"Do we make products for ourselves or for our customers?" asked Reid Schneider, EA Montreal's head of the Army of Two franchise, in a lecture delivered at the Montreal International Game Summit today.
Sometimes, the answer is both, he said -- when a certain kind of game is being made: "We should make games for ourselves. We should make games that inspire us, and that we're passionate about, but that's only true if we are the target audience."
In essence, the EA developer noted during the during the Gamasutra-attended lecture: "It's not always about you. It's also about what the market wants."
Schneider recalled an experience he had in college that first taught him the realities of addressing the audience's demands. When he became the "social chairman" of his school's chapter of the Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity, he was tasked with improving the frat's parties.
"The first unanimous request from the guys was that we needed to have more girls at our parties," he said. "I was in total agreement; this made complete sense to me. But the core problem is that our parties were about good beer and music that we liked. It was just for us. We were missing our audience. We were building stuff for ourselves."
"I needed to redistribute capacity and resources," he realized. "It was time to stop spending cash on top quality beer and live music. It was time to start thinking about was spending money on girl-friendly drinks -- anything pink usually works -- and, more importantly, 80s music, because 80s music is what girls like to drink and dance to."
"It was not about us," he admitted. "It was about the market, and the market wanted that. We ended up with lots of friendly women coming to our house and hanging out. It was about changing how we were thinking about the problem."
Game developers would do well to learn a similar lesson, Schneider argued: "We need to marry our creative aspirations with the reality that we work in a packaged goods business." It can be too easy to develop games in an insular environment, where the same influences and taste are reflected and magnified, he said: "If you think about your typical game developer, we're all coming from the same place."
This can have direct, unfortunate consequences, even when making a hardcore game for hardcore audiences. "One of the original ideas for Army of Two was to recreate the 80s buddy action flick in a video game," he said, but "where we really missed the boat was on tone."
"We assumed everyone would find the same things funny that we did, and we were definitely wrong on that," he went on. "We alienated about 50 percent of our market, including Europe. Europe didn't find the same things funny that we did in North America."
That principle goes even further when making games not for the core gaming audience. And, to some extent, the idea of the core gaming audience -- and the average core game developer -- is changing.
More and more developers are getting older, getting married, and having children, Schneider said. At Ubisoft in 2001, the average developer was 24. Eight years later, that average has risen to 30. That shift has reflected the change in average age of gamers themselves. "This is a major shift, not just in how they're making games, but also in how they're thinking about games," Schneider said.
Still, "the hardcore is not dying," he added. "It's actually becoming a whole lot bigger than ever. But there are new markets that can be targeted. Globally, the industry is growing. You need to know who you're targeting, and you should never, ever straddle the fence and try to make something that appeals to everyone. That requires ruthless focus."
Finally, he pointed out -- as everyone now well knows -- that "we are not recession-proof... two years ago, we used to believe we were recession-proof, but we're not," he warned. "We're losing market share and mindshare to other forms of entertainment, and we need to capture that back.
"We should make games for ourselves. We should make games that our exciting to us. But we should make sure we know what the market wants. We need to be prepared to make games that may not appeal to us personally but could be massively successful in the market. If we can make more games the audience cares about, we're going to see the numbers start rising again."