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Designer Suits: Incorporating Marketing into Game Development


December 8, 2005
 

Have you ever tried to design a video game while wearing a suit? Doesn't work. The moment you don that matching slate Armani you become a "suit"– your imagination is instantly limited to sequels of licensed '70s TV shows and clones of titles that were popular and groundbreaking two years hence.

The problem is that there's always a "suit" with an eye on the bottom line that will want to muck with your design. Armed with sales figures and focus tests, he threatens to steal the soul of your game. His intentions are good – he wants to make sure the game sees financial success – but his relationship to the game design is antagonistic rather than collaborative.

Here's a suggestion: do his job for him. As a game designer or artist, you are in the best position to architect your game's marketing effort. If "marketing" refers to the entire process of creating a product with respect to the eventual consumer, game design is the seed of that process.

A Marriage of Necessity

This article describes how a production-level game designer or artist can incorporate marketing ideas into the game development process, illustrated by our experiences in the independent gaming industry at Reflexive Entertainment and Pocketwatch Games – and specifically with two of Reflexive's recent titles, Wik and the Fable of Souls and Big Kahuna Reef. Wik has been the target of much critical acclaim, but has not yet met Reflexive's financial goals. Big Kahuna Reef was very well-received by critics and has also done very well for Reflexive financially.


While well-received by critics, Wik and the Fable of Souls has not yet met Reflexive's financial goals.

As a small developer, Reflexive doesn't have a large, independent marketing department, and so we are forced to perform game design and marketing functions simultaneously. This marriage of necessity ensures that we keep our eye of the goal: converting potential customers into actual customers.

As a game designer, it's easy to forget about improving the experience for the target market in favor of making a "better" game for yourself. Small developers like Reflexive usually don't have this luxury, and in countless ways, the increased focus on the consumer streamlines the game design process. This focus can scale to larger teams as well: we argue that every element of commercial game design should be prefaced with the phrase "With Respect to the Target Market."

Identifying the Target Market

The most important decisions are made before you even start designing your game. Who are you targeting?

Why is identification of a target market so important? Many of the big corporate successes of the retail industry in the last 50 years are companies that narrowed their focus: retail chains like Interstate Department Stores that narrowed their focus to become Toys ‘R Us. There's an old marketing adage that says that if you can't be #1 or #2 in your market, don't bother. Identifying and narrowing your market focus will help to ensure market leadership.

Can this lesson apply to games as well? Laser-targeting a niche (as long as potential sales in that niche can justify costs) will improve community, provide a vocal fan-base, increase the value of your company's brand, and provide justification for sequels. Having a narrow market focus also narrows down the competition. Best of all, creativity flourishes under constraint – designers can create content with respect to the target market that is wild and unique.

Large publishers like Electronic Arts use data from NPD Interactive Entertainment quarterly reports to ensure that they have desired genre coverage. For a smaller company searching for underserved niches, perhaps typical genre descriptors are not always wise indicators of market segmentation. Redrawing the imaginary boundaries of market segmentation will help to make your game unique. Having a concrete understanding of those redrawn boundaries will help to constrain your design.

Of course, if your company has the budget, team, and schedule to create a game that is the market leader in a large, well-known segment, such as MMORPGs, that's great. But more likely, you only have the budget, team, and schedule to emerge as the market leader in a more constrained market: for instance, community-oriented, young, female, RPG PC gamers.

Is this example market big enough to justify costs? About 15 percent of World of Warcraft players are women (York Dispatch). There are 4 million WoW subscribers worldwide (GameSpot). Barbie Fashion Designer (arguably a role-playing hame aimed at young women) sold 500,000 copies in its first two months (womengamers.com). Those numbers describe a pretty big market of young, female PC gamers who enjoy role-playing and community, justifying a significant budget. Is that budget large enough to create a game that better fits this market than Barbie Fashion Designer or World of Warcraft? Good question.1

Converting the Fabled "Ex-Gamer" Market

Just because you've identified the market and built a game that suits that market doesn't mean the game will succeed financially. Some potential customers are harder to convert than others. With Wik & the Fable of Souls, we made the mistake of targeting a market that – by definition – did not buy games. Wik was designed to target the “ex-gamer.”

Other titles from Reflexive do not suffer from this problem. Ricochet Lost Worlds and Ricochet Xtreme manage to appeal to casual and hard-core gamers alike. Big Kahuna Reef appeals to a segment of the Bejeweled crowd with its simple core gameplay and fun aquatic theme. These markets are composed of people who seek out games and are comfortable buying them.


Big Kahuna Reef appeals to a segment of the Bejeweled crowd.

Unlike Big Kahuna Reef and the Ricochet series, Wik & The Fable of Souls has very little trouble with direct competition. It is a rather unique platform game with a very distinctive artistic style and an innovative control scheme. It has no trouble dominating its own category. But the "ex-gamer" market is very difficult to find and convert.

This market is typified by players who were once passionate about playing classic arcade games and console games in their younger days but no longer have the time to invest heavily in video games. But they do love challenging skill-based games on occasion and don't mind somewhat of a learning curve to develop the skills because they understand the payoff of mastering arcade game skills. Unlike the typical casual gamers, the ex-gamer loves competition and wants to be challenged. He is likely to dismiss cute and colorful games in favor of gritty and edgy themes. For this audience we created Wik.

We have no idea how large that market really is and have no distribution channel that can get their attention. Wik was much more a game of passion and hope than a game developed for a proven market. We made the game we wanted to play. We hoped that there were many other people like us out there who would want to play this game.

The game is a perfect fit for the audience we designed it for. It won 3 awards at the Independent Game Festival and received numerous glowing reviews. The only problem is that we have found it very difficult to reach that "ex-gamer" market.

We still believe they are out there, but they are not the type of people who spend a lot of time looking for game. Because of this, Wik has not yet met the financial goals we had for the product. There is a light on the horizon, though. Perhaps we will find a receptive audience with the upcoming Xbox 360 Live Arcade version of the game.

Design to Fit the Market

What we've talked about so far may seem obvious, but market awareness is often sorely missing from commercial game design. Many designers focus on what will make the game a "better" game for the designer, rather than a "better-fitting" game for the customer. This section will discuss how to create a "better-fitting" game with respect to the target market.

The interactive nature of video games intertwines them with their audiences more extensively than other, more passive art forms. An author might write a book without thinking of who will be reading it. But designing a game should be like writing a love-letter: the art is in how the words interact with the eventual audience.

You may not be aware of it, but you probably use a combination of inductive and deductive reasoning while designing a game. In order to create a "better-fitting" game, let's discuss how to harness these two types of reasoning to improve the experience for the target market.

Inductive Design – Define Your Core Market

Inductive design looks at market trends and assumes those trends will hold true for your product – a design methodology less politely known as “stealing,”“cloning,” or “ripping off.”

Inductive design takes advantage of existing market segmentation – “cloned” features innately appeal to a quantifiable market. Gamers will understand these features without having to actually see them; they already know why they like these features.

Inductively-designed features are often best received when they don't come from direct competitors. Jak 2's free-form vehicle based city didn't have to be as interesting or fun as it's inspiration, Grand Theft Auto 3. What's smart about this design choice in Jak 2 is that it recognizes a market overlap between 3D platformer enthusiasts and GTA players: casual, action-oriented gamers that enjoy a broad variety of gameplay and character-driven story. Jak 2 unlocked a large adjacent market segment and moved away from direct competitor, Ratchet and Clank.

Inductively-designed features are likely to define your core market. Since these are features that customers can recognize at a glance, your inductively-designed features will align your game within the broad market spectrum. Wik & The Fable of Souls may have struggled partly because the core gameplay concept was not easily communicable to the target market.

Deductive Design – Better-Fit your Market

Like inductive design, deductive design takes proven features and assumes their value. However, deductive design breaks down the popularity of proven features into the elemental behavioral patterns of the target market and pieces these gameplay atoms back together to form features.

Deductive design focuses on the question of "why?" Why does a typical member of my target market enjoy "feature X?" Why do mystery novels appeal mainly to many women? Why do cartoons appeal to children?

Deductive design also focuses on player behavior. Does a typical customer in the target market like to be challenged intellectually? Do they like to click the mouse a lot? What is the ideal balance of challenge, frustration and reward? Looking at the RealArcade top ten data for the weeks between June 15, 2005 to October 26, 2005, one will see plenty of action-oriented games on the list, but games that force a player to move due to time pressure rarely crack the top 5. Perhaps a game intended to sell to RealArcade customers should make the player feel like they playing an action game without the stress of constant threats typical of other action games.

Deductively-designed features will narrow your market focus and serve to "better fit" your market niche.

You'll need to keep the balance of design philosophies in mind when responding to feedback from customers as well. Feedback from customers within your target market can be responded to literally, while feedback from customers outside of your target market should be broken down and reframed in the prism of your market focus.

Deductive Design in Big Kahuna Reef

The casual games market seems to have a never-ending appetite for "match 3" games, but Bejeweled and Bejeweled 2 are the undisputed champions with way too much momentum for them to give up the #1 spot in the "match 3" category any time soon. To make a successful "match 3" game, you must find a sub-category to try to dominate.


Bejeweled and its sequel sit atop the "match 3" category of games.

Big Kahuna Reef is designed to appeal to players who like a fast-paced game without too much thinking or challenge but love to have goals to accomplish and want to be rewarded for each accomplishment. Every design decision was made with these goals in mind.

Through experience with Ricochet Lost Worlds, we know that many casual game players like to have an endless supply of new levels to beat. The levels don't have to be challenging to be enjoyable. Many players enjoy continual progress rather than challenge and improvement. Even if a level was somewhat easy to complete, it is still rewarding to accomplish something and move on to the next level.

Some players prefer the style of "match 3" found in Bejeweled where the board has no significance and you focus on pure "match 3" play as you try to beat your best score. Other players prefer the more goal-oriented approach used in Jewel Quest. We never tried to outdo Jewel Quest or Bejeweled by making a “better” version of their game.

Many design decisions would have been made very differently if we were trying to make a more strategy-oriented "match 3" game. Every time any decision came up we framed it in terms of what a "goal-driven, non-competitive action player" would want to play.

One example of how we designed around our market is the escalating sound effects played when the players makes two or successful moves in rapid succession. These sound effects continue to rise and build higher and higher as more moves are made.

Some games such as Zuma use similar escalating sound effects when “combos” are made. Combos are moves that cause chain reaction. Combos can sometimes happen by accident but are often the result of strategic planning. In Big Kahuna Reef, a combo will cause the sound to escalate but just making two unrelated moves in a row will also escalate the sounds. The point is that we reward rapid play rather than strategic play. As long as you can make another move every 6 seconds, the sounds will continue to escalate and the tiki totem pole will continue to rise to the top. We deliberately chose to reward rapid play rather than strategic play. Many players find it very rewarding and addictive.

Conclusion

Overtly identifying and designing around your market may help to improve the video game industry as a whole. Entrenched market divisions can only be shattered by games that violate accepted rules but still achieve financial success. Daniel Cook, Senior Product Marketing Manager at Anark Corporation provides this analogy in his insightful blog piece, “A five-step program to move beyond the game geek culture” (www.lostgarden.com):

Two kids walk into a store and ask for candy. The guy at the counter only has sour candy. One kid loves it and the other one doesn't. The kid with the sour tooth comes back the next day and asks for more. Heck, he even invites some of his friends that also like sour things. The statistics? 100% of children who purchase candy love sour candy. Can you blame them?

The population of existing genres is derived from a very small genetic base. This base was historically built by programmer-designers for people who have tastes that are similar. The 8 or 9 dominant genres are the sour candy that the industry is built upon.

In order to shift or expand existing market definitions, a game designer must be aware of his target market and empowered to shape his product's marketing. As much as we can talk about how games are art (and they are), understanding how and why a person is compelled to buy a game will make a game designer's art a more powerful piece in the eyes of the consumer and will help to sell creative designs to the public.

The video game-buying audience has expanded greatly in the last 10 years, but it has the potential to be much bigger. Without an understanding of our potential audiences on behalf of those building the games, our art form will not progress. Identifying and narrowing a market focus will help to ensure that creative designs will end up in the hands of consumers, and their money will end up in your pockets.

 

Suggested Reading

22 Immutable Laws of Marketing by Al Ries & Jack Trout, HarperCollins Publishers, May 1994

The Purple Cow by Seth Godin, Portfolio, May 2003

 

End Notes

1Marketing is not an exact science – even the best marketing departments engage in a healthy dose of speculation.

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