Ludotronics

A Comprehensive Game Design Methodology
From First Ideas to Spectacular Pitches and Proposals

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Why DriveThruRPG? It’s the largest download store for role-playing stuff in existence and you’ll probably end up buying much more than just your copy of Ludotronics. Which would benefit game designers everywhere!

Why not Amazon? For one, illustrated non-fiction isn’t well-suited for the Kindle format. Also, at a €14.99 price point, Amazon’s cut amounts to €9.75. Well, no.

Level Four: An Army of Avatars

Preparation Phase Level Four

Opening

In this level, you will develop a deep understanding of your potential audience. You will need this understanding later in Level Six: Capture the USP, together with your research data from Level Three: Tough Investigations and your value matrix from Level Five: Enter the Value Matrix, to advance your most promising game concept, based on your core element from Level Two: Panning for the Core.

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Beat 1. Audiences

To define your audience, you first need to prepare another data set that holds your game concept’s most vital characteristics. Will it have a strong story? Will it be multiplayer-focused? Will its game mechanics provide a welcome, maybe even nostalgic familiarity? Will it be easy for beginners or hard for everyone? How much of a time sink will it be? Will it be strong on customization or even individualization? And so on.

With that data set, you can build a model of your target audience. You need to form a mental picture of the players who would most likely buy and play a game with these characteristics. Which, again, demands some research. Which platform or platforms would such players prefer? What can you find out about the frequency and duration of their playing activities? What is their physical gameplay context (while commuting, at home, etc.), their social context (alone, with friends or their families, with fellow clan members, etc.), or their psychological context (professional, competitive, ambitious, bored, pleasure-seeking, etc.)? There’s a lot more to ask, so use your imagination.

For example, players interested in a game similar to The Last of Us would display very different characteristics than players interested in a game similar to Threes. (Duh!) The former would appeal to players who play regularly on their consoles or PCs at home, the latter to players who play regularly as well, but on their mobile devices and in much shorter sessions and probably rather en route. The former would appeal to players who like captivating settings and stories and emotionally driven gameplay, the latter to players who love to find solutions for tricky problems. And so on. What other game types they like to play might factor in too. For example, there might be a greater or lesser number of players who like to play both The Last of Us and Threes, and that might turn out to be important for a design decision at some point in the future.

You can work with terms like “core” or “mid-core” or “casual” when describing target audiences, but always follow up with reasonable qualifications for these terms. People have different ideas about what they mean. As of now, video game design dictionaries amount less to reservoirs of systematic and scientific descriptions than to haphazardly accumulated lists of industry lingo. (The definitions provided below try to be systematic, but their empirical veneer is as yet too thin to qualify them as scientific.) Especially if you want to use such terms in your pitch, provide your own, carefully crafted definitions. What’s more, not all terms or term patterns are productive. The pattern hard-core/core/mid-core/casual, for example, has way too many fuzzy “cores,” and the calibration is off—either the difference between “hard-core” and “core” or the difference between “mid-core” and “casual” becomes negligible, and therewith unproductive. (The term “softcore” stayed mercifully buried for almost a decade, but then Bethesda pulled the stake out of its heart and revived it for the E3 in 2018.)

Working with what we have right now, a reasonably productive pattern would be “core,” “mid-core,” and “casual.” We often use “core” and “mid-core” and “casual” as game attributes (as in “a mid-core game” or “a casual game”), but these are just expressions of convenience. They’re not game attributes at all but attributes for target audiences, and they describe a range of behavioral characteristics that games can match, depending on both gameplay and circumstances. Let’s have a look at these terms from the point of view of the Ludotronics paradigm. It’s not altogether different from what other definitions provide, but not a dead ringer in every detail.

  • Core. Players with core characteristics tend to be experienced players with serious skill levels and short fuses for tutorials, manuals, and slow beginnings; they tend to have clear expectations and preferences based on their media biographies and experiences with similar games; they’re probably used to investing sizable amounts of disposable income and personal time into games; and they tend to be focused on challenging playing experiences on the one hand, and quality in one or more of the four dimensions (mechanics, controls, graphics, narrative) on the other.
  • Emerging Core. Players with emerging core characteristics tend to be experienced players with moderate to serious skill levels who might need some guidance for certain kinds of games but not for others; they tend to be open to new experiences because they haven’t yet developed strong core preferences; they’re probably already investing noticeable amounts of time and money into games but are both hesitant and unpredictable about when and where to do it; and they tend to be focused on having meaningful playing experiences..
  • Mid-Core. Players with mid-core characteristics tend to be less experienced players with low to moderate skill levels who need some guidance and acclimatization; they tend to be open to new experiences because almost everything is a new experience; they’re probably willing to invest moderate amounts of either time or money in games but not necessarily both or simultaneously; and they tend to be focused on having consistently challenging, but not necessarily meaningful, playing experiences. In a nutshell, games for mid-core players have to be as engaging as games for core players, but way more accessible in terms of purchase price, skill barrier, and time investment.
  • Emerging Mid-Core. Players with emerging mid-core characteristics might have some experience with certain games or kinds of games but will probably still need considerable guidance and accessibility most of the time; they might be searching for new experiences because neither games directed at core players nor games directed at casual players fit their circumstances or interests; they’re probably willing to invest discernible amounts of time in games but not necessarily matching amounts of money; and they tend to have no explicit focus beyond the desire to play games.
  • Casual. Players with casual characteristics are situational players who tend to need extreme accessibility to adopt a game but will later tackle high-frustration obstacles where even core gamers would falter; they usually stick to playing one game at a time, are not intrinsically inclined to seek new games with new experiences, and won’t easily transition to a new game without heavy doses of marketing and peer pressure; they’re prone to investing significant amounts of non-consecutive time as long as it fits into their professional and private schedules, but only a very small percentage will actually invest noticeable amounts of money; and they tend to be focused on—or even addicted to—behavioral reward mechanisms.

This is a map, and a rough one at that. Like any map, it shouldn’t be confused with the actual territory it represents, and there will be numerous individual exceptions. We would know a lot more about it, and be able to make much better predictions and decisions, if video game research in the field of media psychology hadn’t been virtually monopolized by the question of violence and its effects on players for almost two decades. And it’s probably safe to say that the findings on media violence itself are much poorer because of it.

By design, a few things are missing from this map. Devices play no part in any of these definitions because that field is shifting very fast—not too long ago, e.g., the term “casual” was derogatively thrown at console players and console games in general. What’s also missing are player characteristics like “competitive,” “social,” or “community-oriented” because they’re not exclusive to any one category. Certainly, players of party games are usually tagged as “casual,” players of MMO strategy games like Clash of Clans as “mid-core,” and MMO/MMORPG players as “core,” to name a few examples. While there’s some truth to it, there’s too much overlap, and we shouldn’t pile a set of shaky correlations on top of another set of correlations. Instead, for your game concept, you should attach attributes like “competitive,” “social,” or “community-oriented” directly to your list of player characteristics.

To sum it up, labels like core, mid-core, and casual denote audience segments that seem specific but aren’t. To be specific, and you should always be as specific as possible, you need to define your audience not in terms of labels, but in terms of verifiable player characteristics. If you use these labels, follow up with an explanation of what you mean precisely.

Finally, you need to translate your player characteristics into a neat and catchy description, the motivation statement. This statement will compress and define your primary target audience’s general motivation. (You will learn all about the differences between primary and secondary target audiences right below in Beat 2. Analytics.)

Let’s revisit our two examples from above. For the first one, the game similar to The Last of Us, a motivation statement might read like this:

  • Experienced players who like survival- and exploration-driven first-person or third-person shooters with a strong human interest angle.

For the second example, the game similar to Threes, the statement might read like this:

  • Recreational players who are drawn toward short, engaging problem-solving challenges that they can play while commuting or during breaks at work.

In both cases, labels alone wouldn’t tell the whole story.

Such target audience descriptions, again, need not be true for every player. The point is that you are able to align your game concept’s characteristics with motivational models that are well-defined, well-understood, and indicative of a numerically substantial player group against which you can calculate investments.

Store everything in your Ludotronics inventory: your game concept’s most vital characteristics, the corresponding characteristics of your potential players, and your player motivation statement. You will need all three all the time. The player motivation statement will be part of your game pitch, and your data sets part of your proposal document to back it up.

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Beat 2. Analytics

Next, generate demographic customer profiles from your primary target audience that you defined in Beat 1. Audiences. How old are they? Where do they live? What do they do for a living? How much do they earn? What other demographic aspects do you need to consider, among them ethnicity, gender, education, political views, and so forth? Try to find out as much as you can. Collect everything that seems significant, and don’t iron anything out. Even if your potential players are fairly homogeneous with respect to playing characteristics, their demographic characteristics won’t. Indeed, different and sometimes wildly contrasting characteristics within the same category should be the norm. But each characteristic should show some prevalence.

Then, there might be a secondary target audience that isn’t defined demographically, but is interest-driven with respect to specific aspects of your game concept. For games like The Last of Us, for example, there is probably a secondary target audience with a general interest in dystopian fiction. For games from Wordfeud to Clash of Clans to World of Warcraft, there are probably secondary target audiences with a general interest in competing or collaborating with real people. As a special case, there are secondary target audiences whom you need to convince in order to sell your game to your primary target audience. This is true, for example, for educational games where your primary target audience is a demographically defined group of kids, and your secondary target audience their parents or teachers.

To stress it once again, secondary target audiences are not defined demographically, and it needs effort and imagination to identify them.

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Beat 3. Appearances

Finally, create a set of player personas. In the marketing disciplines, these are either called customer avatars or client personas, and Morgan McGuire and Odest Chadwicke Jenkins call them player composites in Creating Games. Your player persona set will consist of a number of individual player profiles from your primary target audience, based on their player characteristics as defined in Beat 1. Audiences and their demographic characteristics compiled in Beat 2. Analytics. (Because secondary target audiences are not defined demographically, you can’t create player personas for them in any meaningful way.)

Player personas involves creating characters complete with personal attributes and visual sketches, so you’ll have to answer a few more questions about them, based as much on research as on your personal experience. How do these players look? What do they wear? How do they behave in user forums and social networks? What else do they like besides playing games? Also, you should give them names and occupations, write up brief vitae, and provide them with motivations and even some quirks—exactly what you would do for high-level non-player characters in a role-playing game. But that’s all just preparation and documentation. For the actual personas, don’t think character sheets. Rather, think trading cards to keep it snappy and relatable! On the front, you can put a name, a micro-description (“Ambitious puzzle solver”), a crisp illustration that hits the right note between individuality and universality as elucidated by Scott McCloud in Understanding Comics, and three very brief and crisp paragraphs that describe what they want (goals, aspirations); what delights them (key purchasing considerations); and what frustrates them (key pain points). On the back side, put the demographic data that you deem most important. In brief, create people, not encyclopedias!

These player personas will do a lot for you. Later in your written proposal document, they will show that you did your homework. During development, they will disrupt unconscious tendencies to confuse your own wants and needs and preferences with those of your target audience. They will make it much easier for you to think in terms of benefits—how would this knock these players’ socks off?—instead of features—how would this make the game look even cooler?—while making design decisions.

Throughout this process of defining and researching your target audience and creating player personas, one key factor must be kept in mind, touched upon in the Preliminary phase in Level Three: A Brief Meditation on Words and Contexts. Especially when your developer team turns out to be overwhelmingly straight, white, cis, and male (cis, or cisgender, simply meaning not transgender), you’re historically and systemically prone to overlook, or even unintentionally exploit, demographics beyond your own. These demographics might be interested in buying and playing your game, but will no longer put up with being misrepresented as hooks and clichés, or not being represented at all. If you make these demographics visible through player personas that represent these demographics with their actual experiences, preferably with some help and advice from people who are part of these demographics, chances are that your game will include and represent them in meaningful ways.

Creating player personas, and diverse player personas, will raise the quality of your game, boost the commercial viability of your product, and work toward a better, more diverse playing field at large.

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Outlook

What you have created now are dossiers: your player personas with vitae, visuals, and personal characteristics, their demographic characteristics from Beat 2. Analytics and their player characteristics from Beat 1. Audiences. To complete this level, store these dossiers in your Ludotronics inventory!

Depending on whence you come and whither you go, you might still have to embark upon Level Three or Level Five or both. Should you have cleared these two levels already, then nothing stands between you and the Preparation phase’s boss fight in Level Six.

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