â??Who really is our audience?â?

Microsoft European developer account manager Ben Board poses the ultimate question
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Microsoft European developer account manager Ben Board poses the ultimate question

In last month’s column I opined on the subject of constraints, and specifically the paradoxical sense in which they can enable creativity.

Art doesn’t need to be functional, it doesn’t need to fulfil a brief; but as developers we tend to be pretty keen on high Metacritic scores and sales figures, and we ought to consider those requirements in just the same terms and with the same passion we bring to our game content.

If you’re making a driving game, say, you understand that your audience expects great car dynamics, top-drawer landscape and vehicle rendering, realistic damage, a variety of race modes, and all that, and you employ the best people you can afford – another constraint – to draw on their expert knowledge of the genre.

These are crucial details. They matter enormously to the people considering which driving game to buy. But how many people is that? What about all the people who have never played a driving game? Could you apply what you know about entertainment to appeal to that far bigger potential market. In short, who are our audience, and what are they looking for?

To answer this question Xbox recently carried out a huge research project, surveying 13,000 people across Europe and North America to gain an understanding of the prevailing attitude to games, both directly and in the context of other entertainment forms all staking claims on our time.

Our marketing analysts took the raw data, locked themselves in their bedrooms for a few months and emerged brandishing a document we call our ‘market segmentation’ a classification of our potential consumers, and how they like to be entertained.

This is no empty marketing exercise, Mr Developer Cynic. This is empirical data designed to inform the big decisions you need to make about your game – the sort of insight and language you can use to pitch your title to publishers, and more importantly, to drive sales.

And today, lucky reader, let me share the broad conclusions with you. Sharpen your pencils a read carefully.

We found three key dimensions as useful to distinguish people:
n Their video game involvement across console, PC and mobile
n The importance of friends and socialising
n The time they had for entertainment

Within these axes we found three broad groups, and we called them Engaged, Involved, and Disengaged. We then broke those down further: the Engaged group into five subgroups, and the Involved and Disengaged into two each, to make nine, which I’ll tackle in reverse order.

The Disengaged pair, which we call the Dabblers and the Rejecters, are not the droids you’re looking for. The former will never graduate from Minesweeper, while the spittle-flecked latter bracket video games with WMD. The bad news is that this pair accounted for a third of all respondents.

The Involved pair enjoy interactive entertainment; the question is whether they’ll pay your mortgage. Virtually Connected consumers spend their time online with their buddies, their gaming time spent mainly on free online games, typically costing only five bucks a month. PC Lovers love their gaming, but just on the PC, and usually on their own, except for their MMO.

The Engaged segment, we propose, is where the action is. They spend the most money on gaming and the most hours, and time spent aiming your design at one of its five subgroups is time well spent. We dub those groups the Social Core, the Independent Core, Hyper Socials, Hanging Out, and Family Timers.

The Social Core are your true enthusiasts. Highly social and almost all young men, they’ll devour complicated, realistic shooters, action-adventures and RPGs, particularly with friends, evangelising the great and pitilessly trashing the rest. They love music, social networking and UGC, and will pay for DLC.

To the Independent Core, gaming is ‘me time’. Less likely to play online, but also preferring high-quality, realistic, single-player action games, and also overwhelmingly male, they’re less bothered about Facebook or playing with friends. Gaming time is precious to these people, so consider your difficulty settings carefully.

Hyper Socials are usually young women. They value family-friendly entertainment, cooperation rather than competition, physical play over controllers, and their social networks (digital and otherwise) above all. These days, this is a critical segment.
The Hanging Out crowd are similar to the Hyper Socials, albeit more joiners-in than instigators of games sessions, spending less time and money on games. They’re not interested in gore, sexual content, competition, or difficult titles, but games are a part of their life, and if you’re on guitar they’ll grab the drumsticks.

The final segment, the Family Timers, are the least engaged of the Engaged, but video games are just as welcome in the household as their board games. You’ll appeal to this lot if your game is uncontroversial, uncompetitive, gender-neutral and easy to learn, and as much fun to watch as to play.

This is just a quick tour. There’s a lot more meat on these bones, available through us or your publisher.

Ben Board is European developer account manager at Microsoft, supporting all studios working on games for Xbox and Games For Windows platforms. He previously worked as a programmer and producer at the likes of Bullfrog, EA and Lionhead.