This post follows on from this one about defining your game’s personality and making sure you sell that to your team and your stakeholders. Selling a vision to a team is all well and good, but if you want to make sure the vision you’re selling is on point, you need to spend some time working out who your game is aimed at.
You already know that this is important to your game. Everyone does. It doesn’t take a design genius to know that a game aimed at teenage girls probably shouldn’t focus on tight Street Fighter timing and controls. It’s worth remembering however that while the ‘who’ you’re aiming your game at clearly has an impact on what you make it also has a distinct impact on how you make it.
Who’s Actually Going to Play This?
So often in development this is something that the people selling your game don’t actually, fully know. They’re either waiting for stats about hardware sales to come through or they’re hedging their bets while they gather data on other, similar titles. That’s fine to some extent but developing a game with absolutely no idea to whom it’s going to be sold can absolutely wreck your game in later stages of development. Publishers do focus tests some time after alpha and end up saying things like:
“It turns out that soccer moms really, really dig the basic concept but hate the main character. I know! It’s crazy, we weren’t even targeting them with this title.” Then there’s an awkward pause. “It’s fine to change the main guy right?”
Extreme example maybe (or maybe not…) but even small changes at a late stage can kill a project by a thousand little cuts; heading off as many of them as possible at the beginning of a project by knowing EXACTLY who you’re selling this game to is a worthwhile thing to do. So if the people selling your game don’t know exactly who they want to sell it to yet, you need to work with them to define a target audience you can all agree on as soon as possible. You also then need to spend a good deal of effort throughout the lifecycle of the project making sure that they understand that design decisions are being made based on this audience.
If you’re publisher or sales team has no clear idea who they want to sell to, there are a couple of things you can do.
- Use your experience as a developer to work out an acceptable target audience for the general game idea (if the publisher are looking for a WWII FPS this is pretty straightforward, if they want a golf game featuring wizards and orcs it’s less so).
- Develop the game whilst budgeting and scheduling for a lot of focus and usability testing.
The first point is relatively straightforward but still comes with the risk that the publisher changes their mind later on in development (although by agreeing age groups and target audiences up front you’ve minimised this to some extent).
The second option is the ideal line to take. If you’ve got independent facts about who liked what about your game, whether it’s something as general the concept art for the main character or something really specific like the number of people who prefer clicking and holding the thumbstick to duck, you can always rely on metrics.
A Note about Testing
The trick with testing, as someone I once worked with sagely said, is to “never listen to anything anyone has to say in usability tests”. You need to make sure you’re information is coming as much from measurement as possible. People lie, people misunderstand questions and very often people get carried away with being in a focus group and tell you anything as long as it seems like it’s what you want to hear. You can attach metrics to almost any aspect of your game if you design the tests. Want to measure whether people like a certain character design over others? Measure length of time they spent looking at conceptimage4.jpg when compared to images 1,2 3 and 5. Even better go to a proper testing facility and measure their biometric reaction to it. You can interview people about the designs on top of this but getting a measure of something as simple as time spent looking at the image can assist you in filtering these interviews.
Design for your market and test it
If you’re in the business of making games that are intended to be sold, you’re making them to a market. Sometimes this market is simply people who like fun new things and you can go ahead make the next Limbo but often the reality is that you’re making something where your vision holder needs to work with a variety of stakeholders and here understanding and testing the market you’re aiming at is key. A good designer’s gut instinct about something should never be ignored but testing a hypothesis out either with up-front focus testing or with user testing a prototype can help you make an informed call about whether or not you want to devote a portion of the game’s budget to a new feature or not. You don’t even have to go to the trouble of focus testing some ideas, building up a good competitive analysis of similar titles and checking their reviews for clues as to why it scored well or badly is a hugely valuable task for designers or production assistants at the start of a project. Just make sure this data is searchable, either by being properly tagged in a wiki or in a well-specced spreadsheet.
So over the last few of posts, we’ve looked a little at the idea that it’s important to be able to define your game’s personality but also why it’s important to make sure that personality matches up with a target audience. Test, research and confirm with your stakeholders what you’re making and then make sure you sell that game to your team and your company. It’s vital that people work towards the same goal and that’s staggeringly difficult to ensure with a game, something that takes years and tens (often hundreds) of people to do.