Knowing Your Audience and Game Development Approaches   1 comment

Welcome to another post of Gratuitous JRPG.  Last time, we focused on the subject of working in teams, alongside the benefits and difficulties they may bring.  This week, however, will focus on another aspect of game creation: demographics.  More precisely, demographics, and a few philosophies to game design.  Both of these are factors that can influence a game’s development decisions, and even long-term strategy for those who intend to develop multiple games over a period of time.

Demographics are a highly important matter if one is developing games for anyone other than oneself.  A demographic, for the purposes of this post, is “a target general group of people who a game may be aimed towards”.  Demographics as a whole are generally not mutually exclusive, though some may be mutually exclusive to others.  While these may not be explicitly defined to some, there are indeed some broad categories that you may recognize otherwise, and thinking through it might result in some of your own categorizations of game-specific demographics.  My personal mental list of such is below.

Non-gamers: Perhaps one of the largest demographics still, these are the people who do not regularly play video games at all.  They may play one or two as a time-waster, such as Angry Birds, but they do not typically otherwise consume games.  Needless to say, this is the sort of demographic that is the hardest to reach for developers in most cases, though the typical lack of research and knowledge they have about games is sometimes exploited.

Trend gamers: Not to be confused with non-gamers and light gamers, this specific demographic plays games less out of a particular preference for them, but more out of the fact that it’s a thing that is popular and they want to keep in what’s “new” and “cool”.  Naturally, this is the realm of “social” games, such as Farmville and the recent mobile game trend that has been sweeping the Japanese market as of late.  Not that such trends are frequently approved of by some of the other demographics.

Light gamers: Probably the broadest category of game consumers, these sorts will generally purchase the super-big-name popular games, and look at reviews for the rest.  More niche or technical categories of games, such as Strategy RPGs or fighting games, will probably not be given a second glance by a large portion of this group.  General FAQs and strategy guides are aimed at these sorts, who can be counted on to buy the bigger name games but not necessarily game to engage themselves as much as be entertained.  As such, they will typically have a lower tolerance for frustration in their games.  They will typically cross over with series loyalists.

Heavy gamers: Games are a big portion of this demographic’s life.  Needless to say, they will invest fairly heavily into games, and typically specialize–this group crosses over greatly with competitive gamers, genre fans, and niche specialists, though there are some general heavy gamers out there.

Series loyalists: These gamers will typically follow one or more series of games, self-explanatory.  For example, the people who specifically follow the Final Fantasy series, Shin Megami Tensei metaseries, or the Call of Duty franchise would all be considered series loyalists.  These show up alongside Light and Heavy gamers, though some fall into niche specialists and genre fans pending.  A subset of this is “Company loyalists”, where they do not follow game series so much as game companies.

Difficulty seekers: These are the gamers looking for a challenge.  Typically absent from the non-heavy-gamer demographics, this group or games aimed toward this group are sometimes referred to as “masocore”–a portmanteau of “masochistic” and “hardcore.”  Many difficulty mods aim toward this, as do a variety of games such as I Wanna Be The Guy, Demon’s Souls, Dark Souls, and the mainline Shin Megami Tensei games.

Competitive gamers: This is a special group of gamers who play in competitions.  This is a small, but focused group who tends to be particularly critical.  Games aimed towards them will invariably be of the First-Person Shooter, Real-Time Strategy, or Fighting genres, and balance is a particularly needed focus for such games.  Naturally, this group crosses over with Heavy gamers and genre fans–and sometimes series loyalists.

Genre fans: Similar to series loyalists, genre fans will primarily gravitate to one or more specific genres of game that they prefer, such as action, RPG, or strategy.  There isn’t much else to say about this, really.  Niche specialists are a subgroup of this, who have a preference for less than common types of games, such as danmaku shooters or dating sims.  It may, however, also cover games that feature a specific type of character.  This tends to be one of the smaller categories, after all is said and done.

Connoisseurs: This is a category of people who primarily looks to games for an element of it not directly related to the gameplay.  This would include somebody who looks for quality of writing over quality of gameplay in RPGs, nonstandard artistic decisions, or possibly the fact that a game did something different more than necessarily doing something well.  This group can be notably hard to satisfy while appealing to other demographics, notably.  They sometimes cross over with niche specialists.

This is a notably large set of demographics–though your personal list may be larger or smaller depending.  The number of focused approaches to game development, however, is comparably much smaller.  Sometimes these approaches may be mixed, but a person typically follows one of the three.  These approaches are Games as Games, Games as Art, and Games as Business.  The way these interact with one another are the cause of many, many frustrations among development groups.

Games as Games is the approach to development that one would normally consider to gaming.  It focuses first and foremost with whether or not the game is enjoyable as a game.  As such, the quality of game and the end user’s enjoyment of said game on the basis of the actual game elements overall is more important than anything else in the end.  This sort of approach tempered with perfectionism, however, can lead to some problems with development–largely the game itself being slowed itself while one element or another is tweaked.  This approach will typically aim games toward light or heavy gamers, fans of their game’s genre, competitive gamers if they aim for the multiplayer scene, and if they prefer to make particularly difficult games, challenge seekers.  This is what I would personally consider the most “pure” approach to game development, though it is notable that sacrificing too much of other aspects in favor of gameplay can be just as harmful to a game in some cases.

Games as Art is a tricky mindset to place.  It is not simply wanting quality aesthetics, artwork, or story in a game, as that is simply a matter of quality.  The primary focus on a games-as-art mindset will be on the game as a form of artistic expression, focusing more on some form of innovation or uniqueness within a game’s gameplay, music, story, “message,” or visual style, possibly at a detriment to other aspects of the game.  Connoisseurs will often be interested in these games, while the quirks of games with this design mindset may or may not drive off the standard target demographics of this kind of game.  It is notable that there is a very real risk of a game developed from this mindset coming off as “pretentious” to the playerbase, and there may be very little appreciation for the art of the game if the gameplay itself suffers enough to make it essentially unplayable.

Games as Business makes sense at a glance: games can be sold to make money, so why not try to make as much money as possible with games?  This mindset with modern developers will result in one of two major approaches, as they attempt to widen demographics.  The first approach is the more famous “AAA game,” which arguably started with Squaresoft when it created Final Fantasy VII.  These games are the big showstoppers, often having budgets on par with or greater than that of many large-scale films, and may spend years in development.  In fact, they can frequently be compared to movies, having presentation similar to them at times.  There is a hope with this sort of presentation to grab enough outside the demographic to buy this and possibly coverted to the primary demographics.

The second approach that Games as Business will take is generally considered the opposite–rather than spend years and money on an AAA game, instead produce games to go along with the current trend, cashing in on as many trend gamers as possible while trying to appeal to one or more other demographics.  Needless to say, this is the cause of some rather insidious and alienating practices, as the mobile social market in particular has been home to several amazingly blatant cash-in games.  Final Fantasy:All The Braves and Rockman XOver are two such games that are, needless to say, bad.  Both only carry the names and aesthetics of their franchises, but most definitely not the gameplay and have served only to significantly annoy the franchise fans.  Capcom is also creating a mobile social game out of the next entry in the Breath of Fire series–the fact that such games have proven to be blatant cash grabs alongside the newest entry in the Breath of Fire series being announced to this format together have already driven series fans into an outrage.

As many executives possess the Games as Business mindset as opposed to one of the other two, this leads to major conflict within development companies when developers do not agree.  Examples of such have occurred within Capcom, as the developers who follow a more Games as Games approach are blocked by the executives.  This includes the fact that nobody was allowed to make a new Street Fighter game until the sales on the Street Fighter 2 Super Turbo re-release indicated that there was indeed a market for such.  And as long as game companies are headed by executives as opposed to developers, there will always be a clash between those with a Games as Business mindset and those who follow either Games as Games or Games as Art.

Away from the approaches to development, the last point I would like to bring up today is that a developer will never be able to please all demographics.  It is a literal impossibility, and any attempt to please everyone will only result in a pile of mediocrity that will please nobody.  That being said, there are a few tips from here to aid game development.  First, know which demographics you are targeting.  The sort of people you are making a game for in general and specific.  Treat this as your core demographic, and do not try to alienate them.  The second major tip is to know that there are some viable ways than others to widen the demographic appeal of a game.  While this may be counterintuitive at times, (“making the game more accessible” is often Games as Business code for “dumbing a game down so more people can play it,” and will often alienate series fans) there are ways about it.

Case in point: Fire Emblem:Awakening.  While it retains many of the features Fire Emblem in general holds, it is notable for its handling of its defining mechanic, permadeath, in relation to other entries in the series.  What is notable is not that they removed it–an action that would alienate many long-time series fans–but that they instead included the option to turn it off, for outsiders to the series.  This managed to, in fact, make the game more accessible, but in a method that would not ruin the series fans’ experience.  The point of this is that the ideal changes to widen demographic are option switches, as opposed to sweeping inherent changes throughout the system.  If you can’t make an in-depth change to attract more people without angering your current demographic, you should question how important that change is.

Another example to study for changes and demographic alienation is the ever-raging internet drama about the edition changes of Dungeons and Dragons.  It is notable that fourth edition itself brought sweeping changes to the internal system.  Many of the simulationist aspects were removed, and the setup changed to that resembling a grid-based strategy-RPG.  A number of the 3.x fans did not go along with Fourth Edition, though it did grab a number of new followers in the process with the changes made to balancing in particular.

However, with Fifth Edition (or as WotC calls it, “NEXT,” they have abandoned the 4e changes, instead attempting to revert to an edition closer to 2e while adding a greater deal of streamlining.  This is, however, not only alienating the 4e fans and leaving them to what they have of 4e, but also not getting the desired attention from fans of older editions seemingly as of yet.  While the situation with NEXT might change, the truth of the matter is that it’s better sense to not try and backtrack.  If you’ve decided to make a sweeping change that does attract new demographic members while losing some, it is not necessarily a wise idea to then chase off the new ones with your next release in an attempt to get the old followers back.  They won’t all come running, and if you try to attract the new ones back later, you will only be faced with diminishing returns on that end too.

With that all covered, it can be said that there are many tricky elements to game design even outside of the game itself.  Demographics have to be considered, your specific approach and reasoning to development may affect this too, and even then the audience can be an amazingly fickle and unforgiving entity.  If you make your decisions tactfully, however, you should be able to do fine.  Until next time, this is Epic Alphonse, signing off.

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Posted August 7, 2013 by EpicAlphonse in Uncategorized

One response to “Knowing Your Audience and Game Development Approaches

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  1. Outstanding post, I think people should learn a lot from this web site its rattling user friendly.
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