Define your target audience

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 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.

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11 Responses to Define your target audience

  1. Cathy says:


    Did you mean “We could go on making groups of *reasonably large* PC gamers”? How do you target that demographic? Your game comes in a box of waffles?

    Or did you mean “We could go on making reasonably large groups of PC gamers”?

    Snark snark snark… :P

  2. Eric says:

    Picky picky :)

  3. CountZero says:

    Nice breakdown. I get called casual all the time and I play 15-20 hours a week when I’m engaged in a game. No one who is spending 20 hours a week doing anything should be called casual. That slot seems to put me into some kind on ‘no man’s land’ not playing anywhere close to enough to hang with the hardcore gamers.

  4. Nikos Beck says:

    When I try to figure out my target audience I try to profile friends or example customers. I could target “man, aged 26, works on the phone for an insurance company, has some breaks during the day where he can play games online, can’t install software onto the corporate network, makes $25,000 a year, probably has a subscription with WOW and maybe another MMORPG, used to own a console but doesn’t right now but like his buddies PS3, he has a conservative job so he wants a game where there is some release, doesn’t mind violence, doesn’t mnind sexuality, expects course language”. From this profile I’d probably want a game that he can jump into, frag some monsters and jump out. He won’t be playing five-hour quests with his buddies because he won’t be able to coordinate breaks to meet up. Armed with a handful of profiles giving me different details I can focus the sort of game I want to deliver. Ideally, there are things the customer wants that I don’t deliver so that I can keep those features in mind for the future, allow for them in the plan, even if I don’t implement them right away.

    Mind you, I’m working on a casual game where my example profiles are women, aged 40 to 60, don’t have the honed reflexes of the Nintendo generation, are constantly interrupted by the kids and home life, play to relax. It’s really helped me pick the features I want to focus on and the features I want to drop.

  5. Grimwell says:

    What a wonderful post to come off of vacation and read! ;) Glad to see the update.

    I really agree. It’s far too easy to assume a lot of audience on simple terms, but if you actually want to profit it’s better to know who’s going to help you. ;)

  6. Eric says:

    Nikos – creating “pretend people” is apparently something they do in the advertising world, too, to help them visualize how each element will appeal to their audience. It sounds like a pretty good idea… one that we never see in the MMO development world for some reason.

  7. Sandra says:

    I believe they are usually called ‘personas’ … not “pretend people”. *grin*

  8. Dwayne Rudy says:


    I’m curious what you think the console audience list would look like? A lot of what I see suggests they would fit pretty closely into the “Traditional Gamers” category you identified.


  9. Hey Eric, with regards to this topic of determining a “target audience”, what’s your viewpoint of games that combines multiple perspectives of gameplay? For example, games like BattleZone (1998) and Microsoft Allegiance incorporated two styles of play, FPS and RTS.

    Well what if an MMO game design combined multiple perspectives purposely to take advantage of the diversity of play styles, audiences, and even platforms. For example, FPS games usually require a 3D graphic intensive environment, yet RTS games can suffice quite well with lower requirements in a 2D format. Even more so, certain strategy simulation games, say something like the old Hamurabi game have even lower minimal requirements. Here’s some examples of what I mean.

    Say I’m an individual who’s not really into adventuring, roleplaying, or raiding but loves RVR battles and I’m an exceptional leader when it comes to 2D RTS interfaces. Well what if the MMO I played was designed in such a way that I could pop online and interact with my guild as a battle commander. I mean think of how WoW works. You come online, your buddies invite you to the group, and you’re transported to the battlefield. Imagine the same thing but from a 2D Flash-based web browser interface where I log into the game, get invited and transported to the battle, and can now lead it in a 2D RTS format. When I’m done, it transports me back to a set location in my home city and I close my web browser.

    Or let’s say I really don’t have that much time at all but I love working the markets within MMOs, buying and selling goods for a profit, and seem to be exceptional at it (spending maybe only 30 to 60 minutes at day at it at most). Again imagine an interface where I could log into the game via a simple mobile PC text interface to buy and sell goods for maybe 15 minutes at a time, about three or four times a day (basically when I have the time in between things). Again if I’m part of a guild or let’s say a corporation within Eve Online, I could be an integral and valuable member of my corporation (community), even though I’m playing just minutes each day.

    All said and done though, I think you’re still right. The game still has to be designed from the outset for these varying types of specific target audiences. Yet I’m still interested if you think this is a good approach or potentially bad one, in mixing different target audiences within one game.

  10. Teresa says:

    Okay, if the way you define casual gamer is the way most developers define it, then I understand the problem.

    Let me introduce myself.

    I’m female. I’m a casual gamer. I’m over 20…way, way over 20.

    I’m not a soccer mom. I’m someone who works for a living at a demanding job. I love MMOs. I really, really love MMOs. I’m actually fairly good at the ones I’ve played. I understand game mechanics and min/maxing. I’ve raided with top raiding guilds in the various games I’ve played in. I’ve even been part of the server or game ‘firsts’ with whatever guild I belonged to at the time.

    But someone has to pay the bills, so I work and if I want to stay in a relationship (even if it’s with another gamer) some time has to be devoted to it. Oh, and I have friends too. Seriously…if you all think that what makes a person a casual gamer is a lackluster approach to a game or the fact that they aren’t very good at it. You are wrong. And if this is where most designers feel the divide exists it’s no wonder they totally miss the mark.

  11. Interesting viewpoint Teresa. I personally define a casual gamer as someone who plays games infrequently, say three to five hours a week when they have the time versus more avid or hardcore gamers who will often put in ten to twenty scheduled hours a week (or even more). So if you were playing three to five nights a week, for three hours each night (i.e. raiding), then I’d hardly call you a “casual gamer”.

    To me it has nothing to do with how good you are at the game and what your real life involves, it’s more to do with how much of a priority you’ve given gaming within your life. For some people, they only play when they have the time (so possibly even once every other week). For others, they are more passionate about it, especially if they have a social network of friends within it, and they’ll play a lot more, every week or even every day if they get the chance.

    BTW even though I’ve in a sense defined what I think a casual gamer is, I still agree with Eric that you can’t define a casual gamer as a target audience. It would be the equivalent of saying “We are targeting all people who drive blue vehicles.” It just doesn’t make sense because it doesn’t really narrow down your audience, thus you’re not really defining a target audience at all (which is what Eric was getting at).