In the first part of Don’t Hate the Player, I discussed how to determine who your player is and why you should care. Today I’m going to talk about some legitimate concerns related to making games for players unlike yourself. I’ll also be giving you some examples from my own experience about these issues, one a cautionary tale and one showing how adopting this mindset has improved a game I’m currently working on.
In many fields of artistic expression, saying someone has sold out is one of the biggest insults you can give. While it is a complex issue, it basically means that an artist sacrificed personal or artistic expression for monetary gain. In other words, the artist is valuing money over art. This can take many forms, from introducing ads into your creation to make money while diluting its meaning, to changing your masterpiece to make it more appealing to a market to drive up sales. When it comes to making games for specific players, there is a danger that you sacrifice your own vision in order to make the game more appealing for your target player. In other words, you make a game that you like less to appease other people.
If you’re making your game as a hobby or a gift, it’s possible to make it purely artistic. However, the sad truth is that if you want to make games for more than a hobby, you will probably have to “sell out” to some degree. You need to support yourself (and your family, and your pets, and…), and if you truly love making games and want to do it as much as possible, you will have to leverage your games somehow to make money. Don’t feel too bad about it, though. Selling out is not a simple all or nothing concept. The important thing to consider is if you’re selling out too much for your own comfort. Do you feel good about the game you’re making? Do you enjoy it, even if it’s not your perfect, ideal game? If the answer is yes, stay the course. If the answer is no, then it’s time to reevaluate what you’re doing, because your game will suffer if you’re not excited about it.
I’ll give you an example. I mentioned in my last post that I worked at a company that made games for middle aged women. If you know anything about the demographics of most game developers, then you can safely guess that the target audience did not make up very much of the team making the games. In fact, there were no middle aged women on the engineering side, at least. This isn’t necessarily a problem, because many people who make games love them enough to find something in the games they’re making to enjoy. However, on this particular team, the lack of interest was a real problem for morale. The games the young men on the team were making had nothing to do with swords or guns or explosions or anything. The games were about chocolate and child care and cute animals. Even though the team worked hard to make the best games they could, the quality of games they could make just wasn’t that high. They didn’t understand their target audience well enough, and so they didn’t know what kind of games would appeal to them. Even though they tried to make good games, they couldn’t judge what a good game was by the standards of their target audience.
My recommendation for avoiding this problem is to make sure you can find something fun and interesting in the games you create, even if they’re for people very different from yourself. Make sure that when you playtest, you have at least a little fun or can see why the game is interesting. Just make sure you feel good about making the game! If all else fails, remember that even though we’d all prefer to make games for ourselves, many demographics aren’t able to for one reason or another (for example, children don’t have the skills necessary to make complex games for themselves), so you’re doing a good thing by providing those groups with enjoyment they couldn’t provide themselves.
Unfortunate Example: As I Lay Dying!
Alright, time to change gears and see the theory of target players in action. To start, I’ll give an example from my own experience where having a target player in mind would have improved a game.
For those of you unfamiliar with it, As I Lay Dying! is a game I released a little over a year ago. Now, don’t get me wrong… I’m very proud of the game, and I think it offers a unique, interesting, and funny experience. However, nothing is perfect, and As I Lay Dying! in particular is far from it. As flawed as the game itself is, it does make a wonderful example of what can go wrong when you ignore your players while designing a game.
As I Lay Dying! is an experimental game. I made a lot of unusual choices when working on the game, and in many ways that was the point. I thought it was hilarious and enjoyed watching people play it, even if they weren’t enjoying it the whole time. You can probably tell, since I keep saying “I”, that I made the young game designer mistake of only targeting myself as a player for the game.
This is most evident when you consider the odd combination of features As I Lay Dying! has. It is inspired by a classic American Novel by William Faulkner called As I Lay Dying and benefits from at least a basic knowledge of Faulkner’s work, especially the ending (which is probably incoherent otherwise). The game is full of dark, morbid humor… one of my goals was to make players cringe a little more on each level. The gameplay itself is adventure game like, combining puzzle solving with dexterity challenges. The controls, however, is very difficult, requiring the use of five buttons on the keyboard as well as the mouse to aim projectiles. Sometimes challenges demand very precise movements, and without proficiency in games like first person shooters or technical fighters, it’s likely a player will not be able to pass certain parts of the game. Even though they might know how to what to do, they aren’t physically be able to overcome the obstacle.
You might be thinking that there are plenty of people who play lots of first person shooters, who can solve puzzles, who appreciate morbid humor, who enjoy a good classic novel. The problem is there are very few people who like all of those things. But you can probably name one person who does… that’s right, me! I was so wrapped up with what I would want in a game like this that I ignored obvious signs that some of my decisions were limiting who would be able to appreciate the final product. In particular, if I could go back and change one thing about the game, I would make the controls simpler, and make the puzzles less dexterity based. A number of people complained about the controls in playtesting, but I was stubborn and decided I didn’t want to simplify them (which would require abandoning a couple of puzzles I’d come up with). In the end, this was the biggest obstacle for most people when it came to enjoying the game. They would find they didn’t have the dexterity to pass the first tutorial level, and never give the game another chance. How can someone appreciate literary references or witty dark humor when that person has rage quit? Because I focused so much on what I would want, I made my game a lot worse than it could have been.
Promising Example: Corporate America
I’m happy to say that since I released As I Lay Dying! my design skills have improved. In particular, I have more experience pitching an idea to other people without having anything tangible to show them, which has become a great way to solidify ideas of what a game could be and who it’s for. My most recent project is called Corporate America, a satirical board game about American politics.
While the game is not at all what I originally conceived it would be, from a very early time I had a target player in mind for the game: a young hip person who watches The Daily Show. I identified many characteristics about this demographic that I felt made them a promising target audience. For one thing, these people have a sense of humor and love to laugh at absurdity. For another, they are knowledgeable about current affairs and like opportunities to show off their knowledge. I also believe these people are generally social and enjoy having an excuse to hang out with a few friends and have a drink. Also, conveniently, there isn’t really a board game on the market that fills this role, so I believe Corporate America could be in a good position to be successful.
The game has not been released yet, so it’s too soon to tell whether or not it will live up to my expectations. However, playtesting has gone very well so far, so I believe it has a real chance. This is in no small part because of the target player I decided on early in developing the game.
One thing you might be asking now is whether or not the abstract target player I have in mind is actually just me. It’s a legitimate question–I am undoubtedly hip. In all seriousness, I definitely do fall in the category of person I described. This isn’t a bad thing at all, though. In fact, it has made the project extremely fun to work on, and has helped me avoid the problem I described in the Selling Out section about a mismatch between game developers and the games they’re creating.
That said, the target player for the game is not me. By this I mean that I have a lot of characteristics and preferences not included in the abstract target player. Probably the best way to explain this is to use an example from the evolution of the game. You see, in games I often like to take on the role of the villain. What this means is that I try to do everything in my power to make life harder on the other players. In life, I’m a pretty nice guy, but when it comes to games I can be PURE EVIL. Originally, I loaded Corporate America with cards that would allow players to play in this way. In fact, I put so many mean cards in the game, it was difficult not to play this way. When I started playtesting the game extensively, I discovered a mismatch between my target player model and what my actual target players wanted, though. In particular, in group settings, even the most cut throat players didn’t want to be so mean to the other players. Partly, this was strategic, since they didn’t want to sour relationships they might be able to exploit later in the game. But this is also just because they didn’t want to be jerks (what does that say about me…?). By including so many of those nasty cards in the game, I was slowing things down and actually reducing the number of decisions players could make, which detracted from the game. So, even though I like those mean cards, I had to greatly reduce their number because my target player doesn’t like them.
It’s All about the Player
I hope this discussion and the examples I gave have helped you understand the importance of making your game for a player, and not just for yourself. While there is a time and place for making a game for just yourself, you need to realize the sacrifices required to do so. Games are meant to be played, so you need to make sure that people can play your game, and of course want to play your game. If you’re making a game for yourself, unless you’re the most generic person around (and honestly, would you be making a game then?), you’re going to alienate some of your potential players with your own idiosyncratic preferences and your knowledge about the game.
One thing you probably noticed while reading these posts is that I mentioned playtesting a fair amount, especially when going over my own examples. Playtesting is an incredibly important part of game design, and something I will definitely touch on more in a future post. But these posts have been long enough for the time being, so that will have to wait. In the mean time, remember: don’t hate the player! They’re why you’re doing all this work!
And the game designer and player lived happily ever after.