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Getting to know your microconsole game's audience Exclusive
Getting to know your microconsole game's audience
August 29, 2013 | By Christian Nutt

August 29, 2013 | By Christian Nutt
More: Console/PC, Smartphone/Tablet, Indie, Exclusive, Microconsole

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 Controllers

As 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."

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E Zachary Knight
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Based on what I have read and seen of the Ouya, I would say the best audience to target is those who enjoy local multiplayer. At least for the time being. That is what is selling and getting attention.

Bram Stolk
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I think it would be a risky proposition to focus too much on local multiplayer.
Yes, the ouya is perfect for it.
But I estimate that a lot more people play alone than with friends.
OUYA's installed base is already small, dont make it smaller by targetting it to multiplaying customers.

Peter Eisenmann
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I agree with both of you - singleplayer is required, but I believe it is possible to have games massively optimized towards multiplayer.
Just market them as party games, like Mario Party/Brawl/Kart, and you're good to go. Having a dedicated multiplayer category in the Ouya store would definitely help here too.

Still, I believe there is an even bigger and largely untouched potential in multiplayer games on tablets - what more fun for students than to bring their expensive gadget to school and have a duel with their friends? Big advantage of course you only need one device and one game. Back in the Game Boy days, it was damn hard to find someone owning the same game if you wanted to play anything else than linked Tetris (which was a blast btw)

m m
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I want to argue the idea of marketing a multiplayer optimized title as a party game specifically for the example you cited.

Do you think Nintendo could have seen the success of Mario Party if the Super Mario Bros "skin" was not covering the gameplay? Personally I doubt it. They couldn't have created new characters or had ambiguous "player" characters and still sold that series successfully. So how does Ouya manage this without a flagship franchise? Branding is HUGELY relevant to console sales. (Not that it's irrelevant to other markets.) As blatantly corporatist as this may come off, I think the Ouya needs to worry a lot more about finding its brand than pushing for any particular style of gameplay. A good brand is nebulous. Nintendo has shown how the Mario franchise is a gameplay chameleon, shifting from platforming to 3D adventuring to party game to kart racer to fighter to RPG. You name it, Mario's done it.

In short, Ouya's success as an open platform may necessitate a first party studio with an eye toward branding in order to prop up said open platform. After all, it's almost by definition that an open platform will probably produce a wide variety of eclectic software. From a gamer's standpoint, this is sorely needed int he world of console games. From a marketer's standpoint, how the hell do you brand something without that all important recognizability factor, that anchor of familiarity.

There had to be a Super Mario Bros FIRST, for there to be MarioKart, Smash Bros, Mario Party, etc. Likewise, with microconsoles, there has to be an anchor of familiarity on which to stabilize the ever shifting open development platform before you can really begin making calls about how to approach gameplay styles in a deep and meaningful way. After all, the first step to analyzing your customer base is to GET a customer base.

Peter Eisenmann
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I thought about this as well; that the brand sells the games. It is definitely true to an extent. But think about the WII launch. WII sports was in a way the ultimate party game and did not have any well-known characters. Sure, it had lots of other things going for it, and was sold with the console itself. It would be interesting if it would have gotten even bigger popularity if it had had Mario characters. I believe Nintendo decided against it not for technical reasons, but to reach an even bigger audience, to go away from the "kiddie" stuff.
Seems that by now, they have given up on that and will continue to create Mario and Zelda games as their top sellers :)=

Back to topic, I doubt it's possible to create a huge brand name for Ouya, it's just too niche for it. Still, I am optimistic that good FUN multiplayer games will get some attention. We have Youtube, Lets Plays, word of mouth etc.

Mac Senour
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I think early adopters are always hard core game fanatics. When it takes off, THEN the market takes shape.

James Coote
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I think it's the other way around. OUYA and other microconsoles need to go out and chase the casual or kids/parents or whatever other market if they are ever going to get beyond early adopters

Bob Johnson
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It shouldn't be too hard to get to know your audience on a micro console. YOu can probably invite both of them over for lunch.

Sorry couldn't resist. I hope they find an audience and enjoy some staying power. Nothing against these things. I just am not feeling it.

Harry Fields
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Hahaha. Well played, good sir... well played.

m m
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In the first par tof this article it was acknowledged that microconsole games are primarily ports from the mobile market. In the second half, it describes the demographic microconsoles are aimed at as being "not casual gamers".

... Seems there's a little mutual exclusivity at work here, though I could be wrong.

I really like the idea of a more open platform. I was among the more vocal of my friend-set this last generation of console games about the deleterious role legacy publishers have played in the world of software development. But in my rejection of heavy handed publisher involvement in game creation from a consumer standpoint, I also acknowledge a need for filtration and quality control. It strikes me that a console like the Ouya wouldn't just benefit from a little gentle gatekeeping but may actually need it for its survival.

This is a market that frankly may not even exist. It's a bold gamble and I wish all who participate in it only the best of luck as this could be the move that shakes things up in the established market. But I'm not convinced micro consoles have a niche here. When your primary software offerings are things you were getting for free on new grounds or came built into a device you already needed, like a smart phone, I am skeptical that you can convince people to pay ANY price for additional hardware. Think of how devastating it would be if smart phone manufacturers caught onto this trend and suddenly put hdmi out ports on smart phones and developed an app to interface with a standard blue tooth controller.

The argument of exclusives holds some water, but I fear the container is a dry rotted tarp with holes in it. Exclusives are a proven seller in the triple A market, but consoles like the Ouya exclude any traditional notion of triple A development by design. It has yet to be seen whether micro game exclusives really have that big an impact of a console's sale.

If it sounds like I'm being harsh on this emerging (?) market, it's only because I care. I really like the idea but I fear we've seen products designed and brought to market that may not have been thought out very well, and that's all it would really take to sink this ship fresh out of port. Gamers are a strapped consumer base. Their hobby is expensive and increasingly so. They expect a lot for the price, and I think they are absolutely justified in these expectations. Where exactly does the microconsole fit into this frame work, or how does it expand the customer base? How can you bring a product to market if you don't already have at least a vague idea of this?

m m
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A final argument I'd like to make is one of stability. Console gamers may not have necessarily thought about it in these terms directly, but a big part of the experience with a home console is that it is as near 0 hassle as can be possible. Although the complaints of "constantly having to upgrade your hardware" and fiddle with drivers arguments console owners will make of the PC platform are largely exaggerated, there is some truth to it. In the same way that the cemented architecture of the console platform includes an element of enhanced stability and near %100 software compatibility, the routinely more robust PC platform achieves its remarkable flexibility at the EXPENSE of ease of use.

My point is that console gamers inherently EXPECT a console to be a zero hassle bargain. But what did we see on launch day with the Ouya? Software/hardware compatibility issues! So how does the Ouya balance this essential need for flexibility if they are to be a portal for open development, witht he expectation of stability from their customer base? Once again, micro consoles are not forging their own market but trying to compete with existing markets that are already well established and this is not a good position to be in. The type of person who accepts or even LIKES the "hassle" of working with their rig to achieve ideal performance already has a pc and is largely already SOCIALIZED against consoles. The opposite is true of console owners.

So again I ask, who is this console for? Who is this MARKET for?