Oversimplifying Your Audience: A Real-Life Example

I wanted to introduce the importance of understanding your audience early so I could talk about the many ways in which we consistently fail to do this simple thing, but I didn’t expect to be handed such a clear and useful example just a few days later!

Let me start with some background. World of Warcraft is currently running a seasonal event called Brewfest. This is an alcohol-fueled party in the vein of Oktoberfest. In addition to free-form drinking, there are a number of small quests, most of which reward the player with tickets that can be used to buy special Brewfest items. Most of the reward items are seasonal fluff (food and drink, funny hats and other clothes, a pony keg for roleplaying and so forth) but the big reward of the event is a player mount: a Brewfest Riding Ram. This is especially exciting to players with Horde characters since there is otherwise no way for them to obtain a ram mount. The player reaction to Brewfest has been … mixed. The event began with some severe bugs and design flaws and although most of those have been resolved, one portion of the event had to be permanently disabled due to griefing.

More interesting to me, however, is what we can learn about Blizzard’s characterization of their audience based on what they’ve said about Brewfest. Seasonal events like Brewfest have been touted by Blizzard as proof of their commitment to creating content for more casual players. But what are these casual players like?

The following is quoted from a WoW dev involved in creating the event in a thread on Blizzard’s WoW General Forum. I’ve pulled together several posts on the same thread below (separated with elipses) and snipped out the actual math of ticket acquisition that he’s referring to for brevity.

You would earn…. 782 tickets. More than enough for the ram, for logging in once a day, perhaps 15 minutes, every day, from now until Brewfest ends. I fail to see how that isn’t “casual” by definition.

None of my math is contradictory. One is averaging 7 keg turn-ins a day, the other 20 (10 per run, twice a day). One was for the casual crowd; what I quoted the second time was a far more challenging estimate.

In a later post, I gave the 20 kegs a day, which was for a more “hardcore” mentality towards the event in getting most of the items.

So putting this together we see the following picture of casual and hardcore players:

  1. Casual players can log in once a day for 15 minutes. Hardcore players can log on for longer amounts of time more than once a day.
  2. Casual players are less skillful at completing a short mini-game than hardcore players. Note that the mini-game does not rely on skills needed elsewhere in the normal game and takes about four minutes to learn.
  3. Casual players will be satisfied with just the mount reward, but hardcore players will push on and get the rest of the rewards, including the funny hats and roleplaying keg.

In the abstract, these characteristics fit our assumptions about casual players: they have less time to play, they are less skillful, they are more easily satisfied. And yet it’s easy to see that these characterizations — especially #2 and #3 — are not at all logical. Why would hardcore players want a funny hat or a roleplaying knick-knack? And if you want to stereotype, then shouldn’t casual players be better at the mini-game? After all, they sit around all day playing Bejeweled instead of raiding …

And what about assumption #1? Can we really assume that casual players will log in once a day for 15 minutes? That’s not very long, true, but it still implies a commitment to a particular schedule. Are casual players known for their commitment? Even when the commitment is there, that schedule may not be feasible: for example, what about the weekend warriors — players who have carefully scheduled their very full lives to allow themselves six hours in Azeroth on Sunday even though the rest of the week is dedicated to work, school, and family?

(If they care enough they’ll make time, you say. And yet this event was carefully designed to appeal to casual players … right?)

The problem occurs when we boil a complex picture of our multi-faceted playerbase down into a couple of adjectives, each with a handful of broad, simplistic attributes, and then we build up designs based on the simplifications (i.e. less time) instead of the more complicated reality (i.e. some have less time per day, some need shorter or interruptible sessions, some need a more flexible schedule). And what we invariably end up with is content that doesn’t appeal properly to anyone because it isn’t actually targeted at anyone. In short: wasted content.

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5 Responses to Oversimplifying Your Audience: A Real-Life Example

  1. Tholal says:

    Good post! And I definitely agree that tying together ‘casual player’ with ‘logging in once a day’ just proves that the poster doesn’t really understand the concept of casual player! Not to mention the fact that attempting to separate any group of people into only two defined factions is pretty much impossible.

  2. This is also why I was arguing that you can’t really understand your audience until you actually have it. In the case of Brewfest, I think that the designers did misunderstand their audience and what “casual” play really means. They could have looked at historical data and found out what players expect. Although, I suspect that they did rely on some data, because the high level daily quests have been a rather popular feature in the game, so they thought it would make sense to apply it to a case like this. Unfortunately, I think the mistake was that the people doing the daily Brewfest quests aren’t the same people doing the level 70 daily quests, that is: it’s a different audience.

    But, when you’re designing a game initially, you have to kind of guess what your audience will be like. And, also adjust if your audience is different than you expect. But, sometimes even the most educated guesses don’t live up to expectations. :)

  3. Sandra says:

    Tholal: I think that’s what bothers me the most about the entire subject. Everyone agrees that we can’t agree on what a casual player is, and yet we go right on using the term as a baseline for design.

  4. Jesse King says:

    As far as defining casual as 15 Minutes/day, as opposed to 6 hours per weekend as you suggest, Blizzard (and any MMO developer) has a vested interest in fostering the former behavior and preventing the latter – and you see a great deal of this in WoW recent developments, such as daily quests.

    Why is this? Easy – server load and bandwidth. MMO’s don’t want players playing 40 hours a week, or 8 hours at a stretch. They want them playing an hour or so a day, spread out as smoothly as they can across their entire bandwidth horizon.

    They want players playing FREQUENTLY, to keep the game formost in their players minds to aid retention, but not OBSESSIVELY, which damages both their personal lives (harming retention), as well as racking up excess bandwidth and server overhead costs.

    So, if you believe as a designer that you have some hand in actually shaping what your ‘casual’ market is, then you develop for the 15 minute play experience, and make a number of different ones available to your players – rather than the server-pounding ‘weekend warriors’.

    It’s probably a similar reason that WoW’s raid locks flip over on tuesday, rather than say right before, after or during the weekend. Players will tend to play just before or after raid locks flip, but they also tend to play on weekends – so even though it might be more convenient for your overall player base, you don’t really want the two factors coinciding or you just spike your weekend load even worse and increase your server costs across the board.

  5. Sandra says:

    You have a very good point, Jesse, about the kind of playing behavior that MMO designers should ideally want to foster — and I am particularly glad that you mentioned that playing daily helps keep the game foremost in the players’ minds, because I personally think that that has a very large impact. This is one reason I believe that out-of-game community (i.e. fansites and blogs) are so important.

    However, I doubt that Blizzard deliberately designed Brewfest around an every-12-hour playing cycle in an attempt to shape the playing habits of what they are calling casual players in this context. (Notice me being very careful with my terms here! How awkward.) And if they did, I still think they missed the mark — the people that they say they are trying to target with their seasonal events are not, in my experience, terribly amenable to that kind of influence.

    On the other hand, I do believe that daily quests are a great way to influence the playing habits of the so-called middle-core, who often self-identify as casual even though their habits are in no way casual. And that’s actually a topic I had been planning to post about. :>