Making your Game Speak to an Audience

in Tips and Tricks

Now, I’ll be the first person to say to design the game you would want to play, but let’s be honest here, if your goal is to make a game for others, you are going to have to put some effort into trying to figure out who you are trying to appeal to.

Different audiences have different tolerances for different things in your games.

For instance, let’s look at mechanics. Some time ago, I had an argument with a person over resource management in video games. He hated them, to the point that he said while he couldn’t come to the conclusion they were universally bad, he was looking into a way to prove it.

Now for him, resource management was nothing but a hassle. It wasn’t “gameplay” it was just busy work. But think about this: What would the survival horror genre feel like without inventory management?

Do you know how angry I got every time I picked up an item and it autoshuffled my inventory? (Image from Resident Evil 4 by Capcom)

Do you know how angry I got every time I picked up an item and it autoshuffled my inventory to make it fit? (Image from Resident Evil 4 by Capcom)

See, for him, it was unforgiveable, while to the survival horror audience, the game doesn’t even feel like the same GENRE without resource management. Every story and mechanics decision you make in your game should be filtered through one lens: How does this enhance my game for my target audience?

The RPG Audience

I know what you are thinking now: But Nick, I’m making an RPG, that is a single target audience right? Well not really. I mean, first there is the wRPG/jRPG divide. Not saying you can’t like both (I do), but the target audiences for them are actually different. But even INSIDE those, I want to look at three different jRPG franchises:

Final Fantasy vs Dragon Quest vs Megami Tensei

These are three of the most popular jRPG franchises currently being published, and while they have a lot of similarities, even they are aimed at slightly different audiences.

Dragon Quest IV: Chapters of the Chosen by SquareEnix

Dragon Quest IV: Chapters of the Chosen by SquareEnix

Dragon Quest holds as the most traditional of the three. “Old School” style mechanics are at the forefront, the gameplay is still turn based, it still has “standard” equipment slots: Weapon, Armor, Helmet, Shield, and only just recently has it introduced a way to gain skills in any way other than just straight level. The stories tend to be more all ages. Visually it is usually very high color contrast and cartoony.

Final Fantasy VII by Squaresoft

Final Fantasy VII by Squaresoft

Final Fantasy tends towards more innovative mechanics, every game after five for instance has a completely different way of learning skills, and it went from turn based, to ATB, to CTB, and then kept innovating after that. The stories are aimed at probably early teens and up. Visually, Final Fantasy tends to go towards higher end console graphics with an anime visual style.

Shin Megami Tensei: Nocturne by Atlus

Shin Megami Tensei: Nocturne by Atlus

Megami Tensei’s mechanics are more traditional generally than Final Fantasy, but more innovative than Dragon Quest. The mechanics tend to focus on difficulty. It’s stories are usually the most mature of the three, though still I wouldn’t put it above mid to late teens and up. Visually Megami Tensei isn’t as high end as Final Fantasy usually, but also usually evokes an even more anime visual than Final Fantasy.

As you can see, target audience can be VERY specific. (For that matter, there is a bit of a difference even inside the franchises. Persona 3/4 fans can be pretty different from SMT: Nocturne fans)

So What Do I Do With This?

So, take what you have of your game, and try to find the audience that matches it. Then you can use that audience as a sounding board for certain mechanics, story ideas, and visual style.

Get out there early and find people who like the things your game is doing. Ask them questions! Find out what they find and what they find bad.

Does this mean sacrificing your vision? Not really. Sometimes you can stumble upon something that doesn’t normally work but does in the specific context you are using it in. Don’t be afraid to go against the grain, but be AWARE of what you are doing and why you are doing it.

Every audience is different. That is why some people consider Final Fantasy VII the best game ever and some think its horrible. Find your audience and speak to it.

What audience do you think your game is speaking to? Have you tailored any mechanics to fit that audience? Or maybe you just want to say what audience you feel you are in and what things drive YOU up a wall in a video game. You can join the conversation below in the comments!

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • I don’t agree. I think you will find more enjoyment as a developer/ hobbyist being honest to yourself and your hobby/ practice. Pandering to the masses, albeit niche group masses, drives the “no-social-function” vehicle.*

    Also, the notion of “audience” is a problematic construct. Aren’t audiences transient and fickle? Aren’t genres just categories made to be broken? Isn’t it usually the case that worthwhile things create an audience whatever they are and not the converse: worthwhile-thing-seeks-appropriate- audience/ genre?**

    I feel this making-your-game-speak-to-an-audience mentality is why there are so many beige clones in the gameworld and so few Earthbounds, Space Funerals and Nuign Specters.

    * Why should an RPG have a social function of any sort? Why should a story have a point? Valid questions.

    **this argument is reductive because it is impossible to live outside genre or audience just as it impossible to live outside of fashion. We always have a relationship with it; an anti-audience game, a cross-over title. But if we follow this premise, perhaps you have used a lot of words to say very little. Two can play that game.

    Sorry for being contrary. I’m sleepy.

    • Finding your audience doesn’t have to be the masses. You are arguing against a straw man. I like niche titles. RPGs in general have been niche for the most part with a few exceptions.

      For instance: SMT: Nocturne is not a game for the masses. It does understand its audience though, and it is designed to appeal to that audience.

      Having an audience and trying to find what they want to play has nothing to do with copying everything and making clones.

      Also, Earthbound has an audience. The idea that it doesn’t is absurd.

      • I’m sorry, I think the target audience should be yourself (barf). If other people like it then that is a plus.
        Sure sure “pandering to the masses” is sort of extreme language but the intention of trying to please others is still prevalent in “pandering to the masses” as it is in “appealing to an audience”.
        I meant that Earthbound (et al) didn’t seek to please anyone but the devs and as a result revealed an honesty that was refreshing. Man, I’m not sure where I get such a presumption from. Sorry for being cantankerous. I mean, of course Space Funeral and Nuign Specter both have cult-like followings too but I think they came from a similar place of not aiming to please anyone but themselves.
        Heck to the audience, viva la video game revolution! (As I make another sequel, who am I kidding).

        • Dominik

          I can relate to both sides of the story:
          a) See what people would want to play in a game you design.
          b) Just have fun with your own visions, no matter if others like them.

          Now, I personally think a bit more in the fashion of sir Jack: I wake up one morning, have a stroke of genius (at least that’s what I keep telling myself), sit down, develop the idea and just craft on it until I (!) like it, nay!, LOVE IT!
          I then show it to my friends and most of them go: “Ehh… no. It’s WAY too hard, there’s SO much stuff you have to think about and it looks like an Apple II game…”

          So, I could get discouraged and think:
          “Hmm. Okay, what do you prefer, then?”
          But I don’t. I maybe have those 2-3 friends that say: “Finally someone who understands what I’m talking about!” and I keep creating my vision for myself and them, not the 90% of friends who don’t agree with me.

          I create my audience.

          One of the compromises I can make is to give players the options to really hardcore, old-school mechanics, like perma-death:
          My brother came to me and said: “Wow, I like your game’s vision, but if dying means perma-death, I’m never going to play it!” So, I decided that you can select between “Casual / Hardcore” modes. It doesn’t make the game play differently in that mechanic.
          If he had come and said: “Wow, I hate that you need to eat to survive. That’s no RPG to me!” well, sorry, but that’s kind of my style. I might create a less “tedious” RPG for him for his birthday, instead.

          You always find an audience. The weirder, the better. Because we have plenty of Final Fantasy clones, Skyrim-like clones, Zelda clones. But when was the last time a true Ultima IV die-hard fan got an Ultima IV clone? Or a “Way of the Samurai” fan his “Way of the Samurai” clone?

          What sir Nick said applies more when you require feedback: be it a big smile on your friends’ faces or money from making it your profession.
          What sir Jack and I said applies more when you require your own feeling of fulfillment by expressing yourself: see those strange, pale, sickly looking geeks coming out of their caves to congratulate you for having made their 80s RPG dream come true, after 30 years of having to throw dice alone at home.
          (Disclaimer: sarcasm is to be found.)

  • Joe Chip

    One of the most important things I’ve found with game design is to learn to think critically about games – yours and other’s. It’s not enough to think that you do or don’t like something; you need to understand why. How does that mechanic fit in with others? Does it add or detract? I also try to figure out what the designers were thinking when they came up with a mechanic, though some are so bad that I wonder if they thought about it at all.

    The same goes for every aspect of the design of a game – the UI, art direction, music, writing, etc. I think it’s really important for someone who’s working on any aspect of a game to play through a lot of games, both good and bad, and to deconstruct what works and what doesn’t and why. How would you do it differently?

    Really, the biggest difference I’ve found between games or parts of them that I love and ones I don’t is whether or not the designers have thought critically about what they’re doing, and not just slapped things together.

    Maybe I’m a bit obsessive (I am), but I really think that every part and sub-part of a game needs to be carefully considered both as individual elements and as parts of a larger whole. Think about how bad it is when a game has a font that doesn’t suit the setting – it’s jarring every time you see it. Or menus that have unnecessary steps in them to do common tasks (Ni No Kuni has a lot of that – it didn’t seem bad at first, but after 20 hours simple things like crafting a bunch of sandwiches or giving people pieces of heart were driving me nuts).

    Anyway, those are my reflections.

    • A lot of really good games are good because they only include what makes sense and nothing else. They have a reason for everything they used.

  • Fernando

    How can I give my game to my friends, so they can play it? COuld I send the .exe, via Facebook? Is there a possibility, they can play it on their phones, also?

    • At the moment it is PC only. You can export to an EXE and then send it to your friends.

  • Sarah

    At this point I’m still figuring out my audience. I’d like to think I’m tailoring to New Adult, but with my writing style changing over the years — it really is hard to say. (I do primarily the most social of short science fiction now — unlike in previous years. Funny how things change.)

    Even in game play, I’m not so sure judging based on what I enjoy is good. I have some unusual taste, like game play based on visual orientation, and fleeing mechanics. Actually with one of my stories, it would end up being a bizarre video game console within a video game.