Okay, you’re a PC MMO developer and you are in dire straits. World of Warcraft has ten million paying customers… but everybody else just has a few hundred thousand. Sure, that means you’re making tens of millions of dollars a year. And five years ago that would have made you the darling child of gaming. But now those investors don’t want to hear about your petty $15 million a year in pure profit. They see WoW generating hundreds of millions annually, and you suddenly seem pretty tiny.
What do you do? You change your spin. We’ve seen this everywhere: “subscriptions are out. The real way to make money is with ad revenue!” This is a pretty old-school thing to say, and not very likely to be true. But let’s leave that aside — you feel you can’t compete on a subscription basis so you’ve decided to make a free ad-based game.
Who is your game for?
If you answered “the internet! It’s free!”, you lose.
As game developers we tend to think of people as “hardcore gamers” and “casual gamers”, as if people magically fit into these two buckets. So if subscriptions are for hardcore gamers, then your free game should target “casual gamers”, right? And there’s a whole lot more of them than there are hardcore gamers! You’re gonna be rich!
But there’s no such thing as a casual gamer. It’s not a real target audience. Here are some of the things people might mean when they say “casual gamer”:
- People who don’t like games very much, but would if they played my game
- People who are really bad at games, so need easy games
- People who only play games at work during lunch breaks
- “Soccer moms” who play during the afternoon
- People over the age of 40 who play on the Wii
- People who didn’t buy our last first-person shooter
And we could go on and on. If your target audience is just “casual gamers”, you have no idea who you’re making a game for. And it shows in your results. You’ll make a game nobody likes, and you will fail.
Let’s look at some audiences you can try to hit with your PC game. (Note that a console game would have a very different list.)
- Traditional gamers. Skewing younger (18-35) and male, these are savvy gamers with decent-quality computers. They buy games from game stores. They are reasonably likely to have played an MMO before and paid for a subscription. When they play games, they tend to play for at least an hour.
- Moms. Skewing older (30-50) and female, these are people with free time (because the kids are at school or because the kids moved away). They do not upgrade their computers very often. They do not buy games at game stores. They like web games, and occasionally download casual games. They enjoy a 30 minute diversion on Pogo.com or Yahoo Games.
- Slacking White-Collars. Skewing younger, and with limited gender information, these are people who play games from work, or between classes, or in the library at college. They can’t install software on their PC because it may not even be their PC. They enjoy a quick 15 minute game session at Kongregate or NewGrounds.
- Older gamers. Over 30 and with a family, these once-traditional gamers no longer have time to play like they once did, but they miss it. They can’t afford to upgrade their computers very often, but they still know the difference between good graphics and bad. They can sometimes find an hour or two on the weekend to play a game.
We could go on making groups of reasonably large PC gamers.
I’m not saying you need to pick one of these groups. If you’re big enough, and ambitious enough, you can pick several target audiences. But you have to do it consciously, and you have to create your game to appeal to those groups. Naturally, the more groups you pick, the exponentially more difficult this job becomes.
Here are some hints.
If your game:
- requires the purchase of a $50 game box at a game store,
- involves a 20 minute install process,
- requires a better 3D card than WoW does, and/or more RAM and CPU power,
- doesn’t run in a web browser
You’ve already narrowed your options for target PC audiences dramatically. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. Just know what you’ve got to work from, and plan accordingly.
Man I swear I am going to start pointing out each game that launches without a clear understanding of their target audience. People just are not understanding this basic core concept. And they inevitably fail, because they just make a random game for random people. How do you market to random people? You do not.