Imaginary Users

So I’m going to attempt to do at least one of my own projects in the near future. Last time I tried this, it ended in failure, but I think I’ve learned a lot of lessons since then–or at least I hope I have. I thought it’d be a good exercise for me to write out some of the specific lessons that I have learned so that I don’t repeat them, so that others might learn from them, and just to think them through a little bit more.

The first lesson is about imaginary users. Originally, I thought the lesson was about chasing “the next big thing,” but after further inspection, it wasn’t the deepest root of the problem. So, when I left my awesome job at Media Molecule, I didn’t have a project in mind. I didn’t know exactly what I wanted to do. I just wanted to do something. I tried a non-games thing very briefly, which just reminded me how much I’ve learned about making games and how little I know about anything else. So I decided that I’d make a game. It was 2009 at the time and social games were just starting to take off. I decided that I wanted to make a Facebook game. This was a mistake, but it wasn’t a mistake because Facebook games couldn’t work, it was because I knew nothing about Facebook games and most importantly, I knew nothing about the Facebook game audience.

We decided to make a game about pet monsters who players could grow and make happy by allowing them to destroy things. How in the world did we decide on such a random game? The first step was to incorporate all the information we had about the Facebook audience. We were told that most players were housewives. So immediately we’re on all kinds of horrible ground. Firstly, this statement isn’t anywhere near true. Facebook games appealed to a huge demographic that included pretty much everyone with a slightly weaker contribution from the male 18-25 year old demographic generally strong with hardcore games. Secondly, even if Facebook games were 100% played by housewives, they do not make up a homogeneous pattern of human behavior. Thirdly, and possibly most importantly, we didn’t know any of the common psychologies or motivations that might be prevalent amongst such a demographic. So basically, we were making a game for a parody of a stereotype.

I think the parody of the stereotype could be subconsciously reasoned along the lines that many housewives have children and enjoy nurturing things. Therefore, we should make a game where you nurture things. However, if you look at the description of our game, that doesn’t explain the whole thing. There are two big things unaccounted for. The first is monsters. The second is destroying things. So where did these come from? They were things we thought were cool. Monsters would allow us to create much more interesting and non-obvious art assets than common pets would. It would be cool for us to make, obviously ignoring what might be cool for our misunderstanding of an imaginary target audience. And destruction, I think it was just a matter of momentum. You’ve got monsters and what do monsters do? They destroy stuff.

At this point, I’d like to highlight the second major crime committed. In addition to actually knowing nothing about our target audience (which wasn’t really a target audience), we created features that were half motivated by our misunderstandings about this not-a-target-audience and half the features based on what we (who are not members of this not-a-target-audience) thought were cool.

A few years later, the creative director of a company I worked at constantly brought up this issue. If you have a particular theme that appeals to target demographic A and a particular type of gameplay that appeals to target demographic B, if you combine them, will you get the union of A and B or will you get the intersection. I think in general, you’re much more likely to get the intersection than you are the union. The way I think about it is that the theme is what gets people through the door and the gameplay is what keeps them there. If someone is only in group A, they’ll try out the game, but hate it. If someone is only in group B, they won’t even try the game out. If someone is in both, they’ll be happy.

So looking back at Monstroscity, which actually didn’t perform as badly as it should have considering our approach, I think one of the biggest problems was having absolutely no understanding of who the game was for. We actually got lucky having a great art style and some decent distribution help through Facebook and Applifier, but the product was fundamentally flawed.

The top level takeaway from this is that you need to understand who a product is for and really understand who it’s for. There are two ways that you need to understand your target audience. Firstly, you need to define what it is that actually ties that group together. It could be demographic or behavioral or something else. Secondly, you need to actually understand them and their motivations. You cannot work on some imaginary model you have in your mind of these types of people might do.

In terms of a solution for this problem, there are many parts (and probably many I’ve yet to learn). Firstly, I’ve learned a lot about how to think about players and design products and features from a player’s perspective. I no longer focus on what would the the cleanest to code or what would be most elegant in some abstract philosophical way. I focus purely on what a player is currently thinking and how to make it most understandable and enjoyable for them. It doesn’t mean making everything easy, but making sure the rules are as clear as I want them to be. Secondly, nothing is really a replacement for watching people play your game and making sure you have all kinds of different parts of your target audience to experience it. And lastly, but most importantly, I’m going to be making my next game for me or at least some aspect of me. It’s too dangerous and time intensive for me to make something where my gut reaction might lead me completely astray.

So I’m going to start building something I’ll love and once I get to that point, I’m sure I’ll be employing many of those I know to sculpt it onto something that isn’t JUST for me.

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