Friday, February 20, 2009

Game Design and Target Market (part one)

Let us begin with the most popular target market of today’s game industry: the casual gamer. By separating the word casual from the context let us try to have an idea of who this people are, or try to understand the true nature of this target market.

Dictionary definition of the word casual: “Not showing much CARE or thought. Not showing that something is important to you.”


So from that simple definition of the word CASUAL we can deduce now that this is a market that does not CARE about games, and games are not very important to it. This means that this market has other forms of entertainment that weigh higher to it, no matter how hard you try to shove brilliant games in its face, it accepts them with a nonchalant attitude.

I like to compare it to a man going after a woman already in love with another man.


This, however does not go to say that this is not a cost-effective market to pursue. This market is the largest target market there is. Nintendo for example, has shown us that it is in fact a very lucrative market. But the effects it will leave on the industry in the end is just as broad as its large customer base.

The present dormant and lacking atmosphere of the game industry is as a result of the pursuit of the casual game market. And it will get worse with time if not immediately addressed.

I also like to compare it to porn. Porn is probably the highest selling genre of film. I want you to imagine the entire Hollywood pursing this very lucrative market.

The result as you know, will turn out to be very insane. It will completely halt creativity. It will destroy the movie industry as a whole, but they’ll be making a lot of money at first.


The same way, I want you to picture the entire game industry publishing similar titles to what Nintendo is doing today. It does not encourage forward movement in terms of true creativity. What Nintendo is releasing today is almost totally 90’s style games. Just relax and take a closer look. It is pulling the industry backwards.

This is supposed to bring us down to the clash of profitability and creativity, a topic that I will leave for another time.

But now we know that pursuing the casual game market ushers in more cash and leads to backwardness in the game industry.

This is the most financially rewarding market, but we have seen its acute disadvantages. Also notice that I’ve kept using the words “forward movement” “Progression”, which is very different from growth in this context.


To increase in size does not necessarily define progress. An Obese man grows in size according to his continuous intake of unhealthy food. That this man is big does not mean that he is healthy. The results of his wrong food intake will only play out in the future.


Just like a healthy man requires a balanced diet to be healthy, in the same way the game industry needs to achieve a balanced system of game development. This I will break down in the following pages.

Now, keeping healthy is something of an effort. You need to accept some practices that are not very pleasurable to you, like exercise, vegetables, etc. The same way the game industry is like an organism, and I care about this organism. There are things I will say, which will sound unpleasant to some in the industry, but I believe they are things that must be said.


There are things I will say which a few may not agree with, but I’ve been following the game industry with an analytical eye. I believe I know what’s wrong and I want to contribute what I can to providing a soultion.

I was going to wait until I’ve proven myself with a shipped game written or directed by me in order to gain the industry’s confidence, but time waits for no one.


Due to the rampant number of casual titles today, there are a lot more people playing games today who weren’t playing games in the past. The game industry may be financially bigger today, but this does not define progress.


Let me give you an example of progress. The last time we had progress in the game industry was in the days of the Playstation debut. I had been playing Street Fighter and Mortal kombat on Super Nintendo/Sega Genesis a lot and there came talk of these new games on arcade. I read about Tekken and Resident Evil and eagerly looked forward to seeing these games.


The day I walked into the right arcade, the first thing I saw was Law pulling off the knuckle grab on Nina…I was dumbfounded, speechless, helpless, and awestricken. That my dear developer, is progress. And then I looked the other way and saw Taki doing a knife grab on Siegfried in a Soul Edge duel.


To prove my point of a stagnant game Industry, what different was the recently released Soul Calibur IV from the Soul Edge of many years ago? What different are games of today from that of those days.

And to return to our original line of discussion, everyone knows that porn is extreme but I can assure you that both casual gaming and hardcore gaming are also extreme practices in their own rights. And the question now comes, if casual and hardcore gaming are extreme then what market should the game industry basically pursue?


The game Industry’s average target market

Notice that I have used the words Game Industry, and not the words Game Developer. It is okay for a 3rd party developer to solely pursue after either the casual or hardcore market, or both.

But a hardware company and 1st party software publisher like Nintendo or Sony pursuing after any of the two aforementioned markets would be totally wrong, as Nintendo is wrongly pursuing the casual market today. You’ll make a lot of money, but you’ll seriously harm the industry in the end.


Now back to our question, what should be the Game Industry’s primary target market?

All these years I’ve always heard game developers mention these two extreme markets and waited patiently for the single normal market to be mentioned…which is the Intermediate Gamer. This now takes us back to our dictionary.

Dictionary definition of Hardcore: “The small central group in an organization or a particular group of people who are the most active or who will not change their beliefs or behavior.”


That definition gives us an understanding of the hardcore gamer. He is the most active. He is unbending and has a very high expectation of games. This gamer is very advanced.

To this gamer, gaming is serious business and is approached very passionately. Also notice the word “small” in the dictionary definition. This is obviously the smallest target market, and at the same time carries the potentials of being the most massive market. I’ll break all this down as we go on.


Just like the casual gamer who will rarely attempt to purchase difficult games because games are supposed to dance to his/her tune, the hardcore gamer will almost never attempt to purchase a too simple/easy game, because games are supposed to provide a high level of challenge/competition. Notice my use of the words “rarely” and “never” in this paragraph.

These attitudes makes this two group of gamers extreme. From our little analysis we can now see that this two target markets are limited, due to the fact that there are certain expectations already printed in their minds, which strongly dictates what they will and will not purchase.


I will now like to mention that the hardcore gamer however, is still the most rigid. A lot more rigid than the casual gamer; which is a negative quality. Remember the dictionary definition of this group: “who will not change their beliefs or behavior.”

But the casual gamer, just like the intermediate gamer, is more flexible, in that he can still easily be swayed or influenced to purchase a hardcore game. If a hardcore game comes out tomorrow and it’s very good, the gaming community will talk about it and promote it.


This will cause both the casual and intermediate gamer to want to check out this game. These two groups have limited knowledge about games so most times they are just following the crowd, they are novices, they’ll go and pick up a game in the store if there’s a buzz about it.

But this does not work in the reverse because the simplistic nature of a casual game alone is enough to completely repel the hardcore gamer. This is why I pointed out the fact that the hardcore market has the potentials of being the most massive market. Because it can carry the entire casual and intermediate market along on special occasions.


This only happens on special occasions because it only takes an outstanding game to do this. Tekken is a very complex game but casual, intermediate, and hardcore gamers alike love this game. I noticed that most casual gamers preferred to use characters like Eddy, with whom you only need to tap random buttons to pull of a streak of crazy moves.


So, ways that the game can be made accessible to the casual gamer can come in many other forms apart from an easy mode setting. Easy to control characters, weapons, items etc are also ways to consider reaching the casual player after the main design of the game has already been achieved.


It is important for us to now take note of the fact that the casual gamer is negatively extreme and has the highest potential of ruining the game industry if given utmost attention; (which is presently ongoing) Whereas the hardcore gamer is positively extreme.


Let me explain this, the hardcore market still manages to foster creativity and progression, thereby encouraging forward movement of the industry. Since the demands of a hardcore gamer are very high and advanced, it pushes developers to work with a more complex and progressive mindset, thereby coming up with new ideas and creative solutions.

The rout to original ideas is hidden deep within the intertwining corridors of the maze called COMPLEXITY. Note that complexity is not actual difficulty, but seeming-difficulty. It’s all about executing a complex game idea in a simplistic manner.


For example, I have a brand new idea for how weapons should be reloaded in shooting games, which would eliminate the one button reload system that’s currently in vogue.

Developers with a casual-game-market mindset would discourage such a thing, stilling any complex sounding ideas from surfacing at all, thereby stalling the progression of the game industry.

Though from my own understanding it is the direction of the IP owners and managers and producers etc, it’s a shame that almost the entire industry pursues after casual gamers today. Again, the clash of profitability and creativity, a separate topic I will address in the future.


Were it like this in the 90’s, games like Tekken and Gran Turismo, Virtual fighter, Tomb Raider, Super Metroid etc would never have surfaced. But these were very innovative and creative games. And judging from the list, these were all intermediate/hardcore titles.

Even though they were complex and challenging, they were still accessible and enjoyable. Most of these games were key in ushering the game industry into its next level at the time.


Giving utmost attention to the hardcore gamer however, means that only highly skilled players will be able to tackle games, (there’s only a few of these people) which would also in the same vein, ruin the game industry, mostly in terms of profit. But this works in the reverse when you develop a hit hardcore title, because you’ll be making far more money than the casual and intermediate market alone could ever generate.


So what makes the hardcore market extreme is that it ushers in more creativity and progression due to its advanced nature, and less finances, which is also not healthy for the game industry.

So what we’re looking for is balance.

I’ll use the example of a hill. If getting to the top of the hill were the goal, the casual gamer sits lazily at the bottom of the hill, the intermediate gamer is balanced at the top of the hill while the hardcore gamer has reached the top of the hill but is descending the other side of the hill.


Dictionary definition of Intermediate: “Having more than a basic knowledge of something, but not yet advanced.”

It’s a very ordinary definition for a very ordinary group of gamers. This market is not by any means the largest market and because of its ordinary nature is invisible to the eye. This target market is just slightly bigger than the hardcore market.

Anything extreme tends to stick out or protrude which is why the focus has always been on the casual and hardcore markets. While the intermediate market is balanced in the middle, the other two lean to opposite directions.

I’ll use the illustration of three men walking into a reception for a job interview. One of them is tall and is putting on a jacket and shorts and has a crazy haircut.


The other is a midget, while the third is your every day guy in a suit. Now anyone that walks into that reception immediately notices the tall guy and the midget; why? Because they are out of the ordinary, they are extreme. The every day guy in a suit will only be noticed when it gets to his turn for the interview. This has been the case with the Intermediate Gamer.


As a writer and game designer that I am, and prospective developer, I know that I am a hardcore gamer. It is of course not a shameful thing. But this fact actually affects the way I design games, but because I am conscious of it, always want to see from the intermediate gamer’s point of view whenever I do my game designs.

So as a game designer, it is important to know what kind of gamer you are, and learn to adjust your mind while you design games. Although every designer should be able to design a game that appeals to the intermediate gamer, I highly discourage something like (which I know is ongoing) getting a mentally hardcore designer to write a casual game.


They’ll mess it up. Call someone like me to design a casual game and you’ll almost be throwing away your money. All this talk about a designer being able to multi task and tackle different genres of games is quite wrong. But there may be rare cases, though. This branches us into a new topic.

2 comments:

Arinze Orjiani said...

Mind blowing. Sometimes I actually think you are from a different civilization. Dont get me wrong, personally I've tried to write a piece on the role/path of IT in this fast paced world. I know, I know what to write but each time I open up a word processor and begin like this...India is going to take over the world, am stuck. You are simply awesome and should keep up the good work.

U. Collins Okonkwo said...

Hey, thanks Arinze. I was starting to ask myself if anyone even reads the article.

And if they do, it baffles me why they are not commenting.

And about writing on IT when you get started and get stuck like that just take your time and keep thinking about what you really want to analyze for the next couple of days and you'll connect from a totally fresh angle. Trust me.