The spectrum of game audiences

Most articles and books about games give a certain skewed image of our audience, the gamers.I can’t claim to know what most developers believe but from interviews and articles by some of them I get the feeling that we’re looking at a polarized view of game customers from the developer perspective. This could mean serious trouble for games.

By a polarized scale of gamers I mean that in almost all the interviews and articles I read there seem to be exactly two types of gamers. Hard core (or ‘gamers’) and casual (web games, wii and soduku). Anyone will quickly realize that there must be some space in between these two, but I think most people underestimate the scale of this… eh.. scale.

It’s always hard to categorize people, who all have different habits and ideals, but in this case it really isn’t that hard because the games industry have spent years defining these two groups.
Hardcore gamers are players that spend a lot of money and time on games. They buy the newest consoles and really consume games.
Casual gamers are players who would rarely define themselves as gamers. They spend time with really short games with little effort in preparation. Mostly they play games online but for the last year some of them have bought a Wii. Common for them is that they spend very short amounts of time on games and waste little time getting their entertainment, browser based games work better then downloadable and so on. They also spend only small amounts of money on gaming at any one time (micro transactions).

But where are the middle spectrum gamers? Who are they and how many of them are there? Well, statistics provide us with some answers here.

The Playstation 2 became a mainstream machine before the current generation of consoles were announced. Sony’s machine has sold something like 120 million units.
The current generation consoles, ps3 and xbox360, have together sold something like 40 million units. There is a gap of 80 million possible costumers who’ve still to adapt to the new technology.
Now according to our scale, what kind of games consumers are in this gap?
They’ve chosen NOT to buy the new exiting technology and instead hang on to old and outdated games. These are not hardcore gamers, they are also not casual because they do buy consoles. So who are they? In between gamers?

For another piece of the puzzle lets look at online gaming. Sadly it’s hard to find conclusive statistics on players from casual gaming sites. So the closest I’ve stumbled over is the least casual type of online gaming. Massively Multiplayer Online Games.

World of Warcraft, the most successful MMOG in the western world, currently boasts over 11 million subscribers. It has been online since late 2004 and had over a million players by 2005. It grew really quickly and has had many millions of subscribers for several years. Now we can’t know for sure what WoW’s churn rate is (churn = players dropping off – new players). But a somewhat safe bet is that it’s at least around 5-10%. That’s a lot of players.
That means that over the years WoW has had at least 20 million players. And most of them never saw end game content. That means that most gamers played the game without reaching hardcore goals, that should make them casual gamers in the polarized scale. But they’re hardly casual gamers in the sense of browser based games and non investment if they’re playing WoW are they?
No, these must also be in between gamers.

These in between gamers are actually an interesting bunch. Because if we do a quick search for games that target this demographic we’ll find only a few. One of the most famous, if not the most famous, is Sins of a Solar Empire – a spectacular RTS game by the way – that specifically targets PC gamers that used to play games but don’t care to make hardware investments to be continuously shot as cannon fodder for the ruling game elite (hardcore gamers).

An even more surprising move with Sins is that is completely free of DRM. It has no copy protection what so ever. Compared to another current RTS game, World in Conflict, Sins opted for use of ‘old’ graphics and easy to use installation as well as a really cheap development cycle.

Even without the copy protection Sins has outsold World in Conflict by a longshot. And WiC is a fantastic game.

From the statistics I so lightly touch upon we can deduce that somewhere in the range of 20-80 million “in between” gamers are out there. They are not being actively pursued by the games industry. From my quick look at Sins and World in Conflict we can also see that they are not as prone to piracy as the hardcore demographic. They are in other words; ideal game consumers.

Here the skewed image of our gamers set in. We’re not catering to a large part of our target audience. We’re simply creating for the top percentage of players and hoping the rest will follow suit. We need to focus on this hard to define group of people, let’s hire a marketing company to seek them out. Let’s give a million dollar budget to a small studio to make a mainstream game just to see how it turns out at the stores. Let us at least acknowledge that this part of our audience is important.

If we aim for lower specs, go for gameplay that has proved to be fun and make a small but good game. Sell it for a reasonable price and make it as easy to buy as it is to pirate. Not only will we make a game that will sell, we’ll probably be more or less alone in a 20-80 million strong demographic part of the gamer spectrum.

This is a huge mistake on the part of our industry. Someone at EA or Acti/Blizz should realize that.

(please comment for improvements or information)

Capturing the Online Games Market

As I posted about earlier the web 2.0 applications are forerunners to a new type of game development market that is opening up online. Namely online games of which the flash games are currently most famous and seems to be the default platform in the foreseeable future.

Two large companies are apparently aware of this development as Ubisoft and Garage games have both already started delivering for the platform. While Garage games game platform is a closed network that relies on a plugin download they already have advanced 3D games up and running. Visit InstantAction and have a look.
Ubisofts upcoming Heroes of Might and Magic: Kingdoms might be delivered through flash, but it is to early to tell will HOMMK.

Time will tell but if I were a large publishing house today I’d try like hell to push Adobe to release open GL or direct X support with flash.

Read the previous post for more on the point.

Web 2.0 and twitter especially

If you’ve missed it by some chance web 2.0 applications are taking over the world. Not only are over a billion people online more or less constantly but more and more people are using web 2.0 apps to do work and day to day tasks.

This is a market that is a lot bigger then the games industry and since it is rapidly becoming the default state of entertainment (190 million users visit youtube each week) more game developers should be aware. Raph Koster is aware of this and is receiving flak and praise from around the internet, his latest discussion that we are loosing ground against flash games can be found here: Koster: “The web is kicking the console industry’s ass”

This might seem extreme to a lot of gamers and game developers but it is really where games were going all along. Games spearheaded the invasion of application for the PC back in the late 80ies early 90ies. Now the same people who saw the benefits of digital offices are moving these applications online. Why shouldn’t games be online as well?

And NO, a 6GB download for an MMO is NOT an online game.

Before flash releases support for 3D acceleration we’re stuck using plug-ins that most people wont download or 2D games that just aren’t as impressive today as in the golden age of NES.

But in the mean time, check out Twitter and Remember The Milk and maybe you’ll get a clue as to what the industry will be doing in 5 years.

I’ll post about games that are already taking the plunge later today.

Wii problem? meh…

A lot of reviewers and gamers are starting to complain about a problem that was obvous over a year ago. There are no games for the Wii.

I don’t understand this, I love my Wii. I love it as much as I love my Ipod. I look forward to turning it on, listening to the gloing-gloing theme, and messing around in the menu and settings. I use it for at least 5 minutes a month and it was totally worth the never, even once, cut price.

Well, I’ll be off now. I’m busy playing games and watching Blu-Ray movies on my PS3…

Another line of work

So, after encouragement from Ole Herbjørnsen at Funcom, I’ve started playing World of Warcraft again. This time with the aim to max level a character and analyze the various systems I find on the way.

Now I’ve played WoW at least four times before. And the start of this character was no different, it was boring. Really boring. But then at around level 15 something previously unknownst to me happened.
I was enjoying myself!
Not the actual gameplay though, the fighting and grinding was still boring. But I started enjoying traveling through the world. The world itself in WoW is quite beautiful with it’s five year old graphical style and the vastness and continuity of it really got to me. But instances and fighting… Let me give you an example:

Last night I had planned with a few of my friends to play Wailing Caverns, a horde instance in the barrens. It is the second instance for players playing the more colorful horde side of WoW.

But after dinner I found myself procrastinating, a lot. Even doing dishes!
Eventually my girlfriend Caroline prodded me:
“Weren’t you supposed to play an instance with the guys?”
“…yes…” *sigh* “do I have to?”
“erh… I’m not sure you should pay for this game.”

I did play WC, I did enjoy doing something with the guys. But I’m glad I have a few hours yet before I have to do it again. The basic gameplay in MMO’s has got to change. Not many people can actually enjoy the one-click combat.

Duke Nukem or Prostitution games?

According to Kotakuit seems like Duke Nukem Forever will actually launch. This year. Seriously.
Wouldn’t it be awesome if this game launched, sold 10 million copies and was the best shooter ever? Every publisher would have to rethink their strategies and developers worldwide would be stunned.

A friend of mine was very recently made Junior Game Designer at Avalanche, I was talking to him today when he mentioned a discussion he was having on games about difficult subjects. Really difficult. He was playing with the idea of creating a game about prostitution or pedophilia. He was struggling with the problem that he’s learned that games are supposed to be fun. And making prostitution or pedophilia fun might not be everyones cup of tea.

I’ve been having thoughts about this for some time and I think that Raph Koster seems to be on the same track as me. Games don’t need to be fun. Most games on the market aren’t fun, think about gears of war or Mass Effect. They aren’t fun, they are entertaining for sure, but not fun exactly.
Maybe it’s because we still use the name games that we’ve narrowed our scope to just fun, maybe we should call it interactive entertainment instead. The term sums up our industry a lot better, Brain training is not fun, but it is entertaining.
Games, or interactive entertainment, should be engaging.

And nothing is stopping the most heinous acts from becoming engaging, give a player a perfect control and the order to perform a gruesome act they will quite possibly do it. But they will quite possibly also experience completely different feelings than fun. Hopefully at least.
But to let this happen we need to let go of all the bells and whistles we are using to create fun today. Maybe rape should not be awarded with points. Maybe it shouldn’t be awarded at all. But should we shy away from letting the player do it? Certainly not. We are after all, trying to engage peoples feelings and thoughts through our art, and they must perform the actions.

This is interactive entertainment after all!

Media disinformation

After the recent Fox/EA debacle I have been thinking just how far from the mainstream media the games industry really is. This is certainly not the first time a mainstream media gets it wrong. Sure we are still a form of underground culture but as a media form we should be a lot more prominent then we really are. Lets look at some numbers, in a recent lecture by Raph Koster he claimed that Youtube had a 190 million users each week. By contrast the second mostly sold console ever, the ps2, sold just above 100million (around 130 I think).

Now this are just two numbers and I don’t claim they paint an accurate picture about the state of the games industry as a media form. But I think most gamers meet this attitude of “what? games? you mean children’s toys?” pretty often.
We might be using a lot of money for our hobby, but I think we have to face that games just aren’t mainstream yet by a long shot. Sure, World of Warcraft broke down a lot of barriers. But that was just a first step for games into the world of media, or what do you think? Am I just rambling here?

I think everyone can enjoy games, what we lack is accessibility to the gameplay (less fiddly controls to perform functions) and a wider and perhaps more mature content set (no? a shooter with burly men and only you can save the world? how original…).

Let’s push more games into mainstream. Go Buzz! Go Singstar! Go Brain Training! Go.. Peggle? (It really is awesome)

EA defending developers and games

Yes it’s true, EA has stepped up and defended Bioware’s Mass Effect (a quality game like few others) and requested that Fox corrects their slanderous lies about their product.

Not only is this an action I can endorse and be happy about, media should never try to censure other media, but it is also a sharp kick in the teeth to all those hardcore gamers out there that haven’t quite understood that companies like EA do a lot of good for the industry. Regardless of what you think of them. Don’t believe me? Who else could say this to Fox?
And for that matter, who else (yes I know activision-blizzard can, but they’re hardly a month old company) could manufacture a product like spore?

Lets applaud EA and hope they win against the ignorant media censureship of Fox, then we can discuss originality and innovation. Let’s win recognition first.

Media being educated, about media?

When I saw the Fox broadcast starring Geoff Keighley, a utter quack and a very biased reporter I was outraged. Media condemning media based on complete ignorance? I foresaw a new age of darkness ahead of us.

But then a light appeared at the sky, gamers and Internet freaks mobilized and did this:
They spammed the quacks book with poor ratings and included reviews that where clever satire of her own blatantly dumb remarks on the Fox broadcast. While I doubt that this will have any effect on any of the involved parties (perhaps Geoff will receive more love from the community for some time) it will almost certainly be visible in some media. Some, maybe not mainstream but it’s a step in the right direction.

I can’t endorse destroying the sales of a persons livelihood because of stupid remarks that person made but I feel proud to be part of the community that actually does something about what they see in the world. Voices for the people are heard on the Internet, we might not be entering dark ages just yet.

Feedback and rewards in games

I’ve had a few comments asking about game design jargon. Namely what feedback and rewards are, in a recent blog I used Assassins Creed to prove a point about how important feedback is (what would Altair be without the accurate climbing animations?).
I only want to have to write this post once so I’m writing it in English.

Feedback is the single most important factor for creating FUN in a game. Really, it is. Don’t believe me? Let me explain:

When a player interacts with the game that interaction much be shown, if the player does not see or hear what they did they wont understand that they did anything at all and stop trying to do it. Simple eh? It means that anything you do must have an effect, and it must be a relevant effect. This applies to everything in a game, from jumping and shooting to solving the puzzles and completing the game. The word feedback is usually applied to mechanical events (rock hits ground, pistol fired, foot placed on floor etc). But this is a form of reward, actually the type of reward that matters most; When you defeat a boss or finish a level you expect there to be some kind of reward, if there is none you might feel cheated and not want to play another one. But if you lack feedback from your actions nothing in the game will feel worthwhile. If you press jump and the avatar does nothing, or something less then what you expect, you’ll most likely think the controller or the game is broken.

There are as many opinions about good design as there are designers, but so far I’ve yet to hear anyone propose that feedback is in any way less then essential. That’s why its called feedback and not reward, though it actually is the same thing.

Rewards do not have to be tangible (gold coins or a wolf pelt), in the real world most rewards are soft values. A smile or a handshake is often more rewarding then winning a few bucks. This applies to games as well, some designers just seem to forget or are unaware (read: incompetent). These soft values are how we create the feeling of the game. Making sure that jumping in Mario games or climbing in Assassins Creed feels right usually means making sure that the feedbacks, or rewards, are logical and in scale with the action (leap of faith must feel more rewarding and therefore give more feedback/reward then jumping).

Now you know how feedback and rewards are linked together I thought I’d end this short text with a real problem for modern games today:

Jumping in a cartonish game, for example Mario or Jak & Daxter, feels exhilarating because the reward, or feedback, is much more then humans anticipate. This is why its fun.
But in a realistic game, such as Assassins Creed or Gear of War, the feedback must be precisely what humans expect or the illusion of realistic human characters is broken.
So how do we make that as fun?… 🙂