game design to connect with and understand your audience

game design to connect with and understand your audience via @Laralyn

Continuing to find and save interesting twitter threads that can be useful for the game design community, with this thread on game design to connect with and understand your audience via @Laralyn.

Original Twitter Thread: game design to connect with and understand your audience via @Laralyn

EDITED Twitter Thread: game design to connect with and understand your audience via @Laralyn

A key part of game design is connecting with and understanding your audience.

Who do we expect will spend money on this game?

That should be one of the first questions you ask yourself. It can come after a fun, simple prototype, but it ultimately shapes everything you design.

Once you've figured out who you expect will spend money on your game, study those people like they were the first visitors of an alien species.

game design to connect with and understand your audience
game design to connect with and understand your audience

What other games do they play? What genres? Business models? Platforms?

What do they watch on TV? What movies and music do they love?

When we first started working on Free Realms, it was a team that (except for me) had mostly worked on EverQuest their whole careers. EverQuest was (and is) great, but it's super complex, even for hardcore adult gamers. And Free Realms was for family and kids, as young as 8.

My first rule for the design team: In Free Realms, you shouldn't have to use a calculator to figure out which pair of pants to wear.

After we studied the audience a bit, the second rule from me and the art director: In Free Realms, it’s OK to wear wizard robes OR to wear jeans.

game design to connect with and understand your audience
game design to connect with and understand your audience

I worked with marketing to get life-sized cardboard standees of an 8 year old boy and girl, and a 12 year old boy and girl. Once a month, I posted the latest demographic trend info on each of them. And I put them en route to the bathroom, so the whole team saw them regularly.

Once we had enough game that it would give usable results (which, BTW, is always earlier than you think it is), we conducted weekly playtests with kids, where we were in a separate room watching on a monitor as they struggled with our designs and layout and controls.

Attending at least two playtests a month was a hard requirement for designers on Free Realms. Attending at least one playtest every few months was something we asked of the entire team, regardless of discipline. I watched as they absorbed how differently kids played our game.

And of course we gathered metrics, starting with beta and then upgrading our capabilities as the game went live. Again, approach it like observing an alien species. What are they doing? Why are they doing it? What do they do next?

But remember that your interpretation of the metrics is based on your own experiences–at least in its first iteration. You're looking at data and extrapolating causality, and that extrapolation is naturally and heavily influenced by your subconscious personal biases.

An example of unconscious personal bias influencing the interpretation of metrics:

We had long sessions but slow leveling. We thought there was a design flaw. What's broken in the system?

Nothing was broken. Kids just spent more time chatting and showing off pets and outfits.

It took several months to figure out that kids spending WAY more time being social was the root cause of slower-than-expected leveling.

More important, we spent dev time solving the wrong problem. The actual solution we needed was not better leveling, but social leveling.

So everything I just said is about how to adjust your process and your mindset when you start to make a game for a different audience. Here's the biggest takeaway I can give you:

Even if you're making a game for traditional hardcore players, everything I said still holds.

I used to start every new game project by reminding my design team that we're not normal people. We don't buy the same things, watch the same things, play the same things. Our entire POV is skewed by what we do for a living. We see through the surface game to the rules beneath.

So even if you're thinking, "Hey, my goal is to make a game I'd want to play, so no studying required!" this still applies. What gaming demographic are you? Example: female, 25-30, spends 12 hours a week playing games, mostly competitive shooters, streams on Twitch.

Then start your research. There are paid resources available with marketing demographic info, but you can also study it yourself. Do a deep dive. Be open to discovering things like even though you personally don't read romance novels, your demographic actually does!

When you have something playable, find a way to discover people in your target demographic and ask them to play your game and record their sessions somehow (or at least use a webcam to record them talking as they play). Really listen to their feedback.

As a designer, there's no feeling quite like the moment when you see a brand new, unbiased playtester enjoy something you fixed based on watching previous playtests. That's the core loop of design brought to life: player need > feature > player happy. 💕

Originally tweeted by Laralyn McWilliams (@Laralyn) on March 23, 2021.

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