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Losing the Audience: Building the Wrong Game
As a concept evolves into the initial design document at the very beginning of the design process, the first step in creating a product out of an idea is to identify an audience for the game that you will build. While it is sometimes tempting to create your own dream game, almost invariably you are not the audience that you're designing for - or at least not the only audience. Like it or not, the pure "gamer" that many of us have always been is just a fraction of the market now. Building a game just for gamers, or even worse, just for ourselves, isn't going to work for our companies or for our paychecks.
In the initial stages of the game's development, you will lay out the basics: the product's genre, setting, mood, and subject matter, but you will also define the target platform, age group, rating, and perhaps even gender. The second set of factors can be as important as the first when you are making the initial design decisions for your game.
The game's target platform will make many decisions for you, and will be the most important to the programmers on the team as they determine how they will develop the engine and tools. When evaluating platforms, you must look at both the experience of your team and the set of tools, art, and library code that may already be available. Starting from scratch on a new platform will certainly extend timelines significantly, and that increases the burden of anticipating the game's audience and its competition. The closer your project's ship date is to its initial design, the better prepared you will be to assess and capture its market. It's also important to remember that timelines will be stretched more for a new platform than for an existing one: the tools that you will be using to build and test a game and the libraries that the engineers use to interact with the system may themselves be undergoing revision while you work for newly-released (or unreleased) platforms. Multiple-platform development presents a number of difficulties, as well. All of these make your target market less clear, and that means that your design itself will be less focused.
Not only does the target platform significantly affect the limitations of your game design and the timelines for its development, but it also has a significant impact on the type of game that you should consider making and the age group and the rating that you aim for with the product. Nintendo's audience, for instance, is typically younger than Sony's. New platforms will be adopted first by an older age group than will eventually constitute their overall market segment. If you think that these trends aren't important, you can look at the disappointing results for games like Conker's Bad Fur Day (Nintendo looking for an older market on the N64) and Portal Runner (3DO releasing a title aimed at younger audiences on the PS2 - a platform that still didn't have many young players) despite a number of good reviews for both games.
Where platforms are concerned, it's also not a bad idea to look at interface. Console players expect simplicity in their interfaces, while PC players are more accepting of more advanced controls. This is one of the reasons that keyboards never seem to establish a foothold as peripherals for console systems.
Jane's AH-64D Longbow, a PC flight simulator that I worked on several years ago, had enough controls to fill an entire keyboard. Did that damage the game? Not at all. The game's design took into account the platform and target market, knowing that PC flight simulator fans expect accuracy and aren't afraid of a lot of controls. While Longbow made an excellent PC game, taking such a complicated game directly to the console market wouldn't have worked out as well. That's not to say that a different version couldn't have succeeded (and there was talk of this), but the sheer complexity of a game like a flight simulator creates difficult design choices when approaching consoles and their controls.
Jane's AH-64D Longbowhad enough controls to fill an entire keyboard.
exactly the problem that was faced by the teams who ported Wing Commander
to consoles: too many controls for simple control systems. To address
this, two different approaches were taken by the development teams for
the 3DO version of the game and the Playstation version. Wing 3
3DO went for simplicity, cutting features and systems to the bare minimums
necessary to play the game and still get essentially the same experience.
The team knew that we had a very limited number of buttons to work with,
and we decided that we could sacrifice some of the PC's extras (such as
power configuration, takeoffs and landings), to keep the controls as simple
as possible. As far as 3DO products went, Wing 3 was well received,
and garnered some excellent reviews. The Playstation team took a different
approach, attempting to stay as close to an exact replica of the PC game
as they could build. This approach meant a lot more controls. Granted,
they had a few more buttons to work with, but they had to exercise a lot
of creativity to push all of that functionality into one little controller.
The results pretty much matched the effort: people felt that their game
was more true to the original product, but it was considered much more
difficult to play. If you are attempting to appeal to the larger audiences
that products demand in today's market, you're not going to find nearly
enough Wing Commander players to sell to, and that many controls
may be intimidating to a large portion of the audience.
Flight simulators and Wing Commander games bring up another important point: niche markets. If you are designing a game for a niche market - strategy games or military flight sims, for instance - then you are already reducing the size of your potential market. The initial question that you must answer as a designer, then, is how you can push your product away from the fringes of the market and back towards the center. The simpler the concept and the broader its appeal, the more you can stretch the market and the game's success.
Your choice of platform obviously plays a big role in your initial design. As I've mentioned, it can also affect the target ESRB rating for your game, and these ratings have become a big consideration for big business - including for Sony and Nintendo when they are evaluating your submissions. While you may be able to slide a bit in either direction as you develop the game, establishing the product's target rating will define your audience much more clearly. While an 'E' (suitable for every age) rating may mean that your product is truly intended for every age, it still may mark your product as a "kids' game" for some consumers. (The notable exceptions to this are sports games, which don't generally contain any objectionable content and can readily earn an 'E' on the box.) On the other hand, you'll have a much harder time selling a game to younger players when there's a 'T' (teen audiences) or an 'M' (mature audiences) on the box. The rating on your box will also affect who will carry your game, as some stores won't carry games for mature audiences, and that's exactly the wrong direction to go when you're talking about expanding your audience. Setting your rating goals early can prevent some serious headaches later. Game features with long development times, such as FMV, are going to be awfully hard to replace if you suddenly decide to change your rating at the end of the development process, so err on the side of caution when designing features that may impact ratings. Of course, your game concept will most likely limit your possible ratings in the first place. (It would be difficult to make a good horror game with an 'E' rating, for instance, and making a game with popular cartoon characters doesn't seem sensible with any of the higher ratings in mind.) Whatever your goal, it's never best to limit your product or market too much with the initial ratings decision. Aim for the middle, and you'll have a lot more options for a bigger audience.
Expanding the audience can take another direction, as well: selling to more markets, rather than to a broader U.S. market. International sales can introduce further demands on your design. Germany - a big market that is still growing - has some stringent guidelines on blood and violence. Asian markets will mean that your game must support non-standard character sets for localized text. If you're going to distribute in multiple countries, pay attention to the expectations of those markets when you're laying the groundwork.
The design of a game and its features should be evaluated against the guidelines of your audience before anything else. Since design is responsible for these decisions much of the time, you should be aware of your audience throughout the development process.