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...?
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.
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.
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.
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!