target audience — is essential during the pre-launch development. It’s not about deciding which features to include; you can say you are targeting ‘everyone’ and throw in the kitchen sink, and in fact too many developers do. No, it’s about:
- knowing which features to cut, because you will be cutting features (and lots of them!), and
- knowing which features need to play together nicely (be integrated, support each other) and which need to run in parallel.
- Once you’ve launched, you need to have a very clear grasp of who is actually playing your game — your actual audience. For most MMO games, it’s simply not feasible to replace your audience with a new one if you decide you don’t like them (although some have tried). So the only possible result of misunderstanding your audience is a smaller playerbase.
- And finally: Understanding your audience is not a touchy-feely gut-instinct “I’m building the game for people like me” thing. (Clarification: It’s perfectly okay to build a game for people like you — so long as you know who you are and in exactly what ways your players will be like you.) You need as much solid data as you can get; you need actual intelligent analysis; you can’t afford to assume or oversimplify.
That’s all pretty obvious, right? But how do you really go about understanding your audience? Well, you figure out who they are, why they play, and how they play:
- Demographics: Who are your players? Are they male or female, young or old, educated or illiterate? This data can give you a very basic window into your audience, although it’s very important to understand that it is only a very basic window. As I say in the Skotos article, it doesn’t help to know that 17% of your players are females over the age of 45 unless you have some idea of what a female player over the age of 45 wants from your game — and it’s unlikely they all want the same things anyway.
- Motivations: Why do your players play your game? Although many people still use Bartle’s player types as a useful shorthand, I prefer Nick Yee’s Model of Player Motivations, largely because in my experience, people are very rarely after only one type of experience at a time.
- Habits: What do your players actually do in your game? Actual in-game actions and behaviors may line up perfectly with motivations, or they may conflict. If there’s a conflict, it may be due to bias in self-reporting motivations, or it may be because your game doesn’t allow players to do what they actually want to do. Either way — valuable information!
Now in my experience, a lot of developers either think that this level of understanding is rather more complicated than useful, so they skip it, or they agree that the need is obvious … and then tend to skip it anyway. In truth, it’s hard not to slip into a gut-feeling assumption-laden model of your playerbase. How many times in the past week have you used the term ‘hardcore’ as a shorthand for a set of motivations and behaviors (and probably demographics) without giving it a second thought? And yet even hardcore MMO players are by no means a homogenous group.
For example, let’s take a player I know. He plays World of Warcraft perhaps 10 hours a week; he doesn’t like to group; he’s only got one level 70 and it took forever to get there; he has never ever been on a raid. Not terribly hardcore, yes? And yet … he runs a WoW fansite as a hobby. He spends upwards of 30 hours a week on the fansite, every week. He lives, breathes, and dreams WoW. That’s hardcore.
Now I’ll give you that this friend of mine is hardly typical … so far as we know. And that’s my point. While there probably aren’t millions of intensely dedicated fan site operators in your playerbase, it’s quite possible that you’ve got a bunch of players who are very intensely dedicated but who don’t fit the hardcore mold, either because they are intense about the wrong things (i.e. not raiding) or because while they want to be hardcore, their play habits are circumscribed by real life. You really won’t know until you get real data on both their motivations and their habits.
Our players are complex people with complex needs, and since we make our living meeting those needs we’d best do our damndest to understand them.