Game Design: Target Audience

Welcome to week two!  Last week I touched on Narrative and talked a little about how a distinct sense of  identity benefits a game.   While there’s still a great deal of information to cover on that topic, I don’t want to get too in depth on any one topic as I start up.   This week I want to explore the various effects of  designing a game for a target audience, then shift gears for a few weeks and get off into some of my other interests.

To start with, I want to point out that this is a disagreeable topic.  Many target audiences have highly polarized members, some of whom- but not all of- are exclusionists by nature.  They know what they like, and more than ignore what they don’t like they readily will trash or argue against what they don’t like in gaming forums, stores, etc.  Whether these represent a vocal minority or are the average member of a target audience is generally up to debate.  I’m also afraid to try to draw any sort of east vs west comparison for this as for all I’ve read and learned about Japanese culture, I’m really not confident I understand the Japanese gamer enough to comment on their audiences, so I will largely keep this one to what I know.  Since the easiest place to start with something is to glance at its history, let’s take a look at the beginning.

The earliest of games had a target audience that would define gaming for decades: Nerds.

This was a matter of practicality.  The earliest games were played in the research labs of the companies or colleges that developed them.   Surprisingly, the mainstay genres all emerge relatively early on, by title count if not by year:  The first game was a war simulation, followed by ports of tabletop games, then a sports game, followed by some early touchscreen games (via light pen), then arcade shooters, followed by the first space exploration game, flight simulators, text adventures, the RPG, shortly after the MUD, and finally the Platformer as the latecomer.

As an aside, I was pretty surprised to find touchscreen gaming predates arcade video games, and the hands off gameplay of Mouse-In-The-Maze reminds me of some of the “those mobile games aren’t games!” complaints I heard early into the smartphone era.  I also for some reason had it in my head that Pitfall predated Donkey Kong, although some cursory fact checking brought me back to reality.

The target audience of most of the above were nerds, as a matter of practicality.  The technology to play these games at the onset was largely limited to the research labs of large tech firms and colleges.   They were played on mainframes or oscilloscopes juryrigged to electronics to make them do stuff.  Once the first “modern” arcade game hit, the number of target audiences went up by one: arcade gamers.  Then Consoles were invented, Atari crashed, Nintendo and Sega happened, the personal computer became a thing, Sega crashed, Sony and Microsoft stuck their noses in, eventually we get to today where there are dozens of target audiences, each with their own preferences, wants, and needs.   We have moved beyond the time of nerds, although gamers still have a bit of a reputation as nerds as a consequence.

Usually a target audience will share a genre or several genres with other target audiences.  For example, in America, the line between the target audience for Sports games and the target audience for Console FPS shooters is generally a very blurry line.  It is not uncommon to spot Halo and Call of Duty beside NFL, Baseball, Basketball, etc. games on an American gamer’s shelf.   The target audiences for these games are actually driven by a mixture of personal interest and social cliques, and typically the developers of the games themselves tend to be members of the target audience themselves.  Of course, there are exceptions, such as Movie/TV series licenses.  Aside from very choice IPs like Star Trek line up with developers who are also longtime fans, most developers hate making movie/TV games.

Another kind of overlap isn’t overlap at all.  Consider the FPS gamer of the 90’s and the RTS gamer of the 90’s.  Typically, you couldn’t look at an american gamer’s desktop without seeing at least one RTS and one FPS shooter.   (and as I started fixing people’s computers around ’96, that’s largely a personal anecdote.)   One would generally be inclined to think these were two separate audiences, I believe they were actually the same target audience –  the competitive gamer.   They were generally interested in the newest way to compete against each other, and were always interested in competing on more than one level.  Many of them would push for newer, better, stronger, faster computers for every edge they could get, and the developers would always release new titles to take advantage of these games.  The string of Quake games, Unreal Engine games, Crytech games, all pushed graphics and more graphics, usually amounted to deathmatch only tech demos, but that is exactly what the target audience wanted – more head to head competition.

On that note, some target audiences are also unusual.  Quake, Unreal Tournament, Farcry, and Crysis also had game developers as a secondary target audience: the games themselves were commercials with the goal of getting developers to use the game engines for their own projects.  Unreal Engine and Crytech are popular middleware engines, easily cutting 1~2 years of development time off many game projects.  I picked on Unreal Tournament as a game last week for being a tech demo, but the death-match tech demo trend had a critical role in introducing the benefits of middleware to an industry where few studios had the time and money to drop on developing their own 3D engine from scratch.

Since Target Audiences tend to have either overlap or “a specific interest”, I think designing for a single target audience is actually a bad thing.  Many of the most memorable games in history are cross-genre titles.  Often times if you mix two genres together, you get fans of both.   As the 2000’s got underway, we saw every genre start to adopt RPG mechanics and become more interesting for it.  The rise of RPG mechanics also saw many games which previously lacked a story mode realize the importance of one, and so the competitive FPS games of the late 90’s began to fade.  Many of those same competitive gamers are today playing MOBAs, which can safely be called the fusion of the Arcade, RTS, and RPG genres.

I actually believe that while a game may be made for a target audience, the target audience is usually different from “the audience they get”.  Further, I believe that great games are born not of targeting a specific target audience, but taking the desires and needs of many audiences and making something new, that doesn’t really want any specific audience but rather to create a new one.  Emphasizing the earlier tech demo point, Unreal Tournament managed to be just that outside of the normal marketplace – by targeting both competitive gamers and game developers themselves it helped create the middleware market we know today.  (which really does make it difficult to judge fairly.)

Nintendo actually fell afoul of this not too many seasons ago with the Wii, coming so close to getting it right, yet opting to “fire” their own target audience and attempt to build a new one.  As one of the angry, bitter gamers who went into that year expecting a revolution only to get fired, I am still shocked that years later Nintendo’s leadership now thinks they made a mistake.  Objectively, even as a disenfranchised core gamer, I can’t say they made a mistake in looking beyond their existing audience, so I’m baffled they could come to the conclusion they have.  As was the oft given reason for the decision, many of the “Core gaming audiences” are actually impossible to satisfy in the long term, as to fully satisfy them requires increasing difficulty in an exclusionary way.   Trying to introduce a new gamer to a game series that prides itself on being Nintendo Hard can be almost impossible.  (As I’m sure most of the people on this site can appreciate, try showing an American fan of shooters a recent Touhou game.)  In that light, the decision to create a new audience makes sense, even: Less work, more gain.

And against all odds, Nintendo succeeded in creating a new audience.  The metrics telling us that are everywhere.  However, as the author of the article I linked points out:  What they actually failed at was giving this new target audience something to play that wasn’t Wii Sports/Wii Fit/Wii bowling.   While the Wii had many mechanical mistakes such as the lack of HD, consumers typically only hate mechanical mistakes if they actually get in the way of something.  How much more successful would the Wii have been had it not fired it’s old audience, and simply added to it?  Could the old audience have said “Hey, you’re new here, I love that game too, you ought to try this one as well, I love this one.” and made all the difference?  Perhaps Iwata gets it more than he lets on with his comments, as Nintendo’s theme this time around is reconciling the two target audiences.  Perhaps Iwata just chose to phrase things the way he did because he was talking to investors and not gamers.

Creating a new audience does not mean having to fire an old one, like Nintendo did.  As an example, Portal didn’t exclude the First person shooter audience of the day.  It welcomed everyone that gave it a try, using the FPS audience as a building block.  (You will recall that Portal came bundled with two of the most anticipated FPS games of the year it was released in.)  Further, Indie games as a whole have been creating a new audience out of necessity.  While individual indie games are aimed at a specific genre, the target audience is distinctly different – it’s anyone that will play it.

In closing, Target Audiences (And genres both) are great starting blocks, but like with all tools, they can’t be given too much or too little focus.  In the end, people play games to have fun, and we should be focusing on just that, the fun of it.  Next time I’ll be talking about either art or engineering, with a side of career stuff, I feel like I’ve tiptoed on eggshells too much with game stuff.

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