September 30, 2009

Designing Your Audience

Last week, I made a comment that I should have realized would need some explanation:
Learn to recognize which parts of your game and playerbase aren't important. Your favorite part of the game may be something the playerbase doesn't care about, and there are some players who care about things that it isn't in your best interests to focus on.
I probably shouldn't have mentioned this in passing before I had a chance to do a longer writeup on it. That's a fairly sinister-sounding quote, after all.

So what did I mean by this? Why wouldn't I want to just always make all of my players happy all the time? The short answer is that's exactly what I do want. The longer answer is that if you end up with too many different groups of players who want opposing things out of your game, you'll eventually arrive at a situation where any decision you make will anger one of the player camps.

Aside from bugs and generally shoddy development, the biggest cause of /ragequits is developers and players not agreeing on what the game is supposed to be:

Players thought it was an RPG with FPS elements, developers shipped an FPS with RPG elements. Players thought the game was supposed to be mostly grouping with some soloing, developers preferred mostly soloing with some grouping. Players expected open world territorial control PvP, developers implemented consensual sport PvP.

These are very small differences in opinion that don't matter at all, until they matter more than anything and all your players have quit.

Just like every other aspect of the game, your playerbase must be carefully designed and crafted. Here's how:
1 - Know what game you're making, and for whom
If your design team can't agree on what the game's about, how can your playerbase possibly be expected to agree with your design team?

Your gameplay will determine which players will enjoy your game, and which players you intend to enjoy your game should be the driving force in all your gameplay decisions. It's not important whether you start the game with an idea of the players or an idea of the gameplay, it's just important that they both support each other.

If you wait until you have real players to start trying to make them happy, it's already too late. The game has to be tailored to the audience before the audience even exists. This can be challenging, but there are lots of shortcuts.

You can do it by treating some designers as spokespeople for the player groups you expect to have, you can define a set of archetypes that you keep in mind while designing, you can write user stories, or you can just try make a game for another game's audience and steal them.

It doesn't matter how do you it, but you have to figure out who your players will be and what game they'll want in time to actually start making it.
2 - Keep your design focused
Feature creep is arguably the worst problem in the game industry, as well as the software industry as a whole. It causes financial problems and scheduling problems, and it also causes a fragmented playerbase.

Sprawling game designs such as RPGs are the most prone to feature creep, which in my opinion explains why so few MMO gamers are actually happy. It's incredibly difficult to support divergent gameplay styles in a way that doesn't result in each style's features harming the other's gameplay.

For example, Blizzard has enough resources to put huge amounts of effort into both PvE and PvP, but even they barely pull it off. WoW players are constantly arguing over which type of gameplay that game is supposed to be about, or angry that one is receiving more content, better itemization, relevant balance changes, etc.

The best way to avoid feature creep is to make a firm choice as to what game you're not making, and which audience you're not trying to appeal to.

By adding every feature under the sun to your game, you might attract more players, but I can guarantee you that those players will be less happy. Think about whether you want to have a huge audience of unhappy players, or a small audience of happy players. It's a trick question though, because unhappy players quit, while happy players multiply.

3 - Market your game honestly
Stop giving players false hope. If you know that your game isn't a PvP game, isn't a solo game, isn't a crafting game, etc, all you have to do is make that clear up front. Nobody wants to be the bad guy in the dev chat who tells all the nice crafters and all their nice money to take a hike, but it's much better than leading them on and then disappointing them.

If you feel ashamed to tell your players honestly what your game is about, that's a pretty great sign that you game isn't about the right things.
4 - Dance with the ones that brung ya
Once your game has players who aren't on your dev team, it's too late to change what game it is. You can only make it a better and better version of itself, even if you screwed up and made the wrong game.

Once players are playing your game, even for free, they've invested themselves in it. Players always talk about how they've paid money and deserve a service, but that's not actually what's making them mad. Once they've invested their time and attention in a game, they've given you something much more precious than their money and you've reached the point of no return.

Even when you've designed and marketed a game for a specific audience, you'll still have some players from outside your audience show up and try it out. These players will be mad that the game isn't a game for them, and demand that you change it. Sometimes you can accommodate them without alienating your existing players, but sometimes you just have to have the self-restraint to allow them to quit.

I'm hugely impressed by CCP's new game Dust 514. After being assaulted for years by complaints of EVE not being exciting enough, CCP didn't cave in and dilute their game to include those players who were outside of their intended audience. They made an entirely new game just for those players. This is a perfect way to make a new group of players happy, without that gain in happiness costing some happiness from another group.

Time to pick on poor SWG

Star Wars Galaxies is an example that's been beaten to death, but for good reason. That game suffered from all of the problems I've mentioned here. It tried to support every style of gameplay there is, from politics and city management to crafting to avatar combat to dogfighting in spaceships.

It was seemingly designed for fans of every part of the Star Wars universe but the movies, and then inevitably marketed to people who had only ever seen the movies. Once its audience was distilled to only people who really liked SWG's gameplay and everyone else had quit, the devs decided to try and fix their mistakes.

They rereleased the game with a new design that would appeal to all of the players who had quit (who wanted it to be more like the movies), except those players didn't really care anymore. The loyal players who had remained rightly felt this was a slap in the face and began quitting in droves.

The new Star Wars game seems to have much more in common with the failed SWG revamp than it does with the original SWG. The funny thing is that this time around everyone is incredibly excited about it. This is because we can all tell what that game is trying to be, and hopefuly because it's being marketed honestly.

Nobody wants their players to quit, and it's always a bad thing to make any of your players unhappy. However, if you let your design get too diluted and your playerbase get too fractured, you'll end up in a position where it's unavoidable.

If you decide which potential players are and aren't important long before the game ships and market the game honestly, then you'll never have such a divided playerbase that you have to make those kinds of tough calls. This hopefully also means you won't see so many players /ragequit.


Borror0 said...

Since I said that I really liked the last advice in your previous blog post, I guess I am forced to say that I really liked this one too? ;)

I have one thing to say, though.

You said that:
"Nobody wants to be the bad guy in the dev chat who tells all the nice crafters and all their nice money to take a hike, but it's much better than leading them on and then disappointing them."

I'm not sure it if really makes a difference in the end. If you say nothing, they'll beg for it. If you say you won't put it, they say you're not listening "to the playerbase" (ie them).

I think that the advice "know your playerbase and the nongoals that are beneficial to your game, and don't cave in to requests by those who are not part of your audience" is really what has to be remembered. Whether you tell them upfront or not, IMO, will not change anything except maybe give your CMs an headache for a few days.

Another advice to keep in mind is that your playerbase changes over time. It's not because you attracted X type of players that the playerbase will always be composed of the same kind of gamers.

Ysharros said...

Spankingly good article, as always. Sadly (well, not really, but it is for my commenting) I have been hit by Hurricane Mother for 3 weeks and my blog-reading time is almost nil right now.

Still, this was one of those reads where you nod in agreement throughout. You can design my MMOs anytime. ;)

Mike Darga said...

@Ysh, thanks for making mine a priority in your limited reading time ;)

@Borror0, I think you're right that the game can change over time and that you still might end up with different players than the ones you planned on.

That's when you start having to make some decisions as to how your game will evolve. Hopefully you got the kind of players who will like your game, but if all your loyal players wanted it to be something different, you have to think about moving the game in that direction.

I still believe if this happens that it was either marketed dishonestly, or the game isn't suiting its IP as well as people expect. That's one reason IP and fiction are so important: they're a shorthand to tell players what to expect. Don't make the Oregon Trail MMO if you aren't going to have hunting and wheel-repairing.

Some players just demand certain features wherever they go. I'm one of these players when it comes to PvP. I really want that feature in games I play, but ultimately I realize it's better to leave it out rather than do it poorly or not supporting it.

Brian 'Psychochild' Green said...

I think there's a danger in trying to "capture an audience who left". SWG is the classic example, but EQ2 is another good one. It was stated in EQ2's development that one goal was to get the millions of people who bought an EQ1 box but didn't stick around to play the new game. The problem is the people who quit EQ1 weren't interested enough to try another game named EQ, and the people happy with EQ1 would probably stick with that game longer. When WoW launched around the same time, it didn't help EQ2 at all. Which is unfortunate, because EQ2 is a really good game in its own right.

I have to wonder how well Dust 514 will do. It's probably a good thing they're not trying to "capitalize" on the EVE name, but some people may still give it a pass if they learn it's associated with EVE if they weren't interested in that game in the first place. We'll see how that goes.

Mike Darga said...

Hi Brian, nice to see you here.

That's a really interesting point that I hadn't thought of. IPs become so charged with whatever feelings players project onto them that impressions of the game itself can be distorted.

It's possible that the only people who will end up playing Dust are people who love EVE universe, not people who like shooter gameplay.

I'm hoping that in Dust's case it's so fundamentally different that it's easier to separate the two than, say, EQ1 and EQ2.

Do you think SWTOR would be significantly harmed if Bioware had bought the rights to call it SWG2 and then designed the same game they are now? I guess it would.

Mike Darga said...

Actually I guess the answer is obvious, because they tried to do the opposite and co-opt the Old Republic IP in a new setting. Relying on people's love of that franchise seems to be starting them off on the right foot.

Yeebo said...

Great read, and thanks for the bump.

It certainly must be a lot more painful to have to decide which users don't matter after a game launches. One current example is the PvP crowd in LoTRO (or so I suspect). It was always a side game, but there was a subset of users that liked it. In fact I'm part of an oddball guild that was founded by hardcore PvP fans.

Mines of Moria Rendered PvP pretty much pointless from a freep perspective. The gear you get out there is harder to achieve than almost any other gear set. It also now has the worst stats of any endgame gear set by a wide margin. Worse, the gear has zero radiance, which makes it utterly useless for endgame content. Finally, PvMP has gotten content zero content updates or adjustments in the last year.

The strength of LoTRO has always been solid, immersive PvE. That's certainly why I play it. The guys playing purely for the PvP had to be a tiny minority of users, and I suspect that the last year has been Turbine's way of subtly encouraging them to look elsewhere so that they have a more cohesive audience.

Mike Darga said...

Oh, interesting. I haven't been following LOTRO recently but yeah that sounds like what's happening.

PvP in particular is one of those features that you need to really support wholeheartedly or just cut IMO. It has too many implications on class balance etc.

Eolirin said...

Though to be fair Mike, LotRO's solution is much less of an issue when it comes to things like class balance, since you played as monsters when you were pvping (and only when you were pvping), which basically makes that a non-issue...
You can balance to pve and then modify the player monster stats to match that standard without there being any dysfunction.

It's kind of a shame that they're stepping back from that, because it's a really unique pvp mechanic, and you can do an awful lot with it conceptually.