Defining your target audience is a core concern for game design. Understanding different audiences is a key to that decision. The bitter feuds we see in MMOs between “casual” and “hardcore” attests to the difficulty of catering to every possible audience. You just can’t make everyone happy, and chasing high approval ratings rapidly runs into diminishing returns. (I’ll pass on the political punditry there.)
Blizzard has espoused the Donut Theory of capturing a hardcore base, and actively recruiting casual players, in hope of making them hardcore. Blizzard’s design focus is on those hardcore players, and the casual entry experience. (At least, that’s what it seems like, considering the high level of polish in the starting areas and the continued focus on endgame “ten more levels and more raids” expansion mentality.) The midgame suffers, but I’ve waxed long and winded about that elsewhere. So far, that focus has worked to rope several million players into Blizzard’s coffers.
What of a new MMO, though? How does one find a target audience, and what is the best way to go about doing so? Who do you cater to if you want financial success?
When Warhammer Online fired up, a merry band of bloggers formed Casualties of War, a guild to play the game with fellow bloggers. I’ll admit, I don’t know much about them, other than seeing articles over on Saylah’s site, and passing references elsewhere. Apparently, it’s been good fun for those involved. I have no complaints against any of these people. Of more interest to me is that these players are more on the hardcore end of the spectrum, and what effect that has on the game devs, considering publicity generated by a united blogger effort.
On the one hand, the devs might love such interest, as it’s effectively free advertising, and the sort of emergent, almost viral, interest that can be derived from (and drive further) good PR.
On the other hand, it seems to me that the trick in making any game wildly profitable is grabbing hold of the casual player. The hardcore player is a different beastie; if you make a good game, they will come. Casual players are considerably more… fickle. Your game might be fantastic for a hardcore player, but if a casual player can’t pick it up and enjoy it in the first 15 minutes or so, they aren’t likely to come back.
It’s true that there are a lot of facets to this concern of defining and catering to your core audience. I’m simplifying things a bit for the sake of brevity.
My main question, then, is “why cater to the Hardcore when it’s the casual player that drives the mainstream, including social networking and the like?” Yes, it’s debatable what influence each sort of player has, but if you take a look at the server populations of WoW vs. WAR, compared to the gameplay, (WoW being more casual friendly), there’s a fairly clear preference for the relatively easy “carebear” experience of WoW. I’m actually hoping for both to succeed, to keep competition driving excellence in both products. The core game design of WAR is simply more of a Hardcore experience than WoW. That’s not bad, but it does limit the audience.
So why cater to the CoW guilds and other hardcore types? For one, loyalty is typically stronger in that audience. These are the long term subscribers who buy the latest expansions and spend most of their time at the level cap in the “endgame”. They are the players most likely to break your game, meaning they provide valuable feedback. (They are also most likely to self-select for beta testing, which is another consideration.)
At the same time, there’s this, from Danc. Sometimes, the hardcore expert gamer take on your game isn’t really the viewpoint you want. Misdefining the target audience can lead to this sort of confusion.
Bloggers aren’t professional reviewers, but they are often hardcore players. Their viewpoint, while valuable, isn’t the epitome of design consideration, especially if a company wants to capture the casual market. If you want casual players playing your game, you have to let them play it in the Beta phase, or even earlier. The devs have to be able to understand what these players are doing, and why. It requires a highly objective ability to interpret data, and an ability to subjectively look through the eyes of someone else who may have a very different mindset.
This is where we hit the dev cycle of games. Game Testers (or Quality Assurance, whatever) are the unspoken heroes of a lot of game design. They find bugs and other problems with the game that the designers, artists and programmers are often too close or too busy to see. I think that it’s equally valuable to grab testers who aren’t hardcore, and who may not even be gamers. At least, it’s important if you want those type of people playing your game.
One of the most valuable testers we have at the company I work for is our Office Manager. (They used to call them secretaries, but she does a bit more than answer phones; she’s also involved with PR, so she wears a few different hats.) She has a different take on games than most of us on the dev floor. Likewise, friends and family who come in on occasion make great sounding boards for game play testing. Their input is valuable for game designs that we hope to market to a wide set of demographics.
At the end of the day, if you as a game designer haven’t tested your game with the target audience (or audiences), you haven’t done your homework. If you just want the hardcore CoW players, by all means, the current sort of inbred design decisions (where gamers are the ones making games) will generally suffice. If you want to reach out to new audiences and develop your own niche, you’ve got to find good representations of your target audience to test with.
People who sign up for betas of games are hardcore. People who prowl game blogs are hardcore. (Here speaking of the mentality more than the playtime, and yes, these are somewhat fuzzy terms. If it helps, think of it as “leaning hardcore with a clear preference that’s noncasual even if not completely hardcore”.) Designers might have to do some work to get casual players involved, rather than hoping they come on their own.
When the CoWs come to play, it’s great for ego and some sorts of feedback. Getting the sheep involved takes a bit more effort, and I, for one, wish that more game devs would make that effort. Figure out your target audience, then go find them. “If you build it, they will come” might work for baseball ghosts and CoWs, but the rest of us need a little more incentive to come play. I suppose the trick is to keep the CoWs interested while you bring in the sheep, but it’s an effort worth making.