In one of the game design fora I follow, someone posted about how considering target audiences when designing a game can be “suffocating to innovation” and that “a game doesn’t need to have a target audience to be a good game. A game doesn’t need to have a target audience to be a successful product.”
I spent quite a while on my response to that, so I thought I would also write it up as a blog post. Whether we like it or not, board games are a product, and products are designed to appeal to a certain sector of the population, whether niche, hobby, or mass – understanding the audience, and the part we want to target, is an essential part of the process.
“A game doesn’t need to have a target audience to be a good game”
This statement demonstrates a fundamental misunderstanding of “target audience”. Who judges that a game is good? The players. If the players like it, then they should have been included in the target audience. You can retro-fit a target audience onto a game by looking at who enjoys it – and this is, as I mentioned, part of testing. The people who enjoy your game, who call it a “good game”, should be your target audience. So when you move to marketing the game, you know that these are the types of people who should be included in the campaign. If you have done good market research, you will have asked a lot of questions to identify what it is about your game’s fans that will allow you to market to other people like them.
“A game doesn’t need to have a target audience to be a successful product”
Once you use the word “product”, you are absolutely in the realm of marketing, and now this statement is patently false. When marketing a product, for that product to be successful, in other words, to sell well, you must know the target audience.
Dismissing the importance of the target audience is a really strange stance to take, and to me, demonstrates a complete lack of understanding of what a target audience actually IS. We literally write elements of our target audience on the box when we state the age range, player count, and expected length of play. We target our games to our audience with the theme, artwork, game weight, complexity, components, price range, box size… everything we put into a game design is aimed at making the game appeal to a player, and that player is the audience for the game.
Customer Needs Analysis
I have spent most of my career working either directly or indirectly in sales and service to the public, which has meant that I have become extremely familiar with the concepts of audiences and how they matter.
We need to understand our customer types, how they might react, what their drivers might be, and what they want, in order to meet their needs. It’s not a negotiable aspect of sales, it’s at its very core – taking a product and selling it to the people who need or want it. So the sales process is primarily needs analysis – what does the customer think they want, compared to what they actually need? And how do we show them that this product meets or even exceeds that need?
Needs analysis is basically a series of questions, moving from open to closed, that herds a customer towards a solution. So if I am selling phones, and a customer comes in, my first question after a greeting would be “what are you looking for today?”, which I would follow up with more questions that help me learn more about their situation. Next, I reflect it back to them: “you said you were looking for a small, simple, low-cost phone to keep as an emergency contact at your holiday home in case the power goes out and your battery is flat, is that correct?” And the customer says yes or no. We have now moved from open to closed questions (the answer to an open question is other information; the answer to a closed question is yes or no). If they say no, I go back through my open questions to find the missing information. If they say yes, I can start showing them the 2 or 3 models I think will be best for their needs, then after checking in with them using closed questions, eventually close the sale with the best product to meet their needs.
In the same way, I can pay attention to the people in the game groups I frequent, listen to the games they wish existed, and potentially come up with a solution in the form of a game. The best possible position for a new product is that it solves a problem.
Using needs analysis to identify a place in the market for a product is part of market research. If you haven’t done your research, you may still succeed through luck or instinct – especially if your product has a wide appeal and an appropriate price-point. Again, you can fall into these things accidentally, but the fact that you didn’t plan it doesn’t mean it’s not a thing – it just means you got lucky enough to reach your audience without targeting them. They never stopped being there just because you didn’t know about them.
Target Audience = Venn Diagram
So, what is a target audience?
A lot of people are confused or irritated by marketing-speak like “target market” and don’t really understand what these terms mean – usually, these are the same people who dislike seeing their game as a “product”, and that’s fair enough, these terms can be a turn-off, especially when you want to see game design as a creative process.
I personally flinch when people talk about product design in reference to board games, because I see design as an art form as well as a technical process, but it doesn’t change that I am creating a product, and if I want to sell it, I need to see it that way.
The thing is, with or without using those terms, your game is designed for someone to play.
I find looking at it as a Venn diagram can help.
What intersecting groups of people do you want to attract with your game?
- People who are interested in your theme
- People who have specialist knowledge of your theme
- People who like your design style
- People who have previously bought your games
- People who like the type of art you used
- People who like the broad genre of topics that include your game
- People who think their friends/family might like your theme/mechanics
- People who like xyz mechanism
- People who are attracted by games of x weight
- People who are at least x age
- People who like/require games with x player count
If you ask someone if they fit into any of those groupings, and they say yes to any of them, they are potentially in your target audience. It’s that simple.
If you play-test with people who answer no to all of your questions, they will either a) hate it, and/or give irrelevant feedback, or b) provide you with an additional set to add to your Venn diagram, because they like it but weren’t already on your radar. That’s why you test with a wide range of people, and ask them what they think of the game and what they usually like.
Some people object to the concept of target audiences as stereotypical – but an audience is not a monolith, it’s made up of thousands of intersecting groups, each containing people with their own specific interests, needs, and other demographics. Once you understand that, it’s clear that everything has an audience.
Audience as “suffocating to innovation”
This is a strange statement – while design constraints can sometimes make it harder to get past a “creator’s block”, as Dina Ramse put it in today’s live Q&A in the , knowing your audience shouldn’t be a constraint on creativity. If designing for a particular group stalls your design, that’s possibly an indication that you have the wrong audience in mind.
Constraints in general can actually drive creativity – look at design competitions with qualifying criteria, such as budget, limited components, thematic guidelines, mechanical requirements…. these are all things that can encourage a designer to find a way to create a game despite these constraints. Games themselves are full of constraints, although we usually refer to them as rules.
There are a lot of different ways that innovation can be stifled, but if having to think about who might play your game is such a constraint that it prevents you from creating the game, that’s something you should look into. It could be a sign that your game is flawed, it could be your own issue with perceived authority, it could be another problem – but it’s definitely not a universal truth that targeting your game at a particular group of people prevents that game from being innovative.
Why does knowing your audience matter?
Not knowing your audience is different from not designing for an audience.
Because you don’t identify the potential players of your game as the target audience doesn’t mean there isn’t a target market for your game. There are always people who will be more likely to play and therefore buy your game. Denying that your game is designed for particular players means you don’t know who or what your audience is, though, and that’s a big problem.
Should you attempt to tailor a game to an audience you don’t feel fits? Of course not. But should you make an effort to know your audience, in order to be a successful designer? I really can’t see any way that you can create a game that truly works without thinking about who is going to play it.
How do you target your play-testing? How do you manage the length and components and player count? How do you choose the mechanics and theme? The first thing you do when you start on a game design is think about who will play it, whether you know it or not – even if you design just for yourself, the audience is “people like me”.
So rather than saying “target audiences are dumb”, acknowledge that you are ALWAYS designing for an audience – the choice here is whether you do so consciously, or not.
Identifying your audience
One of my very first tests for a game idea is to identify the target audience, because they are also the expert groups where I do my research and build my community, and they will eventually be the core fan-group who will help me get my game funded.
I aim to design games that are about the experience, which means a solidly embedded theme. Thematic integration requires deep connections between the topic, the mechanics, the gameplay, and the audience. If your audience isn’t baked into your game, your rules, your difficulty level, everything about your game, it’s going to be considerably less successful. It’s like designing a children’s game about basketball without consulting or at least **considering** either basketball players or children.
In particular, not considering your target audience as a self-publisher is a fatal flaw in your plan. When you are self-publishing, you are often working alone, so there’s no one else to pick up that your plan isn’t targeted, and unless you are very lucky, the lack of targeting will result in a lack of funding.
Think about it this way: if you send out an invitation to a meal to 200 people, without checking if they live anywhere near the restaurant, how many will show up? And then there’s the personal taste aspect – do they all like that kind of food? Can they afford it? If they have to travel, can the afford the time and money associated with that travel?
Now think about sending out an invitation to back your game on Kickstarter. Do you simply send an email out to 200 people, and hope that you catch some of them? Or do you make sure that those 200 people are interested in board games? And do you check and see if they are the kinds of people who back crowd-funding campaigns? What about the game itself, do you check if they match the basic criteria for playing that game? If they don’t have children, they are less likely to want a family game for ages 3-5. If they don’t like heavy games, they won’t want your Frosthaven-level big-box monster. If they don’t have the budget to back a lot of games, they might not be willing to take a chance on you, as a first-time designer.
Secondly, your target audience helps you focus your design. For example, rather than making a game about all kinds of food, if you make it about a specific food type (Ramen Fury, Sabobatage, Point Salad, Sushi Go!, Steam Up!, all the games about pizza, sandwiches, etc), it’s much more interesting and appealing – and as a result, you have a much more specific audience. As you can tell from my examples, I like games inspired by Chinese and Japanese food. I am much more likely to back a food game about making Vietnamese Báhn mi than standard American sandwiches.
Your theme also drives the weight and style of the game, both of which are about appealing to the same audience as the topic. People who enjoy games about food usually enjoy light strategy or party games. If your Frosthaven-style game is about being a short-order cook, it might still work – but it won’t have the same audience as Ramen Fury.
As a designer who pitches to publishers, you might get away with not considering your audience, but the ensuing lack of focus in your design will make it harder to explain and harder for them to sell, so it’s much more likely to get reskinned, if they pick it up at all. Even an abstract game needs to appeal to an audience, or it won’t work.
Think about what you put on a sell-sheet – who will be attracted by the bait? Who will be caught by the hook? Who wants games with that theme, player count, genre and mechanic, table presence, art style, type of components? This is your target audience!
Deeper even than the topic, theme, etc. is the fact that our game stats state our target audience – player count, age group, time to play – these are all audience parameters. So if your kids’ basketball game has a component count like Mosaic, takes 2 hours per play over a 6-week campaign, requires at least 5 players, and has little or no thematic connection with the rules of basketball, you have an obvious problem.
Thinking about your audience as you design helps build the right game for that audience. Even if that audience changes as you design and test the game, there’s no escaping the fact that games are designed to be played by someone, and making sure that your game will appeal to those people is an intrinsic part of the process, whether you realise and accept it or fight it.
“Audience” vs “target audience”
The last major misunderstanding I think this post had was that there is a difference for an unreleased game between the target audience and the audience in general.
When your game is in development, just like any other product, you are making it for a particular type of user. This might be the child, aged 3-5, playing your game about Teddy Bear Picnics, or the adult, over 21, playing your game about serial killers, or the collector, willing to pay the additional cost for your deluxe edition with miniatures and custom dice.
Once your game goes to market, these are the people you will focus on – the people who fit the criteria you established while developing, testing, researching, and producing your product. Now that it’s available for purchase, you use these criteria to drive marketing campaigns, convince retailers to stock it, and generally sell the game you have made.
Your general audience is made up of all the people out there, who may or may not be interested in your game. They are people who may have just seen a documentary on serial killers, and buy your game on a whim when they wouldn’t have bought it last week, or might think their friend would like it. They might be people who walk past your deluxe game on the shelf and fall in love with the art style, even though they have never before considered a game of that sort. They are people who are walking into a game store for the first time ever, who decide your game will be their first purchase. They are people scrolling on Facebook who see a game about something they didn’t even know they like, and because something clicks in their head, they buy your game. They are also the people who walk right past the game store and have no interest in the ads and ask their friends for the reciept when they receive a baord game as a gift – the audience is literally EVERYONE. So while some of them may become unexpected conversions, many, many more will never even consider buying your game, and may even be offended at seeing it advertised. That’s why you need to target your campaign, because so many people in your overall audience are NOT in your buying audience.
If you were to say, for example, “everything has an audience, but it’s not a target audience”, you are therefore both right and wrong. Everything has an audience, but whether it reaches its target audience is up to you. And whether it is a success depends on two factors: if it has reached its target audience, and if that audience has been selected correctly. If both are correct, the stars align and your game becomes a success.
A great example of this is Wingspan, a game about birds. It seems like an obscure topic, and something that shouldn’t be successful, and a lot of gamers (mainly white men who play wargames) are still baffled at its success. The thing is, these gamers don’t understand what kind of people are out there, just waiting for a game that makes them feel interested. In the case of Wingspan, not only is it a reasonably accessible gateway game for people who haven’t played modern boardgames yet, but also, it covers a topic that people know about without realising it – birds. Everyone knows something about birds. Everyone can fairly quickly learn to recognise different birds, so very quickly, they feel smart. Feeling smart makes people enjoy an activity, and when that’s added to a very well-designed game, with good thematic integration, fun components, and a theme that allows for endless expansion, you have a ready-made fandom. Was Wingspan a guaranteed success? Of course not, but the existence of many types of communities that engage with birds, nature, wildlife, and gaming meant that it was a smash hit. It would be fair to say that the target audience was selected correctly, but its size was massively underestimated.
So what I am saying here is this:
Do you HAVE to design your game with every element of your target audience in mind before you start? NO, of course not.
Should you be thinking about who might want to play your game from the first moment that you have the idea? YES – because of course. Thinking about who your player might be is what drives every single decision you make as a designer, whether you realise it or not.
As your game evolves, your relationship with your players deepens – you start to think about whether they will want to play for this long, whether they can read the cards, whether you have too many symbols for them, or if the downtime between turns is too high. Every one of these choices includes referring back to who your player is, and what they want from your game.
There’s nothing prescriptive about a target audience – it simply is. Your choice is whether or not you acknowledge its existence and use this knowledge to fine-tune your game design, or whether you prefer to ignore it in case it stifles your creative process. Both approaches are valid, but neither takes away the fact that a game is designed to be played by a player, and that player is your target audience.