Getting to know your microconsole game's audience
While it's hard to say who is or is not really the audience of any platform -- after all, an audience is made of individuals, each with his or her own perspective -- it does help to try and understand who might be interested in your games in the aggregate, and how they might like to play. Figure that out, to any extent, and you're one step closer to making a success of your game.
As the emerging Android microconsole market gains traction, developers on consoles like Ouya, Nvidia Shield, or Playjam's GameStick gave us some input about lessons and observations from their experiences with the new platforms. Think of this as an exercise that you may want to emulate when learning who you're making your microconsole game for.
What do they play?One of those important observations is that even though you might be porting over a game that was originally designed for smartphones or tablets, make sure to always keep in mind that you're now making a console game...because people like playing console-style games on consoles.
"More traditional games, like RPGs, shooters, and platformers seem to work really well," says Josh Presseisen, founder and creative director of Crescent Moon games, which has begun to move some of its mobile games over to the Ouya.
Matt Small, CEO of Vector Unit -- developers of Hydro Thunder Hurricane for the Xbox 360, and mobile/tablet title Riptide GP 2, which is coming to the Ouya and GameStick -- feels that microconsoles are a good fit for his titles. "We make racing games, and obviously racing games have a long history on console," he says.
Playing With ControllersAs Small says, microconsoles, of course, are consoles -- their primary interface is controllers. Depending on what direction you come from, they can be a welcome homecoming or a new frontier.
"Controllers are new for us. It's a very exciting area to jump into, as a lot of our games are better played with controllers," says Presseisen. Meanwhile, says Small, "racing games have some very well established conventions on gamepad, so we fortunately don't have to educate players much about how to interact with our games. "
So what do developers need to be aware of when developing for controllers on microconsoles?
"Well, for us, any microconsole game is going to be a cross-platform effort that also supports mobile devices. So the first thing we have to think about is control -- how will this work with a touch-screen UI versus a controller-based UI? The trick is to make both experiences solid, instead of gimping one for the other," says Small.
"Designers need to ensure that controls with a physical gamepad are equally as good, if not better, then say, touch counterpoints. From a user interface standpoint, ensuring that reliance on touch is completely removed is a must," says Roger Freddi of Square One Games, developers of the Ouya port of InXile's The Bard's Tale.
"Moving from touchscreen to controllers may require as much thought as moving from controllers to touchscreen," says Barn Cleave, developer of Chuck's Challenge 3D for the Nvidia Shield. "Therefore, when someone says it will take days, they mean weeks, and weeks will mean months. There is a lot of testing and UI work to be done."
"Mimic the console's UI. For example, what is the standard way to close a game?" suggests Cleave.
How Do They Play?More important but much fuzzier is figuring out how the microconsole audience plays its games. Do they mimic console audiences and play for long stretches? Do they hop from game to game, since many are free-to-play or have free trials?
Developers aren't yet sure.
"We don't have a lot of data on microconsole user behavior yet," Vector Unit's Small says, while Freddi suggests it's simply too early to tell: "Due to the relative novelty of the concept, we don't believe a unique microconsole experience exists as of yet."
"Our assumption is that play patterns are similar to console patterns -- longer, more dedicated, less distracted," says Small. "That probably lends itself to deeper game experiences rather than frenetic rinse-and-repeat type experiences."
The free trial situation presents challenges, however, particularly on Ouya, where a free component of a game is a requirement for developers. "You need to immediately grab [players'] attention with a great experience, or they're gone before you can pitch them on upgrading to the full version. On balance, though, you can't give away too much or they won't see any reason to upgrade," says Small, who has experience with the Xbox Live Arcade audience's reaction to demos.
But there is an upside: "Because downloadable and microconsole games are cheaper and smaller, players probably don't expect as much massive storytelling, and may be open to more experimental gameplay," Small says.
"I don't think it's much different from using PSN or Xbox Live. It's just easier on the wallet," says Presseisen.
Who is the Microconsole Audience?Freddi, again, says it's too early to say who the typical microconsole player is: "At this point, we don't believe the market has spoken to this effect." Small also agrees that it "remains to be seen."
Double Fine's Oliver Franzke, lead programmer on Broken Age, which is coming to the Ouya, says, "At this point at least, I think it's fewer casual players. It's more people who are really, really into gaming and really know that stuff." Small concurs: "My guess is that until one of the microconsoles really takes off in sales, you can expect a more tech-enthusiast audience."
Presseisen agrees, but also suspects that the devices may woo mobile gamers to more console-like experiences -- not the other way around.
"I think it's probably some people just wanting to experience the novelty of a new technology -- even though it's not quite that new. To me, probably a lot of mobile gamers that wanted more hardcore games on mobile would be shifting to microconsoles. I'm not quite sure console gamers would love microconsoles, because they would feel that the quality level isn't high enough."
Franzke suspects the core audience, right now, is so hardcore that they probably are, or want to be, developers themselves: "If you're at home, and you're a programmer type anyway, and you want to program on consoles, I think those people are really the ones who are early adopters right now. So it is very different compared to consoles, for sure."