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Correcting Core Confusion
by Chris Toepker on 04/15/13 01:28:00 am   Expert Blogs   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.


Improving game design and marketing requires more clearly understanding consumer segmentation. All too often we in gaming rely on simplistic and regularly-changing definitions and understandings in order to direct our work. Here is a simple way to start the conversation: a helpful core breach for our enterprise, if you will. Engage. 


Consider for a moment how much other industries spend on breaking consumer groups into definable segments. Whether electronics, appliances, movies, TV, fashion or food, each of the big players easily spend tens of millions of dollars to understand their consumers. The understanding provides in-depth descriptions of lifestyle habits, monies spent, trends appreciated, personal aspirations and ambitions, and so on. Notably, the understanding is holistic, it is not merely focused on people's consumption of a particular product or service.

The segmentation allows companies to better the design and usability of the products themselves, and equally importantly better understanding enables improved marketing and communications. Take Philips or General Electric for example. The electric shaver, toothbrush and appliances are not changing rapidly. However, these companies are sure to spend when it comes to segmentation research. Perhaps more close to home, consider movies. Picking the right weekend to launch takes segmentation into consideration. Putting it simply, think of it this way: if you’re launching an action movie this week, how many of your fans have already seen the Bruce Willis movie last weekend, and are ready to come see yours? Likewise, where do your fans spend their time and what are they looking at (e.g. magazines? billboards? online? Etc.?) Bingo, you know where to reach people who will appreciate you. And what should you be saying when they glance your way? Again, segmentation studies provide revealing information.

 As we scratch the surface here, who else feels frustrated that we game makers rely on buzzwords like “core” and “casual,” or the latest addition “mid-core”? Do we even share a common definition? And if we do, what can these labels tell us? How can they help us direct and develop better games? Reach and communicate larger and better audiences? How does our segmentation compare with practices in other successful industries and businesses? In my humble opinion, we have much to learn.

For a basic example, what can a picture of “mid core” really tell us...?

Casual, MidCore, Core gamer spectrum

We need to breach “core” buzzwords and develop a more useful picture.

 In my experience, a “core gamer” is a shortening of “hard core gamer.” It refers to players who spend both time and money on their game or games. In addition to time spent playing, they also spent a lot of time preparing or anticipating. Once upon a time, these were the players who prepared the dungeons, painted up the figures, gathered the players, ran the sessions and even provided snacks. These days, it’s the players who read up on the levels, the multi-player maps, delve into The Forge, author mods, know all the stats for all the weapons, run the guilds and so on. Of course, they bought the game and usually buy the downloadable content as well as evangelize and get their friends to play. They become the center of a community that they built, and as a result, often wind up feeling they own the game as much as the publisher or designers. Naturally, they are more dedicated to a small(er) set of games. After all, they have a lot invested in their chosen entertainment, both in terms of time and money.

 In this sense, the “core gamer” is just like any other “hard core” fan. Take sports. “Core Fans” attend all the games, know the players’ stats, who is on the injured list, who is on the first string and so on. Likewise, they travel with the team for away games, subscribe to mobile apps to watch the games, buy jerseys, caps and so on. They are loyal to a small set of teams and maybe a player or two, largely because of the time and money invested in their fandom. Likewise for fashion or food or cars and so on.


So, what would a “mid core” fashionista be?! Does it tell us anything useful about how a fashion house should design the fall collection? Or market it?

Let's attempt a new map, and a new name for the segment.

Simple segmentation for Mid Core

In my experience, “mid core” gamers spend a wider range of money than hard-core fans. The range reaches nearly as high, but is weighted down by a bigger segment of players who spend significantly less. Even more defining is the significantly smaller amount of time spent with the game(s). Keep in mind, it is not just the playing, but includes activities indirectly involved with playing. Another contrast is that they are not as loyal to particular games and switch quite regularly.

 Considering all this, I tend to think of this group as “boosters.” Again, like sports or band boosters, they are considerable fans. However, they do not quite go to the same length as their hard-core counterparts.

 How can this understanding help us in our daily approaches? Let’s turn for a moment to marketing.

 Put simply, “core gamers” are best reached and communicated with using PR. By giving them reasons, tools and methods for gathering their friends to your game, you empower their activism and evangelizing on your behalf. Giving them recognition and rewards only makes the relationship with them, your best customers, all the more solid and mutually helpful.

 On the other hand, “boosters” require advertising. By putting your game in front of these players, and focusing the message to attractive key features, you stand the best chance that they will pay for aspects they appreciate, whether buying the game outright or in F2P micro-purchases. How do you focus the message and be single-minded in its communication? What communications channels should you choose to reach these players? What marketing communications tools should you develop? Two answers: first, deeper segmentation on the potential fans for your particular game. Second, be prepared to face the truism: “I know half of my advertising budget is wasted, I just don’t know which half.” To be sure, I am not advocating you prepare to waste your budget! Still, even in today’s world of digital platforms and plentiful data, you need to spread a wide advertising net. As you begin, especially if there isn’t sufficient understanding of your segment(s), there is bound to be some ads misplaced or similar missteps. 

 Isn’t it possible to migrate players from being “boosters” to being “core”? Of course it is. However, it’s important to be realistic about this. In the normal course of fandom, how many games, books, movies, characters, fashions or anything else can anyone be truly hard core about? If your business plan is to migrate a large portion of “boosters” toward being “core,” you probably need to take a moment and think that through. It will likely take a larger budget and longer time than you are imagining. 

 What about “casual” players? There is a lot of room for deeper understanding here as well. If “boosters” and “core” fans are like adamant movie goers, “casual” is similar to cable TV. There is a huge audience, and it is fragmented into a million channels and programs. It is possible to make great games and have great business, but it means you must completely understand the niche segment you want to serve, and reach them as directly as possible. In this, and put extra simply, consider the successes of the farm, truck, train and so on simulators.

 Casual gamers are an even bigger swath

Going just a bit further, we can also use these sorts of simple segments to understand why transplants may or may not work in other countries. For example, in China, players get involved in games that by all appearances are casual: reguire little engagement or differentiation between game worlds, characters, interaction and play. However, they are willing to spend quite a bit of money on them! Why? Segmentation will tell us.

PRC segmentation first glance


As we further understand our game-making enterprise, understanding player segments and realistically addressing them with designs and marketing is key to avoiding a “core breach.” There are many lessons to be learned from other industries, whether in entertainment or more mundane businesses. Here’s to taking them to heart!


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Robert Marney
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I like it! It's interesting that a lot of the F2P and iOS market consists of people in the bottom right quadrant, for whom we really don't have a name.

Roger Tober
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I guess that would be soft core.

Curtiss Murphy
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Teehee. Soft core gamers.

Chris Toepker
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Glad you like it, hopefully it's useful...even if just in starting the conversation on "who are we serving again?"

As for the lower right, I expect that it's a stretch for us all to come up with names for folks who enjoy the games, but don't spend. After all, while we're in entertainment, it is still a business. No?

Returning to segmentation for a moment: believe it or not, while at one company (who will remain nameless to protect the innocent) we started with a segmentation that didn't take spending into account! After that little detail was integrated, a group that was thought to be a leading consumer turned into "wannabes" because they were active and vocal, but didn't buy.

So, even if it's a stretch perhaps we can again turn to other media and think of them as "viewers"? Or to pick up Roger and Curtiss's suggestion, maybe "dalliers"?

Bob Johnson
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I think console gaming has people in the bottom right quadrant as well. There are gamers out there who really only play Madden for example. Or just play CoD. They might spend a ton of time in those games but that might be their only purchase.

Ramin Shokrizade
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I'm close to being ready to publish an algorithm that will explain what is going on with "midcore" games. These games have a lot of what I call "communal" effects in the form of competition. They also are patently unfair in the way they are delivered, at least if they use models such as Kabam or Kixeye use where you can buy game content and progression at will. This causes what I call "the fairness quotient" to go negative. The two factors interact like this:


The higher the engagement created by competitive effects, and the more negative the fairness becomes, this creates a negative feedback loop that forces engagement to approach zero. This is why your consumers appear to abandon games quickly. This is not the fault of the gamer, but the fault of the game design. Also, the players in these games spend less than hardcore gamers not only because they are not hardcore gamers (HC are repelled by these designs), but because these games are generally of lower quality than the games that attract more sophisticated HC consumers.

Chris Toepker
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Thanks for comments. When you publish, I would love to take a further look!

For my two cents, I am not sure the effects can be totally attributed to the factors you're following. So, while I admit that the fairness factor can contribute to the engagement downturn noted and I'm sure the algorithm will describe it well, I take a more psychological/sociological view overall.

I mean, there are plenty of "hard core" fans of Honey Boo, no? To explain it, shouldn't we assume that "quality is in the eye of the beholder," and therefore algorithms and Nielsen ratings reveal only so much?

In short, I am attempting to encourage deeper looks into and understanding of players to better design and business, and in that I am certain we agree. It appears our difference is that I am encouraging it no matter what the players' taste or appreciation of "quality" might be. In that, I look to Barnum who said both "Nobody ever lost a dollar by underestimating the taste of the American public," and "I don't believe in duping the public, but I believe in first attracting and then pleasing them."

For clarity's sake, I am a fan of the quality you're assuming and endeavor to achieve it in products I work on. However, I also recognize it is not necessary for business success.

Bob Johnson
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I like the chart. But I think where someone falls in the chart varies from year to year or month to month or console generation to console generation.

For me, gaming time and money spent ebbs and flows depending on my other entertainment options and the release of new interesting fresh gaming experiences. And an 8 or higher on Metacritic doesn't correspond with my interest level either.

Also are hardcore gamers more shallow? There are gamers out there who buy everything and play a little bit of that everything. Never really playing anything all the way through. Just nibbling on everything. Yet because they play a little bit of everything their gaming time is way up there as well as their money spend.

But that is much different from the hardcore gamer who might buy 10-20 titles a year and play all of them all the way through. And then some.

Put the hardcore nibblers on an iOS gaming diet though and their money spend drops a ton because they can nibble for free. ;)

Chris Toepker
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Indeed, there is no absolute place where someone will always fall every single time. Instead, the chart is in relation to how much time and money you spend on a particular entertainment choice (e.g. a game).

In this sense, the chart is not meant as a "be all, end all" evaluation of entertainment or gamers. Instead, it is meant to help designers, developers and publishers see through buzzwords that often fill meetings and negotiations. By trying to make the coolest new thing for "mid core" players (whoever *they* might be) we all miss the chance to really engage with a group of player we could truly entertain.

Using myself as an example, I am "hard core" on only a couple titles (these days its "Wargame: European Escalation" and "Far Cry3"). I am playing all the way through, completing nearly all the missions, buying DLC, rallying friends to play and so on. Meanwhile, I am a "booster" for a plethora of titles. Overall, this makes me a "core gamer" (as compared to a "core moviegoer"). This is comparable to those who closely follow a particular sports team, but also check the box scores of all the others. Or a fashionista that knows the latest designs by one house, but buys socks and underwear at Target.

The point is, in understanding *your* hard-core audience, you can fine tune both your design and marketing, making for better play (for that group) and better business (for yourself).