It’s All About the Audience

An audience of laughing Russian women -- unusual in MMOs, but not impossible!

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:

  1. 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:
    1. knowing which features to cut, because you will be cutting features (and lots of them!), and
    2. knowing which features need to play together nicely (be integrated, support each other) and which need to run in parallel.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.

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6 Responses to It’s All About the Audience

  1. Cyndre says:

    Welcome to blogging, I am enjoying your work so far!


  2. Sandra says:

    Thank you, Cyndre! I read KillTenRats almost every day, and I’ve particlarly enjoyed your LOTRO posts.

  3. The problem is that it’s very hard to really predict what kind of people will play your game. For example, Meridian 59 had a wide variety of people playing the game. The stereotype is that a hard-core PvP game like M59 would be the exclusive domain of teenage males; yet, according to some of the original developers, it had a higher percentage of female players than UO or EQ.

    Really, it’s almost impossible to tell what your audience wants, even if you do a lot of expensive market research. Many designers I respect have said that the designer’s job is to give the players things they didn’t even know they wanted. Relying on feedback too heavily is a sure way only do what’s been done before. At some point the designers need to trust that they know what’s fun for a wide (enough) selection of people and go with it. Maybe that means “designing for oneself” since this is the market the designer knows well, but if it turns out to be a great game then mission accomplished.

    I think the important thing to do is once you have an audience, that you do try to understand them. As you pointed out, you can’t swap them for a new audience, so you need to understand your current audience if you want your game to succeed. In my opinion, your advice applies more for after you’ve launched and found your audience. But, again, don’t focus on your existing audience too heavily, but don’t ignore them, either!

    My thoughts,

  4. Sandra says:

    Psychochild: Actually, I think your example from M59 helps illuminate one of my points. M59 doesn’t/didn’t have the expected demographics, but without knowing more about those female players you really can’t say too much about the audience. Sure, there are more women — but how diverse does that make the audience? That depends on what the women do: they may be hardcore PvP players or they may be there for your superior socialization. Without finding out more you really can’t say.

    There’s a difference, though, between asking for feedback and gathering hard data. You’ll notice I didn’t mention ‘feedback’ anywhere in my post, and for good reason. *grin* Of course, getting info on motivations usually means asking your players why they do things and any survey like that is going to rely on their perception of what they want just like simple feedback does. But you can tailor a motivation survey to try to get at deeper motivations instead of surface feedback on a particular feature. The phrase “market research” conjures up focus groups, which in my experience are pretty useless, but if you strip it down to its actual meaning — doing research on your market — I think that it’s a more useful concept.

    And you have a very good point about the difficulty of collecting data before launch. Expensive market research, even if it’s carefully tailored to get at underlying motivations and not just feedback on a feature set, is just not as good as being able to gather real data on what your real players are doing. But you’ve got to have something to help narrow down on your core features during early delevopment. Hmm …

    I wonder if established MMO companies that run their own games but also publish outside games — I’m thinking SOE especially — would be amenable to sharing habit data with the teams they are publishing. Habit data feels less trade-secrety to me than, say, subscription numbers, but would be a lot more useful for a new project. And if it helps the published game, it helps the publisher. It seems unlikely, but if I had a game that SOE was publishing (that was reasonably similar to an existing SOE game) it might be worth asking about.

  5. You’ll notice I didn’t mention ‘feedback’ anywhere in my post, and for good reason. *grin*

    Yes, but that’s implied when you mentioned Nick Yee’s work. The strength of his work is that it was based on feedback collected from players. The weakness is that the data comes from a very specific game at a very specific time in its lifecycle. (I think the main reason he didn’t find an equivalent of the Explorer archetype from Bartle was because EQ was pretty well explored-out by the time he did his research.)

    Most of the readily-available data is going to come from other games. This means that your data is going to be feedback collected from other games. So, that’s why I brought up feedback as an issue. If you relied too heavily on either Bartle’s or Yee’s work, you might miss another type of player that hasn’t shown up in our games yet.

    Again, I think in practical terms that you really can’t apply this lesson until after you launch. You can try to tailor your game to a specific audience (“hardcore PvPers”), but if another audience shows up you have to roll with the punches. I think it also takes a considerable amount of experience to really understand what a particular audience wants (not just what they *say* they want), and the easiest path for a less experienced designer is to focus an audience type that he or she would be part of. Developers also shouldn’t be surprised if people from an unexpected demographic, like M59’s women players in a hardcore PvP game.

    Lots of subtlety here for the unwary designer. People who have quite a few years under our belts understand this better, I think.

  6. Pingback: Elder Game: MMO game development » Oversimplifying Your Audience: A Real-Life Example